November, 1983 and I was about to attend the first game of football with my father in Glasgow. I was already a teenager. My father and mother were raising nine children and there was rarely any spare money to go round, least of all to spend on Saturday afternoon entertainment.
My father had taught me how to wire a plug at ten, put up a halfway decent shelf at eleven, mix cement at twelve, fix a bicycle at thirteen and wallpaper a bedroom the following year. I could shoot his air rifle at the boys over the quarry that used to steal from our garden, and never get caught. True to his Irish heritage he taught me to love the sound of an Irish fiddle and the difference between Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera. But at fifteen years old I had never been to see Celtic, the team I had always supported.
(John Tierney outside a pub in England, sometime in his 40s)
A friend of my father’s secured some tickets for himself, my father, my brother, Iain, and me. It was Celtic versus Sporting Lisbon in the second-round, second leg, of the UEFA Cup. Celtic would go on to win the game 5-0 and go through the tie 5-2 on aggregate. It was a magical, memorable night. The game passed in a flash. And so did the next three decades. I never imagined it at the time, of course, that it would be another 30 years until I would attend a second match with my father. We had never discussed our lack of match attendance together. Perhaps, it was just how some things were meant to be. Life was a series of obstacles, my father would say. At least ours was.
Sometime last year I decided to try to figure out where the time had all gone. There was no fractured father and son relationship, no fall-outs or angry fists. It was the opposite, really. He was never a peripheral figure in my life. He was the centre point. Yet, in 2002, aged 58, a drawbridge of sorts came down, when he suffered a catastrophic stroke rendering him unable to walk or talk. For the past twelve years he has largely been confined to his bed or armchair, and tended by my mother.
I often thought of that first match together and it left me with a great deal of longing and yearning. Gradually, it became an entry point of sorts for me to try to look at our lives over the past three decades and try to discover a lot more about him and a little more about me. As a writer I was intrigued about the enormity of small things. I wanted to look at my father, his identity, a little of our memories and the things that made us a family.
(Michael Tierney, centre with red watch, alongside brothers and father)
My father, who was born and raised in Glasgow of Irish heritage, believed himself to be an Irishman. It was a quirk of history, he said, and the lottery of geography and politics that had brought his family here to Scotland. Yet, for all this, he was the son of a British soldier, my grandfather, Michael, who was killed in the Second World War under circumstances that, I would later discover, might shed a little light on some of his deeply rooted animosity towards all things Establishment. Much of his life, I always suspected, was hugely affected by the loss of his father, who I was named after. Even though my father was just an infant when his father died, a little part of him died too. So, in many ways, he invented his father. And he invented some of his father’s people too. We all did. And, I believe, we all do.
Even though we never attended matches, football loomed large in our lives. He took me everywhere to play for my local clubs and school teams. As a youngster I had trials with Middlesborough, Morton and Dundee, amongst others. My father’s decrepit, second-hand Volkswagen van ran me to most of these places regardless of how far or what the weather was like. I didn’t need to attend real matches. He just held an imaginary prism to the light and I watched as it turned, slowly and quietly, more perfect and intricate. My father once wore his best Sunday shoes on a rain soaked pitch while playing in a charity match for a local team I played for. I might have been thirteen, as he slipped and slid around on the wet grass, and I found myself a little embarrassed by the whole episode. And he knew it. By the end of the match there was a small death in our relationship too.
My father was – is – part of a deep and abiding sense of time and place. He was the childhood longing in all of us and the growing pains and the skinned knees and the football that existed in our past. It was the small things, he always said, that were worth remembering. About memory and childhood. And about time, and place.
In November last year we went to only our second match together. Life had turned full circle. I had discovered a lot about my father, the strident Irish nationalist, and also a lot about identity and truth and memory.
He turns 71 this year. More than twelve of those years have been voiceless. Throughout this time he has sat in silence in a chair in the living room of my parent’s house, staring out the windows at the birds and the trees and listening to the echoes from our childhood past. And I know, more than anything, he realises now that all he ever really wanted was to live. And that the past no longer really mattered. His real story was here, with my mother. And with his children.
I once heard it said that we glory in our fathers in victory and success. But we fall in love with them in defeat. The stroke saved my father. It saved all of us.
Michael Tierney is a journalist, editor and writer who lives in Bishopbriggs, Glasgow.
The First Game With My Father, by Michael Tierney, is available now from Doubleday. Hardback £14.99