Inside the Gorbals’ hardest pub

The Sunday Times, 7 September 2003

Locals say the Brazen Head reflects their culture, while the police want it closed down. Kenny Farquharson went in search of the truth

A growl you can feel in the soles of your feet goes round the roughest bar in Glasgow’s Gorbals. In the Brazen Head, a pub that Strathclyde police are desperate to close down, the regulars are displeased. For one thing, there is a coin stuck in the slot of the pool table, delaying a grudge match between two scarred men with shaven heads. Worse, the pub’s sound system has started playing Simply the Best by Tina Turner.

The first difficulty is hurriedly remedied by barman John Paul, who is wearing Celtic’s brand new black and gold away strip. Given the pub’s Catholic connections, he is surely the most fittingly named barman in the city. The second problem is potentially incendiary. The song is a Rangers FC anthem, often heard at Ibrox with alternative lyrics concerning the Pope and the IRA. To hear it in the most famous Celtic bar in the world is like listening to Eminem live at the Vatican.

Usually the music at the Brazen Head is of a different sort. Favoured bands include Spirit of Freedom, whose CD Stuff Your Decommission is on sale behind the bar. Another CD, Eire Og — Live at the Brazen Head, features a song celebrating the IRA’s cache of surface-to-air missiles. “Up the ’RA,” goes the chorus, “I salute my fallen comrades as I watch the choppers fall.” Shebeen, another regular live act, offers Say Hello to the Provos.

How hard is the Brazen Head? Well, it advertises one of its souvenir products like this: “Save your teeth, use a Brazen Head bottle opener.” To the police it is the epicentre of violence in the Gorbals. In July last year, Stephen Byrne, 36, was knifed to death in the street outside. One of the two men convicted of the stabbing was a Brazen Head bouncer. Police insiders hint darkly about sectarianism. A nightclub upstairs called Durty Nellies, under the same management, was recently closed down after police received claims — which were denied — that it was being used for drug-taking and the storage of weapons.

Last month, the chief constable asked the city’s licensing board to close down the Brazen Head. To the astonishment of senior officers, the councillors who make up the board flatly refused. Frank McAveety, minister for culture and tourism, and also the local Labour MSP, wrote a letter opposing the police’s request. So did Labour MPs David Marshall and Jimmy Wray.

There was only one way to discover if the Brazen Head’s reputation was justified and that was to spend an evening there.

It’s a weekday night and the Brazen Head is half full of customers taking advantage of its newly introduced happy hour. The bar is Celtic heaven, every inch of the walls and barrel-vaulted ceiling adorned with Hoops memorabilia. Pride of place goes to a jersey signed by the 1967 Lisbon Lions team and a rather good painting of the late Jock Stein. There are stained-glass shamrocks in the gantry and a collecting tin for Nazareth House in Cardonald, a Catholic home for the elderly.

It is as if every man who ever posed for the artist Peter Howson or the photographer Oscar Mazarolli has got together for a night out. There is a bunnet at a precarious tilt, a smattering of baseball caps, Celtic strips of various vintages and lots of baggy jeans. One squat man in his sixties is leaning on the bar, shaking his ass in the style of the car advert as he listens to Busta Rhymes.

Snatches of conversation give glimpses of lives. From an elderly man with a luxuriant moustache and suspiciously jet-black hair: “I’m the king of the gypsies! I’ll take any of you!” A peacemaker trying to quell an escalating dispute at the pool table cajoles: “Come on boys, we’ve been all around the world together.”

A pretty, skew-eyed barmaid says over her shoulder: “Aye, that’ll be the beer talking.”

Underneath, there is a grace note of menace. All around, antennae are twitching for a word or action being taken the wrong way. There is a keen awareness of the volatile potential for sudden violence. “No offence, big man,” says one regular who bumps my table on the way past, his hands already raised, palms outwards, eyes searching mine for any sign of annoyance or retaliation.

In spite of the tacit threat in the air, the atmosphere is good-natured and comradely. After the republican and loyalist bars of Belfast, this is a breeze. Time for a third pint of Guinness. I have felt a greater air of menace and pent-up aggression in All Bar One on a Friday night.

About 10pm the mood changes. In the toilets, tiled in green and white stripes, a young man with ginger hair and glazed eyes, a wasted look on his pale face, is leaning against a cubicle. “Just one wee rebel song, man, just one wee song,” he says to nobody in particular before lurching out. There is a small pool of blood on the wet floor next to the urinal and an empty Buckfast bottle next to the wash basin.

