THE FOUNDING FATHERS OF CELTIC

NO.1 – BROTHER WALFRID

For anyone who achieves renown for good works done over the course of a long life, myths attach themselves to their legend the more the years that pass from their death and the details of their life become obscured.  This is true of the principal founding father of Celtic Football Club, the Irishman Andrew Kerins, better known by the religious title of Brother Walfrid which he carried for most of his adult life.

One myth that is often perpetuated is that Brother Walfrid was a priest.  An associated myth is the popular but erroneous statement that he declared that ‘a football club will be formed for the maintenance of dinner tables for the children and the unemployed.’  There is no evidence that such a statement was ever uttered by Brother Walfrid or any Celtic founding father and the phrase does the phrase feature anywhere in the circular issued in January 1888 announcing the new football club and setting out its aims.  The reason there is no mention of the unemployed in the circular is that the Poor Children’s Dinner Tables which Celtic were founded to help fund were located exclusively in schools in Catholic parishes of the East End.  Their sole focus was children.  The needs of the poor and unemployed in the parishes were met elsewhere by the church and St Vincent de Paul Society conferences.  The first Dinner Table was started by Brother Walfrid in his role as Headmaster of Sacred Heart School in Bridgeton, a position he held from 1874.  He was never a priest: he didn’t over see a parish, wear a priest’s uniform or distribute the holy sacraments.  Brother Walfrid was a teacher. 

Brother Walfrid – colourised by @irelandincolour

The importance of education in Celtic’s foundation story is often overlooked.  Walfrid was a Marist Brother, a teaching order started in France in 1817 known originally as ‘The Little Brothers of Mary’ and then as ‘Marist Brothers of the Schools’ (in French ‘Fratres Maristae a Scholis’).  The word Marist was chosen by founder Marcellin Champagnat because of his particular devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  Marist Brothers took life-long vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and the purpose of the Marist Order was to meet the spiritual needs of young people through the medium of education.  As the numbers of Catholics rose significantly in Scotland due to significant migration following An Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger) of 1845-1851, the Catholic Church invited the Marist Brothers to open and staff schools which included St John’s in Dundee, St. Joseph’s in Dumfries and a number of Glasgow academies.  The Brothers established a proud reputation for the breadth and quality of learning they provided in schools which received no state funding at that time. 

Andrew Kerins had been born in the family cottage in Catron Phibbs outside Ballymote in County Sligo, Ireland on 18th May 1840.  Remains of the cottage are still visible today at the site and have been visited by many Celtic supporters.  He was five when Ireland faced widescale famine following the colonial mis-management of the failure of the annual potato crop.  County Sligo sustained approximately 60,000 deaths between 1845 and 1851 and many thousands more fled their homeland in search of food and stability.  Andrew Kerins survived but he was forced to leave his family aged 15 in search of work as the land could no longer sustain him as well as the rest of his family.  With his pal Bart McGettrick, he joined the coal boat at Sligo Harbour in 1855 to take them to the Broomielaw in Glasgow in search of work in the burgeoning railway industry.  Little is known of his early life in Glasgow until nine years later when he decided to become a Marist Brother.  This meant he had to leave Glasgow in 1864 to undergo religious training at the Marist college at Beaucamps near Lille in northern France for five years.  It was there he was given the title of Brother Walfrid after an Italian saint called Galfrido della Gherardesca. 

On returning to Glasgow in 1869, the new Brother Walfrid worked in the junior school attached to St Mary’s Church in the Calton under a Dundonian Marist Brother called Dorotheus before being promoted five years later to Headmaster of the new Sacred Heart School in neighbouring Bridgeton, a parish which included an area known locally as Glengarry which had been home to a settlement of Catholic Highlanders since the 1790s.  There he developed a number of initiatives to encourage the children of the new parish to attend the school and remain engaged with education (and the church) when their schooldays were over.  He created youth clubs and helped build a library accessible to young people throughout the parish.  A network of employer contacts was cultivated throughout the city to help identify work placements for when Sacred Heart pupils came of age. 

