Political Football – No.1 Celtic FC and the campaign for Irish Home Rule


In 1896 the island of Ireland was firmly under British rule.  Some civil rights had gradually been extended to the Catholic population through the nineteenth century due to the efforts of campaigning lawyer Daniel O’Connell.  The increasingly influential Irish Party at Westminster had supported two unsuccessful attempts by the Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone to pass an Irish Home Rule Act in 1886 and 1893.  No sustained armed campaign had been attempted for over a decade.  Charles Parnell had died – in disgrace and defeat – a few years earlier and the struggle for Irish freedom had effectively stalled.

The campaign for self-determination was given new impetus by an idea from John Walsh, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Toronto.  This exiled Irishman had proposed that “a great National Convention, speaking with the authority of the nation, and voicing its fixed and unalterable purpose to labour for and to win the right of self-government, would give new hope and heart energy to Irishmen at home and abroad.”  The idea took hold and plans were made for an assembly to be held in Dublin which would be “representative of the Irish race throughout the world.”  The objective was to force the British into conceding a Dublin parliament to the Irish people.


The impressive Leinster Hall in Hawkins Street was home to the Irish Race Convention over three days in September 1896.  Almost 3,000 delegates attended from all corners of the world including the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as various European countries and of course Ireland itself, to debate issues surrounding Irish sovereignty.  The Convention represented a clear challenge to British rule and an assertion that the Irish people – with the support of the global Irish diaspora – were ready to govern themselves without foreign oversight or interference.

The outstanding figure at the Convention was Michael Davitt, referred to in a newspaper at the time as “the one-armed Fenian chief, the darling son of their own Mayo, evicted like themselves, saturated with a hatred of Landlordism as fierce as their own, returning untamed by penal servitude to the old struggle, by new methods, perhaps, but with the old, unconquered men gathering behind men.”  Davitt had led the successful Land League campaigns against absentee and abject landlords.  In his address to the Convention Davitt recalled the inhumane treatment he’d been subject to in English prisons:

There is an instinct of humanity common to every created being which prompts a man to give food even to a hungry dog.  But it is left for England, enlightened England, to include semi-starvation in the system of punishment she metes out to her Irish political foes.  I have undergone over nine years imprisonment because I have been a rebel against misgovernment from the moment I was first taught that, next to my duty to God was my duty to Irish liberty, and I say here today that during seven long years of that imprisonment, under England’s system of punishment, I never for one hour ceased to feel the pangs of hunger.


Michael Davitt – ‘Tribune of the Celtic Race’, Glasgow Observer 1887

Davitt was a regular visitor to Scotland where the Irish National League (INL) was the major organisation promoting Irish self-determination.  He would usually stay at the Lenzie home of John Ferguson, his political ally and long-regarded as the figurehead of the Irish in Scotland.  Ferguson was an Ulster Protestant who had moved to Glasgow as a young man and became committed to the cause of Irish freedom.  He used his publishing business to promote associated campaigns and was the founder of the influential Home Government Branch of the INL in Glasgow, the treasurer of which was John Glass, one of the founding fathers of Celtic FC.

At various times there had been resistance from Catholic clergy and others to the status of John Ferguson as the de-facto political leader of the Irish in Scotland.   However the Home Government Branch were avowedly non-sectarian and membership was open to members of any faith or none, a philosophy shared by Celtic FC.  This was emphasised in the club’s centenary season by a modern politician who has made his way seamlessly into the Celtic boardroom, Brian Wilson.

In the official centenary history ‘A Century With Honour’ Wilson identified a group of individuals who had significant roles in the club’s early years while holding office in or being members of the Home Government Branch including John Glass, James Quillan, William and John McKillop, Hugh and Arthur Murphy and also Tom White, who went on to establish a dynasty at Celtic Park along with James Kelly’s family.  Wilson argued that the influence that this group of men exercised “ensured that the primary aim would be to create a club that was outward-looking, proudly Irish and excellent, rather than a ‘Glasgow Hibernians’ founded on the Catholic parishes.”

