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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.