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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.

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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.