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And in the beginning

May 19, 2012

To Very Rev Edward Joseph Canon Hannan.

Dear Canon Hannan,
On the eve of an historic Hibs v Hearts Cup Final, it suddenly struck me that I should drop you a line and update you on how things have been going with Hibs, and Edinburgh, since you went to your eternal reward in 1891.

You may recognize me, I visit your grave a couple of times a year – just to remember you; the team you founded, Hibernian, have played a major role in my family’s life since they came from Ireland to Scotland in 1895. Six or seven years ago, en route to watch Hibs play at Cork City, my son and I stopped off in Ballingarry, Co Limerick, your hometown, and spent some time wondering about the urge that made you leave the calm and tranquility of Ballingarry to become a priest, and then to turn away from a promising academic career in theology, to serve the poor of Edinburgh for 30 years.

When you founded the Catholic Young Men’s Society at St Patrick’s in Edinburgh’s Little Ireland in the Cowgate, you were following on from the example of its founder, your uncle, Monsignor O’Brien in Limerick. Its aim was to keep young Catholic Irishmen off the streets, away from drink and bigotry, and to usefully employ their time. Michael Whelahan’s suggestion of a football team, in keeping with the latest fad amongst young men, was obviously recognized as a good idea by yourself.

Though the Hibs weren’t originally accepted by the football authorities, being composed of ‘foreigners’, your perseverance and commitment eventually gave life to the football club. I’m not sure you were wild about football – but you certainly wanted the best for the youth of the Cowgate and Edinburgh’s Southside.

Of course, these were different times – and though you sought integration of the Irish and Edinburgh communities, you were, in the way of that time, quite certain that the Catholic way was the one way. For all that, you were open to all, and your determination to educate the youth to promote a better lifestyle was recognized by the Edinburgh authorities and you became such a respected figure that you were accepted on to the Edinburgh Schools Board – almost unheard of for a Catholic, and an Irishman.

So how are things in the Cowgate and the Southside now? And how about Hibs?

It would be easy to cry woe and lament modern times, especially in terms of the high moral standards that you set, and yet…….

The Cowgate and Grassmarket would be largely unrecognisable to you. The homes, always basic, deteriorated even more over the years. By the 1950s, they were frankly unacceptable – with overcrowding as bad as ever, and unsanitary conditions, even if the appalling infant mortality rate that you had to work with had improved. Town planning and redevelopment in the mid 20th Century was not a visionary process; Buchanan had a plan to put a six lane motorway through the Pleasance, Calton Hill and the Meadows – and though this nonsense was eventually abandoned, it was only after decades of neglect for the area. The sons and daughters of immigrants were cast to the four corners of the city, on what proved to be unsuitable housing schemes, and the Cowgate slowly lost its breweries and shops and community. Any sense of an Irish community, at least geographically, in Edinburgh, was gone forever.

So, what of your people, the ideas you started and consolidated, your passion for the potential of youth?

Well, the dream is sustained. St Anne’s Primary school, just along from St Pat’s is now the home of Panmure House – an agency working with vulnerable young people since the 1960s – like yourself, driven by the urge to meet the needs of youngsters marginalized by society. The same is true of the Canongate Youth Project, working with young folk from the Southside, keeping them ‘off the streets’, offering them hope and crucially emanating from youth work at St Paul’s Episcopal Church – in keeping with your pre-ecumenical openness.

Continuing down the hill from St Pat’s we come to Moray House, where students are trained as teachers, spreading the hope of education. You would be particularly happy at the large institution opposite the main college building, and its associated facilities a short way up the Pleasance. This is the Physical Education centre – providing sports opportunities for the students, and training for PE students. Your foresight in building St Mary’s Street Halls – with their multi-sports opportunities for the young folk of the area, pre-dated our modern sports centres by over a hundred years.

Keeping going down the hill you will eventually reach the office of Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People. This ensures that children have a voice and are listened to. Though the idea may have been anathema to you in Victorian times, I know you would have appreciated the key message of the Children Scotland Act – to act always in the best interest of the child.

Then, before reaching Holyrood Palace – a tourist confectionery these days, compared to the somewhat brooding hulk I’m sure you remember – you will reach our Scottish Parliament. Politics at a national level – in Ireland or Britain in your time – was, to you, probably a distraction from the urgent business of locally promoting the needs of your parishioners – but you would be happy to learn that one of the recent acts of this parliament was to enshrine the importance of early intervention and proaction in working with the most vulnerable of our young people.

So there is much to be positive about – your spirit lives on.

However, I don’t believe the mixture of pragmatism and vision that drove you on would have come without a certain greyness of mood now and then, and that pessimism would find a resonance in your familiar haunts today.

The gin palaces and dives are long gone, but alcohol still grips the Cowgate – these days founded on hedonism and a culture based on relative prosperity; the young still waste long hours on drink, their parents still worry, and the authorities still fret. You’d probably be amazed to know that the Cowgate is closed to traffic each night for fear of drunken folk falling in the path of passing cars. I’m sure you trusted that your vision of universal education would raise us up from such degradation, but perhaps folk aren’t like that.

The times have changed, but the needs remain the same.

But all is not lost – with the grace of God it never is.

