I recently interviewed Danny Boyle of the Harps Community Project.
Phil Mac Giolla Bhain: What is the Harps Community Project?
Danny Boyle: The Harps Community project is core funded by the department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin through the ‘Irish Government Emigrant Support Programme’ The project aims to support the Irish community and others in Glasgow utilising Irish cultural activities such as music, sport, language or dance to harvest opportunity and promote active citizenship. We have over 60 children involved in our music Project who avail of free music lessons on a weekly basis. I became involved with the Project in September/October 2010 and realised that issues which pertain specifically to the Irish community in Scotland such as cultural recognition, facilities for Irish elderly, Irish Centre etc… weren’t as developed in some settings as our sister communities in England. The Harps Project now to looks to engage in two settings supporting both Grassroots initiatives such as our own music project and working closely with Cultural Institutions such as Comhaltas, the GAA, Irish Dancing and Conradh Na Gaeilge on areas of mutual benefit: examples of this would be the current and ongoing Census campaign, Irish Centre proposals or pilots for Irish elderly facilities. It’s important that the Irish community also engage with both local and national government to increase awareness of these specific issues but also to express our consciousness of community responsibility, it’s not all about focussing exclusively on the Irish community we also recognise our social and civic responsibility as a community group. The Irish community have made an outstanding contribution to Scottish society, will continue to do so and as individual or collective organisations, always work within the ethos of celebrating cultural diversity and promoting active citizenship. The Glasgow St.Patricks week festival reflects this sense of community and cultural celebration with everything from Nigerian Dancers to Irish traditional musicians making up the content of the festival which will be celebrated throughout the week 12th-19th March in conjunction with the Project, The Glasgow Irish Heritage Group, Glasgow City Council, An Scéal, The Education Authority and Big Lottery.
PM: What is your role within the Project?
DB: I took over the role of Project Manager in Sept/Oct 2010. The Project works with a 5 person management committee and myself as Project Manager. We look to engage with our network of contacts throughout the Irish community on areas of particular relevance to individual groups or the broader community. For example, before Christmas we organised an ‘Irish Centre Development Fund’ night. This was supported by the GAA, Comhaltas, Conradh Na Gaeilge, Ceili Dancing Club as well as outstanding support from the broader community. This is crucial to our strategic aims inter alia the involvement of the broader community. It’s impossible to speak to everyone individually. However the more groups we can engage with, be that internally to promote the ‘Irish Centre’ or externally to work with other BME groups or umbrella organisations such as BEMIS (Black and Ethnic Minority Infrastructure) to target issues such as cultural/ethnic recognition or anti-racism, the better. We look to facilitate a culture of co-operation between the different Irish Groups. Each individual group gave support to the night, musicians played for free, the venue was provided for free. The strongest asset we have as a community is the hard work of our volunteers and if we can harness that into strategic development then we’ll address issues such as Irish Centres or facilities for Irish elderly as well as create opportunity for our youth. Following the success of the fundraising night and cross party support in the Scottish Parliament recognising the work and culture of the Irish community we will be meeting the Scottish Government to discuss the Irish Centre Proposal.
PM: Why did you get involved with this project?
DB: From a young age i have been involved with the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (Irish Music) learning, participating and competing at Fleadhanna (Festivals) throughout the year. I now teach voluntarily on a weekly basis and adjudicate at fleadhs throughout Scotland, England and Ireland. I had a brief stint with the McLaughlin school of dancing when I was younger and latterly play Gaelic Football for Tir Conaill Harps GAA club in Glasgow. I’ve always been aware and proud of my Irish heritage. I worked as a Development Officer for BEMIS (Black and Ethnic Minority Infrastructure Scotland) before taking the post with the Project so I had a good measure of personal and professional experience in the voluntary sector as well as being aware of issues which affect the Irish community in Scotland. I’m in a very fortunate position where my work is also something I feel passionately about and have always been involved in some capacity.
