How does Glasgow reflect its Irish history?


Margaret Hartness

Margaret Hartness discusses her views on the lack of Irish cultural recognition within the city.

March swiftly came and went, the coronavirus pressing the cancel button on all events and fast forwarding us to the approaching May days. St Patrick’s Day, a highlight of the month of March and a major cultural celebration across the globe, was one of its casualties. In cities across the world, melodies never played, and revellers never marched.
Yet as local papers despondently reported the cancellations of this cultural celebration, one city with a significant Irish ethnic and cultural capital was notably absent: Glasgow. Glasgow has long struggled with its sectarian past. Irish emigration peaked just before the mid-1800s, as boats of starving Irish Catholics—with Protestants among them—desperately made their way to escape The Great Hunger.  They landed on shores hostile to them, they and their descendants would face enduring discrimination, clear and undeniable until occupational parity was achieved in the 1990s. Strangely, for a city that was a centre of migration, it does not commemorate the significant heritage that helped build it. It continues to struggle with this history.
In other Irish populous cities, St Patrick’s Day is a notable calendar event which culminates in a parade. New York, Boston and Chicago are famous for them. Outside of the USA, Montreal has the oldest parade in North America, first established in 1824. Birmingham, England—home to many Irish descendants who moved there for work—is third only to Dublin and New York for the biggest parade. Even London has a parade. All of the above are supported by individual donations, local businesses, and organisations supporting Irish language and culture, with Birmingham additionally supported by the City Council until 2014. Glasgow lacks such a display of pride. Every year, St Patrick’s is celebrated by Glasgow’s St Patrick’s Festival which hosts its events in Merchant Square and various spaces across different days. It relies on the same funding as the marches, yet culminates in no ultimate expression of Irish cultural celebration. Without them, its North American cousins would never have become such significant and treasured events. In Glasgow, the events finish, the stalls are packed up, and it just peters off. The bizarreness of this was best put by Lord Alf Dubs, chair of BIPA’s Environment and Social committee:

“We were surprised to find that the Irish communities in Scotland appear to be in many ways in a different position to Irish communities in the rest of the UK. For example, the fear of community tensions has meant that there is no St Patrick’s Day parade in Glasgow, a cultural tradition and celebration that is peacefully enjoyed in many areas including far beyond the UK.” (The Irish Post, 3 March 2015)

Instead, Glasgow’s St Patrick’s celebrations have continued to be strangled by sectarianism and denial of public expressions of identity.  In 2015, former Labour MP Jim Sheridan stated that the Irish should not be regarded as an ethnic minority and public money must not be spent on St Patrick’s Day parades. Furthermore, “people need to look forward, move forward and think of a modern Scotland and stop living in the past”. Imagine the outrage that would ensue if this was said about any other ethnic group.
Glasgow’s peculiar approach does not cease at marches. Across the globe there are 142 memorials dedicated to Ireland’s starved population and the desperate that made their way to other shores. These include memorials in Liverpool, New York, Sydney, and Carfin in North Lanarkshire (dedicated specifically to Catholic Irish) just to name a few. 
Glasgow, for the longest time, had no such thing. And when it finally turned to the matter, it failed to solely face it. Announced in 2012 and unveiled in 2018, Glasgow City Council’s memorial by the People’s Palace was jointly dedicated to both the Irish and Highland famines. Whilst the Highland famine caused much suffering and displacement, the sheer scale of the Irish famine resulted in 100,000 people fleeing to Glasgow. The joint venture belittles the scale of this horror, as unfortunately demonstrated by the then Southside Central councillor Bailie James Scanlon remarking that, “Both the Irish and Highland famines drew thousands and thousands of migrants to Glasgow in a state of desperate need” . A well-intentioned statement, though one founded in the dismissal of Glasgow’s important Irish legacy.
In 2015, the noted professor of Scottish history, Sir Tom Devine, criticised the Council’s inept efforts at community engagement and progress, and whilst this was happening, the Coiste Cuimhneachaín An Gorta Mór (Great Hunger Memorial Committee) took it upon themselves to create a real memorial. After two years of fundraising—at events in the Irish community and from foreign donations—they began ultimately fruitless talks with the Council, seeking to build this memorial in Clydeside, where Irish of both faiths first arrived. Glasgow City Council was uncooperative. So, in 2017, it was announced that the grounds of St Mary’s Church, Calton, in the East End would become home to the memorial; a location of historical relevance to the famished arrivals and Glasgow’s Irish Catholic history.
The contrast of the two memorials cannot go unnoticed. The Council’s is located on highly public grounds, perfect for visitors and locals alike, but scales down the tragedy for the sake of the Scots’ experience. The Committee’s is out of the way, only to be found by those who know where to look. There is a sense of history repeating itself here. Glasgow’s Irish community must rely on themselves for anything in their interest to be provided, continuing to be builders of Glasgow’s landscape. The city’s half-hearted attempt does little to acknowledge this legacy and offends those descendants for whom such a memorial is most significant.  As vocalised by Committee spokeswoman Jeanette Findlay in 2017:

“It seemed to us that Glasgow City Council added on the Highland element because they knew, or believed, that there were forces in Glasgow even today who would not accept a memorial which involved the Irish alone. The scale and extent of what happened to our people—one million dead and one million forced to emigrate out of a population of eight million made the notion of a ‘Highland and Irish famine memorial’ completely unacceptable to us and offensive in its very concept.”

Fear of retaliation and sparking Glasgow’s persistent sectarianism overrides the freedom to express a crucial and world-changing heritage. When other cities publicly celebrate their history, Glasgow cannot. Instead, it chooses to disregard and suppress it in the subtlest of ways.


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