Still high, still reflecting.
(I’d like to respectfully dedicate this piece to John Doolan, and his late Dad, – members of the Hibs Family.)
It was four days since Hibs’ historic Cup win – and I was still high!
No, really, I was!
Liberton’s Mount Vernon cemetery is one of the highest points in the city and boasts a wonderful panoramic view down to Arthur’s Seat and the city’s Southside. Wednesday was my Dad’s anniversary and that of my Uncle Joe. It was also, coincidentally, the birthday of the late, great Gordon Smith
Uncle Joe died on May 25th 1923, never having fully recovered from being a wounded Prisoner of War in 1918; my dad died on this day in 1957, when I was five, but not before he and my Uncle James, who played for Hibs in the 1920s. had taken me to my first Hibs game – the only time I ever saw “The Gay Gordon” playing. When my Mum died in 2004, the family couldn’t help but note how happy she would have been that her death notice in the Evening News was in the same column as that of Gordon Smith.
The family lived as part of the Edinburgh Irish community on the Southside, my granddad running a grocer’s shop in Buccleuch St.
Such are the connections – in family, history, and geography – that come effortlessly to mind on a visit to Mount Vernon.
I’ve never found this cemetery depressing or sorrowful, and I have been coming here as long as I can remember. Maybe it’s to do with belief in the afterlife or having a faith, but, while I mourn and miss those friends and relatives who are here, the place also brings a deep awareness of history, continuity, and context.
My parents are here, my grandparents, and my great grandmother; uncles and close family, and schoolfriends of them all. Having taught in an Edinburgh school for nearly two decades, I recognise families, parents I supported, and, sometimes and sadly, pupils I taught.
There’s Isobell, the woman who introduced my mum and dad – so I guess she’s the reason I am here at all; there’s Mary Angela, the wife of a pal, there’s Charlie – one time Hibs Director and a footballing mate; there’s Monica whom I taught alongside; Harry and Nellie, and their daughter Joyce – the same age as me but died so young – a family whose connections with mine go back to Gifford Park on the Southside in the 1900s.
When I go to my mum and dad’s grave I can recall the many times my Mum and I were here through the forty odd years between his death and hers, and, at my grandad’s, I can know that my dad and his brothers will have spent time here through the years, and that I am literally walking in their footsteps.
Grandad and Grandma’s family’s grave tells some of the story – from Drumkeerin, Co Leitrim, and Uncle James – a Hibs player and then a Franciscan priest. Ten yards away, unmarked, and only recently discovered, is Biddy, my great grandmother, who came over to Edinburgh when widowed. She is buried with one of her sons, Thomas, who died at 35, and one of his sons who succumbed to the flu aged only 18. It’s a reminder of the hard lives our ancestors sometimes had to endure.
Not so far away is Michael Whelahan – Hibs founder and first captain – ancestor of more modern hero Pat Stanton. There are various names I pass who have loomed large in family folklore, even though I could never have known them – tales and catchphrases that even now I pass on to my son – these memories of people who lived long before he can remember.
We joke that going to Mount Vernon with me is like going on some kind of guided tour – with a reference there, a memory here, anecdotes from another century, the words of people long gone – given voice again.
I suppose it’s about establishing who we are, where we come from, and celebrating our existence. One day this may be where we are as well – but we’ll be in good company, having travelled a familiar road.
Some people find cemeteries debilitating – a morbid reminder of our own mortality, or of the pain of bereavement and loss. It is true that these big issues affect people in different ways, and you would see a fair number of haunted faces and grief stricken families at Mount Vernon, particularly at graves whose inscriptions tell of folk taken tragically young.
So, I would not claim to be “cheerful” in this cemetery, a better word would be “affirmed” – it helps me know who I am, and, of course, I always seek to be respectful to people for whom the visit is a burden or a trial. The fact remains that visiting Mount Vernon is, for me at any rate, a practical and physical equivalent to genealogical studies or local history research.
To read the gravestones is to understand human diversity: the inscriptions range from tragic to comic, poetic to prosaic. There are those who have lived to see their children’s children’s children, and those who have been taken inexplicably and heartbreakingly young. The surnames originate in Scotland, England, Ireland, Poland, Italy, and further afield. There are those who have died in battle, and those whose lives were lost in some irrationally instigated accident. All are here together and I am always tempted to think – in the midst of death, here are we in life.
