Irish — The Remarkable Saga of a Nation and a City tells the story of the Irish in Glasgow.
The real origins of Celtic FC and those responsible for the religious sectarianism between Celtic and Rangers are also explored — something that only began several years after the clubs were founded. Both players and fans socialised after the games in the early years.
The strength of Burrowes’ account lies in his prose style and great anecdotes that brings home to the reader the level of exploitation and oppression that the Irish went through. The story of the Irish in Glasgow really is a “remarkable saga”.
John Burrowes has written extensively on different aspects of Glasgow over the years — everything from short pieces on John MacLean and “The Battle of George Square” to the World Championship boxer Benny Lynch (see his Glasgow Stories Volumes I and 2). His journalism is always perceptive, articulate and informative.
In ten days in August 1847, 11,080 new immigrants arrived fleeing the Great Famine. 33,000 more were to arrive over the next three months in “Coffin Ships”. Those going to America and Canada via Liverpool often did not arrive at all, thousands dying because of the conditions en route.
Burrowes describes the horrific story of the SS Londonderry. It set sail on the 1 December 1848 in weather conditions that virtually guaranteed its sinking with the loss of 72 lives. He exposes the corrupt relationship between the Glasgow authorities and “Coffin ship” owners, who were allowed to by-pass quarantine laws for financial gain.
Irish goes on to give harrowing anecdotal accounts of how both individuals and families met their deaths in an Irish Holocaust that started in the Eastern counties before spreading all over Ireland. He relates how the actions of a free market government guaranteed the crises turned into a total disaster. The book discusses housing conditions in Glasgow and describes how social engineering ensured the Irish lived in the worst slums and got sent to the worst poorhouses — “you’ll be sent to Barnhill” being a threat that still exists in living memory.
The role of the Church of Scotland and the press in representing the Irish ensured sectarianism and division, and Burroughs details the story of the ‘Battle of Partick Cross’. Religious sectarianism existed in workplaces to divide and rule, and there are anecdotal accounts of how this affected work on the Clyde. The book has a section on the Blantyre disaster, the lives of the Irish Navies on the railways and their relationship with other nationalities and grades.
The most interesting section of the book explores the role of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Glasgow and the effects of the actions of the Black and Tans in Ireland on the Catholic Irish in Glasgow. The consequences of the Irish civil war are also explored in accounts of volunteers who took refuge in Glasgow and the sometimes unlikely sources of help they got in fleeing.
In the 30s Glasgow appointed a new Chief Constable to deal with the roughly 50 gangs that existed. There was laughter and ridicule when the gangs found out that the new Chief Constable was an Englishman called Percy who liked choir music as a pastime. The establishment more diplomatically asked “is there really no one Scottish who could do the job ?” Burrowes explains how Percy Sillitoe stopped all the laughing.