John Ferguson used his address to the Convention to explain how support for Irish freedom had grown across the water in Scotland:

I come from a country where we had to fight for our political rights and political existence as Irishmen a fiercer fight than any you have had perhaps in this or any country in the world. We have had Irishmen shot on the platform while maintaining our green flag above. We have had bullets through our windows to tell us of the hostile feeling of the Scottish people. That day has passed away, and we roused the spirit of Celtic kinship amongst the Scottish people, and to-day Scotland stands solid for Home Rule. 


ImageJohn Ferguson – 1879

Scottish representation at the Convention was impressive.  Delegations from Broxburn, Dumbarton, Dundee, Greenock and Hamilton were joined by ten separate branches of the INL from Glasgow.  The most remarkable delegation was the only sporting organisation of the Irish diaspora represented in Dublin – Celtic Football Club.  This delegation was made up of President Glass, Treasurer James McKay and former player and new Secretary, Willie Maley.  The decision to attend the Convention was a bold declaration by the club, still in its first decade, that it supported the cause of Irish freedom.  This striking move reflected the fact that the club stemmed from, and was supported by, the expatriate Irish community in Glasgow.  It is hard to imagine the hysteria such a move would provoke in the Scottish media today.

The decision to have the club officially represented at the Irish Race Convention was clearly political and had the full support of club members.  This is confirmed by the other founding fathers, committeemen and former players who also made the trip to Dublin in various delegations including captain James Kelly, Mick Dunbar, club lawyer Joseph Shaughnessy, Dr. Joseph Scanlon, Thomas Colgan (also associated with Belfast Celtic) William McKillop, Joseph McGroary and John McGuire.


 John Glass portrait from Celtic Park

In many ways the public stance taken by the club in support of Irish independence in 1896 should come as no surprise yet it has been largely forgotten even though, over a century on, Celtic remains the most prominent symbol of the Irish in Scotland.

Ten years after the Convention the three key figures involved in linking Celtic so openly with the Irish cause died within six weeks of each other – John Ferguson, Michael Davitt and John Glass.  They had each worked at different levels – international, regional and local – in support of the same Irish freedom and were bound together also by the football club.

John Glass had told a Glasgow newspaper on his return from the 1896 Convention in Dublin that he was “very enthusiastic over the whole business and believed good would come out of it  . . . the speeches were good and the enthusiasm immense.  He had never been at such a gathering before in all his lifetime, and didn’t expect to be again.  Good must come out of it, for without unity nothing could be gained.”

While Celtic’s delegation in common with most others remained in Dublin for a few days after the Convention ended, John Glass – a Celtic man through and through – had his priorities right.  He caught the overnight steamboat and was back home in Glasgow by Saturday afternoon, just in time to see Celtic beat Hearts 3-0!

It had been a great week for the two causes closest to the heart of John Glass for whom sport and politics would always be inextricably linked.

ImageMichael Davitt mural – Claremorris, Co. Mayo

Text (C) The Shamrock 2013

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Issue 1 of The Shamrock – Celtic Retro fanzine on sale now.   Can be bought online via Paypal – details here:  https://theshamrockglasgow.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/the-shamrock-issue-1-on-sale-now-only-3/

The fanzine can also be bought on the day of the game at the Glasgow Programmes stall behind the Lisbon Lions Stand and from various sellers around the main entrance points to Celtic Park.

Also available from Calton Books on London Road and Casa Rebelde in Dublin.


5 Thoughts

  1. I believe I’m correct in saying that Michael Davitt laid a sod of his Mayo home soil in the centre circle at Celtic Park.

    1. That is correct Sean – when the 2nd Celtic Park opened (site of the current ground). It doesn’t appear as though there are any photographs unfortunately. On another visit one of Michael Davitt’s young sons appeared with him on the park – wearing a Celtic shirt.

      The Green Brigade did a display a few years back with a picture of Davitt referring to the Donegal turf he laid under the slogan ‘Sod The Bigots’

  2. What a fantastic development The Shamrock has been. Absolutely delighted with the excellent standard of writing in the essays i have read so far. The above is class, all stuff i was aware of but it never needed telling today more than it ever did with revisionism assailing us in all directions as attempts are made to socialise Celtic out of one culture and into another which is alien to us: more power to your elbow !!

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