Celtic’s founder – An Irishman’s Diary on Brother Walfrid
Commemorative bronze bust and sculpture of Brother Walfrid in his birthplace of Ballymote, Co Sligo
Scotland and Ireland share much common history, with many comings and goings over the years. One lesser-known link is that the Celtic Football Club was founded by an Irishman.
Andrew Kerins was his birth name, but he is best remembered by his religious name of Brother Walfrid.
Born in Ballymote, Co Sligo, in May 1840, he went to Scotland looking for work on the railways at the age of 15. Irish people had been going to Scotland as seasonal farm labourers since the early 1800s, but the flow from Ireland increased markedly due to the Famine. There was a 90 per cent growth in immigration from Ireland to Scotland between 1841 and 1851. Almost a third of the Irish who went to Scotland settled in Glasgow and sought work as dock workers, in the shipbuilding industry or in other industries that grew up along the Clyde.
Today, Scotland’s largest immigrant group is made up of people who left the island of Ireland.
In 1864, Andrew Kerins joined the Marist Brothers, a Catholic religious order dedicated to educating the young, especially the poor. He was brought to the order’s house in Beauchamps in northern France to train for four years. When he returned to Glasgow, Brother Walfrid was sent to teach in a junior school associated with St Mary’s Church in Calton in the city’s East End, a poor area where many Irish immigrants had settled. He soon established a football league in the school. He was then appointed as headmaster in the Sacred Heart School in Bridgeton, Glasgow in 1874.
Poverty, hunger and disease were rife among the poor of his parish. This prompted Walfrid to establish “penny dinner” tables to ensure that the children would get at least one meal a day. He raised money for his initiatives through charity football matches. He even established several football clubs, but they did not survive. All except one, that is.
The Celtic Football and Athletic Club was founded in November 1887 in St Mary’s Church Hall in Calton to raise money for deserving children. A circular noted that the club’s “main object 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”.
Walfrid proposed the name Celtic because he was keen to show the strong historic ties between Ireland and Scotland. There was some opposition to the name at the founding meeting, but Walfrid stood his course and eventually got the agreement of the rest of the committee. Interestingly, Walfrid pronounced it as “Keltic”, as opposed to the now common pronunciation of “Seltic”.
The club played their first match in the newly built Celtic Park in May 1888. It was a friendly against Rangers, and Celtic won 5-2 in front of a crowd of 2,000 spectators. The team wore white shirts with a green collar and a Celtic cross in green and red on the right breast. The club would go on to win a host of Scottish titles as well as a European Cup.
Celtic is not the only Scottish football club with a firm Irish connection. Hibernian FC was set up in Edinburgh in 1875 by a group of Irishmen.
The names of some other Scottish clubs can’t help to hide where their founders came from – Harp, Shamrock, Emerald and Emmet.
Walfrid was transferred to a school in Spitalfields in London in 1892. Here, he was involved with establishing a club for boys and providing meals for the young and the elderly. He was later tasked with overseeing the transfer of the Marist Brothers’ Novitiate House from Beauchamps in France to Kent in England.
He spent the last years of his life in retirement in Scotland and died there in 1915. He is buried in Dumfries.
The work done by Walfrid for the poor has not been forgotten. There are at least two monuments to him; one in his native Ballymote and one in his adoptive home of Glasgow.
In Ballymote, the Brother Walfrid Memorial Park (also known as Corran Park) is seen as a place of pilgrimage for the most fervent of Celtic supporters. A large bronze bust of Walfrid sits on a stone column. The club’s badge, with its four-leaf clover, appears behind the bust.
In Glasgow a bronze statue to Walfrid sits outside Celtic Park. The statue is mounted on a black granite plinth. It was paid for by Celtic supporters and is often adorned with green and white club scarves in advance of matches, a fitting tribute to the man who had the vision to establish the club whose sole objective was to help the less well-off in society.