Talking about anti-Catholicism in Scotland: Part Two
Pat Anderson, Up to Our Knees: Anti-Catholic Bigotry in Scotland, Snowy Publications.
Scotland’s sectarian divide has similarities to Northern Ireland’s. Indeed some argue that it is remarkable that Northern Ireland’s ‘troubles’ were not really replicated here. But the violence in N.I. was never primarily religious in nature. In all of Western Europe, interest in traditional organised religion has been in steep decline for decades. ‘The troubles’ were not a religious conflict, but a political one, about power and control. The fact that those struggling for a united Ireland were mainly Catholic, while those struggling to maintain British control over Northern Ireland were mainly Protestant, is certainly a feature of the conflict, but the IRA waged a war for a united Ireland, not for Catholicism, and Loyalist terrorist groups were loyal to Westminster, not Calvin.
The same situation just does not obtain in Scotland. That is why, with some horrendous exceptions (the savage murder of 16-year-old Celtic fan Mark Scott in 1995 being one) Scottish sectarian violence largely consisted of, and consists of, bottles being thrown at football matches and not bombs going off in shopping centres and pubs. There was no political objective pressing enough to legitimise (in some eyes) that level of violence, and the vast majority of people are satisfied to express their tribalism by insults and songs that mock and abuse the other. Pat Anderson, however, argues that anti-Catholicism in Scotland is a virulent problem.
Anti-Catholicism and anti-Irishness
Anderson acknowledges that it can be difficult to distinguish anti-Catholicism from anti-Irishness, but concludes that Scottish bigotry is essentially anti-Catholic rather than anti-Irish. The two keep converging though. He too struggles to keep them separate. The book’s title talks of ‘anti-Catholic bigotry’, but the cover illustration is a deeply offensive caricature of an Irishman. It looks like Irishness that is being mocked and demonised, not Catholicism, though in the eyes of the bigots the two appear to be indistinguishable. Be they Fenians, taigs, bog-wogs, micks, bead rattlers, bog trotters, or soap dodgers, they are feckless scroungers and incomers who take our charity and still complain.
Anderson finds the origins of these attitudes in the work of Max Weber, who argued in his 1905 magnum opus The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that it was Calvinism that led to industrialisation and indeed modern civilisation. The idea that Catholics are lazy and feckless is surprisingly persistent, though Anderson mischievously points out that High Anglican quasi-Catholic England was much more economically successful than radically Calvinist Scotland, and the enormous wealth of the USA was built not on the industry and diligence of the Founding Fathers, as is commonly suggested, but on slavery. It is not hard to see the parallels with how successive waves of immigrants have been viewed, be they Asian, African, East European or Roma.
Anderson is particularly exercised by revisionist historians, who question the accepted narrative that Ireland and Irish people were adversely affected by first English, and later British, intervention. They go so far as to claim that imperialism was essentially a positive experience for the poor benighted natives. One such historian, Liam Kennedy, Professor of Economic History at Queen’s University Belfast, has coined the term MOPE – the ‘most oppressed people ever‘ – in an attempt to belittle and mock those who argue that Ireland’s experience of colonialism was one of dispossession and oppression.
Anderson is on to something here – there is a new bullishness around such views, and right-wing conservatives now dare to say out loud what they have always believed – that Britain has apologised for too long for having an Empire, and we need to get back to proudly proclaiming the benefits of subjugation to the Crown. To a Scot, such opinions feel eerily familiar, witness Stuart McQuarrie’s comments. The Irish should, apparently, be thankful that England deigned to drag them out of the darkness of their ignorance and indolence.
My Own Story
Not being a historian, I do not feel qualified to assess the validity of Anderson’s arguments. Individual, personal experience, however, should not necessarily be discounted, so, at that level, I feel well qualified to discuss the sectarian tensions that continue to simmer under the surface of Scottish life. It has lurked in the background of my life from the very start.
