A deep ethno-religious divide exists in both western Scotland and Northern Ireland, which is constantly represented through murals, colours and state built physical infrastructure to keep groups separate. While these represent physical manifestations of an ontological borderland, it is through the contestation of the football fixture between Celtic FC and Rangers FC that the divide becomes ensoiled and incarnated in a visually knowable way, through the symbolism of the halfway line, the technique du corps of the players and the political symbols pervasive in the stadium.
It well known that a deep rooted ethno-religious divide is pervasive in the daily lives of working-class people in Northern Ireland and western Scotland. In the context of ethnic division, it has been suggested that a nation must then arrive at an “objective definition” (Bauman, 1992), rendered through a rhetoric centred around the “soil” and “blood”, tangibly real in its own right but imbued with the spiritual energy of the body politic, of belonging, and of ownership. Resultantly, the soil of the nation must be conceptualised as the full, rightful property of a single group, raising possibilities for opposing binary understandings of the same physical terrain. In a scenario such as the one found in both Glasgow and Belfast, wherein groups at odds with one another must cohabit the same bounded space, physical borders are either impossible or ineffective. Reminders of the ontological borders between groups, however, pervade these cities by way of symbols and built infrastructure.
Though violence became a regular facet of life in Belfast from the 1960’s to the late 1990’s and continues sporadically, by way of isolated incidents, in both Glasgow and Belfast today, armed violence no longer forms a central part of the experience of this division, despite its social and political continuation. It is here that sport and the sporting pitch provide an approximation of the contested soil and the ontological borderlands of these groups, as well as a means by which a ludic spectacle of violence can provide a ritualised release valve for audiences who seek a physical embodiment of a conflict central to their daily lives. Girard (1977) and Burkart (1983) discuss ritual violence as a proxy through which actual violence is curtailed. In other words, ritual violence expressed through a planned event becomes key to the maintenance of societal order, and is passed on mimetically and often unquestioned. In this way, the football event appears to spectators to be inherently sporting, even if the language is entirely violent in nature (“we beat them”; “we destroyed them”; “we raped them”). Here, the rhetoric of football suggests that a victory is not necessarily achieved by the team as validation of superior play, but rather is an act inflicted by one team onto an opponent, affirming its subjugation.
Violence in Northern Ireland, even at the height of the Troubles, was more representational than concerned with full blown massacres. The total number of individuals killed was under 4,000 during the thirty year period between 1969 and 1999 (Cain, 2017), yet throughout Belfast, murals proliferate to this day lionising killers or martyring the deceased; in this way, physical pain has been apprehended into political capital. It is here, as will be examined later, that the football match becomes crucial as a universally knowable means of inflicting violence.
The externalities of the human body’s surfaces have long held a place in the political imagination. As Verdery (1999) discusses of dead bodies, certain narratives are both physically and metaphorically recorded on the surface of the body. The effects of political actions can be rendered easily on the body, through ordeals such as torture and deprivation. Whether is be a reminder of the force of the state (Benjamin, 2018, 47) or racial hierarchy via lynching (Wells-Barnet, 2014; Apel 2004), non-violent body actions like dancing (Bourdieu, 2004), or even the manner in which one walks (Mauss, 1934; Cohen, 2012), the surface of the body presents itself as an inherently communicative space. The metaphorical link between the body and the nation has been established as a vital underpinning in the construction of national identity (Rosenberg and Fitzpatrick, 2014), a factor compounded in Ireland where the collective body is politically split in two (Campbell, 2003, 167). Resultantly, it is on the body of individuals, through their representational aggrandisement, that the ethnic tension between Catholics and Protestants is construed from football to violence. Football players, whether knowingly or not, wear this ongoing conflict on their bodies in an innately corporal understanding of the conflict. Though many of the players are not from Scotland or Ireland, the ones that are find themselves acutely aware of the conflict, and the ones who are not, quickly become initiated into their role in it—an indoctrination into a social war not their own.
