They celebrate St Patrick’s Day with unrivalled pride and passion in Coatbridge, but some locals still recall when it was wiser to keep their heritage to themselves
PADDY Banks is sitting at the bar of the Columba Club in Coatbridge, eyes gently watering, nursing a whisky, while decorative shamrocks glint above the gantry. “I used to give up the drink for Lent,” he says, “but for Paddy’s Day I’d always make an exception.”
St Patrick’s Day, 17 March, is – thanks to the Irish diaspora – a global celebration. There are parties and parades from Brooklyn to Benidorm, Kilburn to Christchurch, and, of course, in Ireland itself. There is, however, one corner of North Lanarkshire where the saint is celebrated with particular intensity. Coatbridge is, according to the map, just a little to the east of Glasgow, but spiritually and emotionally the town is located somewhere across the North Channel.
It has been named “the least Scottish town in Scotland” on account of the huge numbers of residents with names of Irish origin, but according to local genealogists that particular survey actually underplays the heritage. The Irish started arriving in Coatbridge in the 19th century, especially during the years of the great famine, looking for work in the mines and the iron industry. The town was black with soot in those days, and it was said you could read at night by the furnace light. The clusters of streets where the Irish settled had nicknames which still express something of the fervent, febrile Klondyke spirit of those times – Paddy’s Land, O’Neill’s Land, and especially The Slap-Up, a square-mile slum which at the turn of the century had a higher population density than New York.
The 1851 census shows that while the Irish-born population of Scotland as a whole was 7.2 per cent, in Coatbridge it was 35.8 per cent. Now, several generations down the line, it is reckoned that around 70 per cent of the population have Irish roots. Many residents find their family history extremely meaningful. According to a survey by the Coatbridge Irish Genealogy Project, some 93 per cent of those sampled were actually able to identify the county from which their forebears came. A chat with locals in the street confirms this. Derry, Kerry, Dublin, Down – these names and others are proclaimed with pleasure and passion. One man, 87-year-old Tommy Sharpe, is telling me that his grandparents came from Donegal when a passer-by, happening to overhear, can’t resist adding, “The pride of them all.”
Little wonder, then, that Coatbridge has come to be known as “the heart of Ireland in Scotland” – the phrase of Mary McAleese, the then Irish president, during a visit to the town’s St Patrick’s Day Festival. This year is the 10th anniversary of the festival, a two-week celebration comprising music, theatre, sport and other events, culminating in a street party this coming Saturday, which draws around 20,000 people, many of them tricked out in tricolours. It is, locals are keen to assert, an expression of cultural pride rather than nationalist politics. “If anyone comes here believing this is some sort of free-for-all with rebel songs then they are very wrong,” says Martin Brennan, a 47-year-old electrician. “This is a celebration of being Irish.”
Ten years ago there were no St Patrick’s Day festivals in Scotland, the thinking being that such prominent declarations of ethnicity – and, by extension, Catholicism – would invite trouble from bigots. “As children our only expression of Irishness was going out to mass on St Patrick’s Day with a bunch of shamrock on,” says Janice Sullivan, 55, a Coatbridge native whose father and maternal grandfather were Irish. “Other than that, the culture was ‘Keep your head down, don’t mention it, and you’ll be fine.’
“I have a brother who is 50 and was born on St Patrick’s Day, and my mother refused to call him Patrick because he would never get a job. You were very proud of your heritage, but it was kept within the community. I was astonished when the festival started. I remember two old men in the street that day saying, ‘I can’t believe we are getting this.’ So, yes, we do have something special here.”
I am talking to Sullivan in the festival shop in the Quadrant shopping centre. It is a fiesta of green, white and gold. Already, at half-ten in the morning, there is a steady flow of folk buying programmes, tickets for shows, and no end of Irish merchandise. A wee boy leaves clutching a green “Padraic” teddy bear. A youngish woman enquires after a Celtic badge which she plans to add to a funeral wreath in the shape of a Hoops top. You can buy shamrock sunglasses and deely-boppers; tricolour feather boas and leis. There are novelty ties with “Kiss me, I’m Irish” written upon them, and – the Irish equivalent of the “See-you-Jimmy” bunnet – a “Who’s-your-Paddy?” top hat in the shape of a pint of stout. A sign outside the shop points in the direction of Coatbridge, Dublin and Belfast. Inside, a CD player blasts out a techno version of The Wild Rover.
