Why can’t Glasgow have huge public St Patrick’s Day celebrations?
However, unlike other similar-sized cities with small Irish communities such as Stockholm, Auckland and Munich, Glasgow will be one of the only cities with a large Irish diaspora that can’t publicly celebrate the day. This seems exceptional considering current estimates suggest people of Irish ancestry make up some 20% of the Scottish population. Factoring in that most Irish settled in the Greater Glasgow area, this figure is much higher for this city.
In a freshly decorated courtyard in central Glasgow, hundreds of people turned out to the festive occasion arranged by the St Patrick’s Festival Committee – a yearly indoor festival hosted by the organisation. The day included traditional music, Irish dancing, face painters and much more. Dressed head-to-toe in all green were newcomers Ann O’Mara and Veronica Hood. This was the first time the pair had heard of the event taking place. Due to a lack of general information about what events take place every year, O’Mara and Hood spent the past number of years travelling to Coatbridge, a small town just over 10 miles outside Glasgow.
Helping to run the event was Irishman Evin Downey, a development officer for Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) in Glasgow. Downey mentioned that there have been times people have expressed worry about security in a public festival or parade was to take place. “In reality, if you are to talk about a [public] parade, there would be a security element in Glasgow that wouldn’t be there in other places,” he said. “It’s hard to separate anything in Glasgow.” The separation element is linked to the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers football clubs – a rivalry that unfortunately also contains religious and ethnic elements.
All he wants, Downey said, is for people to enjoy themselves and to learn and participate in a series of events happening over two weeks. “We’re doing our thing,” Downey said. “We are a positive and open celebration of Irish culture.”
One annual cultural festival delivered by Glasgow Life – a charity set up by Glasgow City Council – is Glasgow Mela, a celebration of Indian culture that attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year.
“The St Patrick’s Day celebrations are not as big a thing as the Glasgow Mela … that is backed big time by the City Council,” Downey said. “We don’t get any support from any local or regional authorities.
“It has been a while since we’ve asked because we felt we were knocking on a closed door for a few years.
“We decided to put our effort into more positive things.”
On a Friday night in Coatbridge, the town described by former president of Ireland Mary McAleese as “the heart of Ireland in Scotland”, locals were eagerly anticipating the night ahead. First, second and third generations all squeezed into a small room to celebrate their varied connections to Ireland and links with Irish identity.
“I think in general there could definitely be more resources for the Irish community in Glasgow,” Irishwoman Emily Pathe said. “There is lots of good work currently being done but it is based on volunteering and goodwill and a little bit more funding or resource could go a long way.”
She added: “I’m not sure why there is not much support but it is a shame really.”
Back at Merchant Square, Patrick Callaghan, when not managing the stage, works for Comhaltas, an organisation that promotes Irish music and culture around the world. He mentioned how zero public funding is received from Glasgow City Council or Glasgow Life and that any attempts to apply have been pointless.
“We applied first of all under the guise of representing Glasgow’s largest ethnic minority community and we were told by the at-the-time director of Glasgow Life that the Irish community weren’t an ethnic minority community,” Callaghan said.
The late former MP Jim Sheridan stated in 2015 that the Irish should not be regarded as an ethnic minority and public money must not be spent on St Patrick’s Day parades.
“Sometimes in Glasgow, parades have connotations,” Callaghan explained, claiming he understood why no parade existed for St Patrick’s Day. “It’s a city that has had historical issues with sectarianism and anti-Irish racism.” But he added that he would look forward to the day all communities would be properly represented and rewarded for their work in building the city.
“There is a certain element of this city that immigrants over the centuries built,” Callaghan said.
“Be that the Irish community or the Asian community. And we just want to celebrate our cultural identity in Glasgow as a valued part of the wider fabric of society,” he said. “But that doesn’t seem to be so welcomed.”
For the Irish in Glasgow to openly celebrate their culture, it must be done independently and on a scale not proportional to the past, present and future influence the Irish have on this city.
“The Irish are part of the mainstream culture but it is also a culture within itself,” Pathe said. “I think it is important to recognise that.”
But for now, celebrations of Irishness are kept in private venues hidden away from the main streets and will continue to happen like this every year until the real issue, the sectarian divide, is openly discussed.