The Old Firm story: How sectarianism came to define a derby

The religious hatred that often scars the relationship between Celtic and Rangers has its roots in resentment of the Irish immigrant influx in the early years of the 20th century, says Andrew Smith

The sound and fury of a Rangers v Celitc league match will return this season. Picture: SNS
The sound and fury of a Rangers v Celitc league match will return this season. Picture: SNS

There are uncomfortable truths when picking apart the potency of the Old Firm rivalry. For the ‘unrivalled passion’ so often gloried in, read instead poison. Strip away the euphemistic overtones of ‘the religious divisions’ acknowledged between Celtic and Rangers, and what is to be found underneath is religious intolerance, bigotry and hatred.

The bitterness that swirls around the two clubs has been given fresh impetus in recent years by Rangers’ financial collapse and the rise of social media. But the roots of the divide are in the early years of the 20th century.

The Scottish Protestant, unionist, loyalist impulses that see Rangers as the antithesis of the Irish Catholic, republican Celtic aren’t an accident of fate, place or geography. Rangers evolved this way because more than a century ago an element of the country’s populace resented the Irish immigrants and their football team which had essentially colonised the Scottish game through becoming the powerhouse within it.

Graeme Souness bold capture of Mo Johnston in 1989 brought to an end Rangers sectarian signing policy. The striker was the first high-profile Catholic to sign for the club since before the First World War. Picture: TSPL

If there had never been a Celtic, who arrived on the scene 15 years after Rangers were founded in 1872, Rangers as a club would have been very different in outlook across the 20th century.

Celtic’s genesis in 1887 to 1888 were imbedded in Irish Catholicism. The club was founded by a Marist Brother called Walfrid from Sligo – in the image of Edinburgh’s Hibernian – to maintain the dinner tables of Catholic parishes in the east end of Glasgow. The popular story is that money was being raised to feed poor immigrant children who suffered severe prejudice in a city that perceived them as ignorant, unwashed incomers with fathers that would provide cheap or scab labour.

Yet, the truth is that Walfrid wanted to establish these food kitchens more because those on offer from indigenous Scottish churches carried the threat of straining his parishioners’ Catholicism; even demanding it be renounced for the food on offer. Walfrid’s main driver for Celtic was to stop the Irish Catholic immigrant population “taking the soup”. That Celtic was more about symbolism than sustenance to the go-getting Catholic businessmen with deep held convictions about Irish Home Rule is reflected in the fact that as early as the club’s financial accounts of 1893, not one penny was donated to the foods halls Walfrid had supposedly established the club to support.

Moreover, by the end of the 19th century, Celtic had become a public limited company as the directors both sought monies to pay top whack to players as professionalism came on-stream, and fund a new stadium. The fact handsome dividends came their way too was just a happy accident...

Graeme Souness bold capture of Mo Johnston in 1989 brought to an end Rangers sectarian signing policy. The striker was the first high-profile Catholic to sign for the club since before the First World War. Picture: TSPL

For those Irish Catholics in the city that were treated as second-class citizens, Celtic were the riposte to their oppressors. The club enjoyed immediate success because it franchised a group that had never been interested in attending football games. Scottish football’s first attendance boom followed as a result, and Celtic were posting record receipts for a British club within their first decade.

All of which was unpalatable to some in a city that, prior to the influx of Irish Catholics drawn by the desperate famine suffered in their homeland during the mid-1800s, had more anti-Catholic societies than actual Catholics.

To many Celtic, as Scottish football’s big beast, were simply too big for their boots. Moreover, indeed, they had trashed all concepts of sporting integrity in poaching players from Hibs for financial inducements in their early years when the game was supposedly amateur.

Rangers, who had almost gone out of business as they found their way, did not seem a natural fit for chief foe. They had no religious impetus in their origins beyond the fact that their ‘gallant pioneer’ founders Peter and Moses McNeil, Peter Campbell and William McBeath had been brought up as Protestants. Rangers were no more different to Celtic in terms of any religious identity than, say, Clyde or Partick Thistle. As for love of monarch and country now so woven into the club’s fabric, their first patron was Marquis of Lorne, future 9th Duke of Argyll, Governor of Canada and son-in-law to Queen Victoria.

