The Celtic story does not begin with the building of a stadium, the sounding of a whistle, or the kicking of a ball. The very roots of the club’s existence can be traced back to Ireland’s Great Hunger; over 40 years before Celtic Football Club were even formed.
“The bulk of the indigenous population relied on the potato as a staple food,” explained An Gorta Mór’s Jeanette Findlay when describing Ireland’s plight during The Great Famine of 1845-1849. “The potato blight was something that extended right across Europe and into America. God brought the blight, but the English brought the famine. In Scotland, the landowners effectively paid all of the people who were affected by it to emigrate. While that was horrendous for people, there were no recorded deaths in relation to the potato blight at that time in Scotland.
“In Ireland, they took a completely different approach. Remember, the whole of Ireland was under British rule at this time. It’s really interesting how they initially approached it because there was still the concept of a relief effort to some extent by the State but also by other religious groups. The Quakers, I would have to say, must have saved thousands of lives. They were in there right at the start, engaging in the relief effort and providing food for people. Then you got people from all over the world, including Indian princes, who were sending relief to Ireland because people knew what was happening. Even Queen Victoria wished to give more aid to Ireland, but Charles Trevelyan refused. Trevelyan was essentially what we would now know as a Senior Civil Servant – he’s called ‘The Father of the British Civil Service,’ and a bust of him is in the Treasury in London.
“Trevelyan had a couple of things that were influencing him. First of all, he believed very strongly that they had to modernise the agricultural system, and he may well have been right in his belief that small holdings were not going to be sufficient to feed the population, which was about eight million at that point. The famine almost came as a happy circumstance for him, because essentially it would be clearing the land, therefore allowing for the small holdings to be joined up to make them into larger agricultural holdings. But he also had racist views towards the Irish, and religious views about it being “God’s ordinance,” and it wasn’t for them to interfere in what God was trying to do.”Listen to the latest episode of the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind
The outbreak of phytophthora infestans destroyed Ireland’s potato crops, leaving over a million dead through starvation. “There is lots of credible evidence,” continued Jeanette Findlay. “Journalists travelled from London and witnessed people dying in the ditches with grass stains dribbling down their mouths because they had been trying to eat grass in their final agonies. What the landlords did when people were unable to pay their rent, is they came and took the roofs off their houses and made them uninhabitable, because that meant they no longer had to pay a tax on the housing. This caused some to die of the cold, alongside those who died of starvation, and there were also those who fled the famine by making their way out of the country. About a quarter of the population was decimated, and I don’t know that there’s been a famine that has affected that proportion of any population before or since. If you read what Trevelyan was saying and arguing for at the time, it was clearly genocidal. He believed it would be generally a good thing and “God’s will” if these people died.
“Britain laid claim to the whole of Ireland; These were British citizens. This was no different to this happening in Birmingham or Glasgow or London or anywhere else, but there was heavily, deeply-ingrained anti-Irish racism among the British population. Around 100,000 Irish immigrants travelled to various parts of Scotland, but mainly to Glasgow, to escape the famine. They were sometimes referred to as ‘The Penny Irish’ because they only had enough money to get to Glasgow. If they had more money, they would have gone to America. They were basically treated in the way that refugee communities are treated now. Somebody moves in and makes some money from the fact that there has been a disaster and they take money off the people and say they are going to take them to a safer place. They maybe told them they were taking them to America, but they actually took them to Glasgow. They were looking to take tremendous risks. Many of those ships – sometimes referred to as coffin ships – went down in the Atlantic on the way to America. These were dangerous, rickety things. They were taking enormous risks because the only other alternative was certain death from starvation.”
But the Irish in Scotland were not welcomed with open arms by the local population. They felt like strangers in a strange land, as Jeanette Findlay underlined, “The very interesting statistic is that the Irish who went to America achieved occupational parity by 1900, so they were basically in the same types of jobs and in the same proportions as the indigenous population by that time. It took us until 2001 in Scotland to get occupational parity. There was a period of these people arriving in very large numbers, and they were squeezed into the worst, most horrendous slum housing. That went on for some time.”
The Marist Brother Walfrid had left Ireland in the 1870s and, by the end of 1887, was teaching in Glasgow’s East End. Dismayed by the continued poverty of the Irish immigrants in Glasgow, and inspired by Edinburgh’s Hibernian Football Club, Brother Walfrid decided to establish a football team to raise money for the ‘penny dinner’ scheme he had already set up to feed the “needy children in the missions of St Mary’s, Sacred Heart and St Michael’s.” The Celtic Football and Athletic Club was formally constituted in St Mary’s Hall, Calton, on 6 November 1887.
Almost 132 years later, and the club’s social mission statement points out that Brother Walfrid also, “saw the need for social integration and his vision was a football club that Scottish and Irish, Protestants and Catholics alike could support. A new football club would be a vehicle to bring communities together and this was the second aim. The Marist brother sought for the club to have both a Scottish and Irish identity and hence, the club’s name “Celtic” came about, representing a bridge of cultures across the Irish Sea… Celtic Football Club is a Scottish football club with proud Irish links… It is run on a professional business basis with no political agenda… The club always has been and always will simply aim to be the team of the people.”
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