Brother Walfrid was also aware of the importance of sport to children and encouraged their interest in the relatively new game of football (as he’d done in his previous posting at St. Mary’s where he’d made a football available for use in the playground).  At Sacred Heart he set up a juvenile football team for players of school age called Columba which played on Glengarry Park.  A parish football club was also started called Easter Rovers which, according to the Glasgow Observer of 1885, was “raised through the exertions of Brother Walfrid.”  He had more on his mind than sport though. 

In an age where child labour was still common, one of the biggest difficulties facing Brother Walfrid was persuading families in his parish of the value of education.  Only 300 children attended the school in its earliest years although the parish roll exceeded 2,000 individuals.  Many families were reliant on the income their young sons and daughters brought in and if a child went to school instead of work it meant less money to feed everyone – and money still had to be found to feed those children attending school.  This was an even more difficult issue for those unemployed parents entirely reliant upon the wages provided by their children.    

In 1884, the Sligoman came up with an idea to tackle the problem:  the Poor Children’s Dinner Tables.  With the help of local volunteers from the St Vincent de Paul Society, hot nourishing food was made available daily in the school at a cost of a single penny.  Writing in 1895, Brother Walfrid described the scheme in these terms: 

The children were provided with a good warm meal for a penny.  Should parents prefer they could send the bread and the children get a large bowl of broth or soup for a halfpenny and those who were not able to pay got a substantial meal free.  This has been a very great blessing to the poor children.  The expenses for some time were met by subscriptions and collections, sermons etc. 

The free school dinner scheme proved a huge success.  By 1886 the school roll at Sacred Heart had quadrupled from its foundation twelve years earlier to over 1,200 pupils.  Dinner Tables had also been established by Brother Dorotheus at St Mary’s School and St Michael’s School in Parkhead.  In the first six months of 1886, 26,421 dinners were provided to St Mary’s pupils – 17,707 of which were free dinners.  Celtic historian Brendan Sweeney has outlined the dilemma that success of the scheme presented to the Marist headteachers of those East End schools: “The problem was clear: demand far exceeded the income available as almost 70% could not afford to pay anything and less than 4% were able to pay the full penny.  More had to be done and quickly.” 

Brother Walfrid as envisaged by artist Peter Howson

With a weekly commitment to provide almost 2,000 dinners at the two schools, and the local community being so impoverished that very few families could afford to contribute a penny, the Penny Dinner Scheme required urgent funding.  The chief difficulty for the Marists and the tireless volunteers of the SVDP was to sustain the fundraising efforts to keep the dinners going to meet the ever-increasing demands.  Brother Walfrid’s thoughts turned to a new form of fundraising: football. 

Irish Catholic teams had blossomed throughout Scotland (Pat Woods and Tom Campbell identified almost forty before Celtic arrived on the scene in 1887) and the most successful of them, Hibernians of Edinburgh, enjoyed a big support in Glasgow.  Not slow to miss a trick, Walfrid invited Hibs through to play a charity game against St. Peter’s Parish from Partick in September 1886.  The game was held at Glengarry Park in Bridgeton and over one thousand spectators attended. 

As future Celtic player Tom Maley was to say many years later of Walfrid, ‘he only had to knock and it was opened.’  And there were few doors he wasn’t prepared to knock on.   Hibernian went on to win the Scottish Cup just a few months after their visit to Glengarry Park and their first stop on the victory trail back to Edinburgh was a celebratory dinner in their honour in St. Mary’s Hall in the Calton.  Hibs soon returned to Glasgow’s East End in another charity match organised by Brother Walfrid.  This time they faced Renton at Barrowfield Park (the home of Clyde FC before they moved across the river to Shawfield in 1898) to contest the East End Charity Cup.  An incredible 15,000 people turned up to watch the game – more than had watched that year’s Scottish Cup Final – and the Poor Children’s Dinner Tables again benefitted significantly.  This all helped planted a seed in Brother Walfrid’s mind. 