The crowd thins out, leaving a dozen or so regulars. More glances are directed my way, with question marks in their eyes. “Still here?” asks a man in bunnet passing by.

Then someone is at my table. He is about 5ft 6in, with long wavy grey hair, wearing a dark shirt and dress trousers. He looks like Roman Polanski on heroin, face heavily lined, eyes watery. “You could be polis,” he says casually. “I met two polis earlier today and do you know what really pissed me off? They were nice guys. I hate polis. What’s your name?” I tell him. “Kenny? You orange bastard.” The tone is still calm but the watery eyes have turned to ice.

He bends close. “You know what I am? I’m 47 years old and violent as f***. I just don’t care, and I’ve never been caught. You know how a knee-capping works? Get him right there.” He stabs a forefinger into a hollow on the side of my right knee. “You know what they say when you do it? They say, ‘Oh ya bastard!’ That’s what they say.” I make an innocuous comment as he turns away, and he swings back, anger whitening his face. “Don’t shout after my back! Don’t call me a c*** behind my back! Calling me a c***!” He stalks back to the bar and sits watching me.

Empty threat or a close encounter with a sectarian gangster? Probably the former but hard to be sure. That is the difficulty with pubs like the Brazen Head. Where does cultural affinity stop and sectarianism begin? Despite the repertoire of the pub’s favourite bands, once plainly advertised on its website but now removed, there is no paramilitary regalia on show in the Brazen Head, no sectarian graffiti in the toilets. On the ceiling hang the starry plough of the Irish Citizen Army and the quartered flag showing the symbols of the four provinces of a united Ireland. But it is not a criminal offence to be an Irish nationalist.

To much of Glasgow’s Catholic community the bar is a cherished part of their culture. Billy McNeill, Dixie Deans and other Celtic heroes chose the Brazen Head for an unofficial wake for Bobby Murdoch when the Lisbon Lion died two years ago.

The Scottish executive and the police are newly intolerant of sectarianism and religious or paramilitary hatred. But one man’s devout Catholic and Celtic fan is another man’s sectarian bigot.

McAveety, himself brought up a Catholic and a passionate Celtic fan, has no problem with the Brazen Head or the Rangers pubs elsewhere in his constituency in Bridgeton Cross. “If there is evidence of paramilitary recruitment and fundraising it is a different matter,” he says, “but you cannot airbrush out of modern society people’s identity, their affinity and how they see themselves. A tolerant Scotland has got to respect all of those traditions.”

McAveety supports the view of the Brazen Head’s licensee, 60-year-old Franco Fraioli, that the problems ascribed to the pub are the problems of the Gorbals as a whole. The licensee for 23 years, he says most of what the police hold him responsible for happened outside the bar. “What do they expect me to do — walk customers home? This is damaging to relations with the Catholic community. The police are being racist. My pub is a community pub. It just so happens that 72% of the Gorbals is Irish or of Irish descent.”

The arguments over the Brazen Head are a warning of difficulties ahead. Take the way Strathclyde police dealt with two bars in North Lanarkshire, where the licensing board seems more willing to take the advice of senior police. Some of the evidence used in suspension cases against McCormick’s in Bellshill and Kennedy’s in Airdrie was irrefutable: the display of pictures of IRA hunger strikers and material relating to loyalist paramilitary groups.

But other police evidence mentioned the presence of pictures of republican heroes from the 1916 Easter Rising. Some of these men were the begetters of the modern state of Ireland and are legitimately honoured in that country. One of them was the Edinburgh-born James Connolly. Should it be illegal for Scots of Irish descent to celebrate him and his colleagues? Licensing-board hearings are in danger of turning into history and sociology seminars, as councillors debate when does the celebration of your own culture turn into the disparagement of someone else’s.

Twenty minutes after our heartwarming little chat, the would-be knee-capper comes back to my table. I appear to have passed some kind of test. “You’re all right pal. You take it easy.” He heads to the toilet. I take my cue, drink up and make for the door. On my way out I receive a benedictory “good night” from John Paul. Outside, the Norfolk Road flats tower into the night sky. On the walk back to the city centre, a red stump of decaying sandstone tenement is the only reminder left of the lost Gorbals, an ugly and proud place with its own soiled grandeur. Well, maybe not the only reminder.