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Hands Across the Water


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A re-print of an article I did for RM Magazine some time ago.


Much of the research for this article came from 3 sources :-

1. “The Old Firm and Sectarianism” (Bill Murray)

2. “Sermons and Battle Hymns: Protestant Popular Culture in Modern Scotland” (Graham Walker & Tom Gallagher)

3. A collection of books and essays by Steve Bruce, Professor of Sociology, Aberdeen University


It would be impossible to examine the historical connections between Rangers and Ulster without first understanding the historical links between Scotland and Ulster, and in exploring the latter albeit briefly, hopefully we will be better placed to understand the former.

As Prof Bruce observes :

“There are two good reasons why any consideration of Scottish popular culture must consider the ' Ulster connection'. First, the external ties between Scotland and Ulster have had considerable impact on the histories of both places. Second, the external relationship resonates so strongly with tensions within Scotland.”

Both countries have experienced the drawing up of solemn covenants to safeguard their Presbyterian traditions, albeit hundreds of years apart. (Scotland 1643 / Ulster 1912)

Since records began there have been accounts of migration, in either direction, between the peoples of Scotland and Ireland. However events in the 1600’s were to change the history of Ireland for ever, with the introduction of the Plantation of Ulster

King James 1 of England believed that by colonising Ulster it would bring an end to rebellion and unrest, as well as establish Protestantism in Ireland. Thousands of planters from England and particularly Scotland were subsequently to settle in the 6 counties west of Lough Neagh.

It proved to be the catalyst for a steady series of migrations, settlements, and interactions that would forever change the cultural and linguistic landscape of the historical province of Ulster.

The great majority of those who came then and later in the century were Scottish settlers who were not versed in either Gaelic or English. Their language was Scots, a Germanic tongue that had a common origin with English in the Anglo-Saxon language of Britain centuries earlier and that was the everyday language of Lowland Scotland at the time. The consequence of this was that these speakers and the descendant of their language, Ulster-Scots, produced a pluralism that has now differentiated Ulster from the rest of Ireland for 400 years.

To say such a colonisation did not prove popular with the indigenous Irish would be an understatement and 1641 saw the backlash in the form of The Great Irish Rebellion. Thousands of colonists were killed prompting Scotland to send an army of 10,000 Scottish Covenanters to protect the settlers and quell the rebellion.

However to suggest the migration was all one way would be erroneous, as Prof Bruce observes :

“After the middle of the eighteenth century, patterns changed, with a larger number of the Irish settling permanently in Scotland. The causes of this migration can be readily listed. Wages in Scotland were higher and the growth in the industry of the western and central lowlands meant a demand for labour, either in the new factories or in filling the gaps left in the agricultural labour force by the movement of Scots into the new industries”.

Whilst there may be many other factors establishing the links between Scotland and Ulster there appears to be unanimous agreement amongst historical commentators that the Plantation of Ulster was the prime reason for the strong bonds between Ulster and Scotland.

Shared ancestry, shared language, shared religion and shared culture were all synonymous with the development of kinship amongst the 2 peoples. Orangeism was brought to Scotland by the Scottish Fencibles, soldiers sent to Ireland in 1798, to quell yet another rebellion, and with it a further bond was established which spanned the Irish Sea.

In fact Prof Bruce observes that the history of each people had a tendency to mirror the other.

“It was not just at the level of popular religion that Scotland and Ulster were linked. The formal church lives of the two countries were also inexorably intertwined. Irish Presbyterianism had its origins in the work of Scots Presbyterians and it was only in 1840 that the Irish Presbyterians established their own General Assembly. All the schisms in the Scottish church had their corresponding divisions in Ulster, even when, as in the case of the division between anti-burghers and burghers over whether they could take the Burgess Oath, the cause of schism was not present in Ulster. Even after 1840 ties between the two churches remained very close with many Ulster probationers studying for the ministry in Glasgow and Edinburgh and ministers on each side of the water being called to charges on the other.”