PM: Some would say that the idea of a distinctive Irish Community within Scotland in 2011 is a fiction. That the Irish people who settled in Scotland over a hundred years ago has totally assimilated. That who you style the “Irish community” are indistinguishable culturally from the rest of Scotland. What is your response to people that hold that view?
DB: It’s not within the interest of Scottish society to see immigrant communities assimilate into Scotland. People should feel comfortable with their own ethnic heritage. This may manifest itself through music, language, dance, faith or sport. Cultural diversity should be embraced. The Irish community is no different in this regard. Although misgivings have been expressed that ‘Irish’ people should go home because the famine is over particularly within settings such as football matches and that this is aimed primarily at the ‘plastic paddy’ stereotyped perception of Irish identity it’s just plainly anti-irish racism. The reality is that Irish culture is alive and well. Glasgow (and beyond of course in Lanarkshire) is famous for the standard of its music and dancing, with world champions in both arts hailing from Glasgow and representing their city on a world stage. This is good for Glasgow and good for the community. Irish cultural initiatives run every day of the week in Glasgow and beyond supporting music, language and sport. These initiatives utilise Irish cultural activities as mechanisms for empowerment of citizens be them of Irish background or not. Glasgow is changing all the time, cultural diversity and active citizenship will need to be at the forefront of the development of the City. The Irish community will continue to play their part in this responsibility. Integration and assimilation are different concepts, a community should be able to integrate into society while maintaining their distinctive identity but recognising their responsibility as active citizens. The Scottish government work through the slogan ‘One Scotland Many Cultures’ Irish culture has an equal part to play in this without fear of the community feeling marginalised or forced to disregard their Irish heritage in order to fit in.
PM: If an Irish person moved here from Ireland what community life could they enjoy?
DB: Music, sport and language are thriving in Glasgow. It’s an exciting time to have an Irish identity in Glasgow. The pressures which affected older generations are slowly but surely waning. Although there is still anti-Irish racism and miss-perceptions of the Irish community around celebrating their ethnic identity the confidence of Irish youth now manages to outshine this. Anyone arriving to Scotland now would encounter a vibrant, positive community. This is symbolised by the fantastic work of festivals such as Glasgow St.Patricks festival and Coatbridge St.Patricks festival, engaging with the local community and service providers. These festivals may not have been possible 15 – 20 years ago however there now just getting bigger, with their infrastructures developing year after year. We have GAA, Comhaltas and Conradh Na Gaeilge development officers in Scotland and this bodes well for the future of the Irish community. Although the Comhaltas and Conradh Na Gaeilge are primarily based in Greater Glasgow there would be nothing to stop communities around the country starting up individual branches of the respective organisations if they wanted to partake in music, language or sport, Irish background or not. These groups are very much global and encourage all new membership. So in short anyone arriving to Glasgow would find a thriving, welcoming, confident Irish community.
PM: What do you see as the major objectives of your project over the next five years?
DB: Like most other groups and individuals the financial climate is worrying. Our core funding comes from the Irish Government which has shown great faith in the Irish community around the globe by providing opportunity to apply to the ‘Irish Government Emigrant Abroad Support Programme’ All indications are that this funding will continue to be maintained. However, naturally we need to be meticulous in our costing, projections and aspirations. As mentioned earlier and this can’t be emphasised enough the importance of volunteers and community activists is paramount to our future hopes especially as funding becomes tighter across the board. I have only been in my position for 5 months so it’s difficult to aspire to 5 year plans when funding is commissioned on an annual basis. However, we always work from this basis. The project isn’t about tokenistic gestures, we have highlighted and seek to asses issues which pertain to the Irish community and Scottish society in general. In the next twelve months we’ll be looking to build on our positive relations within our community, outreach to other community organisations and continue to engage positively with local, national government and service providers.
PM: Do you believe that Celtic FC is a legitimate expression of an Irish identity in Scotland?
