‘Emerald Celtic’ Brake Club:
Who Says Football and Politics Don’t Mix?
Only a matter of days ago I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a piece of original and largely unspoiled item of Tim history which is also Govan to the core.
As seen in the picture, I was shown an original Celtic supporters ‘Brake Club’ banner from 1913.
A true holy grail moment for any Tim historian.
The banner, which is still attached to its indigenous wooden poles for display atop horse and cart carriage as a primitive form of travelling supporters club, is central to the Govan Tim community in the sense that it belonged to the ‘Emerald Celtic’ brake club of Govan as is evidenced on its beautifully hand painted signage.
Simply put, this 105 year old piece of handcrafted Celtic supporter symbolism encapsulates all that I have been talking about in the last few weeks – that Govan was, is and will forever be playing host to a sizeable, vocal and rightfully proud group of Tims who are proud of their Irish heritage.
More Than Just a Banner?
This banner allows us to observe more than just a footballing narrative in relation to the Govan Tims and their obvious celebration of their Irishness however.
It is for this reason that the nature of today’s short article is actually twofold.
Firstly, from a purely footballing sense it will detail a very brief history of one of the players who is idolised on the Emerald Celtic banner, Jimmy McColl, who was once of The Ants.
Secondly and much more significantly, a brief social and political context in relation to the era of the banner, will be detailed.
This will ultimately highlight how these supporters banners, just like today, celebrate more than merely a footballing narrative but how they are also symbols of identity and culture for a people who feel they are at best othered, and at worst unwanted, by a seemingly oppressive Scottish mainstream culture.
A mainstream culture dominated by many Scots of non Irish heritage who are naively unaware of the historical plight of the vast majority of Scots who have identified with their Irishness in Scotland over the last 150 years or so.
After all, it was only as recent as the 29th May 1923 that the Church of Scotland mass produced the pamphlet, ‘The Menace of the Irish Race to Our Scottish Nationality’ which came a mere 8 years before Alexander Ratcliffe of the Scottish Protestant League (SPL) commandeered a council seat in Dennistoun whilst one of his comrades took Kinning Park on a ticket of Irish Repatriation. In otherwords, ‘send them all back’ which itself is an ideology which has perhaps found a legacy within the contemporary ‘Famine Song’ era.
Incidentally, the aforementioned Church of Scotland took a staggering 60 years to officially apologise for this mass produced pamphlet where it referred to the Irish Catholic as a ‘separate race’.
Populism in Scotland, unfortunately, has always rode the crest of a bigoted anti Irish and anti Catholic wave it would seem.
The Banner and the Fitbaw
Firstly however, to the footballing matters.
The Govan banner depicts three Celtic heroes on one side whilst it displays one large motif of goalkeeper, Charlie Shaw, on the other.
Each of the head and shoulder shots of the heroes are placed within a white trimmed shamrock with the phrase, ‘Play Up Celtic’, emblazoned on each side.
No doubt a popularised terrace chant at the time by the best football fans in the world.
There appears to be a signature of sorts on the banner which reads, ‘Mitchelson, 1913’ which is in reference to a Regalia Manufacturer based in South Portland Street.
Jimmy ‘The Sniper’ McColl
One of the players depicted is the aforementioned Jimmy McColl (1892-1978) originally of William Street in Anderston.
An area which is now unrecognisable as it houses the smart Hilton and Marriott Hotel yardage where once it housed one of the thousands of overcrowded one or two roomed slums of Victorian Glasgow.
Although not a Govan man, young Jimmy was once part of the Celtic FC aligned St. Anthony’s junior team, The Ants, and it was here where he first flourished as an industrious and efficient finisher.
By 1913 this adopted son of Govan was in the process of replacing barrow chested miner’s son Jimmy ‘The Croy Express’ Quinn as Celtics main marksman and, as McColl’s premature end in the Hoops approached in 1920, he had produced a staggering 123 goals in 169 games.
The Celtic Wiki further contextualises his interwar goalscoring achievements when it states,
‘As a measure of his success as a striker, he (McColl) ranks amongst the top ten goal scorers in Scottish footballing history for the 20th Century, a list headed by the inimitable Jimmy McGrory’
McColl would go on to take the reigns of Belfast Celtic who could count Charlie Tully as one of their finest graduates.
McColl later came back to Scotland where he would loyally spend the rest of his coaching days with Hibs over a hugely successful 40 year period before he passed away in the east coast, aged 85.
The good green and white folk of Govan clearly knew a fine player when they seen it and by celebrating McColl early on in his Celtic career on the banner in 1913, at a time when he was unproven in Celtics Hoops, they showed incredible vision and perhaps they, more than most, knew how good he would go on to be.
He did cut his attacking teeth with The hoops of The Ants after all.