Which raises the question – is this blog about life, death, history, family or Hibs? The answer is: I don’t really know. That in itself gives a clue.
An event like Hibs’ Cup win – 114 years in the making – focuses on what is important to people.
Polemicist Gerry Hassan has written a piece this week asking: “Why does football matter so much in Scotland?” He covers well worn areas such as the economic and political context, the history of immigration, tribalism, and the post industrial gloom of west central Scotland. He suggests, quite rightly, that to label the Old Firm rivalry as nothing more than “sectarianism” is to miss the complexities of the situation.
I think, for some people, football is far too important in their lives – it fills an emotional and spiritual vacuum which should be ameliorated by far healthier, outward looking, and empathetic approaches to the world in which we find ourselves.
A certain version of the stereotypical west of Scotland male can only demonstrate open emotion towards his football team, rather than his loved ones, is delusional to the point that he thinks his team is favoured by Pope or Queen, and has a low level of self esteem, displayed by his lifestyle and health regime. He is often reduced to proving his worth by abusing or attacking others. That is a stereotype, but not an unfamiliar story to those who live with the consequences of such displacement. And for many, football is central to such behaviour.
So, yes, football is far too important in Scotland. It is a game, nothing more. It should never be used as an excuse to inflict violence – physical or mental, nor should it come to be the whole definition of an individual, nor should it label whole sections of the community.
However, that is not to say football is not important, or that it cannot be a positive force in society.
Up at Mount Vernon on Wednesday, there were gravestones with Hibs scarves tied around them. Over the past few days we have heard tales of drams of whisky being poured on to graves in celebration of the Cup coming home to Easter Rd. I’m not ashamed to admit that, in the aftermath of the post match party on Saturday night, I found myself shouting over the wall of the Eastern cemetery, in the general direction of the grave of Dan McMichael, the Irishman who last managed Hibs to a Cup victory: “We’ve done it at last, Dan – we’ve won it again!”
For many, like me up at the cemetery, in Hampden Park itself, or in their own homes, Hibs’ victory will have brought to mind thousands of happy memories – of times spent with loved ones, of conversations and dreams shared, of inhabiting the same space – mental and physical – as long loved and lost fathers, grandfathers, brothers, sisters and parents, neighbours and friends.
When communication was difficult, it might have been the shared love of Hibs, the joint understanding of what it meant to each other when the boys in green and white achieved a famous victory, that maintained the relationship. Folk are not always aware of the traits passed on from generation to generation – but often they can see it in the colour of a scarf, or feel it in the warmth of an embrace after a vital goal, or hear it in the oft repeated Saturday night conversations.
Well over a hundred thousand people were on the streets of Edinburgh on Sunday to see the team bring home the Cup. I wonder if there has been such a general outpouring of community spirit in Leith since it was annexed by Edinburgh? In the windows of the tenements of Leith Walk were faces of all ages and backgrounds. The pride in their local team reflecting their feeling of community, and, in many cases, their personal histories.
There were old women in their eighties hearing the faint echo of their Dad arriving home with the Pink News on a Saturday night in the forties and fifties, couples reminiscing on how a result from the football disrupted their wedding reception long ago, decades of family history often lit up by the glare of floodlights in the sky over the stadium, the players whose names became household regulars, the times when a hero was met, the joy of a youngster when the team had won, and the need for consolation when the result had gone the wrong way.
Your football team has a habit of finding its way into the minutiae of every day family life; like a poker on the hearth: it may not have been the most important thing in the room, but it was always there, and it appears in every memory.
It was an absolute privilege to have the opportunity on Saturday night to thank the players and coaching staff who made history. It was a joy to see how they were starting to realise the impact of what they had achieved on so many people, for so many reasons.
In some ways, it is no more than victory in a sporting fixture; in other ways, it is an affirmation of family history, a rejuvenation of community, a reminder that, at its best, football can generate a joy which, even if temporarily, can transcend many of the heartaches of every day life.
My family and Hibs?
In Edinburgh, we go back 120 years, and I’m proud of them both.
But never more so than on Saturday May 21st 2016.
From all the McPartlins through the years, thank you, Hibs!