‘Celtic Minded 5: Donegal.’

Celtic Football Club and the emotional and spiritual connection to County Donegal.

By Jonathan Foley

As modern changes have taken a firm grasp of football, it’s perhaps been no major surprise to see so many of the world’s most famous and well-known clubs cash in on spreading their name to more global markets. And yet, while Celtic Football Club are no exception to this trend, they still exist dearly in the hearts and minds of their support who are from, or at least connected to, the county of Donegal.

Even with the array of choices on people for ways to spend their disposable income nowadays, a huge quantity of them are still regularly seen boarding supporters buses in the likes of Dungloe, Gweedore, Gortahork, The Rosses and Letterkenny every morning a match day comes around. A regular flocking exodus to Glasgow that has stood the test of time. Groups of men, women and children still make these day-trip or weekend journeys to Celtic Park – and sometimes away games as well. In doing so, this generates a feeling that they are not merely going to support a football team – but that they are carrying a sense of tradition of local migrancy with them; something that has gone for many generations before them.

It’s been heartening for the fans to see the likes of Cloughglass-native, Packie Bonner, and Kilmacrennan-born, Patsy Gallacher, become club heroes and legends in their own right. In addition, Donegal’s historical links to the west of Scotland, which are greatly influenced by socio-economic as well as cultural factors, has seen such Scottish-born players of Donegal descent, as Jimmy McGrory, Charlie Gallagher and Aiden McGeady become further testament to how strong that bond has been. Not forgetting of course that, Donegal’s own All-Ireland and three-time Ulster Championship winning manager, Jim McGuinness (Glenties) was employed by the club both during and after what is generally perceived as the celebrated part of his career so far.  

County Donegal’s link to Scottish west central belt and south west dates back at least a half-century before the club even played their first game in May 1888. Seasonal harvesting in parts of Ayrshire and Renfrewshire were a common means of survival for the ‘tattie-hoakers’ as lasting employment in the county at this time was virtually non-existent. Huddled sleeping in crowded cowsheds and harsh climates had to be endured for months at a time just to raise a few bob to take back to the family at home: survival was the name of the game for many in one of Ireland’s economically poorest counties. The development of Britain’s industrial age coincided in time with the tragedy of An Gorta Mór and this resulted in a more forceful migration of the financially poorer-Irish, with a huge quantity from Donegal, choosing Glasgow as their new home.

Living in the most deplorable of conditions in and around Glasgow and Lanarkshire, etching our meagre existences from any work to be found Irish immigrants to Scotland were rejected, alienated and discriminated against.  Even now, Donegal people can often be heard to recite that the surroundings their predecessors found themselves in were not that much better than those that they’d fled from in their homeland. For many, Celtic FC became a wonderful form of solace. The steady and notable rise of leisure time and recreation, not forgetting the attractive style of football that Celtic become renowned for playing, meant that Brother Walfrid’s promise to raise funds for the poor of the East End parishes could be fulfilled. Although hardships still remained, the club could – and perhaps should – be held responsible for saving people’s lives. A patch of Donegal turf from a rural field in Annagry was ceremoniously laid on the playing surface in 1892 by the Irish National League’s founder, Michael Davitt, who then became an honorary patron of the club. All that, along with the colour of the team’s jerseys, the Irish flag flying above the stand and the general sense of community that it created, Celtic became an intricate part of the lives of so many people.

Further on into the twentieth century, the connections remained and in some cases, strengthened. The development of the Clyde tunnels in the early 1960s drew a new generation of migrants across the Straits of Moyle; often working in unsafe and dangerous conditions. But, like those who preceded them, they were carrying a sense of family legacy and of course, many of them keeping their chins up by looking forward to going to see Celtic on a Saturday.

As education become more accessible towards the end of the 20th century and into the new millennium, Donegal’s population grew tremendously in both skilled-labour and academia. Scotland’s no-tuition-fee system and its geographical closeness to the northwest of Ireland has often saw young and highly-driven workers and scholars happily choose Scotland over places like Dublin or London. Partly because such cities demanded high costs, were seen by many as further away. However, as many have stated, their sense of linkage to Celtic was also a huge pull-factor for pulling them towards Scotland. Celtic in particular, has done so much for the financial, spiritual and the emotional wellbeing of so many Donegal natives and to their descendants as well. Not only supporters’ buses or the sheer volume of flights out of Carrickfinn prove this but the fact that so many great stories that can be told of people travelling over and back between the two places for holidays or work, or whatever, can still be heard by those who make the journey today. Celtic’s cohesive influence on charity is also witnessed every year now by the annual ‘Huddle Up Errigal’ event, whereby supporters pull on their Celtic colours and brave the incline of the county’s tallest mountain so as to raise vital funds for Donegal Down Syndrome. A wonderful kaleidoscope of club colours is there for all to see when this weekend comes around.

In conclusion, from the rural and green surroundings of Donegal’s land and coast to the urbanised and bustling city street lights of Glasgow, Celtic Football Club has been at the core of this connection for a very long time. For many people, Celtic is of course a representation of Ireland abroad, a vehicle for the non-Irish born Irish in Scotland and elsewhere around the globe, and in particular, for many from Ireland most northerly county, Donegal.

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