Spending some time with the family.
As I have written before, it was 1895 when my grandfather, John, arrived in Edinburgh from Co Leitrim via Brooklyn. His brother, Michael, had preceded him and already had established a grocer’s shop in the southside, on the corner of South Clerk St and Hope Park Terrace. My grandad, with the money he had saved as a tram conductor around the Brooklyn Bridge, quickly opened his own shop in nearby Buccleuch St, bordering on the Meadows, where he also set up house with a new wife and growing family. They sold fresh produce sent over from Leitrim and fairly soon Michael moved through to the Gorbals to carry on the business there, in London Rd, or Great Hamilton St, as it was then known, in the east end of Glasgow.
The fact that I would start off a piece about a Hibs v Hearts Cup Final with such a paragraph probably tells you all you need to know about my feelings for the Hibs.
Hibs, and Hearts, had started out as loosely arranged teams playing kickabout games on the Meadows. In the twenty years before John’s immigration, Hibs had moved to a park down at West Saville Terrace, called Powburn and would have changed in St Mary’s Street Halls and trekked down to the pitch along Buccleuch St. However, two years before he reached the city, the Drum Park, near Easter Rd, became their home.
As a popular grocer, one of the ‘Paddy Macs’, servicing the southside Irish population, no doubt, in 1896, John would have been aware of the chatter amongst customers about the football cup final match to be played down at Logie Green. The Hibs were to play the Hearts: it was establishment v incomers, Scotland v Ireland, Gorgie v Leith and the Southside.
I like to think that’s when he got interested in the Hibs – and started four generations of support for the Cabbage amongst his descendants. All his sons became Hibs daft – and I do mean daft. The oldest, Joe, died of Great War gassing in 1923 and so missed the season in 1927 when his younger brother, James, actually played a half dozen games for the Hibs. The youngest boy, my uncle Frank, chose the Depression year of 1929 to emigrate to the USA. Despite that, he was a success, and, over fifty years later, his grandson’s regular Sunday task was to run to the newsagents in Sag Harbor in the Hamptons, and come back with a paper that would tell his Grandpa how the Hibs had got on the previous day.
Perhaps my dad was daftest of the lot. When my mother was expecting me, she was confined to bed rest for months before the birth. We lived in Piershill, a crowd’s shout from Easter Rd, and, as an act of kindness, my Dad would leave open the bedroom window before going to the match so my mum could hear the roars as the goals went in! There would have been a lot to hear, as the year I was born, the Hibs won the title for the third time in four years.
So, you get it. Even in the womb, the Hibs were becoming an integral part of my life.
So what does an Edinburgh Cup Final mean to me? Something that has not occurred since the first year that my family were in Edinburgh, 116 years ago!
Well, initially, terror! What could be worse than losing to our oldest rivals in such an important match? But, on reflection, so much more than that.
Actually, and this may seem an odd statement from such a committed and devoted supporter, the result isn’t the most important aspect. Of course, I’m desperate for Hibs to win and I’ll be devastated if we lose the game, but, if I’m honest, the emotions involved are about something else altogether – not the winning, but the experience.
The word I keep coming back to is continuity – and, given my dad and all but one of his brothers were dead by the time I was 8, that’s a word I have to struggle to reach out to most of the time. There’s the continuity of time, memories and actions.
I went to my first Hibs’ game in January 1956 – Hibs v Hearts. I was three – far too young really, but the memories are vivid. I was vaguely aware of the green far below and some men moving about, but I spent most of the time with my back to the pitch watching my dad and Uncle James – the one who’d played for Hibs. It was the only time I would see them acting as James and Paul, rather than Uncle and Daddy. It was the only time I was to attend a football match with them – 18 months later, my dad was dead, to be followed by James in another year or so. But how important it is to me, still, to be able to say: I went to see the Famous Five play – with my dad and my Uncle James? In the last game before that old stand was demolished, in 2001, with my match going buddies and my then 13 year old son, I sat very close to the spot where we had sat that January in 1956. The feeling was reflective but not maudlin in any way; it was that feeling of continuity.