Part of my respect for your memory is based on what feels like a direct connection. A large part of my teaching career has been spent on your manor. In St Thomas’s, backing on to the Meadows that gave an early home to Hibs (and Hearts), I started my career and worked with so many wonderful young people and teachers, many pupils having started their education in your primary school at St Patrick’s. I worked also at Panmure House and with the great folk at the Canongate Youth Project. The young folk of the Southside and Canongate have long been important to me and though they don’t always get a great press, I’ve met some fantastic youngsters achieving great things despite almost insurmountable obstacles – and I’ve known some dedicated and talented folk who have picked up your baton, supported the youth, and given them every opportunity to achieve their potential. Your mantra of high expectations has inspired me and been at the root of my education philosophy.

And my respect turns to affection when I think of how you personify all that is good about my Faith. In a time when folk queue up to take a kick at religion and its adherents, when the evils perpetrated by religion are trumpeted and the good works ignored, I take strength from all the good I have seen, from the amazing caring and committed teachers and young people I have worked with in your parish over the years, from the opportunities accessed in the wake of your charitable far sightedness, and I know I am witnessing true faith in action – and the balance is redressed.

Your spirit most definitely lives on.

After the foundation of Celtic in 1888, the bigger Irish community in Glasgow stole some of the Hibs’ thunder. There was a disconnect between the Hibs players’ support for Michael Davitt and the Land League and the non-political stance of the CYMS, players were lost to our cousins in the West and Hibs nearly died. But, and not for the last time, the idea of Hibs, its traditions and determination to succeed, won out, as it would do, time and time again.

With a spiritual shift to include Leith and a determination to embrace all, your Hibs reformed at St Mary’s Star of the Sea, still a club for the Irish – but also for the people of Leith and Edinburgh and, indeed for all comers, particularly those who felt marginalized by the establishment.

For a gang of Irish boys kicking about on the Meadows, they’ve not done badly. ‘World Champions’ in the 1880s, after beating the Invincibles of Preston North End, they’ve long been a major force in Scottish football. First British Club in Europe and a string of other initiatives have given the support much to be proud of. There have been league championships and European nights and many other highlights. And, by the way, Michael Whelahan’s great grand nephew, Pat Stanton, was a right good captain and footballer in the 1970s! The Hibernian heather hasn’t exactly been on fire for the last few years, but we continue to have our moments.

For those of us who love your Hibernians, however, it’s not about success as football clubs commonly perceive it. Oh yes – we love to win things, and if we win the Cup later on today, you’ll hear the singing of ‘Sunshine on Leith’ in Heaven – but we know Hibernian are the greatest club on earth because of the vision you placed into the club‘s DNA, because of its inclusiveness, its awareness of tradition, its valuing of family, its links to its roots. What joy it is to be from Edinburgh, from Little Ireland, St Pats and the Southside, and know the Hibs are us.

If you were to take the walk down to Drum Park at Easter Rd these days, where your team play, you’d be amazed by how built up the town is and by a stadium that holds 21000 people and is as modern and impressive as any in Scotland. But, if I’m honest, it wouldn’t be the football that caught your attention – despite your undoubted approval of the huge banner on the Famous Five Stand proclaiming ‘Unity!’ I know you would notice the run down condition of many of the tenements, landlord neglected and multi tenanted. You’d note the local population – of students, the young poor, and the immigrants – from Poland, the Eastern Bloc and further afield – and you’d want to do something about it. That’s where the Hibs came from, that’s where their strength and tradition lies – we care, and we are rooted in our community.

If you made it to a game, you’d notice a Hibs team less talented perhaps than those originals of the CYMS but with fans’ heroes from the Gambia, England, Honduras, Leith and, of course, Ireland. The team of the immigrants still!

I like to think you sometimes sneak back to Edinburgh’s Southside. I imagine you, on one of those magical summer nights, when sunset puts the Meadows alight, walking along Middle Meadow Walk, engrossed in your breviary, saying your prayers, and, as was your wont, glorifying in the beauty of God’s nature. And, as you pray, you aren’t too removed from your surroundings to note the youngsters still playing football in a dozen, ill-organised games. I wonder if you ever thought the game would last so long; I wonder if you pick up on the different languages and accents – young people from many lands, all come to Edinburgh as economic immigrants like your lads of the CYMS, or to pursue the studies which you so highly prized. And I can imagine your amazement as you hear of Hibs supporters who will be at Hampden later today from Australia, South America, Europe, the USA, the Far East and Africa – travelling the world because of your commitment to the poor youngsters of the Cowgate.

You built the Hibs because of your love for poor people in a strange city; it was never about predominance, but always about helping, caring and supporting; Hibernian came from the people and represented them; they were aspiration, pride, community and family. And they still are.

If Hibs win the Cup today, it may get a wee bit towsy in the Cowgate and on the Southside later tonight. And you’d probably find a few thick heads at morning Mass in St Pat’s on Sunday. If we lose, it will be calmer, but we’ll still be proud of the Hibs, we’ll still be Hibees, and we’ll still know how completely you performed the work of God for those who needed you most.

With every good wish,
Slan agus beannachtai


2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 19, 2012 8:42 am

    wonderful and inspirational writing. I am like you a member of the “Hibernian Nation” but not able to get to the Final today. Thanks for taking the time to write and publish this article. I hope we enjoy a fantastic day today, but even if we lose life will go on and there will be other cup finals.

  2. Peter Caid permalink
    May 19, 2012 10:18 am

    I’m a Celtic fan mate but that is a wonderful piece there. Best of luck today ! Hail Hail !!!

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