WITH a large toothy grin spread right across his round, freckled face, the taller of the two boys confidently swaggered over, offered me his hand and said: “Hi my name is Larry Cullen, and this is my kid brother, Steven.”
And so began a friendship which was to last nearly six years, only ending when we both left school and had to make our own way in the big, bad world.
To say I was surprised when Larry marched over and offered me his hand would be putting it mildly. My eyes nearly popped and my mouth started opening and shutting like a landed fish, I was so shocked.
It was like having a close encounter for the first time with friendly aliens. Because Larry and Steven were both American, from New York. To a very impressionable 11-year-old boy like myself, it might as well have been on the other side of the solar system.
It turned out that their dad, who was a steel rigger, had lost his life when he had accidentally fallen from one of the skyscrapers. Their grief-stricken mother, being originally from Glasgow, had decided to return to Scotland. I know that over the years there were occasions when she deeply regretted that decision.
You see the Cullens were Roman Catholic and most of their neighbours – my supposedly upstanding and respectful neighbours – weren’t. And some of them weren’t at all happy at the arrival of the Cullens and treated them appallingly.
I may have been pleasantly shocked and surprised to have met and become friends with my first ever Americans, but in doing so that summer I also became very aware of what is referred to as Scotland’s secret shame…sectarianism. Religious intolerance and bigotry, then and now, totally disgusts and sickens me.
If the Cullens were not ignored and walked past in the street, they would be accused of all manner of petty crimes, sworn at and called names. I didn’t really know or care what a Catholic or a Protestant was back then (still don’t), but after seeing first hand, the unfair treatment being dished out, that quickly changed. I rebelled.
My great-grandfather may have been a leading mason and high up in the Orange Order, but so what? I did the only thing I could do back then to offer my support to Larry and Steven, and that was to stick two fingers up at those hateful bigots by wearing a Celtic strip and shouting “Hail, Hail”. Given the chance, I’d do it again.
Sadly though it seems that the Orange Order also want to do it again. And again. And again.
Surely in these enlightened times, it is now time to cancel their marches? Yes, there are issues about freedom of speech and, yes, there is legitimate concern that banning one type of march would be the thin end of a worrying wedge. But this has to stop. It cannot go on.
Last week’s appalling scenes outside St Alphonsus’ Church in the east end of Glasgow, when Canon Tom White was spat on, verbally abused and allegedly attacked as the Orange walk passed his church, cannot be repeated. Re-routing shouldn’t be an option. If it is, then may I suggest re-routing them into a massive boat on the Clyde, destined for the Sargasso Sea.
The marchers themselves may, as the Orange Order insist, behave impeccably. Their marches, as the Orange Order also insist, may be all about freedom of expression and a simple pride in their faith and history.
But the Orange Order cannot with a straight-face deny that their fluted processions simply attract too many hateful knuckle-dragging bigots to be allowed to continue to parade through a civilised society.
Sectarianism was Scotland’s secret shame back in the 1970s. It’s not a secret any longer. It is an open, weeping sore and it makes a total mockery of any pretensions we have of being an enlightened, equal, diverse and progressive country.
Sadly, Steven Cullen passed away a few years back. I don’t know what’s become of Larry, I do hope, though, he will be here to see a country unite in abhorrence against those who continue to sing about being up to their knees in his blood, his family’s blood and the blood of those who share his faith. Let us all bang the drum for that.