I don’t remember when I first heard about our family connection to Glasgow Celtic. That’s probably because our house revolved around sports involving four legs, rather than two. My father kept stallions and we spent our weekends going to horse shows. I was even named after showjumper Alison Dawes in the hope that I would follow in her footsteps. Unfortunately, my propensity to fall off, coupled with a spectacular lack of talent, made it abundantly clear that such optimism was gravely misplaced.
My mother was a devout Catholic and told us about her grandfather’s brother who was a Marist brother in Scotland. He had something to do with soccer too, but she liked to focus on the religious connection. Indeed, he did have something to do with soccer. It transpired that her granduncle Andrew Kerins had founded Glasgow Celtic FC.
His journey also involved a four-legged animal — a calf, to be precise. Andrew was born on a small farm outside Ballymote, Co Sligo, in 1840, the youngest of two boys. They survived the Famine but, as his brother Peter would take over the farm, there were few prospects for Andrew in rural Sligo. When he was 15, he and his friend Bart McGettrick sold a calf at the fair to raise the funds to emigrate. They took the cattle and coal boat from Sligo to Glasgow, two teenagers among the estimated 100,000 Irish refugees who arrived in Scotland during and immediately after the Famine years.
Sadly for Ballymote, the singer did not buy the farm and Rod Stewart never became a regular at the mart or the local bingo sessions
We don’t know a lot about his early years in Glasgow, but his name turned up among the employee lists of a railway engineering works in Springburn a few years after he arrived. We also know he took night classes run by the Marist Brothers. This may have inspired him to join the order and become the teacher known as Br Walfrid.
Poverty was rife in the east end of Glasgow, and he would spend his life helping deprived families. As part of his work to set up a penny dinners’ scheme for schoolchildren, he hit on the idea of running charity soccer matches to raise funds. One thing led to another, and Glasgow Celtic FC was formed in November 1887. The rewards were instant — the Celtic FC committee provided £400, worth about £50,000 today — to the St Vincent de Paul Society through match ticket sales during the 1888/89 season. Celtic FC Foundation continues that charitable work today.
Br Walfrid moved to Whitechapel in 1892, just after Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror ended. He later worked in Kent before retiring to Dumfries, but he never forgot Celtic and received the results of the matches by telegram every Saturday until his death in 1915.
The cottage where Andrew Kerins was born has long been a ruin and the farm was sold a few years ago. When it was put up for sale, there was a rumour that a big black car pulled up looking for directions to the farm. The driver told a local man that he was acting for Rod Stewart, singer and Glasgow Celtic superfan, who was thinking of buying the homestead.
Sadly for Ballymote, the singer did not buy the farm and Rod Stewart never became a regular at the mart or the local bingo sessions. But happily for Ballymote, and Celtic fans, the first biography of Br Walfrid has now been written by Dr Michael Connolly. Walfrid, a Life of Faith, Community and Football tells how his father, John, may have been jailed for debts during the Famine. According to Dr Connolly, Sligo prison was full of tenants who could not pay their rent during those turbulent years.
Meanwhile, in 1852, when the country was reeling from the after-effects of the Famine, the Kerins’ landlord — the Phibbs family — found time to attend an elite ball at Lissadell House, according to Dr Connolly. “Nothing could surpass the excellence of the arrangements in every department,” gushed the Dublin Evening Post afterwards. His book also refers to suggestions that Br Walfrid should be considered for sainthood because of his charitable work. My mother recently died and so did not live to hear this, but I suspect the suggestion of a saint in her family would have answered her lifetime of prayers.
I will make my maiden voyage to Celtic Park on November 8th to attend the book launch and see what my great granduncle started all those years ago when he sold that calf and packed his small suitcase.
I might even visit his old parish church, to keep my mother happy.
Walfrid, a Life of Faith, Community and Football by Dr Michael Connolly is published by thirstybooks.com.