|Sowing, Not Reaping|
|21-09-08 10:28 PM|
By now, there’s barely a Scottish football fan who is not aware of what is now commonly referred to as ‘The Famine Song’: our radio shows, understood by many of us as having a reluctance to tackle such issues, have been saturated with talk of it; the printed press have devoted both sports pages and news columnist inches to the fallout; and, of course, the online community has been relentlessly debating it since some time in Spring – the issue having merely spiralled in that community, fermenting over time, then exploding with the oxygen of publicity. The seeds, sown well before the end of last season, seemed finally to have given root to something which could not be ignored; yet instead of a blanket condemnation of this song, almost every news outlet has been very careful to couch their criticism in equivocation. At various times it has been referred to by those who really should know better as ‘banter’, as ‘tit-for-tat’, or – in that time-honoured, cherished, though never dusty phrase – yet one more example of the maxim that ‘one side is as bad as the other’; in short, the suggestion was that this was an ‘Old Firm’ problem. There were as yet unconfirmed reports of journalists ‘embedded’ in the Celtic support at Ruby Park today, hoping to root out some sectarian weed, or offensiveness. In the past week, media attacks on Celtic’s oft-praised support have been ramped up considerably. In the face of such tortuous ambiguity most people would be ready to switch off, to accept the futility of dealing with the problems in the West of Scotland, and to close their ears to the nature of this song. That would be the wrong thing to do at this point.
The song itself is reprehensible and there seems little point in beating about the bush on this. It is offensive; it is racist; it is bigoted. In fact, it is possible to wonder whether the person who wrote it jotted down a list of repellent qualities that this song might have, then went about systematically ticking every box. “Why don’t you go home?” the chorus cries. It does not have to be pointed out that such a song aimed at any other grouping in Britain would be instantly and unequivocally condemned. Those who chant this song have the absolute audacity to claim it is merely a wind-up of those Celtic fans who ‘harp on’, as they see it, about their Irish heritage. Since when did having a heritage become something which excused such racism? There are many ethnic groups in Britain, and Scotland, and many within these communities are rightfully proud of their ancestral homeland: the Italians, the Polish, the Pakistanis, the Indians, the Chinese. The list goes on – and we have, or had, our very own slogan proclaiming the beauty of such a rich and diverse heritage: ‘One Scotland, Many Cultures’. It is a thing to be proud of. If Celtic’s supporters who are descended from the Irish are proud of their heritage, that is commendable; it is not a reason for asking them to ‘Go Home’. The other part of the chorus is a reference to the Irish famine: ‘the famine is over’, they gloat. This is a famine in which an estimated one million people died; it is a famine which, through death and emigration, reduced the population of a nation by approximately 20%. Time is a healer, but some things do not invite mockery. Such a tragic event, an event with a complex history, is one such thing. Other countries commemorate the famine – An Gorta Mór, in an Irish many would find offensive – yet our sole tribute is a song inviting the descendants to ‘Go Home’. Obvious comparisons to the Holocaust have been made – is it possible to imagine the morally reprehensible idea of a group of football fans singing this song to those of Jewish ethnicity, invoking the Shoah? I would certainly hope not. Despite this, Ewan Murray, writing in The Guardian, states that, “the scale of death during the potato famine is hardly akin to the methodical slaughter of the holocaust,” presumably in the belief that there should be some macabre league table of death so that the authorities may decide, from on high, what may be mocked and what may not. This, indeed, is Scotland’s Shame.