In discussions which took place over the summer of 1887 Walfrid and Dorotheus pursued the idea of a Glasgow Irish team being established in the East End to provide permanent financial support to the Dinner Tables.  Key political and religious contacts in Glasgow were approached to support the idea but it was St. Mary’s Parish in the Calton, where John Glass, Dr. John Conway, Pat Welsh and John McLaughlin among others were based, that drove the Marist’s idea forward.  A football club was formally created at a meeting at St. Mary’s Hall on 6th November 1887.  In the Circular issued to the local parishes some weeks later, it stated that the “main objective” of the new club was to supply funds for the maintenance of the Dinner Tables in the three East End parishes of St Mary’s, Sacred Heart and St. Michael’s:  Many cases of sheer poverty are left unaided through lack of means. It is therefore with this principal object that we have set afloat the “Celtic”.  

Celtic FC Circular, January 1888 – recreated by @maristic23

Although he was never formally a club office-bearer, Brother Walfrid’s influence permeated throughout Celtic from the outset.  This was apparent when, a month after the club’s formation, the Marist accompanied John Glass and ‘Tailor’ Welsh to the Maley family home in Cathcart to secure the commitment of leading footballer Tom Maley to the Celtic cause – and his younger brother Willie was invited along too by the Marist.  Later, when representatives of Celtic snuck into the mining village of Carfin under cover of darkness and hiding from guards to secure the urgent signature of defender Jerry Reynolds before a major cup tie, the Headmaster of Sacred Heart School was among their daring number. 

Walfrid, alongwith his compatriot Michael Davitt, referred to the club as ‘Keltic’ throughout his life although those born and bred in Glasgow preferred the softer pronunciation.  In 1886 he was promoted to Brother Superior of the Marist Order, effectively putting him in charge of all the Marists teaching in the city at that time. 

Research by Celtic historian Brendan Sweeney has confirmed that Brother Walfrid was a frequent contributor at the boisterous AGMs that dominated the earliest years of the club, albeit in an anonymous capacity as far as the press were concerned.  His presence ensured that the club remained committed to its principal objective of supporting the Poor Children’s Dinner Tables – and, as Brendan Sweeney’s further investigations established, he personally carried the share of the gate monies for the Dinner Tables from Celtic Park to the St Vincent De Paul Society who bought and prepared the food for the three schools. 

All of that changed in August 1892 when the Marist Order decided to transfer Brother Walfrid from Glasgow’s East End to the East End of London to take charge of St Anne’s School in Spittalfields, an area with even bigger social problems than he had previously experienced.  For the next ten years he oversaw the school and also organised clubs for boys and young adults, became involved in the local Catholic League to help improve Catholic representation in the local teaching authority and helped over-see a scheme to provide free breakfasts in the winter months for children and the elderly in the community.  He repeated many of the initiatives he introduced from his time at Sacred Heart and, despite at this point being in his mid-60s, there was no let-up in the Marist’s enthusiasm and commitment to the cause. 

Photograph of an elderly Brother Walfrid

Even after he’d reached the point of retirement, Brother Walfrid answered the call of the Marists.  He was chosen in 1902 to oversee the transfer of the Marist headquarters in Beaucamps, France to new premises in Grove Ferry in Kent, England.  It was a considerable project which he managed and, when the college was up and running by 1906, he stayed on to ensure the new staff and boarders settled in properly to their new surroundings.  A commentator said of Walfrid that he “felt he was repaying a debt to the French brothers as it was from them that he had acquired his religious and professional training when preparing for his mission to Scotland.  His fluency in the French language would prove to be a great asset in his new surroundings, as would his organisational skills and his natural ability in dealing with the young.” 

In 1912, aged 72, Brother Walfrid fell ill.  Once he had recovered the Marist Order decided that he would now properly retire from his duties – which also meant, at last, a return to Scotland after 20 years.  He moved to the Marist Brothers’ home at Dumfries adjoining St. Joseph’s College.  It was there that a final portrait of him was taken, an elderly white-haired man now, still wearing the cassock of a Marist Brother – and with a sprig of shamrocks over his heart.  He remained a proud Irishman throughout his days. 