The descendants of these settlers refer to themselves as Ulster-Scots, a race recognized within the Good Friday peace agreement….perhaps perfectly summarized in verse by Samuel Thomson, the Bard of Carngranny.

"I love my native land, no doubt,

Attach'd to her thro' thick and thin,

Yet tho' I'm Irish all without,

I'm every item Scotch within.".

There has been much which I have omitted but I hope this briefest of historical summaries has laid a foundation of understanding regarding the depth of kinship which existed between the peoples of Ulster and Scotland prior to the formation of our football club.

It would be prudent at this point to understand certain facts before we explore further Rangers connection with Ulster - the most important being that prior to the formation of our club there existed a unique and special bond between the peoples of Scotland and Ulster - which was as a result of shared language, ancestry, and of course religion.

Furthermore within Glasgow sectarian problems existed prior to the defining of 2 football clubs of opposing character and identity, as Bruce comments :

“This was an area of relatively high skilled working-class density. In some ways it symbolised the economic power of Clydeside in this peak period of empire, with its shipyards and heavy engineering firms. Across the River Clyde lay Partick and Whiteinch, areas of similar skilled working-class character, which had witnessed Protestant -- Catholic riots at periodic intervals in the nineteenth century.”

Rangers formation as football club saw an immediate connection with Ulster in as much that the mother of two of our founding fathers - Moses and Peter McNeil - was herself an Ulster Scot.

However it must be stressed that Rangers formation was not motivated by any social, religious or cultural expression - just a desire by group of young men to play football.

However everything changed with the formation of Celtic in 1888.

Despite the historical claims of being formed purely for charitable status for the poor in the east end of Glasgow, their determination to field an all Catholic team (so much so that they poached Catholic players from Hibernian, based purely on their religion, and which forced the latter into receivership) lends weight to the argument by some, that that the Catholic Church was concerned with “their flock” fraternizing with Protestants in this new upcoming sport of football.

Whatever the reasons for their formation Celtic, Celtic at inception had a strong, almost exclusive, Catholic identity and quickly became a focus for the Catholic community within Scotland….both with indigenous Catholic Scots and Irish settlers…resulting in the club being nicknamed “The Irishmen”

This situation was exacerbated further when early Celtic directors decided to give speeches advocating the cause of Irish Republicanism. Given the political and religious sensitivities at the time, such expression and sentiment did not go down well in a post-Reformation, and still very anti-catholic Scotland.

Bill Murray in his book suggests the establishment of Celtic as a Catholic football club was the catalyst to defining Rangers Protestant identity….as the Protestant people of Scotland sought a football club to represent their culture in the way Celtic represented the Catholic population.

What needs to be answered is why Rangers were chosen to be that mechanism when clubs such as Queens Park and Partick Thistle were equal contenders for such a mantle.

Surprisingly the answer has probably more to do with location and existing transport links at the time more than anything else. As Graham Walker comments :

“It seems that Rangers also drew much support from these quarters: in 1914 the football correspondent of the popular newspaper, The People's Journal, noted that many former Partick Thistle supporters 'are now Rangers adherents, and the rising generation of Whiteinch way find it much handier to cross the river to Ibrox than to travel to Queens Cross. It may also have been the case that the strong Protestantism of many skilled craftsmen, recalled by 'Red Clydesider' Harry McShane among others, was finding expression through support for Rangers”.

As Rangers started to be seen as the Protestant expression of culture amongst indigenous

Scots two events happened which were to cement both Rangers Protestant identity and the clubs connection with Ulster.

In 1912 the Belfast Shipbuilders Harland & Wolff opened a shipyard in Govan, right on Rangers doorstep, the effect of which was a two way flow of shipyard workers between Belfast and Glasgow. Therefore the already strong links between the two peoples through language, ancestry and religion had a further strand added to it in shared occupations and skills – more common ground.