Allusions to such violence, and indeed football, are found everywhere in both Glasgow and Belfast. Physical geography and infrastructures are often molded in the vein of culture, in turn influencing culture as future generations know only a built environment where the arbitrary appears real physically. It is understood that geography hugely impacts lifestyle; bordering on certain communities (or countries) will, naturally, have an effect on relations within and external to an area (Gottmann, 1951), be it a neighborhood or a state. Exposure to various borders and neighbours causes for cultural and political osmosis (Tam Cho & Nickey 2008; Tam Cho, 2003), wherein communities at once influence one another and also define themselves in opposition to one another. Belfast’s Shankhill Road and Falls Road border zones are referred to by geographers as “an interface”, where Catholics and Protestants are separated on either side by massive walls.
Along Shankhill Road, Union Jack flags, poppy imagery commemorating battles as far back as WWI’s the Somme (which has become a symbol of Protestantism) are ubiquitous, as are plaques for the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA). Large, imposing murals painted on houses typically commemorate deceased members of either of these two groups. A garish mural of “King Billy” on his rearing white stallion watches over a square adorned with Rangers F. C. crests and Union Jack flags. A commemorative wreath made of white, blue and red flowers, laid beneath a wall mural depicting a deceased paramilitary soldier, evinces the connection of this ethno-political ideology with Rangers in Scotland. It is immediately before a mural welcoming visitor to the Loyalist Lower Shankhill. Another plaque in memory of a dead paramilitary melds a Rangers F.C. badge with paramilitary and Orange Order insignia imprinted on official looking flags.
In contrast to Shankhill, the murals lining Falls Road reveal references to Irish Republican heroes from the Easter Rising, the modern era, and earlier. As if on cue, Celtic jerseys are seen everywhere. Imagery featuring club insignia adorns everything from cupcakes to garden patches to murals on walls immediately adjacent to other political murals. Signs demanding freedom for imprisoned Republicans often showcase prisoners in Celtic jerseys. The Falls Road area appears to be trying to contextualize itself within globally political left-wing views, espousing political freedom of Palestine, the imprisonment of a Kurdish journalist by Turkey, and referring to slavery in the American states. Between the two neighbourhoods in Belfast, huge “peace lines”, which consist of high, fortress-like walls and forbidding gates, separate and control various populations. These become spaces of exception where the regular tenets of urbanism and planning are thrown out in favour of making this conflict appear physically real.
Falls Road and Shankhill Road, like the stadia of Rangers and Celtic, present themselves as microcosms, distillates of these separate communities with clear, knowable physical lines drawn down the middle. Yet it is only in traditionally less-segregated Scotland that such a performance or spectacle highlighting this division can be played out. If the state of exception apprehends citizens’ rights and there is no longer any possibility for political action, places like the sports arena become places of unexception (Agamben, 2005), at least fractionally. Within the arenas, spaces are governed by different laws which are not invisible and do not appear arbitrary to onlookers; the rules of sport are standardised. Though there can be disputes about dubious officials or calls, spectators agree and understand the rules of the game and it is this which renders the sporting event, especially in this context, the true realm of political engagement. Celtic and Rangers remain pot and, empowered by the size of their fan bases.
