Who is Brother Walfrid?

Brother Walfrid

Brother Walfrid is widely recognised as the man who founded Celtic Football Club in 1887.

Without Walfrid there would be no Celtic.

Without Walfrid, generations of Catholics all over the world would have been a whole lot poorer, financially, culturally, and socially.

But what do we know of the man, the founder, Brother Walfrid?

Son of a peasant farmer, Andrew Kerins’ story is one of triumph over adversity. Of compassion for the poorest and most vulnerable in society. And of a worldwide legacy that endures to this day.

Graves of people who died during the Great Famine.

Great Famine

Between 1845 and 1860 the devastating effects of the Great Famine (caused by potato blight) led him and more than 100,000 others to cross the Irish Sea and settle in Scotland. Specifically, in Glasgow’s east end.

While conditions in Ireland were deplorable for the poor (many who fled Ireland were malnourished, diseased or dying) life in the east end of Glasgow was no bed of roses.

Scotland was a Protestant country that placed great emphasis on literacy and education, and the wave of new immigrants (Scotland’s population was only around three million at the time) struggled to find work and food.

Born in a farming community near County Sligo in the west of Ireland in 1840, Walfrid arrived in Glasgow in 1855 aged 15, seeking employment on the railways.

Like many periods of his life, we know little of the then Andrew Kerins’ next 13 years.

We do know that what he saw led him to France for teacher training with the Marist Brothers in 1864, before returning to Glasgow’s east end in 1868 to take up his first teaching post.

The Gallowgate, Glasgow, in 1868, photographed by Thomas Annan.

Profound Effect

For the next quarter of a century, Walfrid was to have a profound effect on the lives of three generations of Scottish Catholics living in Glasgow’s east end.

First as a teacher at a junior school in Calton, then as headmaster of Sacred Heart school in Bridgeton.

Raising the literacy and numeracy levels of the Catholic population of Glasgow.

But it was his role in providing free (or next to free) food for the children of poor Irish immigrants living in slum conditions and struggling to assimilate to a different culture, that marks him out.

It was Walfrid who established the “penny dinner” scheme in the east end of Glasgow, and it was Walfrid who set up boys’ clubs, and literary societies to promote reading; elevating the lives of tens of thousands of schoolchildren during his 24-year tenure in the city.

The Potential of Football

And it was Walfrid who spotted the potential of football, a sport mushrooming in popularity in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Potential to feed the needy, create community, a force for good.

As social historian Dr Joe Bradley of the University of Stirling commented: “Football was becoming the most popular sport in Britain at the time, certainly among the working classes.

“He saw the potential. 

“Money was there to be made and there was nothing wrong in that, so long as the money was to be used for the right purposes. In conjunction with the St. Vincent De Paul Society, Walfrid made money to rescue people, to educate people, to feed people, and to rebuild this community that was profoundly broken.”

The Birth of Celtic

And so it was that in a meeting at St. Mary’s Church hall in the Calton area of Glasgow’s east end on November 6 1887, with little fanfare (apart from a constitution penned by the meticulous Brother Walfrid), that “the Celtic” was formed to:

“Supply the East End conferences of the St. Vincent De Paul Society with funds for the maintenance of the ‘Dinner Tables’ of our needy children in the Missions of St. Mary’s, Sacred Heart, and St. Michael’s. Many cases of sheer poverty are left unaided through lack of means. It is therefore with this principle object that we have set afloat the Celtic.”

Humble

A humble man, Brother Walfrid’s ability to provide support and inspiration to a poor, disadvantaged and displaced Catholic community was prized by his religious order, the Marist Brothers.

So much so that in 1892 he was headhunted to the Spitalfields area of London, a place with many of the same profound literacy and poverty challenges faced by Catholics in Glasgow’s east end.

Aged 71 (he worked well past his retirement age) and now stationed in Canterbury, Walfrid retired.

And it was back to Scotland for Andrew Kerins, who saw out his final four years at the educational institution in Dumfries he had helped to found while in Glasgow: St. Joseph’s College.

Brother Walfrid’s Legacy

No-one knows what he thought of his worldwide legacy, what Scotland’s leading historian, Professor Sir Tom Devine, speaking of Celtic F.C., has called: “the sporting champion of the Irish Catholic immigrant class.”

But perhaps a fitting epitaph is this.

Many years after he left Glasgow, when he saw the Celtic team returning from playing a match in Europe, he is said to have remarked:

Well well. Time has brought changes and outside ourselves there are few left of the old (team). I know none of these present players, but they are under the old colours and quartered in dear old quarters – and that suffices…

1990s

Walfrid remained a largely forgotten figure for much of the twentieth century but in the late 90s as interest in the so-called “Irish diaspora” burgeoned there was renewed attention too on the man who did so many good works in Glasgow.

A man who changed tens of thousands of Catholics’ lives for the better (and through his enduring legacy, Celtic F.C, tens of millions).

Statues have sprung up in his birthplace Ballymote and in pride of place outside Celtic Park itself.

Celtic Par entrance Brother Walfrid statue left.Credit: Michael Melvin.

The entrance to Paradise, with Brother Walfrid’s statue on the left.

Present Day

Fast forward to the present day and it is Peter Howson’s painting of the famous man that has rekindled interest in Walfrid’s legacy.

Yet for such an important cultural figure for the Catholic community in Scotland and Celtic supporters worldwide, relatively little is known about his life and works.

Large swathes of his life are as yet undocumented and here at Nine Muses, we want to find out more.

This is why we have commissioned the world’s first PhD in Brother Walfrid.

In Celtic, Brother Walfrid has a huge legacy. And we believe he should get the recognition he deserves.

You can find out more about Brother Walfrid’s Life, links to Celtic and connection to the Great Famine by clicking on the pictures below.

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