Here’s a memory. It was summer and a blistering hot day and I was in the back garden of my parent’s house, sitting alongside my father, John, who sat cross-legged in blue jeans and a white vest.
Tanned and handsome, he ran his large hands through his curly black hair, and sipped from a mug of black tea while eating on a cheese and onion crisp sandwich. He was quiet as an Irish bog, but smiling. He looked a little worn out. I must have been about 12 years old.
Down at the bottom of the garden, with the Campsie Fells in the background (we called them the Campsie Hills), were some of my sisters playing badminton over a rickety fishing net held up with bamboo sticks, and my brothers playing football. It was a very big garden, and part of a large house, in Bishopbriggs, on the outskirts of Glasgow, that my father had bought when it was rundown. We needed a big house: my parents had nine children and not much else to contain them.
We sat talking, mostly about football and Celtic. And Ireland. For my father Celtic and Ireland was basically the same thing. If you said one it was the same as thinking the other. Everyone knew that. We were Celtic to the core. Celtic and Ireland together, like a pot of old stew and two red carrots.
We had Ireland in our bones. And Celtic was in our DNA, though I didn’t really know what that was so he added that it meant we had bits of Celtic growing inside us, like green, white and gold strands. And it was inside him too and his father, and his father before that, and it would be inside our sons and daughters as well.
We were connected to Ireland by birth, he said. We were connected to Celtic, by Ireland. You couldn’t get the grin off his face with a blowtorch.
But we also talked about Barra, my mother’s family’s island home in the Outer Hebrides: a place he secretly loved more than Ireland but would never admit it. We would have talked, I’m sure, about what I was going to do when I grew up (play centre forward for Celtic, naturally), and that I should think of studying the law because it would mean that I might infiltrate the Establishment and all the nefarious and hidden powers-that-be.
I nodded enthusiastically in agreement, but didn’t really know what the Establishment was, nor anyone nefarious for that matter. I knew some of the neighbours were for the watching but that was about it. I inherited his suspicion, like someone inherits a chair.
My father would have been in his late 30s, only a young man compared to what I am now (two years shy of an impossible 50). We chatted a bit longer and then almost inexplicably he was silent. I caught him staring again at the Campsies, blowing smoke rings from his Benson & Hedges cigarettes.
When he died, he said, in a voice driven to sadness, I had to bury him in the garden and not to fuss at all about paying for funerals and coffins and wakes. I’d to bury him near the gooseberry bush, or one of the crab apple trees or maybe even somewhere under the hedge beside his shed. There would be none of that funeral nonsense. None of that malarkey, son. Waste of good money and then some. His words were as clear as the directions for putting on a sock.
And I nodded while he kept staring at the Campsies, a fug of smoke around him like a halo, and wondered how I’d tell my mother and brothers and sisters about the whole burying out the back carry-on and him being deadly serious about not spending a brown penny because why on earth would a man want to pay good money for a funeral if he was dead?
Besides he liked the view from the kitchen window, peering out through the net curtain, and down past the shed and the Christmas trees he’d rescued from the living room every winter before planting them after the festivities were over.
So I’m 12 years old, quiet as a box of eggs with arms that couldn’t lift two stamps, and him going on about the dying stuff while eating his crisp sandwich and me thinking about the foxes that came in every night from the quarry, with their hungry, yellow eyes, and how they’d dig him up and eat every last part of him, dead or not. I winced.
‘But it won’t be for a long time?’ I asked, holding back wet, salty tears. Even now, in my memory, I can feel them welling once more.
He paused and looked at me. ‘Not the now, son. Don’t worry.’ He rubbed my head with his rough hands, while I breathed in his scent of tobacco and stale sweat. ‘I could look at those Campsie Hills all day…’
Even now, more than 30 years later, I still wonder if he really did want me to bury him in the garden. And, sometimes, I still find myself wondering if we actually had that conversation.
So it’s a story that might be true. And I think it is. I know, for sure, that I want it to be. But such is the impossible nature of memory that we cannot always reliably recall the truth. Yet our memories give flesh and bone to words and meaning. And, of course, they give each of us a place in the world.
We invent things to keep other things alive. Just as my father did.
He was the son of a British soldier named Michael, who I was named after, and who had died in the Second World War. For much of my father’s life he was searching for the father he had lost, and the way for him to do that was by looking at where he came from, and many of his family came from Ireland. So that informed his identity which, in turn, formed mine.
