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Irish in Denial – Scottish Review of Books
by James MacMillan

Irish in Denial

October 28, 2009 | by James MacMillan

AN UNEXPECTED AND delightful request came my way recently. On 5th November 2005 a new statue of Brother Walfrid was unveiled outside the main entrance to Celtic Park. Otherwise known as Andrew Kerins he was the Marist brother from Sligo who was principal founder of Celtic Football Club in 1887/88. The sculpture was constructed by one of Scotland’s leading artists, Kate Robinson. The organising committee of supporters invited me to write some music to commemorate the event. A group of young musicians from the Coatbridge St. Patrick’s Branch of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann performed the new piece.

This turned out to be a welcome, but well-overdue return to some of my musical roots. When I was younger I used to play and sing the traditional music of Ireland and Scotland in the folk-clubs and pubs in the West. I’m not the only ‘Art’ composer to be seduced by folk music. Classical music is infused with vernacular forms through the centuries, and modern Scottish classical music is no different. Eddie McGuire, composer of ballets, operas and orchestral scores is a member of The Whistlebinkies; James Dillon, one of the leading post-Darmstadt modernists, was a piper as a boy. He is a huge Celtic supporter and even when he was featured composer at Musica Nova in 1981 he chose to miss one of his performances so he could attend the Celtic-Juventus game at Celtic Park. I once watched Gordon McPherson, Professor of Composition at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, lead a ceilidh session with his accordion in Orkney. Lyell Cresswell, William Sweeney and Judith Weir have all dabbled in the deep and fruitful reservoir of the Scottish tradition.

Soaking up these influences were vital experiences for them, but the practical involvement could be fairly hazardous at times. During the 1980s miners’ strike some old school friends and I were invited to perform at a benefit event for victimised strikers in a working men’s club in Ayrshire. The act before us was a bizarre banshee of a crone, crooning and whooping through a maudlin, drunken lament. We were convinced she was some undiscovered avant-garde comic genius, and were doubled up under the table in appreciative hysterics. We were informed, icily, that the song was about the Ibrox Disaster and deadly serious.

We tried to make amends by presenting a series of defiant workers’ songs, but the atmosphere was by now severely poisoned, our misinterpretation of the singer being further misinterpreted by the assembled Ayrshiremen. Desperately we launched into Bandiera Rossa – an even bigger mistake. Half of the audience thought it was an Irish Republican anthem, the other half thought we were singing in Latin, neither a good idea down in Ayrshire. The P.A. plug was ripped from the wall, and like a pack of hounds, they chased us out.

We were astonished that our repertoire of fraternal, socialist solidarity had so enraged the comrades. It was as if the sound of the music itself had provoked an instinctive fury. I have seen something of this rage in recent years in relation to Celtic. Much irritation has been expressed in the Scottish media about Celtic supporters’ Irishness – and Irish music and song feature prominently in the abuse – the ‘Have a Potato-style of hokey Irishness’, as referred to by a Herald sports columnist, and their penchant for ‘deedlydeedly music’ as expressed by a Sun ‘writer’. In fact, this not-solely-neanderthal hostility to Irish culture in Scotland is usually expressed by those clamouring for people of Irish decent to abandon their Irishness and ‘assimilate’: to become more acceptable. This is in stark contrast to the Scottish Executive’s enthusiasm for ‘One Scotland Many Cultures’ where, it is suggested, people of different origins and cultures can live side by side, recognising that difference need not be a cause of social strife.

Those pushing for the ‘assimilation’ option, liberal and conservative, should be aware of the cultural devastation that would result from a one-size-suits-all Scottish identity. I was reminded of this when writing the Walfrid composition and began researching Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (Association of Irish Musicians). This is a world-wide phenomenon rooted in Ireland and dedicated to nurturing Irish traditional instrumental music, song, dance and language. The first branch to be established outside Ireland was in Glasgow in 1957. Today there are four branches (two in Glasgow, one in Coatbridge and one in Newarthill) and their activities have blossomed spectacularly and confidently in the current generation. The vibrant culture of Scotland’s first and largest modern immigrant group is flourishing because of CCE.

A central figure is Frank McArdle, a Maths teacher in St. Roch’s Secondary School in Glasgow’s east end. Since the 1970s he has been organising classes for the Irish Minstrels branch of CCE. It has been an amazing success story. Most of Glasgow’s Irish ceilidh bands have their roots in the activities of the Irish Minstrels. The standard of musicianship is very high – the branch has produced countless all-Irish (i.e. world) champions and the Scottish folk scene is peppered with his ‘graduates’. In recognition of their contribution to the traditional arts they received their first ever invitation to the Celtic Connections Festival in 2005.

I visited the branch on one of their Tuesday evening meetings and it proved an inspiring and jaw-dropping encounter. Going from one classroom to the next one sees the operation in full flow – beginners, intermediate and advanced classes in violin, flute, whistle, piano accordion, button accordion, clarsach, and uillean pipes. Scores of kids and adults were taking part. There was even a class in set-dancing, where I saw a number of Albanian asylum seekers from nearby Sighthill.

At one point I had to scoop a child, no more than a toddler, penny-whistle in hand, up off the floor, and redirect him back to his class, full of pre-schoolers learning melodies by number. Unlike their counterparts in Ire-land, their tutors are unpaid, all sharing McArdle’s motivation and love of their mother culture. This scene is replicated in the other branches week after week.

