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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer

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The complications of hosting Celtic at Notre Dame Stadium

Does the University know what it’s getting into?

Picture this: an institution whose earliest members were Irish Catholic, who left their homeland in search of a better life and who faced bigotry and discrimination in their adopted country. This institution, therefore, became a beacon of Irish Catholicism, a safe space where Irish Catholics could excel and celebrate their heritage.

I’m talking about Celtic Football Club, who announced they will play an exhibition match against Chelsea in Notre Dame Stadium this summer. Celtic, a soccer club based in Glasgow, was founded by Irish immigrants who fled Ireland during the peak of the Great Famine and British colonial rule. Celtic’s success on the soccer pitch meant that Irish Catholics had an institution of their own of which they could be proud.

Of course, the above description could just as easily apply to Notre Dame itself. The history of Notre Dame’s Irish Catholic identity, its Fighting Irish moniker and the Leprechaun mascot are well-established, and newcomers to the Notre Dame community are quick to pick up on the centrality of Irish Catholic traditions to Notre Dame’s identity.

It is no wonder, then, that Celtic want to play a match at Notre Dame Stadium, and there is a certain poetic symmetry to the partnership. However, the similarities end there, and this brings us to the uncomfortable but necessary conversation about sports, politics and sectarianism. There is, under the surface, a dark side to this.

Put simply, Celtic is a central player in a long, nasty dispute over Ireland, its history, its sense of identity and its shared future. 

Ireland for years was under the control of Great Britain, who suppressed local Irish culture and identity. This tragically culminated in the Great Famine, where over a million Irish people perished and a million others emigrated. Ireland gained its independence in 1922, but this was only partial: six of its thirty-two counties remained under British rule, leaving the island divided between the majority-Catholic Republic of Ireland and the majority-Protestant Northern Ireland. Since then, Northern Ireland has been a battleground between its Catholic population, who want its unification with the Republic, and its Protestant population, who want it to remain under British control. 

The battleground reference is no metaphor. During the latter half of the twentieth century, Northern Ireland saw a spate of bombings, shootings and other terrorist attacks carried out by sectarian terrorist groups such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), who wished to further their political objectives.

So where does Celtic come into this? It largely has to do with what a sports club can symbolize and the power it has to organize and channel fan groups and protests.

Glasgow is a notorious sectarian hotbed, and for years, a subset of Celtic’s supporters have veered into sectarian behavior at matches. In other words, for these fans the club no longer represents Irish Catholic pride. These fans now use the club to further their own sectarian agendas. Instead of expressing pride in Irish culture, these fans instead chant and sing songs glorifying the IRA and its campaign of terror in Ireland.

Threats from the Scottish Parliament to curb such behavior have been only modestly successful. This is glorifying a dark, shameful period in Ireland’s history and celebrating a group that wished to use Ireland’s long history of suffering as a justification for sectarian-fueled terrorism. It is the celebration of violence and a willingness to use any tactics necessary to accomplish goals. It is one thing to be proud of one’s heritage and to wish Ireland to be united. It is another thing to kill civilians to accomplish this goal. Celtic has been hijacked and held hostage by this subset of fans who wish to use the club to broadcast these sentiments.

Violence during an exhibition match over the summer is, admittedly, unlikely. So, too, is overtly sectarian behavior. It is important to note that Celtic has a wide and diverse fanbase, its sectarian fans make up a small portion. There are many reasons people support a soccer club. Some support Celtic because their parents did, or because they are from certain parts of Glasgow. Others may have a particular childhood memory they hold dear or a favorite player they supported.

But others support Celtic as a way of broadcasting their sectarian beliefs. Rightly or wrongly, Celtic has become inextricably linked with sectarianism and a history of violence in Ireland. Whether sectarian behavior or violence occurs at the match this summer is not the issue. The issue is that the University is inviting an institution with links to sectarianism in the first place. I urge the University to seriously consider the ramifications of this invitation.

There is precedent, after all, for this. Stanford’s marching band has been banned from playing during football games after a series of performances in the 1990s mocked the Great Famine and featured ugly and hurtful stereotypes about Irish people. Notre Dame, quite rightly, spoke out against this and disinvited the band. The University must make it clear that sectarian or bigoted behavior will not be tolerated.

Songs and chants celebrating terrorist organizations who bomb indiscriminately and target civilians have no place on our campus. And it is worth questioning whether a club whose fans demonstrate this behavior and has become a symbol of sectarianism should have a place on our campus either.

Notre Dame is a wonderful symbol of Irish Catholicism and its culture, and it has been able maintain this status while avoiding wading into the nasty, brutish aspects of Ireland’s recent history. But inviting Celtic to play risks Notre Dame getting drawn into the briar patch. Ireland’s resilience, pride in its culture and struggle to assert itself in the face of a legacy of suffering are things to be celebrated. Groups that use indiscriminate violence are not, no matter their ultimate aim, and we need to be extremely cautious in giving an institution that has links to such groups a platform.

Did Notre Dame realize what it was getting into when it invited Celtic to play? The University has some thinking to do before the summer.

Joey Speicher

Notre Dame class of 2022 and researcher in residence at the Notre Dame Dublin Global Gateway

March 22

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.