That is the chorus. It is the part of the song on which the media must focus most since it is the part which is most vocal at grounds such as Celtic Park or on occasions where players of Irish stock must run the gauntlet of hate provided by the followers of the Ibrox club. Yet it must be noted that the chorus is not the whole. It is the stem of this racist growth, yet the truly poisonous part of this plant is in the verses. No one in the mainstream media paid much attention to the statement released by Martin Bain, the Ibrox club’s Chief Executive. In it he referred to the fact that the club’s fans had been singing the ‘chorus’ of the ‘Famine Song’ and in doing so he implicitly acknowledged an awareness of these other verses. These verses plumb the depths of depravity: referring to the ‘Papists of Rome’; propagating the idea that Ireland somehow ‘fuelled U-Boats by night’; and making a mockery of the victims of child abuse, while simultaneously denigrating the late, great Jock Stein – a hero to many in Scotland not connected to Celtic, never mind our fans. The opening chorus makes very clear the racist intent in this chant:
I often wonder where they would have been
If we hadn't have taken them in,
Fed them and washed them,
Thousands in Glasgow alone.
From Ireland they came,
Brought us nothing but trouble and shame.
Well the famine is over,
Why don't they go home?
These people commenting on the chant – in the printed press, on the radio, in the Ibrox boardroom – know this. They are aware of the content. They are not blind to the vicious and obscene bigotry of this chant. Yet rather than condemn it outright the decision has been taken to call it ‘tit-for-tat’. We are, in case you are not aware, all as bad as each other, us ‘Old Firm’ fans. The response from Bain was pitiful. His statement made clear that, rather than finding the song offensive, he merely worried about the possible risk of sanctions for the club and the possibility that these racists who sing the song may be arrested. While some may understand such reticence in a man lambasted by some of the club’s more Neanderthal supporters for daring to speak out against their bigotry in the past, it is nevertheless unedifying to see such moral cowardice in a man charged with such responsibility.
While Bain’s recognition of the full song is not matched by his criticism of the content, much of the media seem, instead, to be trapped in a maze of misunderstanding: either wilful or through ignorance. If it is merely a failure of understanding, one must wonder how they ascended to their positions; if it is a wilful failure to confront this racism, one must fear for the ability of our establishment to remove this weed from our society. Listening to Radio Scotland on Friday, and Radio Clyde at other times, I was struck by the amount of references solely to the ‘offensiveness’ of the chant. Some truly woeful comparisons were made. One presenter on the BBC compared the chant to the songs aimed at David Beckham’s wife; another wondered aloud if the Aberdeen support may make advances to the Ministry of Agriculture if they felt aggrieved at the ‘Sheep Shagger’ chants so often heard around the country. Laugh? I nearly cried. Can these people truly be so obtuse? You will hear offensive chants up and down the country and you probably always will. Indeed, during several recent encounters against Rangers their fans could be clearly heard making reference to the wife of Artur Boruc. Offensive? Of course. Grounds for inter-governmental dialogue and the threat of police action? Of course not. The problem with the ‘Famine Song’ is not that it is simply offensive, it is that it is both primarily racist, and also – in the verses –sectarian. There have been enraged complaints from both within Ibrox itself and within the club’s support that other songs have been ignored: Martin Bain, in a – let us be clear – successful attempt to divert attention away from his own club’s support made reference to the Ibrox disaster song apparently sung by the visiting Aberdeen fans and the Nacho Novo song sung by some Celtic supporters. Both of these songs are to be condemned: they are offensive and odious. Though plainly neither is sectarian or racist. The accusations made against the Aberdeen fans remain just that – accusations – because the numbers singing the song are not sufficient to be picked up by the microphones, it would seem; I was at Fir Park last week when the Novo song was sung – and I know it was sung – yet I did not hear it personally. These songs are not widespread. All football clubs in the land have morons in their support: from Sunderland to Torquay; from Inverness to Queen of the South. (Need I mention the disgraceful racism from the Motherwell support aimed at Laryea Kingston of Hearts? I should, since I must listen to smug condemnation of my own club’s fans from Tam Cowan, celebrity Motherwell fan, in his attempt to downplay the ‘Famine Song’. Paradoxically, were this so widespread as the ‘Famine Song’ amongst the support of the ‘Family Club’, would it perhaps have had as little attention as the Rangers supporters had for 6 months of chanting the ‘Famine Song’? Presumably not.) There are morons in society and it stands to reason there will be morons amongst the support of all football clubs. The difference in numbers may seem unimportant – and perhaps it is when a condemnation is so obviously required – but it must be stated that a particularly large moronic contingent has attached itself to Rangers Football Club and continually shames that club (a club which played up to that moronic element by its own actions in many ways: a sectarian signing policy and, more recently, Orange shirts do not seem ideal ways to combat prejudice).
