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  • When the Past Meets the Present: The Great Irish Famine and Scottish Football
  • Joseph M. Bradley (bio)


Social, cultural, and political identities on display in many of the world’s professional football (soccer) arenas are never produced and reproduced in isolation. Pieter Schoonderwoerd, for example, contends that football songs and chants “do not mysteriously appear from out of the ether with no prior basis in existing culture or historical lineage.”1 The current controversy around what has come to be known as the “Famine Song” reveals the culture of Scotland’s football environment, exposing the long history of the embedded nature of the country’s anti-Irish dispositions. The discursive themes and context surrounding the song’s appearance and responses to it illuminate a defining feature of football in Scotland: an ideological and attitudinal racism that frames much popular local commentary on Irishness. Such racism is predicated on culture and ethnic origins rather than on skin color or biological attributes.

Although an Irish presence in Scotland existed prior to the mid-nineteenth-century “Great Hunger,” the devastation caused by An Gorta Mór initiated a mass migration that continued for decades, helping to make Scotland, particularly the west-central areas of Glasgow and Lanarkshire, a major recipient of Irish immigration until the early twentieth century. It is within the narrative of the Famine and Irish migration to Scotland that the history and core identities of Celtic Football Club and its supporting community are found. Former European Cup–winning captain and manager Billy McNeill [End Page 230] says that the home ground of the club, Celtic Park, is a monument to Irish immigration,2 and that Celtic’s presence marks “the significant contribution of the country’s largest immigrant community to the rich and vibrant culture of the West of Scotland.”3 Aidan Donaldson offers an explanation of “Celtic” through contexts that transcend the club’s physical presence: “Celtic Football Club is a Catholic and Christian response to the conditions of the poor. Celtic is an answer to cultural, social, political, and religious oppression, domination, racism, bigotry, and exclusion . . . , a unique and special Irish community focus in the shape of a football club.”4 This article demonstrates that Irish-British historical circumstances and events, particularly the Great Irish Famine, which gave rise to Celtic Football Club and its large support from the Irish ethnic community, are important in understanding the contemporary Scottish football environment.

The “Great Hunger” in Modern Scottish Football

I often wonder where they would have been If we hadn’t have taken them in Fed them and washed them Thousands in Glasgow alone From Ireland they came Brought us nothing but trouble and shame Well the famine is overWhy don’t they go home?

Now Athenry Mike was a thief And Large John he was fully briefed And that wee traitor from Castlemilk Turned his back on his own They’ve all their Papists in Rome They have U2 and Bono Well the famine is overWhy don’t they go home? [End Page 231]

Now they raped and fondled their kids That’s what those perverts from the darkside did And they swept it under the carpet And Large John he hid Their evil seeds have been sown Cause they’re not of our own Well the famine is overWhy don’t you go home?

Now Timmy don’t take it from me Cause if you know your history You’ve persecuted thousands of people In Ireland alone You turned on the lights Fuelled U boats by night That’s how you repay usIt’s time to go home.

Although supporters sing out many songs at Scotland’s football matches as simple compositions and chants, Shoonderwoerd reports that more complicated and lengthy versions tend to be aired “away from the game itself, in the pubs, etc.”5 Rangers fans aired the “Famine Song” publically for the first time at Celtic Park on 16 April 2008, but on that occasion they sang only its chorus, to the tune of the 1960s Beach Boys hit “Sloop John B”: “Why don’t you go home, Why don’t you go home, The Famine is over, why...