Flags of our Fathers


Gareth Savage looked at the powerful symbolism that flags bring to sport back in February 2013 for CQN Magazine. It’s worthy of another read…

In 2005-06 when King Henrik was at Barcelona winning the Champions League I purchased a Barca Larsson 7 jersey in his honour.  I was quite pleased to see the jersey had a Catalan flag design on the back collar.  Celtic in our first season with Nike had the same design on our 2 away jerseys that season but in the colours of green and white.  I went on CQN one morning and remarked about the Barca jersey and my hope that Celtic would display an Irish flag on our jersey.  It caused quite a row on CQN with many vehemently opposed to it, some for and some wanting a Scottish saltire if anything.  Will flags and football always be a source of argument or is it just human nature that we just love any excuse for a good row?


Celtic and flag rows are nothing new as many will know in the 1950’s the club threatened to withdraw from Scottish football if they were forced to remove the Irish flag from flying above the ground.  In Government papers released in 2010 revealed the Conservative government in the 1980’s discussed forcibly removing the flag from above Celtic Park.   One can only imagine the Poll Tax riots would have been long forgotten had this motion been passed!  One of my most vivid images of the centenary season in 1988 is Roy Aitken receiving the Scottish Cup from Margaret Thatcher at Hampden with the Cup sitting upon a rather large Union Flag (it is only called a Union Jack when flown on ships!).  At the 1989 Thatcherless final Big Roy’s Cup is sitting on a Scottish saltire.  Coincidence?


It seems the saltire sits uneasy with many Celtic fans and Scots I discovered.  There are obviously way more tricolours than saltires present at Celtic Park on a given day but it is worth checking out the Ireland v Romania game in Italia 90 to see the large number of Scottish flags at the stadium that day.  Scotland were based in Genoa for the 1st round and many fans hung on to watch and cheer Ireland when we were allowed off the island of Sicily!  Those images and gestures still resonate with many Irish fans and despite many Celtic fans having no love of the Scottish team they will always be the second team of many Boys in Green.  The success of the Irish team under Jack Charlton was significant in bringing the Tricolour back into public life in Ireland.  One political commentator described it as a reclaiming of the flag by the Irish people from the “flag waving tiochies” as in IRA/republican supporters.

When in Scotland a few years ago I asked why so many Scotland fans fly the red and gold Lion Rampant flag not a saltire flag at games.  I suppose a penny dropped when the man told me it was because of the saltire being used in the Union Flag and not wanting to be identified by it.  I could see his point, especially when you look at England jerseys and supporters.


When Admiral started making the England kit in the 1970’s they introduced blue and red collars and trim and blue shorts.  The next jersey also had a lot of blue in it and blue shorts.  One could ask why?  There is no blue in the England flag, it is red and white.  However older fans will know that traditionally England fans flew it and it seems the team itself were represented by the Union Flag not the St. George’s cross.  That only came with the hosting of Euro ’96.  Look back at World Cup in 82, 86 and 1990 and you’ll see the majority of England fans with Union Flags in the stands.  The 1966 World Cup mascot Willie even had a Union Flag on his jersey!  It was it seems the England flag not the British flag.  It would take until 2012 for England to have a fully red and white football kit.


While England seemed happy to be represented by the wrong flag many others have not been so accommodating.  At last year’s Olympic women’s football tournament North Korea got quite angry when the South Korean flag was displayed on the screen besides the player profiles at Hampden Park.  The match against Colombia was delayed for one hour and five minutes as a result and apologies were forthcoming all round.


Many prefer no flag at all or a compromise flag.  Barry McGuigan in the 1980’s wanted to represent all of Ireland so flew under a flag of peace when boxing.  Eddie Irvine did not like the Union Flag or Tricolour being flown when he won F1 races but the powers that be would not let him fly a white flag with a shamrock on it instead as was his wish.  His family received “phone calls” when the Tricolour was flown but none when the Union Flag was flown!  The current furore over Rory McIlroy’s nationality at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games is causing much debate in my homeland.  There is the YouTube clip of him supposedly throwing a Tricolour on the ground after winning the US Open in 2011 but in fairness to the guy I don’t think he knew what was thrown at him and it was on the ground before he knew it.  What irks more in the know about golf is the use of the Northern Irish flag and moniker to identify him, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell.  Golf is an all island sport unlike football in Ireland and they, as members of the Golf Union of Ireland (GUI) should be presented as Irish under the Tricolour.  The flag was good enough for Wayne McCullough a protestant from the Shankhill Road at two Olympic Games in 1988 and 1992 were he won a silver medal.