In addition to a completely lopsided reporting of the chants from the terraces, this week has saw a sustained attempt to indict the Celtic support in all manner of ways. Today (Sunday 21 October), for example, saw a report in the News of the World which linked a graffiti attack on a pub belonging to the former Rangers goalkeeper Andy Goram to the posting of the details of that pub on a Celtic messageboard. Yet days before the attack those details were published in The Hamilton Advertiser, a local newspaper, making clear that Goram was the owner of that pub. As if that were not enough, the same details posted on this messageboard appeared in The Sun newspaper – the sister paper of the News of the World – before the spraypaint ‘attack’. You really could not make this stuff up: it is desperate and completely transparent. That is not to suggest it is not likely a Celtic fan was involved – but this was almost certainly no internet planned, spray-paint wielding plot. Similarly, while there was a sense of schadenfreude in much of the reporting of the recent cowardly attack on Neil Lennon – to many he ‘brings it on himself’ with his style of play, as though a full tackle should be met with a swollen jaw rather than a possible yellow card – no mention was made of Goram’s murky past when his recent troubles were reported: here was a man who posed with UVF memorabilia, the resulting furore causing him to let down his employers at Motherwell by being unable to play against Celtic, having his pub defaced with Republican graffiti, yet this seemed to warrant more condemnation than physical assault.
This isn’t new to Celtic fans. We have become au fait with such blatantly biased reporting: when Rangers fans rioted in Spain, it was an ‘Old Firm’ problem; when they trashed Manchester, it was an ‘Old Firm’ problem; when they were warned over their conduct by UEFA, as Celtic supporters basked in the warm afterglow of a recognition of their fine behaviour abroad, it was – you guessed it – an ‘Old Firm’ problem. It is possible to look back on the reporting of Manchester today with some mirth. The difference between the reporting of the story in England, where it could not be swept under the carpet as a police problem, and the reporting of the story in Scotland, where the failure of a TV screen became part of the acceptable motive for widespread looting and sickening violence, was painfully clear. One Scottish paper had the temerity to report, with glee, how the policeman who suffered a painful beating had been rescued by a valiant Rangers fan: the fan was portrayed as symbolic of the ‘majority’; the hundred-odd fans trying to stamp on the officer’s head playing the part of the shameful ‘Old Firm’ minority – with a smattering of Chelsea fans. Within a day the story unravelled: the brave fan had, in fact, been English, not involved with the UEFA Cup final except in his misfortune in being caught up in a riot and forced to defend a lone policeman from a barrage of bluenose boots. That story, rather, that correction, barely made a ripple in Scotland.
It is difficult as a Celtic supporter to remain hopeful in the face of such manipulation. It has become increasingly clear in the past year that there is nothing we can do to remove the muddy waters of the ‘Old Firm’: our triumphs are an ‘Old Firm’ thing; their disgraces are an ‘Old Firm’ thing. And so it remains. Yet remain hopeful I think we shall. Because we will never be like them. We will always be unique as a club; we will never be the other side of their cheap coin. The press have a duty to face up to this blight, this unwanted, cancerous growth, within our footballing society. Their persistent failure to combat it – allied to the shameful negligence of the SFA and SPL – can only perpetuate bigotry and intolerance in society. No one longs for an inoffensive, staid game; we only ask for a game free from blatant racism. For that reason, we must remain hopeful that Rangers, and their support, will begin to reap the punishment of the seeds they have sown.
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