Extract from John Reid’s new book on Irish famine

IN AN exclusive extract from a new book about the Irish Famine, John Reid says that without the Great Hunger, it is unlikely there would ever have been a Celtic Football Club.

IN AN exclusive extract from a new book about the Irish Famine, John Reid says that without the Great Hunger, it is unlikely there would ever have been a Celtic Football Club.

The processes of urbanisation, industrialisation and the concomitant rise in population, yielded great extremes of wealth and poverty in Glasgow. In such an environment, it is not difficult to see how the growth of organised sport, particularly football for the working classes, represented a bright light in the dark lives of many people. But in the case of Celtic, there were driving forces other than leisure and recreation.

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Despite some advances in the provision of support for the poor on the part of the Board of Supervision and Poor Relief, during the period of Celtic’s founding, the vast majority of Glasgow’s poor had no safety net. This was at a time when medical science had no answers to the tuberculosis, whooping cough and measles that contributed to the persistence of appalling mortality rates among infants. Around six out of 1,000 pregnancies ended with the death of the mother.

Ill-health accompanied poverty and social deprivation, even among the employed. In the 1880s, almost 27 per cent of the adult male workforce in Glasgow earned no more than the basic minimum of £1 per week. Many people were frequently unemployed, while some of the worst housing in Europe existed in the Glasgow area. Despite Glasgow being well on its way to becoming the shipbuilding capital of the world during the 1880s, with the Clyde producing almost a fifth of the world’s shipping output by the time of the First World War, the life expectancy for men in Scotland was 42 and for women 45.

In the decades after the Great Hunger had subsided, football had become a highly popular game throughout Britain, especially among the working classes. In Glasgow, Sligo-born Brother Walfrid, a member of the Catholic Marist order, and some of his Irish-Catholic immigrant compatriots, saw in the development of the game an opportunity to raise money and feed poor immigrant Irish Catholics in the east end of the city. Walfrid, whose real name was Andrew Kerrins, had been a child in Ballymote, Co Sligo, during the famine and had witnessed much suffering firsthand. In promoting his idea of founding Celtic, Walfrid, a teaching missionary to the Irish-Catholic community in Glasgow, intended also to keep Catholics within the faith (and out of the reaches of proselytism via Protestant soup kitchens), while also raising the confidence and moral of that community. Although several men were crucial to the foundation and success of Celtic Football Club, it is Brother Walfrid who is generally credited as providing the main driving force in its foundation.

At the time of Celtic’s founding in 1887-88, the words Catholic and Irish were interchangeable in the west of Scotland. And charitable, social and political activities were equally intertwined. Celtic’s donations to charity frequently included causes such as the Evicted Tenants’ Fund, then an important feature of Irish nationalist politics; and like many other members of their community, they were also pre-occupied with the perennial question of Irish politics, Home Rule. For example, John Glass (of Donegal parentage), president and director of the club in its formative years, was an outstanding figure in nationalist circles, prominent in the Catholic Union, a founder of the O’Connell branch of the Irish National Foresters and treasurer of the Home Government branch of the United Irish League. Another member, William McKillop, became MP for North Sligo while celebrated Irish patriot Michael Davitt (former revolutionary/Fenian and founder of the Irish Land League), was one of the club’s original patrons.

And the efforts and energies of all associated with Celtic often extended well beyond just Home Rule-related issues. In Scotland, for instance, they were directed into supporting the contentious Catholic endeavour to have their schools brought within the state-funded system in Scotland.

So, while the origins of Celtic can certainly be placed within the context of the spread of football and football clubs as a recreational phenomenon accompanying the growth of the industrial and working class, it is equally certain that, with Celtic, there were unique additional characteristics. The founding of Celtic FC from within the Irish Catholic immigrant community became a symbol of pride while reflecting a capacity to celebrate heritage and culture, despite often-abject misery and poverty and religious and social marginalisation.

But much more than this, this new Scottish football club, though steeped in its Irish heritage, chose through its very name – Celtic – to build a linking bridge between the Irish and the Scottish, between past and present, and signalled from the beginning in its aspiration and approach a rejection of the very discriminatory conditions which surrounded it. Crucially then, though Celtic was founded by and primarily for Irish Catholics, it was never exclusively so.

The club’s subsequent history of employing as players and staff, and being supported by people, of all religions and none, has reflected this ethos. And so, although a part of the region’s Irish heritage, Celtic’s involvement in football allowed its supporting Catholic immigrant community to integrate with and share in a popular cultural activity of many people in Scotland. Football and Celtic provided avenues for interaction and co-operation with the host community, despite ethnic cleavage in the wider society.

Celtic’s hybrid nature as a central aspect of the Irish diaspora in Scotland positioned it as a Scottish institution of Irish heritage. It was in that way that it became known locally, internationally and then globally. By the 1960s and 1970s, Celtic had become one of the greatest teams in world football, winning the European Champions Cup in 1967.

Members of the Irish community in Glasgow who had lived through the famine and its consequences in both Ireland and Scotland were the people who founded Celtic FC. The club was initially supported by members of the same community while many of its first players were the direct offspring of people who had survived the Great Hunger.

In this new millennium, and as the jewel in the sporting crown of the Irish diaspora, most of the club’s support is made up from descendents of famine and subsequent generations of Irish immigrants to Scotland. Unlike any other such sporting institution, Irishness is celebrated and can be witnessed at Celtic matches and social gatherings through the songs, colours and flags of its army of supporters. Since the early 1990s, one of the club’s most significant anthems has been the Irish ballad The Fields of Athenry, which tells a small though important story of love, rebellion and emigration during the famine.

So it was fitting that, in 2009, Celtic FC joined in with others in Ireland and among the Irish diaspora worldwide to remember Ireland’s Great Hunger by wearing a match jersey embroidered with a commemorative Celtic Cross and the words “Irish National Memorial Day” included.

“Man’s inhumanity to man”, wrote Burns, “makes countless thousands mourn.” The Great Irish Hunger of the mid-19th century destroyed and rendered desolate the lives of millions. The legacy of the famine lives on in the economic, social, cultural and political lives of subsequent generations of people who remain on the island of Ireland as well as among the multi-generational diaspora abroad.

Among the many relevant narratives of the Irish Famine experience in Ireland and particularly the diaspora, those pertaining to Scotland have often been marginalised or omitted in relevant commentary. This short history of some aspects of that experience reveals that accounts of how the Great Irish Famine subsequently affected life in Scotland reflect comparable as well as rich and distinctive features among the narratives that comprise the broader famine story.

This year, as in previous years, all associated with Celtic FC will commemorate the Irish Famine and those whose lives were lost or blighted as a result. Without the Great Hunger, it is unlikely that there would ever have been a Celtic Football Club. Perhaps those of us at Celtic could claim, though in a much more modest way, that without Celtic Football Club there would be one less living, breathing, celebrated reminder of the awful consequences of that terrible and historic tragedy, the Irish Famine.

• John Reid is a former UK cabinet minister and former chairman of Glasgow Celtic FC. This is an extract of his contribution, Irish Famine Refugees and the Emergence of Celtic Football Club, to The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, published by Cork University Press and launched last night. More details at http://greatirishfamine.ie