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The (Not So) Lost World: The Culture of Rangers Fans


‘I'm an Ulsterman, of planter stock. I was born in the island of Ireland, so secondarily I'm an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago and English is my native tongue, so I am British. The British archipelago consists of offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I'm European. This is my hierarchy of values and so far as I am concerned, anyone who omits one step in that sequence of values is falsifying the situation.’

John Hewitt

 

Disagreement among the broad church of football clubs’ supporters isn’t in itself out of the ordinary; as a diehard follower of Nottingham Forest I count myself as one of the tribe that find the constant moaning among large swathes of our fans about us being a ‘big club’ that ‘should be in the Premiership’ hard to bear. I also personally think the uncritical veneration of Brian Clough is something that needs to be reassessed. That’s one opinion though that I have kept hidden from about 99.9% of my close Reds friends. No matter how fiercely we disagree with each other, myself and my fellow Trickys have never encountered the kind of frictions that exist between sets of supporters at a club such as Rangers. This is because these frictions often go above and beyond football and focus on the very essence of social, cultural and political identity.

Two recent Internet articles on Rangers which analysed the issues of identity and fan culture demonstrated the diametrically opposed forces that exist within the stands at Ibrox. D’Artangan’s piece on Rangers and Protestant/Unionist identity[1] was swiftly followed by a response article by Andy Steel.[2] I think both articles raised important and valid points but some of these need elaboration and further investigation in a historical context. The issue of Rangers’ relationship with Scottishness, Britishness and Northern Ireland in particular is so interesting and complex that it is hard to do the debate and history of it justice in an article or even a book chapter. An entire study could be dedicated to these issues alone and could comprise a mixture of sociological theory, social and oral history and archival and newspaper research. What I hope to do in this article is to touch upon issues highlighted by D’Artagnan and Steel and hopefully push the debate forward.

In a poem entitled ‘On Dunmore’s Waste’, written about his childhood in North Belfast during the 1920s, the esteemed Northern Irish poet John Hewitt recalled,

We had our cricket team, our football team;

Our jerseys blue, our heroes, I should say,

were Glasgow Rangers, Linfield. Like a dream,

McCandless passed once, home on holiday.[3]

 

Hewitt was born in Cliftonpark Avenue – a street which in its day was grand and lined with Victorian townhouses. During the Troubles the avenue became a no man’s land which acted as an interface between Catholics and Protestants. About a mile away, on the Shankill Road, a staunch loyalist called Robert ‘Basher’ Bates was jailed for life in 1979 for his part in a bloody orgy of sectarian violence with a UVF gang known as the Shankill Butchers. In jail Bates twice converted to Christianity. During his second and permanent conversion in 1989 he penned a testimony for The Burning Bush, a Free Presbyterian publication in which he lamented the effect that ‘the UVF and Glasgow Rangers’ had had on his violent life up until that point.[4] He described Rangers as a ‘God’ which had played its own part in the complex network of reference-points and experiences that contributed to the ‘Basher’ who thought nothing of acting on his violent urges. I never had the opportunity to ask Robert Bates about this reference to Rangers, but it would have been interesting to hear his reasoning for including the club in the tapestry of his negative personality. Having committed himself to peace building and working with young people on his release, he was eventually shot in revenge for an intra-loyalist killing he had committed in the mid-Seventies.

What can usefully be extrapolated from these two vastly different references to Rangers from Northern Ireland is that they perhaps represent two of the extremes which are discussed in the recent articles by D’Artagnan and Steel. Hewitt and Bates were both Rangers men and their respective support of the club was equally valid with Bates in particular being a regular attendee at Ibrox as a young man. I find the lived experiences of these two men germane to the two articles I have referred to as their juxtaposition is representative of the distorting effect that the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ had on the club’s image and fanfare. Hewitt’s reminiscences are reflective of a more civic and innocent time generally when in the early twentieth-century shipyard workers travelled between Queen’s Island in Belfast and the new Harland and Wolff shipyard in Govan and a strong relationship began to ferment based on the mainly Protestant Belfast workers’ admiration for the team at Ibrox. Just as Millwall adopted navy jerseys out of respect for the Scottish dockers, who were among many British workers to converge on the Isle of Dogs looking for work in the late nineteenth-century, Rangers became inextricably entwined with a strong Ulster Protestant working-class support base whose social experiences were not very different to the yard workers from Glasgow.[5] It was perhaps inevitable then that any major social or political impacts on the lives of the supporters from Ulster would find their way onto the terraces of Ibrox. Rangers had its own problems in the 1960s, before the Northern Ireland conflict properly emerged and the ultraloyalism espoused by men like Bates became more popular. Graham Walker has noted how Rangers perhaps sleepwalked somewhat aloofly into the countercultural era of protest songs and free love:

The disjunctive effect of the sixties has probably been exaggerated, but nonetheless there has seldom been a time in which young people have felt so emboldened, for better or worse, to reject the values and standards of their elders. In short, in relation to Rangers, it stopped being fashionable around the mid1960s to support a club with its associations. Of course, many young people continued or started to support the team; however in the new hyper-critical time Rangers’ Protestant image was more vulnerable to attack and those imbued with the liberal or even anarchic spirit of the youth culture of the period were, generally, not attracted to the club.[6]  