Apart from a small Lottery grant for instruments and something from the Irish diaspora-funding body, Dion, they receive no official support, and yet this is a model for how music and the arts can operate at the core of a community. Their quiet, stoical determination to build upon their traditional roots seems somewhat at odds with the ineffectual belligerence of Sheena Wellington and others in the Scottish Traditional Folk lobby. The Scottish folkies’ unseemly over-eagerness to attack the ‘high arts’, and Scottish Opera in particular, has allowed some politicians to divide, rule, control and damage the united campaign to defend Scottish culture. CCE seem a million light years away from the grubby politicking of Scotland’s culture wars, and are better off for it.

However, they give the impression of working cheerfully and fruitfully in the face of an unspoken nervousness about their raison d’etre. Perhaps there is a narrow and ungenerous view out there that might see their burgeoning enthusiasm as ‘divisive’: the old question of hostility being an ever-present part of the Irish diaspora mind-set in Scot-land. Who is looking at us? What will they say? Are we doing anything that will offend them? Keep it to yourself. Keep the head down.

Even among older Irish descendents there is a well-meaning, over-eager-to-please desire to be seen to disconnect from their Irish roots and be sufficiently Scottish to pass ‘the test’. For example, Irish born Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien seems to see it as part of his ecumenical duty to play down the Irishness of his flock in Scotland. In a recent interview with The Tablet he said that Catholics in Scotland whose families came from Ireland “no longer see themselves as part of an Irish diaspora”. I imagine this must come as news to thousands, not just those involved with CCE, but countless GAA people in Scotland, Irish language enthusiasts, many Celtic supporters and others who we never hear about, forging, enjoying and celebrating their Irishness or the other complex identities of a contemporary Irish-Scottish existence. What is so reprehensible about Irishness that compels the great and the good (as well as the not-so-great-and-good) to advise, indeed promote, wholesale abandonment? Was Norman Tebbit just the most obvious of a whole strata of society’s identity forgers?

There is also a more gangrenous, self-loathing version of this, expounded by self-appointed pronouncers on Irish-Scottish matters, which is pitiful to behold. According to Edinburgh historian Owen Dudley Edwards the working-class, west-of-Scot-land, ‘Paddyer-than-thou’ Hiberno-Scot is responsible for “the sickness of modern Scottish Catholic culture”. Of course, the same bilious ranter has not been known to engage in any kind of research of the Irish in the west of Scotland, and one wonders by what his pronouncements are motivated, and why they should be published as though of great value and insight. Nonetheless, apart from anything else we might say about this crass ignorance and unqualified and unknowing commentary, trying to square this odious caricature of grunting cavemen, jack-boots and balaclavas with the gentle children at St Roch’s, stroking tenderly at harp and string, with their parents in the next room dancing arm-in-arm with refugees, takes a huge and delirious leap of imagination.

Such is the demon that Catholics of Irish descent in Scotland have endured, even from those who share much of their own background. Such is the power that creeps below the surface of much of Scottish society. A part of that society will not be happy until these people who have come to Scotland over the past one hundred and fifty years stop being ‘different’: stop expressing their distinctiveness in music, song, dance, their choice of football team, their choice of schooling, sometimes even their politics, etc, etc.

It might be better that McArdle and his CCE volunteers remain oblivious of Dudley Edwards’ fatuous rage, otherwise I can’t imagine them ever wanting to venture out again, never mind putting their heads above parapets. Maybe that’s the choice many of Irish descent in Scotland have made over their period of time here. Notwithstanding Dudley Edwards’ hideous snobbery, modern Catholic culture in Scotland is demonstrably not sick. Neither has it been solely shaped by the immigrant Irish presence: which is in fact acknowledged by virtually all of its knowledgeable writers despite some of them choosing to focus on this community as their subject of study. But what is not usually acknowledged by wider society, in positive terms, is how modern Scotland has been textured and tinged by this community over the years, and the pride that this engenders within the offspring of that community.

For some though, this pride has curdled to a scorn that is heaped contemptuously on this community’s legitimate anxieties over sectarianism and prejudice.

Music is an activity and part of culture with a range of meanings, connections and links to many parts of society. Beyond the simplicity of the football field itself, football is the same. Celtic is ours. Everyone who is enthralled by the Celtic story sees the social, historical, political, cultural and religious perspectives that give this great institution meaning. With all this in mind, as a Celtic supporter I am proud of Brother Walfrid’s lasting legacy of compassion, hope and the preferential option for the poor. I was delighted that my fellow supporters thought it important to mark his memory with works of art such as sculptures and specially written music from a so-called “art” composer. The unveiling drew these things into alignment with traditional musical contexts from the land of our forebears brought to life at the hands of vibrant young working-class people of Irish descent. The Arts clearly matter to the Celtic family, just as much as the culture of charity that has so shaped Ireland’s reputation for generations, and which finds its source in the politics of the Gospel.

This is our culture. It is complex, paradoxical and good. It is alive, well and being nurtured lovingly by, amongst others, Frank McArdle and his colleagues in CCE. My encounters with them in Coatbridge and the east end of Glasgow allowed me to rediscover a musical world that had been so vital for my growth as a musician when I was younger. At the end of the particular evening spent in his company, he handed me a whistle and invited me to play along. I felt inexplicably and profoundly moved – in various ways I was coming home.

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