This is all a bit of fun for the festival. There are, however, more authentic expressions of culture ongoing in the town. Coatbridge has Gaelic football teams and runs an extensive youth development programme with 15 participating schools. The town has a branch of Comhaltas, an international organisation promoting traditional Irish music and language. There are also no fewer than five Irish dance schools, although admittedly the diamanté-heavy costumes these days are rather glitzier than the traditional celtic designs which were once the norm. “They’ve blinged up the Book of Kells,” laughs Arlene McLaughlin, a teacher at the McLaughlin Cannon Academy.
Gordon Canavan, a retired publican of Irish descent, who once kept a pub called The Blarney Stone, is working in the festival shop when I visit. “No matter where you go in the world, if you say you are from Coatbridge, people will say ‘Oh, Little Ireland!’” he notes with pride. “My great-grandfather Peter Hannaway used to tell me wonderful stories about how they came over on the boat with nothing and worked hard to make something of their lives.”
The Scots-Irish of Coatbridge have a definite sense of themselves as the descendants of grafters, important in an area of high unemployment. Whatever the psychological reasons, there is no doubt that people feel their Irishness strongly here. Michael Reilly, 52, who runs the Genealogy Project, is planning to apply for an Irish passport. “It’s a wee bit of me claiming myself to be Irish,” he says. “It’s something I feel and I can’t explain.”
Alisha Crilly, 67, talking in the tearoom behind St Patrick’s church after morning mass, says, “I am Scottish. My allegiances are to Scotland. But my inner being is Irish. The way I think, the way I feel, the way I behave. We are much more open here. The best thing about this parish is the way we all relate to each other.”
Coatbridge, with a population of around 40,000 souls, has a majority Catholic population and ten churches belonging to that faith. Even those with no religion would surely agree that these buildings confer a beauty on the town that it would otherwise lack. In the shadow of a tower block, a white marble statue of the Virgin Mary stands pristine and serene. At times, walking round, Coatbridge can feel like an urban brutalist version of South Uist. In certain corner shops you can buy St Patrick’s Day cards and bottles of Buckfast.
Church attendance is not in decline in Coatbridge, in the Catholic churches at least, unlike elsewhere in Scotland, and faith seems to permeate everyday discourse. A sign outside a card shop on the Main Street declares “orders now being taken for Communion balloons”. Pat Gaffney, who has run the bar in the Columba Club these past 22 years, and who visits Ireland each October to tend the graves of his great-uncles in Navan, says, “I don’t drink in any of the pubs round here. They’re full of eejits. The last time I was in the pub was in Lourdes.”
The people here definitely regard themselves as being very different from their neighbours – Motherwell, Baillieston and especially Airdrie. “We’re an oasis in the wilderness,” is how one man puts it. It is an expressive, emotional culture – “carnivalesque and gallus,” according to the Coatbridge writer Des Dillon, with a love of storytelling and ritual. “My brother died last year and the wake was a four-day event,” Dillon recalls. “There were about 20 of us round his bed singing The Fields Of Athenry as he died.”
The difference is also linguistic. There is a Coatbridge accent, rooted in Irish pronunciation, and distinct from the west of Scotland dialect. People in Coatbridge, for example, tend not to say “toon” for town or “doon” for “down”; they speak fast, and there is a tendency to use the so-called “reaffirmative” in sentence construction; for example this, overheard in the Columba Club, from a man watching the racing on telly: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph! I should have backed that bloody horse, so I should!”
Before leaving Coatbridge, I call in at a family céilí being held at St Patrick’s church hall. The musicians are all teenagers from Comhaltas, and as they perform a mixture of jigs and reels – The Walls Of Limerick, The Siege Of Ennis – and as the dancefloor throngs with children and adults birling beneath the disco lights, it strikes me that these same dance tunes would have been played and enjoyed in this town back in the 1840s; the rhythms and melodies, the joy of it all, spirals through the local DNA. Coatbridge may indeed be the least Scottish town in Scotland, but it has a spirit than many would envy.