A few highlights might establish that I have some skin (or rather, skins) in this game. My dad, Davie, came from staunch Glasgow Protestant stock, some of whom might even have been what I have heard referred to as ‘bitter Orange’. He did not endear himself to the boys at the Ludge when he met and fell for my mum, Sadie, a Catholic girl from County Donegal. He was, predictably, shunned by his family, none of whom attended his wedding in the chapel in the Gorbals. (Interestingly, he appears to have been welcomed with open arms into her Irish Catholic family, even as an ex-member of the British Army.) It was only when unto them a child was born, yours truly, that some of the Protestant relations began to thaw, even if they were only curious to see what the child of such an unholy union might look like.
Yet thaw they did. Thankfully, I remember fondly some aunts and uncles from ‘his side’. Good old human and family love eventually chipped away at the sectarian walls, as it will if given half a chance (Paisley and McGuinness as the Chuckle Brothers) and I don’t remember it being an issue in the family as we grew up. On the street, yes, but in the family, we heard only occasional faint echoes.
For some reason mum and dad decided they should live in Bridgeton, presumably because their lives in Glasgow in 1959 weren’t already hard enough. I spent the first seven years of my life in what dear old Uncle Harry described as ‘a smashin’ big single-end’ in Bridgeton, perhaps the most explicitly Protestant community in the city, epicentre of Glasgow Loyalism, and home of the Brigton Derry. My dad opened the door one night holding baby John in his arms, to find an irate local gentleman standing there, who, without so much as a how d’you do, punched him in the face, knocking him flat on his back into the loaby. Luckily, I cushioned his fall, and family legend has it that this incident left me with the stammer that dogged much of my life.
I do know that by the time I was five or six, lines had been drawn, and I was out in the back court middens fiercely singing ‘Proddy dogs, eat the frogs, two for tuppence ha’penny’, I have no idea where I learned that. I had already been indoctrinated into ‘othering’ Protestants, but creating an identity for yourself in that setting does seem to have involved establishing who you were definitely not. Maybe it always does. Anyway, being not a Protestant was only one of the various identities I embraced. As a good French St. kid I was also keen on othering the poor buggers who had the misfortune to live in neighbouring Poplin St. I remember lines of us charging each other across the waste ground, intent on administering a right good othering to the other side.
I soon got the chance to experience Scottish sectarianism outside Glasgow. In 1967, when I was a P2 pupil at the Sacred Heart Primary in Dalmarnock, my dad was offered a job in ‘the pit’, and we made what felt like the epic 37 mile two hour bus journey down to the rural idyll that was the Ayrshire mining town of Cumnock, where I lived till I made the reverse journey back to university ten years later. At first, Cumnock felt like a rural idyll. We had a garden, and there were fields, woods and rivers.
Now, I have many happy memories of Cumnock, but also some not so happy. We lived in a new housing scheme, which was being added to and expanded for many years after we arrived. There was a broader social mix there than exists in council schemes now – you had teachers and everything living beside you. We were in most ways indistinguishable from our new neighbours, but we were also different to most of them, and at some level that difference mattered.
No-one was ever in any doubt which side of the line they were on. We had our own institutions – St. John’s Chapel, and St. Conval’s school – and they had theirs: Greenmill Primary, Cumnock Academy and the various churches dotted here and there. However, as far as I’m aware, just as in the 16th century, we were largely left alone to get on with it. Though the same principle applied – being a Catholic was allowed, but not aloud. We were circumspect about it. Occasional reminders of an underlying tension were given. I remember one night when the Catholic men had to stand guard outside the chapel overnight to protect the newly-built wall being built round the grounds – it had been kicked over before by drunken Protestants on their way home from the pub.
Now, looking back through my socialist telescope’s eye, our fellow Cumnockians are salt-of-the-down-to-Earth working-class folk struggling to come to terms with the ravages of post-industrial decline, Thatcher and pit closures. But when my school pals and I would meet the offspring of these self-same working class heroes, we became something called ‘Papish bastards’. We were regularly reminded that we ‘bred like rabbits’, and I was called a Fenian so often I thought it was my middle name. After some IRA outrage in the 70s, I overheard two men in a clothes shop fitting-room talking about how ‘we’re just no’ quite as bad as they are’ and I knew we were the they. I have never forgotten that. However, casual insults were never the whole picture.