As Rangers began to push Celtic on the pitch, so Protestants began to gravitate to the club as the anti – nay antidote – to an unabashed Catholic and Irish republican Celtic, though notably a team that resisted all attempts in its infancy to follow the Hibernian model and field only Catholic players.

This flow of Protestant fans picked up pace when Celtic claimed they were the “unofficial world champions” after Willie Maley led them to six consecutive titles; a period of dominance that ended in 1910 and had proved an affront to Scottish societal traditions across certain constituencies.

Two years later the die was cast when the political instability in Belfast led to Harland and Wolff opening a massive shipyard in Govan. The builders of the Titanic, which infamously often excluded Catholics from its workforce, brought over scores of Orangemen to work on the Clyde... from where Rangers’ Ibrox home was a short walk.

Sometime shortly afterwards, the ‘Catholics need not apply’ principles of Harland and Wolff began to be reflected in a Rangers playing squad previously open to all. And, it must be said, the strategy had the desired effect once Bill Struth took over in 1920. Celtic were put in their place with 14 titles in 20 years coming Rangers’ way.

In the early 1970s the author, novelist and broadcaster Cliff Hanley stated in a German-commissioned documentary about the Old Firm that while the tendency was to present Rangers as a Protestant club they were really an anti-Catholic club. He was commenting on the impression that in song, Celtic supporters tend to celebrate their Irishness, their republicanism and their ‘Popery’. Rangers, in contrast, were seen as more likely to promote enmity with the ‘Fenian’ epithet for Catholics that reflects how political events across the Irish sea formed a backdrop to the bitter divisions – the Battle of the Boyne, 1916 Easter uprising, war of independence, partition, the Troubles and all points inbetween. In recent years, songs such as the The Billy Boys, with its “up to our knees in Fenian blood” line, No Pope of Rome, and Super Rangers (“we hate Celtic, Fenian bastards”) have seen a continuation of that theme.

In turn, many Celtic supporters hid behind a pushed-for perception of them as politicking Provos that in reality was often a proxy for ‘sticking it to the Proddies’. This sizeable faction were called out as “Catholic bigots” by Fergus McCann in the 1990s as he sought to drive out prejudice from the stands as he transformed the entire club and its ownership model – control of the institution till then having been passed through generations of the Kelly and White families.

By that stage, Rangers had experienced an event to pull them from the dark ages their discriminatory signing policy had caused them to reside in. Their release was occasioned by Mo Johnston, in 1989, having become the first high-profile Catholic to sign for the Ibrox club since the pre-First World War years.

The then manager and owner, Graeme Souness and David Murray, should be commended for ending a shameful practice that for too long existed at Ibrox.

There may have been an element of pulling the rug from beneath a rival in recruiting Johnston after he had signed, what represented, a pre-contract agreement at Celtic.

However, in the second half of Murray’s two decades stewarding Rangers the Ibrox club had a Catholic manager, a Catholic captain and, at times, fielded more Catholics in their line-up than Celtic. None of this should matter, but it does when for so many decades it appeared unthinkable.

Around the turn of this millennium, indeed, it seemed as if the religious-inspired rancour was being pushed to the margins in their rivalry as both teams attracted big name players from outside these borders. Both clubs genuinely worked hard to tackle bigotry through education programmes.

However, social media, wars, poppies and various strains of nationalism – Celtic supporters ramping up their hatred of a British state so beloved by a great many among Rangers’ faithful – and the fallout from the liquidation of the Ibrox side in 2012 and their need to restart in Scotland’s fourth tier has appeared to take the bitterness between the pair to ugly new levels.

The Old Firm itself no longer exists in the eyes of some Celtic fans who seek to disassociate themselves from a tag that had its origins in a bond over business interests. Yet, whatever any protestations, the inconvenient truth is sections of the two supports remain very bound up together... in a hatred that simply refuses to go away.