There’s an old kid’s blackboard in our loft., with a green easel. One night, on a visit to our house, a month or so before I started school at St John’s Portobello, Uncle James had decided I should have a spelling lesson. On the board, permanent through age, are the chalked words: Rib, Fib, Hib, written by Uncle James, the Hibee. I can still vaguely remember the adults’ discussion on whether Hib was a word and whether fib was a suitable word for a 4 year old to be learning. Looking at it, I can almost reach out and touch that generation of my family – the jokes, the laughs, the concerns and the love.
I felt the same on May 14th 1994, when, as a 6 year old, my son Patrick sampled Easter Rd for the first time to see Hibs v Kilmarnock. It was a pretty dire 0-0 end of season draw, but, apart from family reasons, memorable as Tommy Burns’ last game as a player. There it was again – that feeling of continuity – giving Patrick a link with his granddad and great uncles that he could never otherwise have achieved; something of a taste of who they were, what got them excited, what they liked to do.
I don’t think I ever walk down to Easter Rd without giving a thought to those who went before me. It’s not a gloomy feeling, quite the contrary; it’s comforting and uplifting to know that I’m following in my dad’s footsteps – physically, yes, but also, and more importantly, in what I do to enjoy myself. It’s how we get close to people, sharing things we enjoy together. His early death robbed me of so many opportunities to do that, but going to see the Hibs enables me to capture some of it, even now, and to be conscious that I am setting up memories and connections for my son. Put simply, supporting the Hibs is what our family do; it’s as much part of our DNA as our Irish/English/Eurasian/Scots heritage, or our faith.
Which is why the act of supporting is far more important, and far more rewarding than the result alone can ever be.
So how will I be feeling on May 19th, when the Hibees step out to face the Jam Tarts in the Cup Final?
Nervous, for sure – stressed out is probably a better description; desperate for the Hibs to win; fearful of a defeat. But there will be lots of other emotions too.
I’ll be regretting the Neanderthal element in the support of both sides – the ones who feel they have to ape the Old Firm and display their support for their team by the amount of bile they spill out against the other; I’ll be mourning the days when Edinburgh folk could be partisan but still take a pride in the ‘other team’s’ achievements, all those who attended Easter Rd and Tynecastle week and week about.
I’ll be regretful too about the state of the game of football – the obscene salaries, the media manipulation, the ascendance of celebrity over skill, the promotion of winning at all costs, the glorification of professional fouls. In short, I’ll be reflecting on how much the game has changed in my lifetime – and not for the better. It’s what guys of my age do.
I’ll be exchanging looks with my son, freezing the occasion in our hearts, a shared gift; there will be the odd squeeze of the hand, the nudge, maybe even a sly cuddle or two. I’ll wince as I see my outrageous passion for the Cabbage and Ribs reflected in his shouting and cursing and frustration, though I’ll be awfully proud too.
I’ll be enjoying the company of Jim and Dave – two mates who have stood and sat with me at Easter Rd virtually every other week for the past forty years, and scanning, as we always do, all those memories, anecdotes, daftnesses, routines, excitements and disappointments. Comradeship is made of lifelong sharing.
And I’ll find a few quiet moments to think of my dad and Uncle James, my mum’s fortitude in being surrounded by a Hibs daft family and her selflessness in keeping that flame burning as I grew and she brought me up alone.
And there will be lots of wee vignettes flashing in and out of my mind and heart – a slideshow of who I am and where I come from.
I’ll see an old Irish grocer, standing in the doorway of a shop in Buccleuch St, chatting to passers by, asking if they’ve seen young James with the delivery barrow – whilst knowing very well it’s being used as a goalpost a hundred yards away on the Meadows.
I’ll see a typical Irish kitchen in a top floor flat in the same street; boys all talking at once about football, while the mum and wee sister ferry soup and tea from the range and coats piled behind the door keep dropping off the hook.
