HUGH MURPHY – A Monumental Celt

Hugh Murphy Memorial Dalbeth tall

When a crowd of 15,000 assembled at Celtic Park for a league fixture against Third Lanark at on 29th August 1903 they were surprised when the players ran out to find that their favourites were not wearing the familiar green and white striped jersey.  Instead, for the first time, Celtic were wearing a jersey of alternate green and white hoops.  There had been no announcement of this pre-match and, unlike in the modern game where the unveiling of a new shirt rivals the release of a Hollywood blockbuster in PR terms, no incessant speculation among the fans as to what format a new shirt design might take.

It was reported in the Scottish Referee sports paper the following Monday that ‘for some time, the change rather tickled one.’  Over a century on and the Hoops are now such an established part of the club’s identity – and renowned throughout world football – that it is hard to believe that a Celtic team ever played regularly in anything else.

The newspaper reported that the Celtic players were wearing something else that day – black armbands.  The previous Sunday, after attending mass at St Mary’s in the Calton, Hugh Murphy was waiting for a horse-drawn brake to take him to Airdrie where he was due to address a meeting of Irish nationalists.  He collapsed while waiting and, a few days later, he died at his home at 579 Gallowgate.  He was 47 years old.

Hugh Murphy mention in Scottish Referee Third Lanark v Celtic first Hoops 29.8.03

Scottish Referee, 31st August 1903 

His sudden death plunged the Celtic club and the Irish community in Glasgow into mourning.  Hugh Murphy was one of the most prominent and celebrated political figures that the Glasgow Irish claimed as one of their own.  Having arrived in the city with his family as a 10-year-old boy from Newtonbutler, County Fermanagh in the 1860s, Murphy became active in an array of Irish organisations as a young man.  He quickly came to the attention of John Ferguson, the book publisher who was the unchallenged leader of the Glasgow Irish for the greater part of the latter 19th century.  According to Ferguson’s biographer Elaine McFarland: ‘On first acquaintance, Murphy, aged seventeen, was still pledged to physical force nationalism, but he was soon won over by constitutionalist arguments.’

As one of Ferguson’s key radical lieutenants – alongside activists such as future union leaders Richard McGhee and Edward McHugh – Murphy helped build up Glasgow’s Home Government Branch of the Irish National League (INL) into that organisation’s ‘boss branch’ in Britain.   It was through their efforts that Glasgow and Scotland became a bedrock of support for Michael Davitt throughout his years of dispute with Parnell and others.  They developed a radical edge, encouraged by Davitt, that was unusual among Irish activists in Britain and abroad who tended to focus solely on the national question.   Using the Home Government Branch as a base they built up an effective political organisation that could largely guarantee the electoral support the Glasgow Irish, no mean feat at the time.

Hugh Murphy was a firebrand but also a keen political operator.  He was in his element in large public gatherings where he could command the attention and respect of the rowdiest of audiences.  His confrontational nature brought him into public conflict even with the mighty Davitt but he always managed to secure an amicable conclusion.  Murphy was influential in guiding the Irish vote in Glasgow away from the Liberal party which consistently failed to deliver Home Rule for Ireland towards the emerging Independent Labour Party, despite incurring the wrath of Glasgow Catholic press in the process.  He narrowly lost in a Glasgow Corporation election for the Whitevale ward (close to Celtic Park) in 1896 on a Labour/Irish nationalist ticket.   At the turn of the century many assumed that it would be Hugh Murphy who would go on to assume the elderly Ferguson’s mantle as the leader of the Glasgow Irish, but his untimely death prevented that.  Ferguson and Davitt would both be dead within three years of Murphy.

It is likely that Hugh Murphy’s prominence as a high-profile politician in the Irish community in the city would have resulted in some form of tribute from Celtic FC on that August afternoon.  Yet Hugh’s links with Celtic were long-established.  In Willie Maley’s words he was one of the ‘heads’ of the new club and part of Celtic’s first General Committee ‘and good-hearted, earnest committee men they all were.’  Hugh had been present when Hibernian had won the Scottish Cup in 1887 and at the subsequent celebrations in St Mary’s Hall that night and later at the Wellington Hall in the Gorbals when the Home Government Branch presented each Hibs player with a solid gold medal in the shape of a harp.  Hugh looked on as Celtic Park was opened and Celtic won their first ever match there in 1888 and he accompanied Michael Davitt when the sod of shamrock turf was laid at the new ground in 1892.

