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How the Great Hunger Changed Glasgow

19th May, National Famine Commemoration 2019, Sligo City.

The Great Hunger, commonly known as the Irish Potato Famine, was a watershed moment in Irish history, changing the country forever. Mass starvation, widespread disease, and emigration in this period saw the population of Ireland drop by 20%, with the slow, ineffective response of the British government damaging relations between England and Ireland for generations, and even provoking suggestions of genocide against the Irish people.

The impact of The Great Hunger is well documented by researchers and historians, stories of this period are still a common theme in Irish culture 174 years later, and the legacy of this terrible period lives on across the world.

Every year the National Famine Commemoration Committee hold a National Famine Commemoration Day to pay tribute to all those who died or were displaced by the Great Hunger of 1845-1849. This year’s commemoration is to be held today in the city of Sligo – just 15 miles from the home of Brother Walfrid, whose actions arguably left one of the greatest impressions on Glasgow with the foundation of Celtic FC.

Referred to as the single biggest social disaster in 19th century Europe, The Great Hunger forever changed the demographic, cultural and political landscapes of Ireland, Scotland and beyond. The cheapest routes of escape were to the port cities of Glasgow and Liverpool, while many others took their chances aboard infamous coffin ships crossing the Atlantic for the likes of Boston and New York City.

Of the one million who emigrated during this time, approximately 100,000 settled in Glasgow, a huge influx for a city whose population in the 1840s was around a quarter of a million. 10,000 Irish migrants arrived on the Broomielaw in one week alone in 1847, and by the 1880s an estimated 300,000 had left Ireland for Glasgow.

Most ships from Ireland docked near Glasgow Green and, owing to disease and lack of money, most people stayed fairly close to this area. Many travelled up Saltmarket to High Street and the Gallowgate, settling in cheap housing in the Carlton district of the city. Conditions in Glasgow’s slums were often cited as the worst in Britain at that time. Up to ten people were squashed into each room in tenement buildings, which lacked clean water or sanitary provisions. Disease and ill health were rife throughout the city, all of which lead to Glasgow experiencing the worst rates of infant mortality and life expectancy in Europe.

As Glasgow was a predominantly Protestant city in the 19th century, at the beginning of the famine, there were only five Catholic churches in the city. However, the large majority of those seeking refuge from the Famine were Catholic, and by the mid 1880s there was more than ten times that number, serving the city’s new, mostly Catholic population.

As well as influencing the religious landscape of Glasgow, it has also been suggested that the large Irish community helped to give the city its unmistakable accent. Much like in the cities of Liverpool and Boston, which also saw high levels of immigration during the famine, the Glaswegian accent stands out distinctly compared to those of nearby areas. Some historians and linguists have attributed this to the high levels of immigration seen during the 19th century. Along with those fleeing the famine, Glasgow also saw large numbers of Italian and Eastern European migrants settle in the city, and this cultural melting pot all contributed to the Glaswegian accent we all know today.

In Victorian Britain, state funding for education only covered Protestant schools, and therefore families had to pay for their children to attend Catholic schools. Prices ranged from one to five pennies per child per week, depending on the child’s age, but such was the hardship faced by Irish Catholic immigrants at this time that even one penny a week was difficult to spare. To ensure children were able to attend school, Catholic teaching order the Marist Brothers set up Catholic schools throughout Glasgow’s East End, with the costs covered by the St Vincent De Paul Parish Conference – a charitable Catholic organisation focused on the sanctification of its members through service and education to the poor.

The first of these schools was St Mungo’s Academy in the Royston district of Glasgow in the 1850s, which also ran night classes for the community’s adults to help improve their job prospects. Members of the Marist Brothers order continued to set up Catholic schools throughout Glasgow’s East End, helping generations of Irish Catholics gain an education and employment, as well as diverting the community’s youth away from crime.

In the early 1880s, one of the most well known Marist Brothers, Brother Walfrid, set up the penny dinner scheme at one of the order’s schools – Sacred Heart in Bridgeton. The scheme served school children a hot meal for the price of one penny, or soup for a halfpenny, and was eventually extended to include the unemployed and elderly members of the community. Brother Walfrid worked with his fellow Marist Brothers to establish the penny dinner scheme in other Catholic schools throughout Glasgow’s East End.

No hungry child was turned away, and while the St Vincent De Paul Parish Conference helped cover the costs for those who could not afford to pay, soon the scheme was serving over 1000 meals every week, and more fundraising efforts were required to sustain the community dinner tables.