Things are passed on, but they’re not necessarily true. Most of my life I believed my grandfather was Irish, even though he was born in Maryhill, like my father. We invent ourselves: our past and, sometimes, our future. We all do. It’s the remembering that makes it real.
Fast-forward more than 30 years. On a good day the decision we made seemed right. Not calling my mother, Catherine, home seemed sensible because she was on her way to Barra, to bury her sister who had died only a few days earlier.
On a bad day I am haunted by my reluctance, our reluctance (my sister’s and I) not to call my mother on time and have her return to the hospital where her husband, my father, lay dying.
I think I knew he was dying. I think we all did. Really dying. But I didn’t want it to be true so I convinced myself in the hospital, that he would be fine. My mother would only be gone for a few days and, by the time she returned, he would have picked up a little. If not completely better he would have been as ill, at least, as he had always been. He had been seriously ill for more than a decade.
In 2002 he had suffered a devastating stroke that rendered him unable to walk or talk for most, if not nearly all, of that time. More recently, I had even written a book about it – The First Game With My Father – that was published in 2014. It was a story of love, loss, football and family.
It was a story about Celtic and identity and community and history and memory. It was about the first football match I attended with my father, against Sporting Club do Portugal in November 1983. That night, watching Celtic overturn a 2-0 first leg deficit with an emphatic and exhilarating 5-0 victory, was my 15-year-old self, along with my brother, Iain, and my father.
I remember his white, rusting Volks-wagen van taking us along Kirkintilloch Road, through Springburn and past the high flats that looked like sentries on parade. A cold dark of winter had settled over Glasgow. The city looked big and sharp, with needles coming out of cathedrals and churches and halls.
I carried my Celtic scarf. My father had brought it home to me one day when I was much younger. It was old and tatty even then, and I told my mother it would be fine after a wash and that I could sew on my new Celtic patches by myself. And I did. And they’re still there now.
Celtic Park smelled of cheap tobacco and stale lager and the trapped air of something burning. We ate chips till we were as full as a fat lady’s sock. The faces of men and boys were just like he had promised. Just like ours. The colour of wet cement.
The noise, meanwhile, was unlike anything I had ever heard before, as if a latched cage had been opened and something monstrous had been let out. I’d waited a long time for this. I’d waited a long time to see my father’s face. I knew he was worried about the cost. My mother said it would be fine. And anyway, if they could put a man on the moon he could find a few extra pounds somewhere on earth.
By the end Celtic destroyed Sporting. And my father was smiling. We all smiled together, in the joyful brutality of the football arena. But I knew that he was already thinking of other things. He was thinking about work. And the house. And my mother. And his mother. And my grandfather. And how much petrol cost and how much brake pads cost and what was the price of a new exhaust. And he thought about his nine children. And how he would get them through it all.
We drove home, through the High Street. It looked sinister and dark, what with the cathedral and the enormous gravestones of the medieval necropolis and the oldest house in Glasgow nestled at the side of the road.
‘There’s the Royal Infirmary,’ he said, pointing. ‘You wouldn’t want to be going in there with toothache, boys. They used to wheel the bodies in there on a horse and cart years ago. The fellas were never the same when they got out.’
My brother and I looked at each other.
‘I used to run electric cables in they hospitals,’ he said. ‘Can’t stand the places.’
Celtic remained a constant throughout that time, like wallpaper. It was the background of all our younger lives. It constantly changed, but it was always there. Yet, it would be 30 years later, in November 2013, before the three of us returned to Celtic Park, when Celtic played Dundee United.
I had planned a big European night for my father, like the one we had attended against Sporting, but my mother said he’d never make it past seven in the evening and she was right. The Dundee United game fell exactly thirty years to the day since our memorable visit to Celtic Park all those years ago. It was perfect.
So much time had passed. So much football had come and gone too. I had friends who attended every match without fail, home and away, taking up all their time. Taking up their life. I’d gone to games sporadically over the past few years. I became like my father. The radio and television suited me. It was a reflection of our times, I supposed. Too many distractions. Too many trips away with work. I used to go so much more often in my 20s but that was such a long, long time ago that I didn’t even know that person any more.