The Banner and The Politics
Part and parcel of the Govan Irish lifestyle undoubtedly comprised of cheering on the Hoops and heroes like McColl but perhaps more definingly, it would have involved a serious amount of politics and legitimising of their cultural identity as ‘Glasgow Irish’ also.
It’s not for nothing that historian Stephen Coyle has been able to trace dozens of Irish Republican volunteers, man and woman alike from the Govan area, which he has presented in his latest book, ‘We Will Rise Again’.
Specific to the Govan Irish in 1913 however, there would be a multitude of socio-political issues tied up with their Irish identity at such a tumultuous time.
For example, The dominance of ‘The Irish Question’ in their daily mindset – that is, will the Nationalist movement in Ireland succeed and will Home Rule be delivered by an untrustworthy and war focussed Westminster or will the more militant element associated with Connolly et al or the Irish Volunteers, newly formed on the 25th November that same year, take root?
Not to mention that there was an exclusively Protestant employability practice of Clydeside shipyards in full sectarian swing with the newly opened and Ulster dominated Harland and Wolff shipyard recently taking home in Govan stretching from Clydebrae Street to the Cross.
Their level of sectarian practice was of a special kind however, even by 1913 standards.
For example, not only were Catholics disenfranchised from Harland and Wolff’s labour but indeed even Scottish Protestants were not to be trusted initially as Harland and Wolff advertised most of their Govan jobs in the Belfast Telegraph first, thus prioritising Ulster Protestants over and above the Scottish ones!
Add to this that there would have been a steep spike for Pro British-ness and loyalty to the King, in the wider context, in response to a seemingly ever aggressive Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany perceived to be spoiling for a ‘European War’.
A narrative which was fermented by the local media machine, the Govan Press, which itself was known to be unsympathetic to the employability of Catholics.
To put it bluntly, one can comfortably conclude that the politicised Govanite of Irish stock in 1913, surely a one time resident of the Irish Channel (Neptune St) and contributor of the Irish Club to be found in the same street, would have found it difficult to assert him or herself, culturally speaking, without experiencing ridicule, torment or racism.
However, the very fact that there was an early CSC style Brake Club emanating from the Govan parish with a banner emblazoned with ‘EMERALD’ on it reassures the reader who identifes with their Irishness that not all was lost and that, at least every Saturday or Sunday, there was an organised movement celebrating both Celtic and Irishness from the very heart of Glasgow based anti-Catholicism, which greater Govan at that time may have been perceived as.
How does the song of anti oppression go,
‘…the higher you build your barriers, the taller I become…’
By this measure, some of the Tallest men in Glasgow were surely to be found amongst the Govan Irish every weekend as their Emerald Celtic Brake Club banner beamed from Govan Rd to the Gallowgate.
After all, the significance of such a banner being not only created but celebrated en route to Paradise via Govan Rd in 1913 goes far beyond just cheering on the team in this writer’s opinion.
There’s something to be said about the character required of the Govan Irish in order to show such sheer defiance to this mainstream bigoted culture which they would have faced on a daily basis.
To this end, I believe that the banner represented much more of a green tinted ‘two finger salute’ to the dominant Scots narrative which was part defined by an obvious anti Irishness.
The Govan Irish clearly possessed an obvious intelligence and a tremendous amount of foresight by using Celtic FC and an early CSC culture as a vehicle to fight oppression by way of a weekly unfurling of the banner in all of it’s green and white glory.
Indeed not the first or the last time that ‘Celtic FC Culture’ would be fittingly used as a vehicle for protest against oppression by their politicised supporter groups who are always fond of their proud Irish heritage.
Arguably, contemporary Scotland has a climate of criminalisation associated with Irish identifying football fans in Scotland.
This is best exemplified with Police Scotland soon to be making it an offence under section 38 to wave ‘aggressively’ an Irish Tricolour if the Herald is to be believed.
In this context, the historical significance of the Glasgow Irish legitimising their presence in the city by way of a powerful and public supporters movement in 1913 has perhaps never been more relevant.
Fans, banners, flags and chants when done the ‘Celtic Way’ and when crafted specifically by politicised working class souls who only wish to celebrate their cultural heritage are of the greatest significance in relation to understanding fan culture and the legitimate way in which a football team really can be more than a club.
It’s not for nothing that one of Celtics favourite sons, Tommy Burns, spoke about ‘playing for a cause and a community’ when the Celtic jersey is pulled on.
From the Govan Irish to those who were to be found in the Gorbals, Garngad, the Calton and beyond, these are some of the fine folk he was surely talking about.
So, here’s to the Govan Irish of 1913 who were brazen and bold enough to very publicly celebrate their Irish identity through the prism of supporting Celtic Football Club.
They represent a very important historical footnote to a narrative that many in Scotland would have you believe is unimportant.
Whether in Govan or elsewhere, if you are a Celtic fan with a connection to an Irish cultural identity please follow suit in relation to the Emerald Celtic Brake Club and always let your flag of Irish colour and symbolism fly.
Thanks for reading