The Binary Mirage | Celtic and Rangers, Glasgow and Religion

This article is from the 8th edition of The Cynical, our free online magazine.



EPUB FORMAT  (great for iBooks and other e-readers)



In his first article for The Cynical, Kieran Devlin reflects on growing up as a Catholic Celtic fan in Glasgow and how moving away from the city made it necessarily for him to articulate the nature of its seemingly constant state of tension.  

There are more glaring culture shocks, but growing up in a city where your Christian denomination appeared to hold resonance in everything you do and everything which happens to you, and moving to a country where it was emphatically irrelevant, was surreal. After growing up in Glasgow, I moved to Durham to study at the university. Literally nobody gave a shit I was raised Catholic. One of the main characteristics which had directed the course of my life, and was integral to moulding my person, lost its meaning overnight. The bubble had burst.

Being a naïve, self-possessed teenager living away from home for the first time, I naturally played up the Glasgow football fan schtick, wearing my Celtic top on nights out and performatively singing the Wanyama chant outside clubs, to the bemusement of trust-fund lads from Surrey. As is customary when a large group of people who don’t know each other are transplanted somewhere and ostensibly told “be mates,” you pick up a specious reputation that manifests itself as a prefixed title; “Yorkshire Chris,” “Sangria Katie,” or “That Odd Scottish Guy” in my case.

In this whirlwind of new and curious interaction, the most frequent question I got asked was what made the Old Firm so exceptionally vitriolic, so extreme, compared with other British rivalries. The asker is either sceptical there is substantive difference, or in awe of its mythologised violence and destitution. Reflecting then, and even now, on what does render the derby exceptional is slippery to define or catalogue. But I guess the place to start is with what it isn’t.

What external observers, the non-partisan football fans, journalists – and politicians – always misinterpret about the Glasgow derby is their reading of it as a binary arrangement, as clearly demarcated value systems set up in perfect opposition. Celtic/Rangers. Catholic/Protestant. Scots-Irish/British. The historically marginalised and the historical establishment. There’s the perception that it’s just like every other football rivalry; just more intense, more hateful, because of the sectarian imperative. This isn’t the case.

It is deep-rooted, impalpably multifaceted, and contradictory. It’s your granddad shunning his step-son because he’s a Rangers fan. It’s green traffic lights having bars over them to stop their being smashed in because they’re green. It’s a guy in your work earnestly believing that his co-worker can’t enter heaven because he’s never received the transubstantiation of the Catholic Eucharist. It’s Orange walks being permitted by local councils to walk past Catholic churches and primary schools. You could call it academic buzzwords like structural or institutional, but that implies there’s some degree of sense or causality to it all. There isn’t. It’s nonsensical, bizarre, and malicious, infecting and manipulating every facet of your life, spilling over from explicit occasion into the minutiae and the unconscious. It’s society inflecting theology inflecting some strange strain of pathology, and it’s a pointless fucking mess.

The derby is often subject to romanticism, as if the overcoming of a bitter divide through something seemingly irrelevant, such as a marriage, is this bastion of hope rather than simply two normal people getting married normally. It’s some lazy proxy for politicians to latch onto an entirely reductive, false both-sides-do-it whataboutery that deliberately circumvents the internal contradictions and partisan complexities. It’s West Side Story, Romeo and Juliet, a melodrama with obstacles to triumph over, with a palatable happy ending. Decades of aggrandising the weight of the division means it is still A Thing, when it’s the most normal thing on the face of this earth.

This is a trite cliché, but also a useful and fundamentally true statement: for many people, football and religion are Glasgow’s pillars. This is flexible, and just as true for religiously devout season ticket holders as it is for lapsed, fair-weather fans. It’s inescapably true for atheists and agnostics with no interest in football, as religion’s intersection with football is so acutely ingrained into the ebb and flow of daily life in the city, ragingly manifest in nights out where groups of men sing about the IRA or stamping on Catholic skulls, or more unspoken, the way a tiny minority of people still tense up at hearing a surname prefaced by ‘O’.


Being born into a family of practicing Catholic match-attending Celtic fans, it was set in stone that my adolescent weekends would be 3 o’clock kick-offs on Saturdays and mass on Sundays; or rushing back from the Sunday game in time for late mass. Not to deliberately paraphrase Goodfellas, but as far back as I remember the two have been indissoluble. I grew up watching VHS tapes of Jimmy Johnstone and Dixie Deans, sat under the watchful eye of the crucifix in my gran’s Cumbernauld house.