Life for a Catholic boy in Cumnock in the 1970s was a bit of a curate’s egg – many of the boys I played football with every night till darkness fell were not Catholics, and we were all great pals. I look back on the place very fondly now. Yes, there were Catholics and there were Protestants, and there was offensive name-calling and stereotyping. But I don’t think I was beaten up that often because of my religion. The real question for me is whether this childhood stuff was the younger sibling of something a bit more sinister.
Did Cumnock Catholic adults experience structural and institutional discrimination in terms of, for example, housing and employment, as they did so blatantly in Northern Ireland? Were my parents treated equitably and fairly – that is surely more important. And. as far as I’m aware, they were. Neither of them experienced any real discrimination in Cumnock. My dad held several jobs down there, in various settings, while my Irish speaking mother worked in the BATA shoe factory and became a popular figure with the rest of the women there, much mourned by them when she died at the tragically young age of 46.
Again, actual human contact with the other side makes it hard to hold on your stereotypical views of them. Now, I was a child, and my parents are long dead, but it does seem that, excepting all but the most committed zealots, our religion was no barrier to friendships and co-existence. This comes with the usual caveat – Mum and Dad never paraded around the shopping precinct singing ‘Faith of Our Fathers’ while celebrating her heritage by waving an Irish tricolour. They knew better. Minorities are generally tolerated, as long as they keep the noise, and their heads, down, sometimes in ghettoes, sometimes in private halls.
Is this really about religion?
Anderson makes the point that sectarianism is not really about religion. Most anti-Catholic bigots have no allegiance to any church, and have little interest in salvation by faith alone, or the pros and cons of pre-destination, though they can get very exercised by transubstantiation (‘They worship a buscuit’, as that nice Chuckle Brother Ian Paisley once memorably thundered – did he ever do anything else?). Anti-Catholicism is not a defence of actual beliefs, it is really just a good old-fashioned attack on the other, the stranger, the different.
Anderson deploys some diverse pieces of evidence in support of his thesis, some of them more convincing than others. He compares the treatment by Scottish judges of two sets of would-be ‘bombers’. In the first case, two men sent explosive devices through the post to Neil Lennon. The judge said the men believed the devices to be ‘capable of exploding and causing injury’. Rather puzzlingly, he went on to say that it was ‘obvious’ that he was not dealing with ‘acts of terrorism’. The men got five years each. In another case, three men plotted to kill ‘UDA kingpin’ Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair. They were convicted of terrorism charges and the leader, Antoin Duffy, went down for seventeen years. Anderson describes Duffy as ‘a fantasist’ who was addicted to Tramadol and who rather pathetically asked around the Brazen Head pub in the Gorbals if anyone could supply him with a gun. He was portrayed as a ‘brazen terrorist’, while the would-be bombers of Lennon and his family were portrayed as ‘ridiculous, irrational clowns’.
The differing media presentations of Celtic’s Anthony Stokes and Rangers’ Andy Goram is also pointed out. Goram openly associated with Ulster Loyalists but was never challenged about this, and there was no media pressure for Rangers to condemn him. He was a harmless, larger-than-life ‘character’ – ‘The Goalie’. When Anthony Stokes attended the funeral of his friend Alan Ryan, a member of the Real IRA, he was publicly castigated by Celtic and punished for bringing the club into disrepute. Yet, Anderson claims, the media was not satisfied and demanded he be sacked immediately. How are we to account for this difference in approach?
The question of the extent to which anti-Catholicism exists in Scotland is a complex and multi-faceted one that changes when viewed from different angles. Clearly, during my lifetime and before, there has been a lot of tribalism and naked hatred, leading to frequent verbal abuse and not infrequent violence. The numbers involved in this, however, represent a small proportion of the Scottish population.
The real question is, and this is one that Anderson does not pursue particularly vigorously, is whether such sectarian views translate into systematic and institutionalised discrimination, in education, employment, and before the law. It will be interesting to see whether Scottish sectarianism gradually fades away as people become even less interested in religious affiliations.
The other, more frightening, alternative is a future where, in the wake of Brexit and the UK government’s relentless promotion of xenophobia and glorification of all things imperial and British, such attitudes become increasingly normalised. It is easy to be hypnotised and horrified by an Ibrox Stadium reverberating to the Billy Boys. But most people in Scotland have little desire to be up to their knees in anybody’s blood, Fenian or otherwise.