 

While this remained true in to an extent in Scotland where the sectarian enmities of daily life have often been overplayed,[7] and it was perhaps easier to reject parent values, the effects of the countercultural times described by Walker were less strong in the loyalist strongholds of Ulster. The permissive society existed in Northern Ireland, but behind closed doors and in the edgy, heaving blues venues such as the Maritime where Van Morrison’s band Them played their early classics to transfixed audiences. In Northern Ireland the 1960s may have borne witness to an easing of community relations, but that did not translate to an abandoning of tradition. This led to what an outsider might have viewed as a paradoxical youth culture for many young working class Protestants in particular. While the popular music of the time, with its often liberal messages, would have been consumed voraciously by young Protestants there was never a sense of contradiction in travelling to Ibrox every other Saturday to watch the ‘unfashionable’ Rangers or attending the home games of Linfield, the staunchly unionist Belfast side from south-west Belfast. While enjoying the Beatles, Rolling Stones and The Faces among many others, young loyalists were equally as passionate about playing in their local bands which celebrated martial, loyalist and Protestant culture in working class communities of Northern Ireland. Inevitably this communicated admiration for the Siege of Derry, King William of Orange and, when the Troubles emerged, a further amplified and aggressive version of loyalism.

This was hardly an unreciprocated gesture during the Seventies - indeed one need only look at Peter McDougall’s classic ‘Play for Today’ Just Another Saturday which was first broadcast by the BBC in November 1975. John, the main protagonist, is the drum major in Muirhill Flute Band and while on the bus to his band hall on the Twelfth morning he encounters an old man who on watching a passing band from the top deck of the bus says, ‘Eh-heh, an Irish band, eh? They look too smart to be any of our boys. Aye…they’re strict in Ireland. Just off the boat and no a drink among them.’ Having interviewed a number of loyalists in Belfast who were young men in the early 1970s there is constant reference to the Scottish-Ulster connection and most have fond memories of travelling to Scotland whether it be for the July 1 celebrations or to watch Rangers play at Ibrox. Relationships which had been forged by the movement of workers between the Belfast and Govan shipyards many years before were unsurprisingly changed by the emergence of conflict in Northern Ireland. Indeed having spoken at length to loyalists who are now in their mid-late fifties the one thing that struck many them when they started travelling to Ibrox as the Troubles bubbled and then boiled over was the geniality that existed between supporters of Rangers and Celtic in Glasgow when compared with what was going on at home. The Troubles emerged on the terraces of Ibrox due to the close relationships between sets of supporters across the Irish Sea. One evening a few years ago I was having a pint with Graham Walker when he recalled how as a young Rangers fanatic in the early 1970s with an interest in Northern Ireland he remembers that for a brief period around 1972 Vanguard[8] flags were almost de rigueur at Ibrox. The Vanguard flag appears in footage of the Orange walk in McDougall’s play and also made its way, some 35 years later, to Manchester in 2008. In the current climate the Vanguard Bears moniker should need no explanation.

 

Which brings me to Vanguard Bears. I’m not entirely convinced by the movement, particularly in relation to its attitude to the Scottish Independence debate, but I think D’Artagnan’s article is a fair and even-handed expression of how thousands of Bluenoses in Ulster must feel about the club that they hold so close to their sense of self. Their motto, ‘Defending Our Traditions’, sets out their stall pretty explicitly and their involvement with the loyalist cause over marching and other issues in Northern Ireland in recent months has been quite active. Indeed it is no surprise that in the past week Vanguard Bears donated £560 to the Twaddell and Woodvale Residents Association; the sum of money being passed over to TWRA by Progressive Unionist Party leader Billy Hutchinson. Vanguard Bears raised the money in empathy with loyalist protestors who have stood defiantly on a daily basis to make their displeasure at the Parades Commission refusal to allow an Orange walk to pass the Ardoyne area of north Belfast. The money is intended to ‘go towards much-needed hot and cold drinks, sandwiches, biscuits, chocolate etc. for the resilient and impervious protesters.’[9] D’Artagnan’s piece dovetails with the defiant attitude of the TWRA members and the discontentment demonstrated by the flag protestors in Northern Ireland who protested during the winter months (and continue to do so) at the limiting of the flying of the Union flag at Belfast’s City Hall.[10] Many Rangers fans, particularly from Northern Ireland, would view Andy Steel’s article as an attempt to acquiesce to the wishes of Rangers’ critics. D’Artagnan’s would speak more closely to their fears over the erosion of their British identity. In the piece D’Artagnan states that

 

On Wednesday 24th July, 2013, that celebration of a football club intertwined with the beliefs of its people erupted in spectacular fashion in Sheffield. The people of Sheffield heard what we are, saw what we believed in, and the things we considered important, those worth celebrating, defending and, perhaps most importantly, in the case of Lee Rigby, were most worthy of our utmost respect.