Similarly, a tour through two traditionally residential areas of Glasgow crucial to the founding of Celtic F.C. and Rangers F.C., centring around Gallowgate Road and Duke Street illustrates the allegiances and divisions inherent within the conceptions of such partite spaces. Gallowgate Road is the centre of Irish cultural and commercial life. Though in the process of gentrification, it retains some of its authenticity. A non-profit organisation defending Irish rights in Scotland occupies a store front, while bars feature Celtic F.C. imagery, murals and paraphernalia associated with early Irish Republican leaders like Scottish-born James Connolly. Duke street reveals similar identifications; here I decided to enter a Rangers FC. Supporters bar. Within minutes, I was asked my name along with other personal questions, though with an air of curious friendliness. The jocular D.J. asked for musical requests and “UDA All the Way” was shouted out by multiple patrons. The lyrics to this simple song are “UDA, UDA, UDA, All the way,” glorifying this sinister Protestant paramilitary organisation implicated in murders of Catholic non-combatants in the Northern Ireland conflict. Patrons danced and jubilantly sang their favourite songs, such as “We’ll Fight in the Bogside,” which references Derry’s Bloody Sunday massacre by British troops in Derry and other atrocities. The bar’s walls were decorated with maps of Scotland with the British flag superimposed. More maps show Scotland and Northern Ireland with British flags superimposed; pairs of hands are depicted coming out of the maps to shake hands across the Irish Sea. The combination of these symbols evinced as much as anything the inextricability of politics, sport and ethnicity. Sports, argue Tomlinson and Young, has “been a major cultural influence, with an explicitly political dimension” (2003). Sport has been used as a major political influencer which has caught the attention of corporate and media entities alike, they argue, adding that studying sport is akin to studying culture (Tomlinson & Young, 2003, p. 2)
Sport is often an event where identities are asserted as the game plays out, like a familiar ritual. The theory of the spectacle and the theory of play have both been well-developed. As Geertz (2005, p. 56) discusses in reference to the cock fight, representative of far more than the roosters but of the prestige and the macho identity of those who backed a certain bird. Like the cock fight, the football pitch remains an almost exclusively macho domain. Men are typically dismissive of women’s knowledge of football, and seemingly only take interest in pictures of attractive women wearing team colours. Despite women’s intrinsic knowledge of, and experience in, the Troubles, men do not see them as knowledgeable comrades (Aretxaga, 1997). In this context, sport throws up gender as well as sexuality as sub-barriers to participation and acceptance even within its own rigidly defined parameters deemed as acceptable demonstrations of team loyalties, which are themselves treated as ancillary to its glorification of machismo.
The spectacle has been discussed at great length by Debord (1994). The society of the spectacle came to dominate after the 1920s, organising the habits and opinions of the masses in a nascent culture industry, analogous with the commodity fetishism discussed by Marx. In other words, the spectacle represents people with regard to their affiliation to certain commodities or communities. “In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles” (Debord, 1994, p. 7). As such, “Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation” (Debord, 1994, p. 24).
The match goes beyond the ludic aspect and in fact is a primary way we tell ourselves about ourselves; it is “deep play.” (Geertz, 2005). Football games are constantly re-contextualised in terms of politics happening outside the game and is the primary public domain within which political difference is expressed according to Debord (1994). Here, society itself is a game in which the state of total war exists only when the last vestige of the play element has been extinguished (Huizinga, 1971, p. 90). On the football pitch, the resounding defeat of the opposing team is cheered with aggressive language and gestures, but violence is not ancillary to triumph. In their unblinking support for their chosen teams, fans constitute themselves by wearing masks of choice, which Debord describes as a “world vision which has become objectified.” (Debord, 1997, p. 5) Modern football hooliganism itself is believed to have begun in the mid-19th century as large groups of fans organised themselves into gangs, ostensibly representative of their teams, calling themselves “firms.” The 20th century was marked by numerous violent clashes between team supporters who marshalled their forces both in Britain and at matches abroad, where engineered clashes took on a nationalistic character. Debord notes that “The spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision, as a product of the techniques of mass dissemination of images. It is, rather, a Weltanschaung which has become actual, materially translated” (Debord, p. 5).