FINAL PORTRAIT

Brother Walfrid died at Dumfries on 17th April 1915.  He had dedicated the great bulk of his 74 years to the education and well-being of Catholic youth in Glasgow and London.  For him, the thing he his famous for – leading the formation of Celtic Football Club – was a means to an end and not an objective in itself.  It was only one initiative among many which he thought up to nurture and support the youngest members of an immigrant community in its darkest days.  He viewed education as the most important enabler and support for that community.  By persuading families to send their children to his school – and those run by his Marist colleagues in other parishes – instead of sending them to work, those children and families stood the best chance of improving their lives and raising up their impoverished community as a whole, guaranteeing its future in what was at times a very hostile environment.  Walfrid was a teacher first – everything else was secondary.  The specific vow of stability he pledged on becoming a Marist Brother is referred to on the plaque marking his resting place in the Marist burial ground at St Joseph’s College.  His principal legacy lies not in a football club which is now a multi-million pound business, but the stabilising effect his teaching, imagination and organisational skills had on the communities he served in the East Ends of Glasgow and London in desperate times.  Brother Walfrid was an educator, first and foremost. 

That football club he helped ‘set afloat’ to fund his Dinner Tables was always close to his heart however.  Tom Maley, who had known Walfrid from the age of 23 when they first met in the weeks following that historic inaugural meeting on 6th November 1887, wrote in 1916 of the pivotal role that the Sligoman had played in Celtic’s formation and the strengths of his character: ‘Through the organising genius, the wonderful persuasive powers, and the personality of Brother Walfrid the Celtic club was established.  His men carried out his every wish and idea.  They knew and trusted their leader, and in the knowledge that he, like them, wanted the club for the most laudable objects – charity, and as a recreation for his loved East Enders – they persevered.’ 

Five years earlier in June 1911, Maley – who was then writing a regular football column in the Glasgow Observer, the main Catholic newspaper in the city – was on hand to record another meeting that took place in London as Celtic returned from a European tour which demonstrated the affection that Brother Walfrid maintained for his football club to the very end: 

An Old Friend

What an agreeable surprise was mine at Charing Cross Station last week.  Freed for the time from the stress and worry of fixture arranging for 1911-12, I hied stric to meet the home-returning Celts, and as the Paris train, for so the train from Folkestone to London is called, disgorged its load the first I sighted was the secretary, and barely had my welcome ceased when dear old Brother Walfrid appeared, followed closely by the Celtic chairman and his colleague, Michael Dunbar.  Truly a meeting of the original conspirators, as Brother Walfrid put it.  “I know none of the present lot, but they are under the old colours and are quartered in the dear old quarters, and that suffices.”

The good Brother retains his youthfulness almost, and seems as vigorous and fit as in the days when he was architect-in-chief of the Celtic. Situated in a place nigh Folkestone, the good Brother couldn’t resist the temptation of meeting the party and doing the journey to London with them.  As he watched them get on the charabanc (and, by the way, Pat Hearne, whose coaching powers, and staff etc, are now almost universally known, was a former pupil of Brother Walfrid’s) he said “Well, well, time has brought changes; outside ourselves there are few left of the old brigade.  It’s good to see you all so well, and I feel younger with the meeting.  Good bye, God bless you” and off the old man hurried into the bustle and life of the station and the big city it links up.  The Brother’s good wishes were reciprocated.  The onlookers who watched curiously the Celtic party little dreamt that the cleric who so lightly stepped out and who seemed so unconventional in his style, etc. was the central figure in the foundation of the greatest and best of athletic and football institutions, and that in the spare figure there was harboured the determination and the perseverance which gave Glasgow an additional leaf to the laurel it claims.  The works of charity that the good Brother performed through the channels that the Celtic club sent out have been many.  The countless little ones who were fed and clothed, the many whose lives were made brighter and healthier and happier, remember the dear old man with gratitude, and no doubt in prayer, and we who were privileged to be at his disposal, nay, I would say in his service, rejoice and are exceeding glad the opportunity was ours.  Long may the club flourish and may the good Brother live the fulness of years and witness it success afield and the frequency of its charitable functions. 

Brother Walfrid wearing his sprig of shamrock – colourised by @irelandincolour

Next in the series Founding Fathers of Celtic:  JOHN GLASS


‘Celtic – The Early Years’ and ‘Celtic – The Battle for the Club’s Soul’ by Brendan Sweeney are available for purchase here:   https://celticearlyyears.com/

One thought

  1. An excellent piece. Especially interestingly to someone who has not only followed Celtic all his life but also started school at the Sacred Heart in 1952 and ended it at St Mungo’s in 1965.

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