 

They watched, they tweeted and they stood in awe and admiration at the Rangers support. Remarkable how an audience how (sic) are not motivated by a hatred of the things many of us cherish, can be so complimentary rather than derogatory. It makes one wonder where the problem really lies?[11]

 

These comments in particular would resonate with those in the loyalist community in Northern Ireland, not all Rangers supporters, who were dismayed by Sinn Féin’s vehement opposition to a homecoming parade in Belfast in late 2008 for soldiers returning to Northern Ireland from Iraq and Afghanistan. The display of camaraderie between Rangers and Sheffield Wednesday supporters at Hillsborough last month which D’Artagnan mentions is representative of two things: the first being the current sense of displacement within the refashioning of contemporary British identity that the white working class in England and Scotland are currently experiencing where even the murder of Lee Rigby turned into a debate about racism; and the second being that people like Andy Steel underestimate the strong undercurrents of a pro-martial and pro-establishment sense of British identity that has long existed in the face of criticism. The same displays that were acted out in Sheffield were also on show in 2006 when Rangers visited Derby County for Ted McMinn’s benefit match, and the pro-British fanfare was reciprocated by the Derby fans whose team walk out to the strains of the Dambusters theme.

 

When Andy Steel talks of the ‘Troubles’ period being horrible for anyone in Northern Ireland to live through he somewhat understates things slightly. He also seems to underestimate the deep-rooted societal issues which still exist here. A barometer where peace is measured by bombs not going off daily ignores the complex issues of dissident republicanism, perceived cultural inequality and high unemployment. Steel also states that ‘There are many avenues open to someone wishing to express Loyalist tendencies, both in Ulster and in Scotland, such as print articles or marches; there's nothing I can see to be gained by doing it at a football match. By being linked to us, it will only increase hostility toward the people you are trying to support since we are not (this may surprise you) not universally loved.’ Would he be so quick to make the same point about fan culture and the amplified demonstration of Catalan identity demonstrated by Barcelona fans in the cavernous Camp Nou in the post-Franco era? What about the displays of nationalism at games played by the Britanny national team? Steel shouldn’t be criticised for soul-searching, but his arguments are too simplistic and are derived of any historical perspective. Yes of course there are many other avenues available to Rangers fans through which to express their social, political and cultural identity but the club itself has, like it or not, become an integral part of that very identity to many working class Protestants from Northern Ireland – and the west of Scotland. I get the impression that Steel is wishing away a fundamental (no pun intended) component of Rangers’ support base. In respect of this it is useful to once again return to Graham Walker and leave the last word to a long-term Rangers supporter. He states,

 

Rangers might, before long, have to decide between the types of supporter they wish to attract. If they opt for the moneyed kind with business or professional clout they will have to accept that such people do not, in general, ‘follow follow’ everywhere…If the ordinary fan is not driven away by commercialism, Rangers will in all probability remain the Protestant club in Scotland just as Celtic have remained the Catholic club for all their past and present Protestant employees. The significance of religious labels – however nominal – shows no sign of waning in large parts of Scotland. The roots of people’s need for such an identification lie deeper than football, although, such is the game still a national obsession and such is the Old Firm’s cultural domination of it, that the fusion of religion and football is a remarkable social force, both divisive and cohesive, in itself. Rangers and Celtic will probably never just be football teams, but in Scotland football will never just be a game, unless that is, it is totally hijacked by business tycoons or politicians.[12]

 

Gareth Mulvenna is a Visiting Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast. In 2009 he completed a P.h.D on the Protestant working class experience in Belfast and is currently co-editing a book with Dr Paul Burgess a collection entitled ‘No One Likes Us, We Don’t Care? Journeys Into the Abyss of Ulster Protestant Culture (Cork University Press, forthcoming 2014). He occasionally blogs at gmulvenna.wordpress.com



[1] ‘A Dinosaur Rears Its Head’, Vanguard Bears. http://www.vanguardbears.co.uk/article.php?i=87&a=a-dinosaur-rears-its-head

[3] Excerpt from ‘On Dunmore’s Waste’, Kites in Spring, 1980.

[4] Reprinted in The Burning Bush July/August 1997.

[6]Graham Walker. ‘‘There’s not a team like the Glasgow Rangers’: football and religious identity in Scotland’, p.147

[7] Michael Rosie. The Sectarian Myth in Scotland

[8] Vanguard was an umbrella pressure movement comprising disaffected Unionist Party members, loyalist trade unionists and loyalist paramilitaries which was launched at the beginning of 1972. Led by former Minister for Home Affairs William Craig it is perhaps best remembered for being the visual apex of early Seventies loyalist opposition. At a massive Vanguard rally in March 1972 at Belfast’s Ormeau Park Craig approached the speaker’s podium in a touring car which was flanked by motorcycle outriders. In his speech he talked of ‘liquidating’ the enemy.

[9] ‘Vanguard Bears In Show Of Support For Ardoyne Protestors’, Vanguard Bears. http://www.vanguardbears.co.uk/

[10] Gareth Mulvenna. ‘Belfast’s union flag debate kicks loyalist communities while they’re down’. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/05/belfast-union-flag-loyalists

[12] Walker. Ibid. p.156 Emphasis in italics by Mulvenna.