• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Michael Tierney on family, fatherhood and football

A gunshot.

Michael Tierney says his identity is equally informed by his father John's Irish blood and his mother Cathie's roots on Barra, where the family holidayed. Photograph: Colin Mearns
Michael Tierney says his identity is equally informed by his father John's Irish blood and his mother Cathie's roots on Barra, where the family holidayed. Photograph: Colin Mearns

A distance of more than five years from the newspaper industry has not separated Michael Tierney from the imperative of immediately grabbing the reader by the lapels and giving the story straight and true with the concussive power of a headbutt and with a narrative that dizzies the senses.

Loading article content

A point of disclosure: I sat next to Tierney for years when he was a writer on this magazine. My job was to dust down his press awards. He took to writing like Noel Coward took to an afternoon aperitif. A boy from Glasgow, he also shares another trait with Coward, the playwright and wit.

"It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit," said Coward. Tierney would agree.

The First Game With My Father, his story of "love, loss, football and family" is frank. It begins with that gunshot as his father is taking potshots at youthful intruders into his garden in Bishopbriggs, just outside Glasgow. It must be stated that John Tierney is wielding an air rifle rather than an AK-47. But it is a dramatic introduction to the man whose life seeps into the pages of an extraordinary book. The son is asserting immediately that this is no ordinary character.

Four decades later Michael Tierney stands at the scene of the shootings. The memories of a bright childhood shining from his face. The garden seems to have the dimensions of the Hampden pitch and a tended surface to match.

"He was proud of his home and of his apple trees and he did not like the quarry boys stealing from him," says Tierney. "Nobody was hurt but everyone came to know you could not take liberties from Mr Tierney." Or apples, either.

John once stood tall and broad in the garden, surrounded by his nine children. Feverish games of football lapped at his feet. He was home and he was happy.

"My father was a shy man, a quiet man," says Tierney. "He loved being with us. He loved talking to us about politics, about Celtic and about how the establishment had to be challenged. You had to be suspicious of things."

John, an electrician, had worked hard, bought a rundown home in Bishopbriggs in the 1970s and through his craft and labour made it into a home. He loved his wife. His children were bright, making or ready to make their substantial way in the world. What could go wrong?

The turf in this Bishopbriggs garden is springy, even comforting under our feet. Tierney and I exchange a glance.

We head back into the living-room where his father sits twisted in his chair, his mind filled with thoughts that remain private, his speech cruelly distorted to grunts.

A gunshot. Michael Tierney will always know where he was when he heard about it. A flat in the south side of Glasgow, a late night phone call and the news that his father had been struck down by something, something he knew immediately to be serious, life-changing. Something so catastrophic its effects were like a bullet to the brain.

Tierney put down the phone and leaned his head against the wall. It was 2002 and nothing was to be the same again.

At the hospital the doctor explained that there had been an explosion in John's brain, the bleed was frontal and in the left basal ganglia. The father fought for life, his clenched hands somehow gripping life. He survived a series of blows to come back to Bishopbriggs, to the house he shaped, to the family he loved. He sits in his chair before the carers come to take him to bed.

The First Game With My Father breathes life into him. The pages echo with his presence. John, born in Glasgow, believed himself to be an Irishman living in Scotland. He married Cathie, from Barra. They had their family. He was self-employed. There was rarely feast but there was never famine. He drank in Quins, talked about the Celtic, spoke of his love for most things Irish and his distaste for a Scotland he thought to be threatening to his kind.

He largely supported Celtic at a distance until one day he took Michael and his brother to watch the Parkhead side against Sporting Lisbon. It was November 2, 1983. Thirty years on - and more than a decade since his father was struck down - Tierney has used the moment as an entry ticket in a world of family, identity and memory. It is as intoxicating as anything consumed on the terraces that night.

"If he had not had the stroke I would not have written the book," says Tierney. "I have to think it happened for a reason."

He adds: "I started it for a number of reasons. It was very timely. My father had been unwell for 11 years and the family were looking back. We were reflecting and it was about 30 years since the Sporting Lisbon game. I had written a small piece about that match, not thinking it would go further.

"But I needed to find out more about my dad. I had never had great time for reflection or introspection but this was different. I thought: 'It is time for me to look back at our lives.' And this was the spark. It allowed me to look at my life too because I am a father and I will be 46 this year.

"I wanted to look beneath the veneer. I wanted to find out why he felt he was the man he was, why he felt so Irish.

