Immigrants have many faces.
This boy left home as an unaccompanied minor when he was 15 to escape the aftermath of a famine. He crossed the water to a foreign land with thousands of his fellow citizens. They were not universally welcome and some people blamed them for spreading disease and causing crime.
When they looked at this 15-year-old, could they have imagined that statues and memorials would be erected in his honour one day? Could they have thought that he would grow up to help thousands of needy families? They certainly could never have dreamt that he would be the founder of Glasgow Celtic.
Andrew Kerins, who would later become a Marist Brother known as Brother Walfrid, was my great-grand uncle. He came from humble beginnings, born on a small farm near Ballymote, Co Sligo. He was just five years old when the Famine started and was lucky to survive. But with his older brother taking over the family farm, there was nothing for him in a place that had been ravaged by the Famine.
I can’t imagine what the 15-year-old faced when he left Ireland for Scotland with his meagre belongings in 1855. He travelled with his schoolfriend Bart McGettrick, which must have provided a crumb of comfort to both of them. They sold a calf to pay their fare from Sligo harbour to Glasgow. Sligo would have felt like a metropolis to him, so Glasgow must have been a real assault on his senses.
According to Dr Michael Connolly’s biography, Walfrid, a Life of Faith, Community and Football, he arrived to “abject urban poverty” where conditions were brutal and the dictum that “No Catholics or Irish need apply” was common currency well into the 20th century.
In fact, 100 years ago the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland approved a report from one of its committees, titled The Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality which talked about the alarm and anxiety caused by the “incursion” of Irish Catholics. It warned that when Scottish people realised the Irish were “a menace to their own racial supremacy in their native land”, there would be race antagonism “with disastrous consequences”.
It claimed that Irish Catholics were, generally speaking, “poor, partly through intemperance and improvidence and they show little inclination to raise themselves in the social scale”. Deportation was one possible solution to protect the “destruction of the unity and homogeneity of the Scottish population” and to “preserve Scotland for the Scottish race”.
It sounds wearingly familiar, a century later. In 2002, the Church of Scotland apologised for endorsing the report, saying it was time to consign bigotry to the history books.
Young Andrew Kerins was a devout Catholic who worked in a railway yard and attended night classes. This is where we think he first encountered the Marist Brothers and found his vocation. Like him, the religious order was a new arrival in Glasgow. The first Brothers arrived in 1858 at the request of Bishop John Murdoch who needed help providing a Catholic education to the burgeoning Catholic population. Irish immigrants would play a key role in providing this education.
In 1864 Andrew Kerins travelled to the Marist base at Beauchamps in France as a postulant and returned as Brother Walfrid. Of the 18 postulants who had gone to France by then, 13 were Irish-born. He became a teacher and later, headmaster, working in impoverished areas of Glasgow, where some parents had to choose between paying the small school fee or putting food on the table.
This was the impetus for running a penny dinner scheme at his school, and at the school of his colleague, Brother Dorotheus. The two men ran charity soccer matches to raise funds for the hot meals scheme.
And then they decided on a permanent solution – the setting up of a Glasgow soccer club that would provide a regular source of funds for the hot meal scheme. The rest is history. Today Glasgow Celtic has more than nine million supporters in over 30 countries and its charitable foundation has raised more than £30 million (almost €34 million) for worthwhile causes.
How much poorer would Glasgow be today if young Andrew Kerins had been deported with his fellow countrymen, as some people had wished? And how much untapped potential lies in the children who arrive on our shores today, clutching their belongings?
Let’s celebrate these hopeful stories. That’s why I wrote The Boy Who Started Celtic, a children’s book about the life of Brother Walfrid. It’s a reminder to young readers that anyone can change people’s lives, no matter where they come from, or where they go to.
Andrew Kerins was once an unwelcome immigrant. Today his statue at Celtic Park looks down to the city that became his home.
Alison Healy is a journalist and children’s book author. The Boy Who Started Celtic has just been published by Argyll Publishing.