At Celtic games my dad would talk to his mate about the priest’s homilies. After mass my dad would talk to the priest about the Kilmarnock game. At a wee cousin’s birthday party, the cake would be green and white, the snacks homemade shortbread in the shape of crosses. The conversation at family gatherings would oscillate between work, school, girlfriends, boyfriends, engagements, lives shifting; but Celtic and the goings-on with local parishes would be sprinkled, seasoned throughout, an omnipresence. It becomes hegemonic, a reality completely different to one or two hundred miles down the road.

The state may finally be separated from the church, in principle at least, but football sure isn’t.

Celtic and Catholicism, and Rangers and Protestantism, are inexorably tied to one another. They always have been, and for the foreseeable future, they always will be. There are, naturally, benefits and downsides to Celtic’s relationship with Catholicism. Arguably the biggest benefit, or the one Celtic fans rightly vocalise the loudest, is the Catholic creed of compassion, charity, and inclusivity. I needn’t go over Celtic’s origins as a charity for Glasgow’s Irish poor, we’re all well acquainted with our heartening roots, but the maintenance of this philosophy today is striking, and not just paid lip service; think not only of the charities officially associated with Celtic, like the Celtic FC Foundation raising £230,000 for conglomerate charities last Christmas; but individual fans running marathons, walking mountains, and having their backs brutally waxed for charity, using their status and platform as Celtic fans to attract money for the cause of helping those less fortunate.

Equally, think of Celtic fan organisations arranging tin runs and collecting donations for local food banks; an uplifting (and distressing) symbol of preserving our original prerogative of caring for the poor where society has failed them. This history has consolidated Celtic’s character as the Scots-Irish, the Catholic, the historically marginalised football club in Glasgow, where that phrase “more than a football club” is realised, a tightly knotted weave of germane identities cooperating with each other.

There are, however, some downsides to Celtic’s Catholic affiliation, and the very shared identities which helps foster an inwardly caring community also institutes – in a minority – an us vs. them mentality. There are the obvious ones, the barbaric sectarian minority in our support who still spit abuse about “Orange bastards” and “unwashed Proddy scum.” Then there are the newer malevolent elements; the anonymous bigots on Twitter admonishing the club for wishing the LGBTQ community a happy Pride or wishing Eid Mubarak to Muslim fans and players, deferring to a vacuous Catholic conviction of sinfulness, or accusations of submission to political correctness.

These are a minority and Celtic are arguably better than most clubs in self-policing its Neanderthal elements of support, but it’s a vocal minority, and a vocal minority which polluted online forums and Celtic blogs during my formative years. Pop onto certain fansites and there’d be casual, or implicit, sectarianism, homophobia, racism, misogyny, folded nonchalantly into jokes about Darren O’Dea or moans about Hugh Keevins. This is, of course, customary for late 00s/early 10s internet forums, as underlined by the rise of the alt-right and incel movements, but it was instilled with a degree of legitimacy by its disingenuous invocation of Catholicism and affiliations with Celtic Football Club. It’s a precarious existence, an impressionable teenager skirting the online opinions of people projecting adult wisdom and nous, not just about Celtic tactics, but the ways of the world and the fundamentals of ethics. With this all-encompassing conflation, it wasn’t just faith that was entwined with football; but politics and ideology, by a skewed and regressive understanding of morality or more generally Not Being A Prick.

Outside family interactions, and engaging with fans online and in Parkhead (I was a season ticket holder during my mid- and late teens even while at uni), the last piece of the jigsaw was attending Catholic school. There’s plenty of valid arguments in favour and a handful against Catholic schools today, but debating its qualities and problems is a rabbit hole I’m dogmatically staying clear from, and I’m focussing on my experience of Catholic school affirming my understanding of social relations; and far more saliently, its symbolism relating to Glasgow’s historical divide.

For those who don’t know, the Scottish establishment were so frightened of their children learning alongside Irish migrant children that they introduced a segregated state school system. It’s shriekingly symbolic that this system still exists (regardless of the statistics supporting denominational schools). Though obviously integration is commonplace now, it’s still the case that most Catholics would go to a Catholic school, and vice versa, which in turn limits the child’s experience to real-world dynamics.

This was reflective of my personal experience at school. The overwhelming majority of football fans in my year supported Celtic; in fact, we had one Rangers fan and one St Mirren fan, and that was it. The teachers, as far as I’m aware, were all non-Rangers fans (though my favourite teacher was a Caley Thistle fan, probably an even fiercer rival than the club from Govan). Likewise for other religions. In my year we had some Muslims and Protestants, but the overwhelming majority were Catholics. This can’t be a criticism of Catholic schools, since that’s what they were brought into existence to do (by the Protestant establishment, it’s worth remembering), but it was a fact of life that inhibited our exposure to other cultures, other communities, other ways of thinking and living. The benefits of a Catholic education are something we’re all aware of, most of you reading this having experienced one, but it’s quite an insular institution.