"I found the whole thing very difficult. Consciously, I never asked too many questions of the rest of the family. I wanted to try to remember. I am intrigued by memory and false memory, truths and untruths."

The book contains some marvellous set-pieces. There is the night when the family travel through snow in a van, holding gas heaters to keep them warm. There are the trips to Barra. There is John playing in a football match with tight shorts and his Sunday shoes. There is John talking, stating his Irishness, declaiming the forces he believes are pitted against him, articulating a politics of the underclass, and brimming with a suspicion of most things outside the reclaimed home in Bishopbriggs.

"A drawbridge came down after he had the stroke. He entered into a period when he could not communicate fully. His voice was silenced. But I had heard so much from him that I believed I could find his identity - and maybe mine too - through memory and investigation."

Gunshots. It is Caumont, France, in the dreadful, blood-stained weeks after D-Day in 1944. Michael Tierney lies dead. His grandson stands before me and speaks of a loss that is still felt. Michael Tierney, the British soldier from Glasgow, left a widow and a toddler son, John.

This then is a story of remembrance and loss. "But it has everything to do with identity too," says his namesake, the grandson. "My father was stridently Irish, spoke against the British army. The death of a father he did not know impacted heavily on him. It was the great unspoken thing.

"My father was troubled. Things were taken away from him. He blamed the military, he blamed the establishment. It was a death in war, it was not anyone's fault. But it stayed with him, of course, and it distressed him. I inherited some of his anger and had to try to work out who I was, too."

The structure of identity, too, is not rigid. John, an Irish nationalist, is the son of a British soldier. He is now the father of a policeman in Northern Ireland as one of Michael's brothers has joined the force. His photograph is displayed proudly in the home. His father smiles when he glances at it.

"I wanted to give my father back his voice and explain who he is," says Tierney. "There is an anonymity about a certain kind of working-class man and I wanted to allow him to speak. We put labels on people, have lazy preconceptions about them, so I wanted to find some kind of truth and some of that had to include me dropping my preconceptions too.

"One of the things that struck me was: 'Is my dad as Irish as he thinks he is?' And there was the realisation that the Barra side of my heritage was just as important as the links with Ireland. Identity is a fascinating subject as we approach the referendum. People say: 'You're a Catholic.' I am me. My religion is Catholic. Identity is not about labelling."

But how has his faith survived the fate bequeathed to his father?

"I have faith in people, faith in the unknown. I am against absolutism," he says.

This is why The First Game With My Father becomes as inclusive as a family embrace. The Tierneys are Glaswegian, they are Roman Catholics, they are Celtic supporters and they belong to a culture easily recognisable in the west of Scotland.

But they are individuals, too. Policemen, engineers, teachers and writers. "I would not have started this book, I would not have published this story if any of my brothers or sisters or my mother had said no. There is no so-called work of art or piece of literature that is worth hurting anyone you love."

He speaks as a husband and a father of three children. He is a son with three brothers, five sisters.

He talks as the patriarch of the family sits in his chair in a Bishopbriggs living room surrounded by the smiling gazes of a family immortalised in shiny photographs

They may teach in the Emirates, build homes in New York, police Northern Ireland or lay gas-lines in Kazakhstan but the Tierneys return home regularly to visit their father.

John may be diminished but he is not lost. "The truth could kill a man stone dead," he once told his son, the writer.

So how would this most private of men have reacted to his life being presented to the world in all its glory, vibrancy and failing?

"He would have been proud," says his son. "He always loved the fact I was a writer who travelled the world and wrote about the big events. He was always aware that there was a big world out there and that we should be part of it."

It is the core of identity that makes one want to do this, to be comfortable as a participant in life. It is one of the lessons learned from the games with his father, at Celtic Park or in the back garden.

With more than a hint of mischief, Tierney looks over at his father and chides him about the days with the air rifle in the loft. He adds with a dark Glasgow humour that he is in the process of getting the home that John built signed over to him.

John snorts derisively and swivels his head to look at his son. He smiles with a serenity worthy of a saint and a glint in his eye. It states without words: "I'm still here."

The conversation has been about memory and identity. In one gesture, one light laugh, there is the glimpse of the true John Tierney. The man and his life has been built on memories. He continues to create them. n

The First Game With My Father by Michael Tierney is published by Doubleday, priced £14.99.

Additional Images: 
Contextual targeting label: 
Families

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

238575