It was through this need for funding, that one of the biggest impacts of the Irish famine and subsequent emigration was felt in Glasgow – the creation of Celtic Football Club.

Brother Walfrid had seen the growing popularity of football throughout Glasgow, with local matches regularly drawing in crowds of 5,000 spectators, all paying an admission fee. With this in mind he began organising charity matches to raise money for the community dinner tables. In 1887 he saw the potential for a full time Catholic team in Glasgow, and in St Mary’s Church, Calton, Celtic was born.

Celtic was set afloat with the simple mission that profits would be reinvested in the community via the penny dinner scheme and free education, with the club making £400 in their first year, approximately £40,000 in today’s economy. Their first game was a 5-2 win over Rangers FC in front of a crowd of 5,000, within five years Celtic were attracting crowds of 40,000 to their cup winning matches.

From cultural events such as St Patrick Day’s celebrations in New York, to the distinctive accents of Glasgow and Liverpool, and sports teams like Celtic FC and the Boston Celtics, the Famine, and subsequent migration, has influenced millions in the cities where this displaced community forged new homes.

Despite Brother Walfrid’s life changing contributions to Glasgow’s Irish Catholic community, and his role in founding Celtic FC, little is actually known about him. The Nine Muses have commissioned a PhD in the study of his life, which is being undertaken by economic and social history graduate Michael Connelly at the University of Stirling, supervised by Dr Joe Bradley.

Are you a relative of Andrew Kerins?

Despite his legacy as founder of Celtic FC, little is known about Brother Walfrid’s life, and we want to change that, but we need your help.

... continue reading.

May is Local and Community History Month, and we’re always striving to find out more about Celtic FC founder Andrew Kerins, better known as Brother Walfrid, the Catholic missionary who used football to transform the lives of people in Glasgow’s East End. 

Despite Brother Walfrid being arguably one of the most influential figures on early Scottish football, relatively little is known about his life, especially the first years he spent in Glasgow in the 1850s. We want to change that and raise awareness of his life and work.

So if you’re a relative of Brother Walfrid, know someone who is, or have any information about his life, please get in touch with us now!

The Nine Muses have commissioned a PhD in the study of his life, which is being undertaken by economic and social history graduate Michael Connelly at the University of Stirling, supervised by Dr Joe Bradley.

Changing Lives Through Celtic

The motto of the Marist Brothers, the order to which Brother Walfrid belonged, is Ignoti et quasi occulti in hoc mundo or Hidden and unknown in the world. But nothing could be further from the truth in the case of Brother Walfrid, whose legacy includes transforming lives in Glasgow’s East End and creating one of the world’s most famous football clubs.

... continue reading.

Today marks 104 years since the death of Andrew Kerins, better known as Brother Walfrid, founder of Celtic Football Club.

The motto of the Marist Brothers, the order to which Brother Walfrid belonged, is Ignoti et quasi occulti in hoc mundo or Hidden and unknown in the world. But nothing could be further from the truth in the case of Brother Walfrid, whose legacy includes transforming lives in Glasgow’s East End and creating one of the world’s most famous football clubs.

So how did the son of Irish peasant farmers, who was forced to leave his home in famine ravaged County Sligo as a teenager, go on to become what the University of Edinburgh’s Professor Sir Tom Devine describes as “the sporting champion of the Irish Catholic immigrant class”?

Between 1845 and 1849 a potato blight struck Europe, destroying potato harvests across the continent. Due to the Irish reliance on potatoes for food and money, the country was hit worse than the rest of Europe and lead to The Irish Potato Famine, also known as The Great Hunger. The population of Ireland went from 8.4 million to 6.6 million in this period, followed by many more years of emigration, 1 million people died in Ireland as a result of starvation and disease, and 1 million more emigrated to Great Britain and the USA, 100,000 of them settling in Glasgow’s East End.

While life in Ireland during this time was dire, life in the predominantly Protestant Glasgow was not for the faint of heart either. Most of this displaced Irish community settled in the East End district of Calton, with the deprived conditions of Glasgow’s slums some of the worst across 19th century Europe, and basics such as clean water and enough food to feed the family almost impossible to come by.

This was the Glasgow that greeted 15 year old Andrew Kerins in 1855, as he looked for work on Scotland’s railways.

In 1864 Kerins left Glasgow for France to join the Marist Brothers and train as a teacher, returning to Glasgow two years later as Brother Walfrid to take up his first teaching post at the school attached to St Mary’s Church in Calton. He would later become headmaster of Sacred Heart School in the neighbouring district of Bridgeton.