Even my friends outside school were all Catholic Celtic fans, and this aggravated the sense of all-encompassing reality, of this bubble demarcating highly specific, cornered-off lifestyles. More bleakly, correspondingly to being an impressionable adolescent online, some of the values we were taught in school were questionable if not outright insidious; the moral equivocation over homosexuality, the validity of other organised religions, and the notion that sex before marriage, abortion, and using contraception was sinful. Compounded by reading the same dross on online Celtic forums, it challenged my teenage liberalism because it was so immersive.

The very last thing I want to briefly mention, and by some distance Glasgow’s most obscene abnormality, is the Orange walk. My Geordie friend came up to Glasgow for the first time for TRNSMT Festival this Summer, and spent a few days exploring the city itself, encountering an Orange walk. He’s a Catholic and pretty cognisant of the goings-on in Glasgow, and cynically unfazed by most things, but he texted me quite shaken by what he’d seen, hearing the guy standing beside him yell “Fenian cunt” while the bloated bass drums swell the Catholic blood-rivers anthem we’re all familiar with. English people may have tentatively heard of them, as some distant foreign habit, but England has no conception of the Orange walk. They might know it’s bad, but they don’t, can’t, grasp the vitriolic power it represents. It isn’t an anachronism as tamer “respectable” journalists might term it, an outdated cultural practice, it is an affront to civil society and a “go fuck yourself” to humility and basic human compassion. It is indefensibly, monstrously evil; a gutless veneration of apartheid, a parade to man’s most contemptible proclivities.


Glasgow City Council cancelled a scheduled walk this year, but that’s only the ground-zero beginning. These abominations shouldn’t be consigned to the dustbin of history. They should be banished from our streets but remembered vocally and with righteous anger that they existed long into the 21st century, that a celebration of racism and sectarianism was openly permitted and even endorsed by a public sector that was complacent at best and complicit at worst. To some degree, Glasgow might impose its own bubble of reality, but people participating in Orange walks know fully well how inexpressibly despicable what they’re doing is, and the mould under your bathroom sink has more value to it than these folk.

These are arbitrary anecdotes, vignettes or bastions of oddness in isolation, but accumulated they are a reified experience, their own quotidian childhood. Let me be completely clear that I’m not condemning this life or my upbringing. I was happy, with a wonderful and loving family who inculcated in me a moral compass, and I never wanted for anything. I’m still, obviously, a huge Celtic fan, and though lapsed in my faith I’d still put down Christian-Catholic on an official form, given how much Catholicism has sculpted my person.

In this paradigm, where ostensibly all your friends, family, teachers, are Scots-Irish Catholic Celtic fans, the binariness of the Old Firm history, and Catholic-Protestant relations in Glasgow, seems transparent. But it isn’t. The adjacent binary of Scottish Protestant Rangers fans interacts with our binary in innumerable ways every second, the vast majority of them perfectly pleasant, harmonious, normal, but the decades, centuries, of tension between these two mirages – because these binaries don’t exist, not really – has inoculated us against normalcy, or comprehending it as normalcy, a Pavlovian expectation of ceaseless tension. That’s what distinguishes the Glasgow derby from all other derbies, and why moving to England was such a culture shock. Because in Glasgow, in the derby, tension is normalcy.

Glasgow is home to the kindest, funniest, most generous people on the planet, but it’s besot by a cancer. Andrew O’Hagan wrote “I loved Glasgow, but it seemed filled with echoes of my parents’ lives.” I’d go further. It’s not just our parents, it’s our grandparents and great-grandparents and their mutual tensions; a city truncated by these echoes, suffocated by them, haunted by its toxic peculiarity. It’s not so much stuck in a time loop as in a stage of arrested development, a city of soul and kindness and virtuosity, chained by social memory of centuries-old divisions asserting itself as the present when all it is is the past.


This article is from the 8th edition of The Cynical, our free online magazine.



EPUB FORMAT  (great for iBooks and other e-readers)



90 Minute Cynic is a football website covering the important issues in the modern game. We follow European football with a distinct focus on the Scottish & English Premier Leagues. As part of the Hail Hail Media network, we cover Glasgow Celtic on our very popular podcast. We also seek out interesting and funny stories from all corners of the globe, bringing an analytical yet enjoyable spin on football podcasting.

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