In the stands of a soccer stadium, fans of the rival clubs Rangers and Celtic can be seen displaying their respective team colors, white and green for Celtic, red, white, and blue for Rangers.
The rivalry between Scottish soccer clubs Rangers and Celtic is infused with political meanings related to religion, ethnicity, and nationalism (photo via International Business Times).

Elite soccer in Scotland operates within a relatively small financial domain compared to wealthier soccer countries like Italy, England, Spain, and Germany. Nevertheless, soccer remains the country’s dominant team sport, with attendances in Scotland’s top league the highest in Europe when population size is considered. Soccer in Scotland is largely dominated by two famous institutions: Rangers, a club and fanbase with a definitive anti-Catholic history and tradition, and Celtic, a club founded by Irish Catholic immigrants. Approximately 70% of fans in Scottish soccer devote allegiance to either of these two clubs. The histories of Rangers and Celtic, and the rivalry between them, also means they have millions of supporters around the globe, especially, though not solely, where Irish Catholic and Scottish Protestant immigrants have settled during the latter 20th and early 21st centuries.

From a sociological standpoint, it’s important to understand how communal memory contributes to this great and storied rivalry. For many supporters of Rangers and Celtic, such memory is infused with politics, religion, history, ethno-religious discrimination, colonialism, and anti-colonialism.

However, these memories are also contestable, particularly in terms of what is actively remembered, unconsciously forgotten, and knowingly discarded, as well as how and when such memories might be recalled, abused, or celebrated.  Generally, even when collective memories commemorate famous people and events, they can be selective and malleable. This can be witnessed with military remembrance in Britain, North America, and Australia,  where the fusion of sport with past and current politico-military events can make commemoration problematic.

With regard to Rangers versus Celtic, historical selectivity and ideological narrative construction play a role in dominant and popular media representations of the rivalry.  For example, commentaries favoured by political and media elites in Scotland frequently suggest that the Rangers and Celtic football clubs and their respective fandoms characterise an importation of Irish problems into Scotland.  This is a principal example of how popular political and media representations reflect an obliteration of more incisive accounts of this soccer rivalry, as well as with regards various ethno-religious prejudices linked to wider society and Scottish-British-Irish history.

In this context, pointing to Ireland as the cause of ethno-religious or “sectarian” cleavages in Scotland is incessant. For example, during a 2011 debate over the “Offensive Behaviour in Football Act”, which frequently focused on Rangers and Celtic supporters, a politician in the Scottish Parliament suggested that Protestant (majority) and Catholic (minority) differences and fissions in Scotland were “born out of the history of Ireland”. A Scottish newspaper reproduced a similar narrative, claiming that conflicts arose from “a mindset rooted in the poverty and violence of Northern Ireland, imported to the west of Scotland by 19th century migrants”. Another criticised Celtic and Rangers fans for offering their “interpretation of 500 years of…Irish history”. Although celebrating the enormity of Rangers versus Celtic as Scottish soccer’s crown jewel, in the build-up to one derby game a BBC Scotland sports broadcaster sought to remind listeners, “this is a football match, not a re-enactment of Irish social history”.

Such narratives construct “Irish history” as distinct, and mainly as a negative series of often violent events disconnected from parallel or related ones within Great Britain. These views reflect a deep ignorance of the actuality of wide-ranging socio-cultural, military, religious, and political interweaving that has intimately connected both islands for centuries. To better understand Rangers versus Celtic and Scottish society, it is necessary to go beyond rhetoric that frequently references and blames Ireland as the cause of Scotland’s ethno-religious problems.

Scots have occupied a decisive role in modern Irish–British history, especially in relation to national, ethnic, and religious conflict. In the 17th century, tens of thousands of Scottish Protestants colonised Ireland’s militarily conquered northern Ulster Province, under terms that allowed them to acquire land and power for the British Crown, and as a result, to dominate and control remaining native Irish Catholics.  After conquest and control (the rest of Ireland had already been conquered, though often remaining in a state of rebellion), many Scottish-British colonists, referred to as “Scots-Irish” and “Ulster-Scots”, migrated to North America, where they became central to the European colonial enterprise that would become the United States of America.

In addition to its impact on Ireland, British colonisation also acquired significance in relation to the development of professional soccer in Scotland. In this sense, British colonialism was central to the conditions that gave rise to, and the consequences of, the catastrophic Great Irish Hunger of the mid-19th century. In the space of a handful of years, over a million humans perished and a similar number were forced to emigrate as refugees, including around 100,000 to nearby Scotland.

Members of the resultant Irish Catholic refugee community in Glasgow founded Celtic Football Club in 1887/88. Rangers began earlier in 1872. As with many employments and other socio-cultural organisations in Scotland, the latter club was characterised by exclusionary anti-Catholic-Irish prejudice and discrimination. In this context, the presence of Celtic, a well-supported and successful soccer club, largely defined through its Irish ethnic and Catholic origins and identities in an anti-Catholic society, a country that had also been joint partner with England in the exploitation of the island of Ireland and elsewhere, kindled the development of the Rangers-Celtic rivalry. Today, through various cultural practices and expressions, including song and fan symbols, many Rangers fans celebrate the historical conquest of Ireland, while Celtic supporters commend rebellion against it.

The evolution of the Rangers-Celtic rivalry and its contemporary media and political representations demonstrates how history is contested terrain. To understand this rivalry on and beyond the soccer field, it is necessary to consider how British colonialism in Ireland is remembered and forgotten in both Scotland and Britain more generally.  Such an exercise also offers insight into how sport and politics are often inseparable.

Dr. Joseph M. Bradley is Teaching Fellow in Sport Sociology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK. He has authored, joint authored and edited several books, and written numerous journal and newspaper articles on sport and ethnic, national and religious identities, and prejudice.