Michael Connolly explores the story of Marist Brother, Brother Walfrid, who worked with Irish communities in Glasgow’s East End in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Walfrid used sport to bring together education, charity, and community, and was key to the establishment of Celtic Football Club.
My research project began in September 2017 and endeavours to produce a historical biography of the life of Brother Walfrid with particular focus on his meaning and legacy for the Irish diaspora. Brother Walfrid was one of the most significant Irish refugees who fled to Scotland in the aftermath of An Gorta Mor and has been widely heralded as the leading figure in the creation of Celtic Football Club in Glasgow in 1887. Additionally, as a Marist Brother, Brother Walfrid’s contribution to the city of Glasgow in terms of education and charitable work within the emerging Irish Catholic community were pillars of achievement in his life. Critically the research seeks to better understand and explore Walfrid’s life and enduring legacy, as well as his significance in terms of the religious, social and cultural identities of the multi-generational Irish Catholic diaspora in Scotland and further afield.
Contemporary newspapers, published books (academic and non-academic), religious documents, personal letters and interviews illuminate these themes. For example, access to the Glasgow Archdiocese archives and Marist resources have led me to handwritten letters which provide valuable insight into contemporary figures central to Walfrid’s story. The Mitchell Library in Glasgow also holds census data and key newspaper collections, such as the Glasgow Observer and Scottish Sport. Academic literature on the wider Irish Catholic diaspora along with histories produced on Celtic Football Club have been foundational to the understanding of connected research. This approach, blending diaspora and sports histories, delivers a new interpretation of an historic figure as well as substantiating the partial portrayals and narratives surrounding Brother Walfrid to date.
The starting point for researching the life of Brother Walfrid is An Gorta Mor– the Great Hunger in Irish Gaelic. Brother Walfrid was born in County Sligo, Ireland on 18 May 1840 and was christened Andrew Kerins. Having lived through the worst years of successive potato crop failures Walfrid would have witnessed the harrowing effects of the most tragic episode in the history of Ireland first-hand. The hunger and poverty engendered by the famine years in Ireland followed the thousands of refugees who settled in Glasgow. The massive influx of Irish Catholics to Scotland at the time gave rise to a period of ‘conflict between the Scottish clergy who ran the Church and sections of the Irish laity: conflict over politics, and over the governance and identity of the Church in the region’.[i]
The Marist Brothers arrived in Glasgow from Dundee in 1848 and were initially based in the St Mungo’s parish in the Townhead area of the city into this atmosphere of upheaval. While Catholic education remained outwith the jurisdiction of the state until the 1872 Education Act in Scotland, religious authorities were forced to simultaneously fund and train teachers for the early schools. To this end the Marists answered the call of Bishop Murdoch to provide much-needed teaching experience for a nascent Catholic school system. The Marist raison d’etre was education of young people and the Brothers made it their mission to tackle the dual problems of hunger and poverty through their establishment of a network of schools in the East End of the city which surrounds Celtic Park today.[ii]
Brother Walfrid arrived at the Broomielaw on the banks of Glasgow’s River Clyde in 1855 having travelled aboard a coal boat from Sligo harbour with a childhood friend.[iii] Post-Reformation Scotland was strongly Protestant and virulent anti-Catholic feeling was commonplace and directed at many Irish immigrants on arrival in nineteenth-century Glasgow.[iv] Irene Maver describes how Irish Catholic immigrants were overwhelmingly housed in the poorest areas of the city, particularly the East End.[v] It was here that Brother Walfrid would live and work during his time in Glasgow, playing an active role in what Bernard Aspinwall termed a ‘Catholic revival’ in Scotland brought about by mass Irish immigration.[vi] Walfrid was educated in the Marist tradition, whose teaching expertise and charitable ethos were central to the establishment of successful Catholic schools in Scotland. He was chosen to serve this religious order after attending night classes at St Mungo’s parish school and travelled to take vows of obedience, chastity and poverty at the novitiate in Beauchamps, France on 3 August 1865.[vii]
Upon his return from France, Brother Walfrid engaged in decades of community-building work amongst the poor of the East End and served as a Head Master at the Sacred Heart school of Bridgeton and latterly Brother Superior of the Marists in Glasgow.[viii] It was from this influential position that he was able to unite elements of Glasgow’s Irish Catholic community in the cause of Christian charity to establish Celtic Football Club in 1887, a sporting institution world-renowned over 130 years since its birth.[ix]
A circular stated the driving inspiration behind Glasgow’s new football club – to provide funds to support Brother Walfrid’s own ‘Poor Children Dinner Tables’ scheme which began in 1885. By providing hot meals from the local Catholic schools for the symbolic fee of one penny, Walfrid sought to encourage participation in education which he saw as the key to unlocking the chains of poverty. The idea garnered the support of League of the Cross abstainers and clergy as well as local publicans and shopkeepers alike.[x] Harnessing growing popular support for football amongst the urban working class by forming Celtic was the means through which funding could be secured for this charitable endeavour. The Saint Vincent de Paul Societies were enlisted to help with the fund-raising and establishment of Celtic – a sporting standard-bearer which united disparate strands of Glasgow’s Irish Catholic community.[xi] My PhD research project seeks to demonstrate why Brother Walfrid was central to this example of community-building in Glasgow and why, through his legacy of Celtic FC, he remains an epochal figure for the Irish Catholic diaspora in Scotland and beyond.
Michael Connolly a first-year PhD researcher working on a research project titled “Searching for Brother Walfrid: Community, Faith and Football”. Michael is based at the University of Stirling and is supervised by Dr Joe Bradley and Dr Stephen Morrow in the Health Sciences and Sport faculty. Michael previously studied at the University of Glasgow, completing an honours degree in Economic and Social History. You can contact Michael at Michael.connolly1[@]stir.ac.uk or @WalfridPhD.
[i]Mitchell, M. J. (et al), New Perspectives on The Irish in Scotland(Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2008).
[ii]Aspinwall, B., ‘The Child as Maker of the Ultramone’, Studies in Church History, vol. 31, pp. 427-445.
[iii]Sweeney, B., Celtic. The Early Years: 1887-1892(Scotland: CQN Books, 2015), p. 20.
[iv]Davis, The Irish in Britain, 1815-1914, p. 45.
[v]Maver, I., ‘The Catholic Community’ in Devine, T.M., and Findlay, R.J., Scotland in the 20thCentury (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996) p. 272.
[vi]Aspinwall, B., ‘Some Aspects of Scotland and the Catholic Revival in the Early Nineteenth Century’, The Innes Review, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Spring, 1975) p. 3.
[vii]Sweeney, Celtic. The Early Years: 1887-1892, p. 23.
[viii]Handley, J.E., A History of the Marist Brothers Province of the British Isles(1968), p. 43.
[x]Sweeney, Celtic. The Early Years: 1887-1892, p. 20.
[xi]Handley,A History of the Marist Brothers Province of the British Isles, p. 43.
Image credit: Peter Howson’s painting of Brother Walfrid.