But the strand of Celtic, the threads of the same cloth, was still weaving its way through our lives. The memory was still warm from the first time. All the things he’d ever spoken about had made their mark, in one way or another. The pond had rippled. Celtic had come to represent many of the things I held dear. Togetherness. A community.
He looked forward to the match even though he couldn’t say so. We drove through Springburn and into town and along London Road as we had done all those years ago. Sometimes it seemed as far away as the silver moon.
I brought my daughter, Mahoney, with me and she wore the Celtic scarf I’d had from childhood. It was a totem. I always wanted to believe that it kept my father alive. As long as I had that scarf he’d be safe. It was ridiculous, of course. The scarf was made of wool. And I had lost it a hundred times. It did nothing for my father’s survival. Still, that was what faith was. Believing in something so utterly preposterous that it must be true.
I took my father to that match in his wheelchair, wrapped like an old man against the biting rain and sleet, a shell of his former self: freezing, brittle hands, a lopsided grin as a result of his stroke and a partly crushed skull where bone had been removed to allow him to survive.
It felt good to be here again with him, in front of Celtic Park. It felt right. Kerrydale Street in the bright daylight. I clasped his shoulder and watched his body slip back and forth on his wheelchair, like a buoy rolling on a rainy Barra tide.
He was smiling now, at the lights and the streets and the fans walking with their scarves and the vans selling chips and pies and hot dogs. Mahoney fixed his scarf for him. The area around Celtic Park had changed. It took him a while to take it all in. He stared at the Velodrome that had been built beside the stadium for the Commonwealth Games. With a quivering finger he pointed it out. It looked like a spaceship had landed quietly and stayed. His face recoiled in wonder more than anything. And I think he saw the death of something too.
The man at the entrance to the disabled access area opened the large, vaulted gate. We pushed my father through the entrance and then stopped for some photographs. There he was, smiling in his wheelchair, wrapped against the cold. We took turns having our photographs taken and he smiled in each of them and looked amazed when he heard the noise inside the ground.
All those years ago, standing on the terraces of Celtic Park, I had no idea at the time that it might be the only match we’d ever attend together. Back then it felt like a miracle. The only thing that really mattered to me was Celtic. I could recite all the players as if recalling the ten-times table. I could barely remember them now. They had faded, once more, like a song.
He always said it was never about how often you went to watch football, it was about what you brought when you did.
The singing grew louder and louder. ‘The Fields of Athenry’ was sung with gusto and we joined in with the rest of the crowd. I could feel myself getting a little emotional and tried to bury it in my throat. It wasn’t the song. It was my father sitting in his chair, with a hood covering his head against the rain. He was freezing. He tried to fix the hood but his hands didn’t work as fast as the rain did. He wouldn’t let me fix it. He got soaked.
Yet, even in his chair, he still had poise.
The rain was soaking us through. Celtic attacked. The ball moved from left to right. From the back of the stands the fans shouted and screamed. Mahoney smiled. I loved that she was there with her grandfather. He rubbed his skull and felt the missing bone. I watched as she took his hand and held it for a minute or two.
We give expression to our lives through little things, and the little things in our lives give expression to us. A book. A memory. A smell. A football match.
All those years ago the little things in my life quickly became the biggest thing. I was obsessed by football. I played it every day after school for hours on end in the garden, way past my bedtime: and, sometimes, in summer, way past my parents’ bedtime too.
But my father didn’t take us to matches because, quite simply, he couldn’t afford it. With nine children to feed, clothe, raise and support together with my mother, it was never highest on his list of priorities. And yet football was always there. Celtic was always there. And it always would be.
The book became much more about my father than Celtic. The real reason I wrote it was, I think, fairly simple. I knew he was dying and I wanted to keep him alive in a story. So I wrote the book principally for this reason: to give my father a place in the world. To give him a place in that world. It’s why I still write about him now. To preserve him.
In truth this is not a story I wanted to write. Ever. But I knew I would have to some day. A postscript of sorts to a book about the life of my father, and the only football match we had ever attended throughout our life together.
The morning of my father’s death I was in Glasgow at the passport office, enjoying the cool, grey air of June, having just returned for a brief break from Qatar where I was working on the World Cup 2022 project. A week earlier I visited my parents’ house and watched as the carers hoisted him, yet again, from his bedroom to the living room where he would sit quietly in front of the TV. They would return him as usual to his bed at night.