DB: The history of Celtic is inextricably linked with Irish immigration to Scotland. The fans of the club and the club itself should be proud of this: without Irish immigration to Scotland there would be no Celtic Football Club. The club has represented Scotland on the world stage bringing home cups, awards, friendships and reputations. It’s still very much a focal point for expressions of Irishness. The Harps project has no working relationship with Celtic PLC. Undoubtedly Celtic is the largest sporting and cultural institution which has come as a direct result of Irish immigration and accordingly has a responsibility in this regard. We would be delighted if Celtic were on board with regards to the Census Campaign or as part of the broader Irish community to tackle anti-Irish racism. Within football settings evidence of anti-Irish racism can be vicious. The Famine song is an extreme example however there are more subtle expressions which are arguably more dangerous. The Hugh Dallas episode was particularly relevant as his position and the role of the SFA as Scottish Footballs administrators deemed it highly inappropriate for employee’s to have been communicating anti-catholic emails. There is a perception within the Irish community that organisations such as the SFA will have an element of anti-Irish sentiment. This stems from incidents such as the SFA asking Celtic to remove the Irish tri-colour from flying above the old jungle, the sacking of Jim Farry over the Jorge Cadete transfer saga or more recently the evidence that SFA employees indulged in sending anti-catholic emails or lying to the Celtic manager coupled with the nonchalant attitude of the authorities towards songs such as ‘The Famine Song’. These worries are compounded by attitudes within the media that songs such as the famine song are merely ‘banter’ or that in response to the booing of the minutes silence for the late Pope John Paul II that the Celtic fans responded ‘with one of their sectarian anthems’. In actual fact the song the main stream Scottish BBC / Daily Record journalist was referring to was the Irish national anthem, a song sung for almost a hundred years by Celtic supporters. It would be unfair to focus solely on the SFA or print media in relation to anti-Irish racism as they are symptoms of an issue which is rooted within Scottish society; however they also have a responsibility to recognise it for what it is and attempt to combat along with other relevant organisations. Anti-Irish racism certainly existed in employment and recent research shows that although Scotland’s Catholic population, which is mainly of Irish extraction, make up 17% of the population they make up 26% of the prison population. The Church of Scotland commissioned a report in 1923 ‘The Menace of The Irish Race to the Scottish Nation’ Why would sport be immune from an issue which has clearly affected other dimensions of society? Personally speaking I’m not convinced that Scotland has a massive sectarian problem. Relations between the Church of Scotland and their Catholic counterparts are very cordial and ecumenical services are celebrated routinely, indeed the Church of Scotland recently apologised for the writing of this aforementioned report and its consequences. What does seem to be prevalent though is a lazy anti-Irish racism or miss-understanding of Irish Culture. Scots born Irish international footballers vilified for choosing to represent the country they have an affinity for. What we seem to have is sports journalists doubling up as sociologists and commenting on matters which, although they have a valid opinion the same as everyone else, they are utterly unqualified to have the defining say on. This is fundamentally correct when a community group feels that racism against their community is valid, it is not for people outwith this community to cry paranoid or traitor but to engage them in meaningful dialogue to resolve any problems. This spirit is enshrined in law after the murder of Stephen Lawrence , The Macpherson report recommendations state that:
“A racist incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person”
We’ve had numerous instances of murders in Scotland of a similar vein, Mark Scott, Thomas McFadden are two names which spring to mind. I believe we would be closer to dealing with Scotland’s ‘shame’ if we recognised these crimes for what they were, attacks because these people were Celtic fans and through this association, Catholic and Irish and unfortunately for a small minority of the population, fenian bastards. The Famine song therefore like its perceived predecessor ‘The Billy Boys’ is no joke or banter. Its insulting, racist and perpetuates an anti-irish culture which has existed in Scotland in varying degrees throughout the last 150 years, thats the perception of the community who the joke is on? So surely their opinions should be taken into account?