In the same year parliament passed the Home Rule Bill which caused consternation in Ireland amongst the Protestant electorate who feared that being ruled by Dublin would not safeguard their interests. To demonstrate their opposition to Home Rule nearly half a million men and women within Ulster signed the now famous “Ulster Solemn League and Covenant”, drafted by Sir Edward Carson, in protest at the prospect of Home Rule and which is immortalized in Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Ulster 1912”

The largely Protestant North of Ireland mobilized a volunteer force to defend Ulster against any attempts to oppose the Home Rule Bill upon them with almost 50,000 signing up to resist if necessary by physical force. In Glasgow the Orange Lodge actively recruited volunteers for the Ulster Volunteer Force.

The consequence of these historical events was that clearly defined religious and political demarcation lines were drawn for the Old Firm. As Walker continues observes :

“This loyalist culture might be said to have embraced Rangers. It is probably no coincidence that a Royal Investiture took place in 1917 at Ibrox Stadium. 'My club's chairman at the time was Sir John Ure Primrose, a local Unionist politician and wealthy businessman who was certainly proud of Glasgow's reputation as 'Second City of the Empire'. Primrose, moreover, had sat on the platform at Carson's anti-Home Rule rally in Glasgow in 1913.In the 1920s, if not before, Rangers fans appropriated the Union Jack as something of a club emblem.

As ever, however, their behaviour has to be viewed in the context of the Old Firm rivalry; Celtic fans flaunted flags and emblems proclaiming their Irish nationalism and were prone to characterising their rivalry with Rangers in terms of Ireland's troubles. Thus the banner on a Celtic brake after an Old Firm game in 1921 which read: Rebels 2 Black and Tans 0.

Moreover, as Murray points out, instances of IRA activity in Glasgow at this time aroused justifiable alarm among Protestants, particularly the working class of Glasgow; hostility to Catholicism and Irish nationalism, and what might have been seen as a defensive reaction to IRA militancy, found expression in a popular cultural sense through football.”

The embracing of such a culture appears to have served to strengthen Rangers popularity amongst the Ulster people.

Support for this opinion is backed up by Ulster poet John Hewitt writing about his childhood days…

“We had our cricket team, our football team;

Our jerseys blue, our heroes, I should say,

were Glasgow Rangers, Linfield. Like a dream,

McCandless passed once, home on holiday.”

(McCandless was an Ulsterman who played for Rangers)

It appears that popularity has not waned through the years and today Belfast is second only to Glasgow as the in terms of Rangers popularity.

It would be unfair and unrealistic to attribute the sectarian problems in Scotland to either of the Old Firm’s connections with Ireland. As a number of historians and commentators have pointed out that the sectarian problems existed in Scotland prior to the formation of the Old Firm.

It would be probably be fair to say however that 2 cultures and identities have utilized both clubs (and not always positively) to express their culture, and furthermore that both clubs have encouraged such promotion.

Perhaps as the political problems in Northern Ireland seem to be approaching some form of resolution perhaps our clubs connection with Ulster will go full circle to re-embrace many of the original characteristics which was the basis for such a strong connection – that of shared ancestry, language, religion and even employment. However with both religion and shipbuilding appearing to be in recession, certainly in Scotland, perhaps this might not be so easy.

However the emergence of societies such as the Ulster-Scots Agency determined to preserve the shared culture, music, dance and literature between the peoples of Scotland and Ulster.

As James Buchanan 15th President of the USA once expressed “My Ulster blood is my most priceless heritage”

And it appears that such heritage will be preserved. A significant development of the peace process in Northern Ireland has been a marked shift in the nature of expression of the famous murals which adorn many walls in both communities. In the Protestant communities the expression of culture and heritage have in many cases replaced the paramilitary ones.

One perhaps more than most sums up the strong bonds between the nations… for under the artistic symbols of Ulster and Scotland are these few very simple words….

Two Countries

Two Covenants

One People.

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