Turner (1969) discusses how in places on the margins a certain lack of structure exists where people feel communitas and where no one is more equal than another. This feeling is compounded by having a counterpoint or an opposite. It is through the sacralisation of these grounds, such as the act of entering through the stadium turnstiles, that one passes into this liminal space. Esposito (1998) challenged the understanding of this concept, stating that “Community isn’t a property, nor is it a territory to be separated and defended against those who do not belong to it. Rather, it is a void, a debt, or a gift to the other that also reminds us of our constitutive alterity with respect to ourselves” (Esposito, 1998, p. 6). In contrast, Mauss (2016) discusses “the gift” in terms of reciprocity in society. In some ways, these fraught football matches are reciprocal gift giving because each community is able to form and define itself in opposition to the other. Thus, each rival side give each other the gift of self-actualisation. Mauss’s work centres on archaic exchange systems and their obligatory giving, receiving and reciprocity occurring within and between groups and individuals consolidating societal cohesion in an all-pervasive way.
To Armstrong and Giulianotti (2007) the football grounds are seen as sacred places by fans; Celtic Park is known as “Paradise” to its supporters. This phenomenon is compounded at Celtic and Ibrox Parks, since few other explicit landmarks of Britishness or Irish landmarks exist in Belfast or Glasgow city centres. With the decreasing power of paramilitary groups and an increase in measures against paramilitary-inspired murals and their trappings, as well as other traditional means to express Britishness and Irishness, interest in the spectacle of the Old Firm match has increased. Viewed in these terms, today’s Old Firm match-ups evoke a much more palpable sense of purpose and historicity. Every item is imbued with its own special symbolism at these games, where loyalties to countries, ethnicity, religion and a whole way of life are expressed through symbols and signs on banners, flags and posters and even the jerseys worn by the players. Yet these convictions entail more than the obviously Irish colours of Celtic or the obviously British colours of Rangers. The sports arena is the locus for the dramatisation of sexuality through chants, disenchantment and hope, ambition, disloyalty, as Archetti (1998) notes, and a place where all of the emotions of life play out. If this is where emotions, normally pent up in daily life may be unleashed, then it stands to reason that the Celtic-Rangers matchups remain deeply emotional and political. Archetti (1998) points out that Mauss’s 1935 work, The Techniques of the Body, does not go far enough in mentioning sports arenas and performances as areas for anthropological inquiry.
In addition to this, the players jerseys themselves have attained the status of political canvases, like the game itself. In May, 2019 Celtic players wore the National Famine Memorial logo on their jerseys, commemorating the cultural loss, mass death and massive emigration the famine caused. The jerseys were later auctioned to raise money for the Celtic Foundation which supports, among other non-sectarian causes, teaching children with Down Syndrome to play football in the Republic and Northern Ireland (“About Celtic”, n.d.). Conversely, Rangers jerseys may feature Royalist messages such as extending congratulations to the Queen on her Jubilee. To Walker and Schiffer (2006) materials and objects stand for social power when they impose interactions upon groups. Here, the symbols expressed on the jerseys help to frame the political nature of the match taking place, and the leanings of each club.
It is in this way that ethnicity, soil and the built physical infrastructures which underpin them are best expressed in sport. In this cycle of mutual dependency, ethno-political murals and peace walls may represent an ontological borderland in the physical realm, these are static and inanimate constructions which do not satisfy a desire for action. Violence is inherently communicative and communicable, in that violence is represented everywhere in the way it underpins the state and how groups construct themselves through it (Fanon, 2008). If we are to take sport in this case as a ritualised form of violence, the spectacle, in this case football, becomes the means through which a non-physically violent conflict can be ensoiled and incarnated in a competitive setting that mimics violence.
If the spectacle of the game itself is where a translation of the abstract ontological world to the physical one happens, a world vision which becomes objectified (Debord, 1997, p. 5), it is here that we see most profoundly the physical actualisation of the rigid ontological border between the Catholics and the Protestants of Ireland and Scotland divided neatly down the middle of the football pitch, resolving itself into a binary, black and white separation, or in this case, blue and green. The soil on either side of this dividing line becomes a distillate of the soil of the nation itself, to be defended at one end, or at its counterpoint on the other end, to be attacked. Here, the border is not only expressed physically through what is built, but also through what is performed a technique du corps for spectators to be reminded of who and what they are.
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