Hugh Murphy cropped

Hugh Murphy, 1856 – 1903

The Glasgow Observer columnist and devout Celtic fan ‘Man In The Know’, who had close links with the Celtic board in the early 20th century, clarified in 1920 what role Hugh Murphy had performed in the foundation of Celtic.  He said that Brother Walfrid and John Glass had launched the ship; that Dr Conway, Joseph Shaughnessy, John H McLaughlin and Stephen Henry were on-board at the launch; but that the ‘keel-layers’ of the ship – those responsible for its initial construction – were Brother Walfrid and Hugh Murphy.

It was Hugh Murphy who recommended to the Marist that his great friend and neighbour John Glass take the key role in assisting him in establishing the football club he envisaged to fund the children’s dinner tables in the schools of the three East End parishes of St. Mary’s, Sacred Heart and St. Michael’s.  When Brother Walfrid left for London in 1892 it was John Glass who primarily directed Celtic’s affairs until his death in 1906 and he oversaw the club’s crucial early successes.  Hugh Murphy, while a keen Celtic supporter from the outset, focused his energies on the political issues affecting the Glasgow Irish instead.  His brother Arthur was an active Celtic committeeman until the club went private in 1897 and he was still alive when Celtic celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1938.

In his tribute, which was published in various Irish newspapers throughout Ireland, Scotland and England, John Ferguson wrote that ‘with modest bearing, good-temper, self confidence and undaunted courage, Mr Murphy was in every movement that Ireland made.  By degrees his individuality made himself felt not only in Glasgow, but in Ireland and upon the Leaders of the Nation . . . We only have to display a little of our departed comrade’s moderation in language, wisdom in council and courage in action to still keep in line with the advancing forces which are rapidly nearing the goal of Irish self-government.’

Hugh was buried at St Peter’s Cemetery at Dalbeth on the London Road and, a year after his death, a large crowd assembled to watch John Ferguson unveil a large memorial in the form a red granite Celtic cross, decorated with shamrocks and harps, which was paid for through donations from the Irish in Glasgow, political supporters and admirers.  Celtic Football Club contributed £20 to the fund.

Hugh Murphy Memorial Dalbeth 1

The red sandstone memorial at Dalbeth 

At the unveiling John Ferguson told the assembled crowd: ‘Protestant and Catholic around his grave we honour him as a type of an unconquered race and a changeless faith.  The man who serves his country in a foreign land, reckless of danger, loss of shame, is a higher order of patriot than he who strives for his country at home.  That patriot at home has National opinion to sustain him and the hope of rising with the fortunes of his country; but men like Hugh Murphy have nothing to gain by Ireland’s success but the gratification of the Celtic sentiment of duty to the fatherland, which is indeed a reward that will give a happiness that material wealth cannot.’

The impressive memorial to Hugh Murphy is one of Dalbeth’s most striking structures and still looks resplendent today having withstood the Glasgow weather for over a century.  St Peter’s is an ideal place to visit on foot or bicycle if you’re in the East End during the current lockdown and looking for a refreshing change of scenery and some interesting Celtic-related history.  Hugh Murphy’s monument lies close to the resting place of his great friend John Glass as well as other key early Celtic figures including Dr John Conway, David Meikleham, John O’Hara and the McKillop brothers.

The inscription on the stone to this great Glasgow Irishman ends with a line from the anthem ‘God Save Ireland’ which was the most popular song sung at Celtic events in the club’s earliest years: ‘He was true to Home and Faith and Freedom.’ 

Hugh Murphy Memorial Dalbeth text


Read about the fascinating story of Bridgeton’s Catholic section and the role this community played in the foundation of Celtic FC here:

Glengarry: Glasgow’s Sacred Heart

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