In both schools he would set up youth football leagues to keep the districts’ young people out of trouble, a literary society to improve literacy and job prospects amongst Irish immigrants, and the penny dinner scheme. At this time Catholic schools were outwith the state education system, receiving no funding or support from the government; families had to pay. Prices ranged from one to four pennies per week, and such was the hardship faced by this community that even one penny a week was difficult to spare. Those who could not afford to pay the school fees often had the costs met by the local St Vincent De Paul Parish Conference, a charitable Catholic organisation focused on the sanctification of its members through service to the poor. Brother Walfrid also developed a network of contacts in the city’s East End to help identify work placements for when his pupils came of age.

The penny dinner scheme was set up to feed school children at St Mary’s for a contribution of one penny, and those who could not afford to pay were still fed, with funds being raised throughout the parish to pay for those who could not afford it. The scheme was extended to include the unemployed and those too old or infirm to work.

At the same time football was rapidly growing in popularity across Scotland, with games drawing regular crowds who all paid an entrance fee. Brother Walfrid saw this as an opportunity to raise funds for free education, the penny dinner scheme and other charitable causes throughout the East End of Glasgow, all with the aim of alleviating the terrible poverty of the area, and helping Irish Catholic immigrants to help themselves.

In 1886 Brother Walfrid invited Hibernian FC, the most popular Catholic team at the time, to play a charity match in Glasgow. A series of charity matches followed, and Brother Walfrid saw the potential for a Glasgow to have a full time Catholic team. In November 1887 in St Mary’s Church, Carlton, The Celtic was founded:
“The main objective of the club is 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.”

The name Celtic was Brother Walfrid’s suggestion as a tribute to the team’s Irish and Catholic roots, although he pronounced it ‘Keltic’ rather than ‘Seltic’ as we know it today.

Celtic FC played their first match, rather fittingly, against Rangers FC in May 1888, beating Rangers 5-2, in front of 5,000 spectators. The profits were reinvested in the local community, funding Catholic schools, community dinner tables, and night classes throughout Calton and other areas in the East End of Glasgow where the Marist Brothers taught.

Four years later Celtic won the Scottish Cup and were drawing in crowds of up to 40,000. The rest, as they say, is history.

Brother Walfrid left Glasgow in 1892 to teach in deprived areas of East London before eventually returning to Scotland in 1912 to see out his final years at the Marist Brothers home in Dumfries.

While many see Celtic as Brother Walfrid’s greatest achievement, it was not in itself an end, but rather a means of raising funds for the projects he created to help the Irish Catholic communities of Glasgow. In their first year, Celtic raised £400 – around £40,000 in today’s money. During his time in Glasgow, Brother Walfrid changed the lives of three generations of Irish Catholic immigrants through sport and education.

The charitable spirit with which Celtic was founded continues to this day, with the Celtic FC Foundation having raised more than £8 million since 1995 for local, national and international causes; the club continuing to use sport to change lives.

Little is known about what Brother Walfrid thought of Celtic and his worldwide legacy, but many years after leaving Glasgow he is said to have remarked:
Well well. Time has brought changes and outside ourselves there are few left of the old brigade. I know none of these present players, but they are under the old colours and quartered in dear old quarters – and that suffices.”

Despite Brother Walfrid’s life changing contributions to Glasgow’s Irish Catholic community, and his role in founding Celtic FC, little is actually known about him. The Nine Muses have commissioned a PhD in the study of his life, which is being undertaken by economic and social history graduate Michael Connelly at the University of Stirling, supervised by Dr Joe Bradley. 

Brother Walfrid’s 12 Days of Christmas: Day Nine!

FAITH: Football, Art & Anorexia.

There are a few meanings of Faith and these never ring truer than when it comes to Celtic Football Club.

It is really hard to pinpoint where my personal religious experiences with Celtic began but I can think all day long of encounters I have had with my Faith and Celtic.

Again it seems fitting to explore this on the 12 Days of Christmas Blog series as Faith and Religion really come to the forefront at this time of year, I know i feel so Thankful at this time of year for my blessings, friends & Family and many other things that have restored my “Faith” over the years.

I suppose my own experience with Faith and Religion really came to fruition when I was in my teenage years. I was diagnosed with Acute Anorexia Nervosa when I was age 15 and I had a rapid decline in the depths of an eating disorder that would take away my whole adolescence. My parents were distraught and I remember my mum really calling back to her “Faith”.