It has always been awful to watch my father like this and worse, of course, for my mother. The years have passed unexpectedly quickly since 2002 and I have watched her getting a little older and a little more tired with every passing day, yet always gracious and graceful. I still don’t really know how she did it. Or maybe I do. Maybe the hardest questions have the simplest answers. She loved my father more than anything. More than anything. That’s all. And she always has done.
And my father? Although he couldn’t speak, I knew this much for sure. His wound was never his stroke. It was his inability to talk to my mother, to say a simple hello and goodbye: and to hold her every single day.
The mobile phone rang out again.
My sister, Catherine, called a couple of times but I had missed them while I chatted to the amiable lady behind the passport counter. When I answered I knew then that something was wrong. I held my face in my hands. He couldn’t die that day. Please, God, no. Of all the days over the past fourteen years it could not be that day.
My mother was already on her way to Barra for Mary’s funeral.
That morning she left him with a kiss and a promise she’d be gone for only a couple of days. My father had been his usual self, a little sick, unable to articulate whether he was in real pain or just a bit uncomfortable. He had regular infections but nothing more or less than he had experienced before.
We would go to Barra in summers as children, to the house belonging to my grandmother, El, though sometimes my father had to stay in Glasgow where he worked as an electrician. Even though he would be staying at home, when he drove us all from Bishopbriggs in his precious old van to Oban for the ferry, I don’t think I’d ever seen a happier man, then or since. And he always promised that he would make a boat out of the old van, rust and all, to help speed our return.
He also joked with my mother that he would build her a boat that they could both sail away on. Perhaps, that morning, as my mother left for Barra, he believed that it was finally ready.
We all reassured my mother that she should go.
I counted the days in my head that she had been away in all those years: once, to visit my brother in Ireland and another time to Barra, to see Mary. Perhaps fourteen days out of more than four thousand.
It couldn’t be now.
It shouldn’t be now.
The phone rang again. Catherine gave another update in an anguished tone. He had an infection but was having problems breathing. I walked quickly along Killermont Street towards the Royal Infirmary, where he was being taken, still alive, but slipping in and out of consciousness. With every step the day was already marked on my private calendar of grief, stamped in my new passport.
As I walked I remembered the journey through the High Street all those years ago coming back from the Sporting match, and the hospital at the top of the road. My father’s voice ringing in my ears. God help the poor bugger who went in there. They’d never get out the place what with all those experiments and scientific malarkey that the surgeons carried out on the poor. They were still doing it, mark my words. He’d shake his head and offer a long whistle. The last place you’d want to send a man and no mistake.
When the ambulance pulled into the bay I could tell from the faces of my sisters what lay ahead. He was quickly taken inside and, after a few minutes, a young doctor appeared telling us that my father was a very ill man and did we want to contact anyone else?
I looked at the ruins of my father’s body as he lay in his hospital bed, startled by the marble beauty of his hands, and thought of my mother heading to Barra to bury Mary in Eolaigearraidh, on the other side of the island. He would be happy she was there.
Remember Barra, Dad?
The boys, squashed up the back of the van like dead pigeons, had our footballs and second-hand Celtic jerseys and the girls with their vanity cases and magazines. Now and again my mother would talk to my father in Gaelic and he would grin, desperately wishing he understood her native tongue.
Then him singing the Mingulay Boat Song for my mother and my great-grandfather who had grown up on that other hardy, solitary island, and my mother fretting over whether she had enough food and money for all of us for the six weeks we would spend in Els house.
Soon we’d be in Tangusdale or be walking over the croft, trying not to get lost, but usually did, as the mist descended. And we’d climb Ben Heaval right to the very top, where the statue of Our Lady Star of the Sea stood like a protectorate over our dead ancestors in the waters of the Minch and the Atlantic – the same way my mother had stood protecting over my father these past years.
I can still see my mother with her black tea looking out of the window at El’s waiting and worrying if we’d all return safely, amid the great croft and the burn and the rocks. Sometimes we’d sit outside in the evening waiting for the ferry to arrive with fresh milk and bread, each of us secretly hoping to see if my father was finally coming off the ferry. My mother wished it more than any of us. Just to see and hear him.
That’s what she missed most about him over the years. Being able to hear his voice. In the past, as we shared stories in the loft, he always talked about my mother. Quietly, gently and with all the admiration of the saints.
