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A Poet from 'Little Ireland'

Mick Garngad by Jim Friel

The district called Garngad, which is only a few hundred yards north of the 12th Century Cathedral of Glasgow has been known for the past hundred years as ‘Little Ireland’. When the Irish navvies, after digging the Monkland Canal, which was opened in 1790, left the bothies to settle in the industrial city, it was tenement districts like the Garngad and Gorbals in which they settled. With the building of the railway lines to the rich mineral deposits of Lanarkshire, these hardy labourers were assured of employment for a decade or two, and in the same locality stood another great industry, the St. Rollox Chemical Works, the largest of its kind in the world.

Mick McLaughlin, or as he was better known by his pen name, Mike Garngad, was born here in the beginning of the century. Like many other Garngad people, Mick was of Irish descent, his parental forbears hailed from the fabled Inishowen peninsula in north Donegal. Mick was well-known as a raconteur, poet, song-writer and practical joker and was a popular figure at Wakes: an Irish tradition which persisted until the demise of the old Garngad itself in the late 1950’s. In the tradition of the old Gaelic shanachie, he chronicled various Glasgow events, particularly in the Gargad-Townhead area. Yet he occasionally wrote verse and song outwith his immediate environment; but some of these creations were unclaimed by the modest Mick. They are still sung to this day without the singer of the wider public being aware of the author’s name.

The best example of this anonymity is Mick’s great tribute to the memory of the Easter Week leader and martyr, the ballad to James Connolly, “Many years have gone by since the Irish rebellion” with its fine stirring air of “Lochnagar”. The lyrics of the latter ranks among the very best of Lord Byron’s works, and it is a tribute to the quality of their work that both songs have long survived, and are very likely to continue to do so. Whenever an Irish theme presented itself, Mick Garngad was more than eager to find immediate inspiration and circulate it in either broadsheet or hand-written form, among his cronies. A good example of this happened in 1921 in the High Street, Glasgow (beside the Garngad) when a number of republican sympathisers tried to rescue Frank Carty (alias Somers) from a prison van, an incident reminiscent of the Manchester Martyrs several decades earlier. Mick wrote his song, “The Smashin’ of the Van” on this event. The song is included in a 1967 ballad collection ‘Rebel Ceilidh Song Book’. This is now a collector’s item and has a foreword by the poet Hugh McDiarmid. Mick was about twenty-one years old at the time when he wrote this ballad and like many more in ‘Little Ireland’, he carried his torch for the freedom and unity of Caitlin Ni Houlihan, until his death in the early 1960’s. Some Garngad men were involved in this incident.

No great promoter of his own fame or fortune, Mick McLaughlan set no higher target for himself than to be the local poet of Garngad and a voice for the Irish community in Glasgow. Almost inevitably this entailed being involved in enthusiastic support for its great favourite football-team, Celtic, and the immortal Jimmy McGrory, a Garngad lad himself and local hero. Countless songs about Celtic poured from the pen of Mick Garngad and among them some of the most cherished ones in the Irish repertoire of the terraces at Parkhead. “The Celtic Song” written by him to the tune of the overture from “The Pirates of Penzance” is famous, as is “Oh Hampden In The Sun!” celebrating the great seven-one victory over Rangers in the League Cup. Mick sold “The Celtic Song” to Gen Daly, the popular music hall singer, for a mere fiver, but this is understandable, as ‘cold cash’ was the least of his objectives. He also wrote that very moving lyric on the tragic death of “the prince of goalies”, Johnny Thompson, from Cardenden, Fife, who lost his life in an ‘Old Firm’ game. Yet for all his pro-Celtic bias, there was always a good sportsmanship side to Mick. It is said that a man bearing an uncanny resemblance to our author was occasionally seen at Ibrox (the Ranger’s base) with song-sheets signed by the anonymous “Blue Knight”. This would not be outside the practical joker side of Mick’s character which deserves some notice on its own account. He also wrote the popular “Barlinnie Blues”, part of Glasgow folklore. “There’s bars on the windaes…”

A touch of harmless fun has for centuries been a warm ingredient of the traditional Irish character. Mick McLaughlan had this quality in plenty. One of the humorous anecdotes related about him tells how he boasted to a stranger in a Garngad pub how he had inherited the mighty strength of the great Irish giant, Finn MacCool, and to prove it, he would the very next morning at ten-o-clock uproot a telegraph pole in the main street and carry it down the High St. to Glasgow Cross. Bets were laid and next morning a small crowd, including the challenger and the bold Mick appeared on the hour at a telegraph pole which conveniently lay beside a police-box. Just as Mick bent down and set himself to the task, a burly cop emerged from the box with hand-cuffs. “Oh no you don’t, Mick, not this time! That’s the third pole you’ve nicked this week an’ if you dare, it’s Barlinnie jail for ye!” The stranger, unaware that it was all pre-arranged, pleaded with Mick to let the pole lie and settled for a round of drinks. On another occasion, he made bets that Madame Blatavasky’s lectures had endowed him with powerful hypnotic energy which could stop the No. 32 tram on its deep descent of the hill from Provan Mill. This experiment was carried out successfully, but of course he concealed from the spectators that the tram-driver and he were old buddies. Mick McLaughlan was such a well-beloved character of Garngad, that he has become an outstanding legendary figure of the district to this day.

In the 1950’s and early 60’s, many of the old tenements were demolished and their tenants ‘transported’ to the huge, rather bleak and soulless housing schemes (the graveyards with electric light) on Glasgow’s periphery. Garngad, though it still exists, was robbed of an essential part of its character and colour. Mick wrote its elegy in “Farewell to Garngad” to the same tune as “Skibbereeb”; it is a song which brought a tear to the eye of many an old inhabitant. Michael Keenan’s history of the Garngad in the Mitchell Library devotes two of its pages in a tribute to its local Bard. This is the district where the Radicals and weavers of Glasgow set out from in 1820 in their brave struggle for Freedom at the battle of Bonnymuir. Mick Garngad inherited, not perhaps Finn MacCool’s strength, but the great energy of two great traditions in the struggle, one Scottish, one Irish.

Garngad historian Michael Keenan recalls Mick in a recent poem:

“Where’s Mick McLaughlan the Garngad Rhyme.
The tricks he got up to were ever well known.
The man was a legend in his own time.
His fame on the road it has grown.
He was known to make dour people smile.
And also to make hard men cry.
His poems were simply true Garngad style.
Poets mention his name with a sigh.”

Mick’s origins (like Matt McGinn of the Carlton), lay in the ancient province of Ulster, and like Matt he deserves to be remembered as a man of the people and a bard of the streets.

Jim Friel

Note to Editor – Many other well-known people were born in this Irish enclave on the North side of Glasgow. These include: Jimmy McGrory, Malcolm McDonald, Joe Baillie and ‘Lisbon Lion’ Steve Chalmers of Celtic fame, the former General Secretary of the Print Union Sugat, the late Vincent Flynn and of course the world renowned Villean piper Pat McNulty.

 

Read about Provanmill and Blackhill
Read about Germiston
Read about Garngad and Royston
Read about Garngad characters (Mick McLaughlan by Michael Keenan)
Read about politics in the area
Read about entertainment in the area
Read about sports in the area
Read about schools in the area
Read about churches and religion in the area
Read the 'Farewell to Garngad'
Read the conclusion by writer James Friel

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