Hugh Dougherty says Glaswegians of Irish descent are losing touch with their heritage

ST PATRICK'S Day was a day to remember, 40 years ago there were plenty of families in Glasgow who wore shamrock with pride, and if, like me, you went to a Catholic school, there was the added bonus of a half-day to mark the feast day of the national Irish saint.

Now, apart from a few fairly private celebrations in a handful of pubs and hotel function suites, you could be forgiven for thinking that St Patrick's Day doesn't exist in Glasgow, and it's something of an outward sign of the decline of the Glasgow Irish community, where prosperity and a combination of social and geographical circumstances has seen Irish culture all but disappear within its host society.

Of course, there is a vibrant Irish dancing scene in Glasgow, and the city is to host the prestigious World Championships in 2002. And there are Gaelic League Irish Language classes and a flourishing Gaelic Athletic Association, with an annual feis, which rates as one of the very best in the British Isles.

But what all these activities hide is the fact that for the vast majority of people of Irish descent, especially for the younger generations, knowledge of Irish culture and heritage is limited at best, and non-existent at worst, with most Irish consciousness being subsumed into the obsession with Celtic which has all but sapped the life from true Irish culture.

Perhaps the immigrant community has made it. And, perhaps, as time goes on, members of that community want to toss aside their roots which, no matter which way you look at it, recalled days of eviction, famine, and poverty in Ireland, and hard times and rejection by the largely Protestant Scottish host population.

The composer James MacMillan raised some of the spectres of anti-Catholic feeling last year.

But he failed to look at the matter within its Irish context, where, to blend in with the host society, most Irish people threw aside their native Irish tongue and produced children who, but for their names, betrayed nothing of their past.

The real question is why so many people of Irish descent in and around Glasgow have abandoned their Irishness, and, with it, in so many cases, has gone their traditional Catholic faith, so that many of the present young generation descended from Irish ancestors are cultureless, rootless, and faithless.

Growing up, as I did, in the 1950s in staunchly Presbyterian Battlefield, as one of the only ''Micks'' around, life was tough as we lived outwith the main South Side Irish Catholic Diaspora of the Gorbals.

A middle-class home, with both my parents teachers, was no bulwark against the sneers and physical attacks of children from the established culture who had been told by their parents that ''Micks'' lived in the slums.

It took guts to set out for school with your shamrock pinned to your blazer on St Patrick's Day, to run the gauntlet of boys with ''foreign'' first names and it was comforting to arrive in school along with Pats and Vincents.

It was safe and good when Miss O'Hagen, a box of Oatfield Collen sweets from Letterkenny in hand, dispensed the goodies to us, and there is no doubt, looking back, that we, with our own schools, networks, and culture, lived in an immigrant society where assimilation still had a long way to go.

I have plenty of friends of my age who grew up in the main Irish diaspora of the Gorbals, where there was instant support and a cultural affinity, even if the living conditions were poor, and all are still very aware of the Irishness or their upbringing.

But, it's interesting if you track them on their advance through society. Most used the free school and university system to move into the middle class, and that is the reason why the Glasgow Irish community has moved constantly further out from its Gorbals cradle, as it has conquered the suburbs, where, apart from a few isolated Catholic pioneers such as my family in the 1950s, Catholics, and those of Irish descent, were as rare as Ospreys.

So it was that the Irish community went out through the South Side of the city, its traditional home, into the classic concentric rings of the growing urban area.

The route was from Gorbals, to Govanhill, Toryglen, King's Park, and Simshill, known for many years as ''Timshill'', amid rumours that the bishop subsidised the mortgages to allow the Catholics to take over, and, increasingly, reflecting the boosted spending power of the community, to Clarkston, Giffnock, and Newton Mearns. The Irish community has arrived.

But, as the miles and generations have lengthened, so the bonds seem to have lessened and, despite the fact you can now, for the first time ever, buy the Donegal Democrat and Irish Post in the Avenue Shopping Centre at Newton Mearns, rather than having to go to Govanhill or King's Park for your Irish papers, there is every sign young people of Irish descent have given up on their heritage.

Part of that may be that there's no value in having Irishness in Glasgow today and, perhaps most of all, despite what James MacMillan may have claimed, and despite reports on the shortened life-span of men with Irish surnames, there is little or no disadvantage in having a Glasgow number one Catholic accent - Billy Connolly has one, you know - and a ''Mickey'' face, with piggy eyes, curly hair, and an affinity with the Donegal cousins.

I know, because I fit the profile, and my own children, who rejoice in first names such as Hugh, Ciaran, Brendan, and Mary Patricia, have found no disadvantage either. Nor have they found any impediment to their practising their Catholic faith.

Then there's Ireland, the new tiger economy, where the young people are just as obsessed with the pan-European, Americanised, pleasure-seeking culture that is theirs where brand names are more important than tales of the ancestors and where houses and living conditions are now often better than here.