I’ll see a dark young man in his early twenties, recently the star of the 1925 Holy Cross Academy football team, powering down the left wing at Easter Rd in front of the newly built wooden stand, desperate to claim a place in a team of stars, long sleeves, even longer shorts and big clumpy boots, his crosses hanging under the bar.
And there’s a grey haired man in America, checked shorts and a sports shirt, sitting with a coffee in his garden, waiting for his all American grandson to come running in from main street, shouting: ‘Grandpa, Grandpa – the Hibs won again’
Then there’s my dad, still with a white grocer’s apron, on a Saturday afternoon, working in the Store in Easter Rd itself, or Montrose Terrace, telling the customers he can’t get to the match today, but he’s hoping to be there on Wednesday afternoon as he has a half day. I see him again, his mac and bunnet, whistling as he heads for the game – meeting up with Eddie Campanile or Jimmy O’Hara or other mates; serious in his excitement – no doubt coming out with the latest proud tale about the wee fella at home.
Then I see the dark young man from the 20s, in our living room in Piershill, by now in the 1950s a priest with glasses, joshing with his brother, encouraging me to walk, to catch an orange – before he flicks it up with his foot and catches it on the back of his neck – still got it.
And a young woman from Liverpool, confined to bed in what is still a strange city, distracts herself from the worry about her unborn child by listening to the football crowd roars that escape up into the sky and float by the half open window. Soon she’ll hear the steps on the stair and her man will burst in, panting but still with enough breath to describe minutely the latest wonder goal scored by The Gay Gordon, Gordon Smith. And if he’s happy, she’ll be happy.
And there’s so much more: George Best winking at me as he signs my programme, Pat Stanton surging from midfield to score late equalizers, Franck Sauzee’s gallic shrug as he pronounces: “Zat’s football!”; hours spent chatting to Jackie McNamara and Ralph Callachan in their Musselburgh pub – realizing they love Hibs as much as I do; Hibees I’ve known who’ve gone too young – Bobby Smith, Hugh Whyte.
I’m sure I’ll catch a glimpse of Canon Hannan, stern in his biretta, leaning over the pulpit in St Pat’s, warning the young men of the Parish to follow healthy pursuits and not get caught up in bigotry or sectarian gang fights, while below him, a bravely moustachioed young gun from County Roscommon starts to think about formalizing the kickabouts they have on the Meadows; and, thinks Michael Whelaghan, we could call the team ‘The Hibernians’. And when the ball’s on the centre spot, I’ll think of Michael Davitt, the hero of the Irish Land League Movement, proudly planting some shamrock on the centre circle at the newly purchased Easter Rd, cementing the continuity. And that in turn will make me proud of the club’s open, inclusive and non-sectarian nature in all the years since.
And there’s me, as a long haired student, hurrying through Holyrood Park to make it to the game; then that first game with Patrick – proud as you like, watching, as his head turns, his eyes grow bigger, he reacts to the crowd, and he’s wrapped in his grandad’s memory, just as surely as by the scarf round his neck; memories from a thousand games, three league cup wins, meeting Lawrie Reilly and Eddie Turnbull, the excitement I feel without fail every time in walk up the steps and see the pitch before me.
And I’ll be with my old muckers and standing happily and proudly beside my son, who, God willing, will be doing something similar in decades to come.
All of that will be with me at Hampden on May 19th; all real people – brought to you by Hibernian FC.
Of course, more than that, I’ll be enjoying the football, the spectacle, the tension, the occasion; what they are already calling ‘The Salt and Sauce’ Final!
So you can see – whether you follow football or not – that supporting the Hibs is far more than watching a team play football and there’s much more at stake than the result of a game. I’d call it walking with ghosts – but that sounds spooky and a wee bit upsetting, so instead I’ll describe it as ‘spending some time with the family’!
I do know, for sure, that, come the end of the game, and irrespective of the result, my tears will be flowing at Mount Florida on that May afternoon – and I won’t be alone.