We’d be sitting up talking again, and me barely a teenager, about Ireland and football and Celtic and, eventually, he would get round to my mother. He talked about meeting her in Crinan while she worked as a chambermaid. Their first date at a local cinema in Lochgilphead and my father picked her up on his Norton motorbike (we still have it even now) and my mother rode pillion, scarf in her hair like a movie star.
And he talked about my mother in Barra and about all the children they were going to have. And he showed me photographs from then and she was beautiful. Not beautiful in my imagination or my memory. But she truly was. It’s a simple fact. And still is.
As my father lay dying my sisters and I managed to convince each other that it would be fine. My father would survive. It was just another one of his episodes. We held his hands. We tried to bring him back to life with a word, or a smile. We tried calling my mother but there was no signal on the ferry to the islands. But he couldn’t die anyway. God could never be that cruel.
My mother arrived after midnight. My father had already left. We pulled the curtain and closed the door. Bathed in the soft yellow light of the room, she stroked his cold arm over and over and talked and wept gently into his remains. She left him with a warm kiss for his journey.
My brothers and I carried my father from his home, as my mother, sisters and the grandchildren stood reverently in the front garden as he left for the very last time.
I can still see my mother’s face, like a broken porcelain plate, her hands clasped, her thumbs touching her lips in prayer. She recited her words quietly and with great dignity and, right there, God was an inescapable fact of her existence. She never doubted His presence. Nor would she.
Tears in our eyes, pain in our hearts, but more pride than I could ever have imagined, we walked him to the hearse. Despite the hurt, I smile at the memory of it even now: my father finally leaving his home and his garden.
His coffin, the wooden-boxed boundary between the living and the dead, was filled with little things, mementoes from his family: a flower, Rosary beads, some coins (he loved the weight of one pound coins), hand-written notes from his grandchildren, a drawing, a copy of my book and some photographs. But mostly, it was filled with love. And, of course, the weight of all our sorrows.
I close my eyes. Here he is, my father, not old, but vibrant, powerful (immensely powerful), handsome and wearing his blue jumper with holes at the sleeves. Here he is on his Norton motorbike, cigarette in hand, smiling at something unseen. And again, this time just as a boy, dressed for communion while growing up in Ruchill and Maryhill.
And in another, I see him collecting autographs of great Celtic players, including Sean Fallon, Bertie Peacock and Bobby Evans, and players from other teams, including Tommy Ledgerwood, Frank Pattison, Colin Lidell and Tommy Baxter. I picture him going to Celtic Park or Firhill as a youngster, on his bicycle or by bus, and the players tipping their flat caps and saying, of course, son, when my father asked them to sign.
I just can’t let these memories go.
I see him taking me to our house for the very first time. I must have been seven. My father rubbed the grey stone with the edge of his thumb, holding the weight of the building like Atlas held the celestial sphere.
That morning we went round to the garden at the back and the snow was so heavy. It was stunning, really beautiful. In the background I saw the majesty of the Campsie Hills for the very first time. And he lifted me up on his shoulders and said he was buying the house. There are days when I remember it all.
But the picture I see most of all is my father in Barra, so happy to be around his nine children. He is lying back in the grass, wearing his Aviator sunglasses and sporting sunburned arms. My God, children… this is the life. Who wants a game of football? Come on, I’ll beat the lot of you! Nine against one. Come on. Big Celtic against wee Celtic!
And we all ran to his arms on Barra.
I close my eyes for the final time. Now I see my mother, in her 70s, strong and true as the croft of her childhood, nestling in the foothills of old age. She misses him as only she can. She moves gracefully to the next stage of her life, without him for the first time in decades. But if you love you grieve, and there are few exceptions.
We buried our father in a grave facing the Campsie Hills where he took us all as children. There is a B&Q store across the road. He used to shop there every single week without fail, a packet of nails, some paint or a new hammer.
It’s a perfectly ordinary spot for the end of a football story. But looking out to these hills of his youth and of my childhood, stretching gently from Denny Muir to Dumgoyne, it’s a perfect spot to finish a love story. When I’m home I sometimes visit him in the light, grey dawn. Other times, if I’m lucky, it might also be a warm afternoon, the verdant grass beneath my feet. It’s our own patch. Our own pitch. It’s where I remember the last game with my father.