Gone are the days when the Glasgow-Irish family arrived back in Donegal at the Glasgow Fair to marvel at life without running water and to rough it with the culshies.

Now, it's the Donegal cousins, fresh from their ranch-house-style bungalow, who call in to look down on their city-dwelling cousins, and to remark that a semi in Simshill is a poor place to raise a family.

But, all that aside, what does mark off the Glasgow Irish community is that it fails to stand together, compared with Irish communities south of the Border.

The Irish Post carries weekly news and features of an increasingly wealthy and confident, young and professional Irish population in Birmingham, Manchester, and London.

The new Irish in Britain is now the focus of a paper that saw its traditional market of 1950s and 1960s exiles growing old, stuck in a timewarp, and longing for an Ireland that had ceased to exist.

It's been a successful strategy, but what amazes the management of the paper is that it sells only 1000 copies weekly in Scotland, and that there is little evidence of a vibrant and upwardly-mobile Scottish Irish community, proud of itself and showing its existence through society structures, networking, and a capacity to enjoy itself openly.

It seems that most West of Scotland people of Irish descent have abandoned their heritage in the face of increasing prosperity.

There may be, too, a snobbery factor which kicks in with arrival in the outer suburbs, from which, in living memory, Catholic children were bused out to secondary school.

Perhaps it's the feeling that they've arrived, have contracted marriages, perhaps outwith the Catholic church - and have, quite frankly, been a little impressed by members of the host society and a little flattered to have been invited to partake of it.

Whatever the reason, Glasgow is missing out on a whole strand of its heritage as it is lost in the post-modernism of this new century. Where Irish culture does survive and flourish, it is relevant, varied, and colourful, and a reminder, too, of the hard ride the Irish had on arrival here.

In all this, you have to consider the Celtic football factor, briefly alluded to at the start of this essay.

Celtic, a universal obsession among those of Irish descent of all social classes and frequently a substitute for the traditional religion of the Irish immigrant group, has come to be equated with all things Irish and Catholic.

The green-and-white, the anthems sung, the flying of the Irish tricolour, all have played and do play a part in underlining the club's position in a market defined by tribal loyalty rather than a pure appreciation of football.

But, as Celtic can represent an ill-defined and bastardised focal point of ersatz Irishness, so traditional Irish culture in Glasgow and the west of Scotland has waned.

You'll find few of the tricolour, scarf-waving ''Irish'' of the Parkhead terraces at the Gaelic League Irish classes. And fewer still could explain the finer points of Irish history and heritage.

One of the Gaelic League Irish class teachers, struggling to drum up enough students to run his class in Govanhill last year, summed it up perfectly: ''If only we could get a quarter of all those so-called Irishmen at Parkhead through the door, then we would be laughing.'' What is fascinating is that, despite the denial or abandonment of Irish roots in all other matters, the majority of people with Irish surnames and heritage still cling to Celtic, which is often, in terms of any vestige of religious belief or practice, all that remains of several hundred years of culture, struggle, and heritage.

But you can't blame that all on Celtic, and another factor has to be taken into account, and that is the historical interaction between Donegal and the west of Scotland that has gone on from days even before the plantation of Ulster.

With so many similarities, even in Gaelic place names, the use of Ulster Scots by the planters, so that words such as ''brae'' are still in everyday use in Donegal, and the fact that the Donegal Irish were always a race apart from the rest of Ireland - these have combined to produce a situation unlike the vibrant new, first, second, and third-generation Irish communities of England.

Whatever the cause, next week's St Patrick's Day will be no different, with no parade, nothing visible, and little to show that Glasgow, like Liverpool, Manchester, or even Boston or New York, is a city which has been influenced forever by the Irish.

Beyond a dedicated band of enthusiasts, the majority of whom, with the exception of Irish dancers and Gaelic footballers, are pushing 50 and beyond, there is nothing to compare with the vibrancy and survival of the Glasgow Jewish or Italian communities.

You can look around the Asian community and see the bonds loosening, as their young people strain against the tensions produced by the traditional values of the immigrant society and the puzzle of how much you take on the mores and assimilate the values of the host.

But their leaders should look hard at the decline of Glasgow's visible Irish community and reflect on whether or not they want to go the same way, or whether steps should be taken to ensure that pride continues in the old in such a way that it adapts to the new and continues to shape the outlook, faith, and culture of today's young generation and generations yet to come.

There's a richness that my ancestors brought to Glasgow and Scotland. It will be tragic if we lose it, although it would be equally wrong not to move on from the days when wearing shamrock on St Patrick's Day meant you fought your way to school.

The problem is that, today, no-one would know why you were wearing some. Especially most of the Glasgow Irish without roots.

n Hugh Dougherty is a

Glaswegian of Irish descent. He is a regular contributor to the Irish Post and a columnist with Flourish, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Glasgow.