Not all sports feel easy about the flying of the flag however.  The IRFU (Rugby Union) felt the need to compromise over the Tricolour.  Again an all island sport they designed a four province flag in 1925 not wanting to choose between the flying of the British or Irish flag as games were being played in Belfast and Dublin.  However by 1932 the Minister for External Affairs in the Irish Free State met with the IRFU about flying the Tricolour and as a result it was unanimously voted to fly the flag at Lansdowne Road.  In recent years however it seems to have become an issue again.  At the 2007 Rugby World Cup the team came out to the IRFU flag and at the 2011 tournament they came out to a Tricolour and an Ulster (not Northern Ireland) flag together.


While there is a desire of many especially Charles Green it seems for Celtic and Thee Rangers or whatever they call themselves this month to play in England it is worth noting that in winning the League Cup Swansea City’s name will have to be beside the St. George’s Flag when playing in Europe as they have qualified through an English competition.  Would we be happy with that if we got into the English set up?

Which brings me back to the start folks.  The Senyera (Catalan Flag) is hugely symbolic to the Catalan people; there is talk that next season the clubs away jersey will be a full representation of the flag.  This is to tie in with the push for independence (maybe Sevco5088 could do the same!).  While one could never see this happening with a Celtic kit we have had the green, white and gold 3rd strip in the mid-nineties.  Gold has often been used as a misrepresentation in the Tricolour often deliberately so as many nationalists did not like the orange third for obvious reasons.


It was with some surprise to see when the current away strip was launched there was a Tricolour piping on the sleeves and socks.  However it was interesting to note that the sleeve piping although heavily promoted at the launch is actually on the upturn of the sleeve and not visible on match days.  It’s as if the club are flirting with the Tricolour but not wanting to go the whole way in terms of displaying it on the jersey.  One can understand the reasons to an extent.  Celtic as a club will always be entwined the political mire of Scottish society in the eyes of many people.  An overt display of the Irish flag on our kit would just give reason to drag us into a debate without merit, something I’m sure the Scottish red tops would feast upon.  Maybe it’s my love of all things Armagh GAA (they wear orange) but one cannot help but think the orange on the piping is not the strongest of orange.  It’s a little too light for my liking, but maybe I’m just paranoid!

One man however who seems proud to wear the colours however is our own fearless leader Neil Lennon.  One cannot help but notice his Tricolour collar on match days proudly on display.  Alas this upsets some it seems.  Type Neil Lennon’s collar into Google and see some of the things written.  It is provocative, a sign of IRA solidarity and according to the football oracle and failed journalist, breaking UEFA rules?   We must have missed that one folks.


I cannot think of a more simple and proud way of identifying yourself than by displaying your flag.  To a certain extent I see a football jersey as an extension of that and like so many I would always bring my Ireland, Armagh and Celtic jerseys with me on my travels in as much as it identifies me as Irish and brings me into contact with other like-minded souls.  As much as it will always annoy so many Celtic are in my opinion, an expression of Irish identity the world over.  One only has to look at the Simpsons St. Patrick’s Day episode a few years ago to see they used the jersey and crest in the pub scenes.  I am not saying Celtic are Irish or wanting to get into that debate but the club will always be used as a symbol of Ireland whether people like it or not.  There will always be a place for the Irish flag at Celtic Park both above the stadium and throughout the crowd as to whether or not it needs to be on the jersey is a different debate.  To do so would always leave Celtic open to attack from the zealots who will always despise us.  In doing it would it be done for the right reasons or just a ploy by the club to cash in on the diaspora?  Ultimately though does it need to be on it?  Celtic as a club will always know its identity and place in the world.  Our jersey is a flag in itself, as known and revered as any flag the world over as any Tricolour, Saltire or Stars and Stripes.


Written by Gareth Savage, MA Sport and Culture, February 2013 for CQN Magazine

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