She invited religious messengers into the house to pray for me, share presentations, watch religious short stories and read from the Bible, she took me back to Church and prayed for me openly. When I was hospitalised for the eating disorder later that year I think I felt I was truly praying for myself. How was I going to get through this?

I have gifted a Peter Howson Pastel, it was to be the first in my collection, called ‘The Third Step’ and it depicted a naked man lying in the dirt, dragging himself to savior with a church in the distance. At that moment this piece of art illustrated everything I was and what I was trying to do and it hung, despite its worth on my hospital room wall to inspire me.

I had struck up a friendship with Peter Howson a few years after that and he used to come visit me in hospital, unfortunately, every relapse in my Anorexia I had was worse each time.Ultimately reaching under 3 stone I was a complete shell of my former self and controlled by an Anorexia mind. Peter would send me Christmas cards with religious figures and scriptures from the bible each one giving me more “Faith” to keep going. I would go on to commission works by him that were drawn and painted from paragraphs I’d written about my illness and my idea of religion. Dark, Dark paragraphs that only looking back on can I see how ill I was, completely in denial at the time.

I’ve always had a connection with Celtic but this just grew massively when I started exploring and researching its Religious and Faithful origins. It is worth noting at this stage that I am completely healthy and have been for around 8 years- I have two children and work hard at my business… I have massively been able to fight my eating disorder whilst exploring into the Faith of Celtic Football Club, by learning and learning from Brother Walfrid’s life and most importantly his character of strength, kindness, gumption, and tenacity.


Brother Walfrid full image Peter Howson artist.

The iconic image of Brother Walfrid painted by Peter Howson, and commissioned by Nine Muses.

Throughout this time of exploring Brother Walfrid in the context of the Irish famine and in the depiction by Peter Howson from his famous painting, I have been healthy and thankful….This is not a coincidence.

All the qualities of Brother Walfrid I have come to learn, this painting has inspired me to focus on… I have never felt closer to my faith than when I have been Celtic Minded.

Surely Art and Walfrid could inspire so many others – the spirit of Walfrid could change lives forever and by exploring it through art as we have here, we can show the despair, the torment, the isolation, the depression and starvation but also the saviour and beacon of light, We can tell his story through a single image.

When I was speaking to Phil Mac Giolla Bhan on the phone on Wednesday he made the although controversial but true statement “No famine….No Celtic.” This also seemed very true to me when I was starting the Peter Howson Brother, Walfrid Project.

You cant tell his story without taking into consideration the Irish immigrant community and their journeys, it is then we can draw inspiration and Faith from Walfrid.


Faith is huge and immense when it comes to Celtic Football Club that goes without saying but I see so many angles on the definition of that word these days.

Like the Faith that was restored to Fans when Brendan Rodgers became the manager and created that invincible team.

The Faith that echoes and vibrates through the veins of every single fan as they stand in the cold singing those epic songs.

The Faith the fans relived through the ’67’ celebrations, the passion that was reignited seeing the footage of the Lisbon Lions.

The club was formed when a downtrodden community on had Church as a place of refuge, the stadium was to be an extension of their faith and religion …”Like moving from the graveyard to Paradise” its nickname itself with such obvious religious overtones, such a perfect name for the stadium that captures the supreme love that people have for this football super-power AND everything its origins represent.

When I initially went to meet Fr. Tom White of St.Marys Carlton because we wanted to give back to the parish, we wanted to give to the original site where these very first acts of charity were displayed, where faith in the community was the driving force for offering shelter, support and of course The Penny Dinners.

The Church halls where the club was formed and where the community would gather for their meals no longer exists so we wanted to explore the possibility of helping rebuild that. If we could support the re-establishment of the foundation for Celtic’s original Ethos then that would be a great way of bringing the culture full circle, hence why we give 30% to St.Mary’s Calton along with 10% to the Celtic FC Foundation. The passion of Fr.Tom is inspiring, a true gentleman that speaks with such knowledge of the clubs history. Every time I meet him I feel thankful for people like him, such a perfect post at St.Mary’s


To see and hear the response we have had from the Campaign for Brother Walfrid has been wonderful- The Celtic Family? I completely understand that now.

Football for Good, Art for Good, Walfrid’s Way, Paradise, a Club for all…. as corny as it sounds I know with my Faith in Brother Walfrid I truly will Never Walk Alone.

Merry Christmas