THE neighbourhoods that form Glasgow’s multi-cultural rainbow are rooted in familiar districts. Just south and west of the River Clyde can be found the thrumming hubs of the Asian and Muslim communities, gathered around Pollokshields.

Even further south, where the city gives way to East Renfrewshire, you’ll find almost the entirety of Glasgow’s Jewish community. North of the city centre lie the streets that provided a home to the first wave of Chinese people.

In more recent times the northern redoubts of Springburn, Barmulloch and Possilpark have been revitalised by an influx of African families, many seeking sanctuary from countries ravaged by war and famine.

And then, beyond the High Street which forms the gateway to Glasgow’s East End, lie the old neighbourhoods which first provided refuge and solace to a people fleeing an older apocalypse. On these streets are where the bulk of the Irish escaping An Gorta Mor (The Great Famine) settled.

Read more: Catholic museum to open in Glasgow's East End on historic site

The Calton district, traversing Duke Street, London Road and the Gallowgate – the three great arteries into Glasgow’s eastern strongholds – became their cultural and spiritual home. More than 170 years after their forbears first alighted here, the Calton remains at the centre of the Glasgow/Irish experience.

As the Herald revealed this week, it seems entirely fitting that a new museum charting the history of Catholicism in Scotland will be located here. The museum will seek to tell the turbulent history of Catholicism in Scotland, bringing together all of the church’s existing historical agencies, including the Scottish Catholic archives. Also arriving will be an important collection of art and artefacts - including a famous portrait of Mary Queen of Scots - and its important haul of Jacobite memorabilia.

Several influential voices within the wider Catholic community are urging church authorities to ensure also that the Irish influence on Scottish Catholicism is given due prominence.

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The old School House in Glasgow's Calton, the proposed site of the new Catholic museum

Professor Roisin Coll, director of the St Andrews Foundation for Catholic Teacher education, said: “Like many thousands of other Scots, I’m very proud of my Irish heritage and the culture it bequeathed to me. One in ten of those million people forced to flee the Great Famine came here. Without them, Catholicism in Scotland would have been little more than a remnant and Glasgow would also have been poorer for it.

“I feel though, that the importance of the Irish contribution has been downplayed by some in the church. I hope the new museum will rectify that.”

Professor Coll’s suggestion is backed by Professor Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s pre-eminent historian, who has made a lifetime study of the Irish and Scottish diasporas. He said: “There is now a golden opportunity to tell the remarkable story of the Catholic Irish immigrants and their descendants from the late 18th century to the present. It has been a long and rocky road from pariahs to fully-integrated and influential members of modern Glasgow and indeed the entire Scottish nation.”

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The new museum, which is expected to open next spring, is to be located at the former St Mary’s School in Orr Street. The school buildings are adjacent to St Mary’s Church on Abercromby Street, the second oldest place of Catholic worship in Glasgow. St Mary’s is also the location for a permanent memorial to the Great Famine, an imposing sculpture created by John McCarron, called the Tower of Silence. 

Ronnie Convery, Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Glasgow, said: “The choice of the Calton as the site of the new museum is significant as this part of Glasgow is fundamental to the history of Scottish Catholicism. It was in a church hall of St Mary’s in 1887 that Celtic FC was founded by the Marist Brother Walfrid whose activities brought relief to the famine victims who settled in these streets.

“The modern Archdiocese of Glasgow exists because of the contribution of the Irish and for decades, Irish priests ministered throughout the territory of the archdiocese. This is still manifest each St Patrick’s Day on March 17 when St Andrews’s Cathedral, near where Irish immigrants first disembarked, is thronged with Irish people and the Scottish descendants of those first refugees.”

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In St Mary’s Church yesterday, in wooden pews garlanded with alternate green and white bows, a little flotilla of primary school children was rehearsing for their First Holy Communion. A first-time visitor to this grade-A listed church, one of the most beautiful in the city, might conclude that any new museum will have to be at the top of its game to eclipse what’s already here.

There’s so much Catholicism going on in this place that soon, you’re stalked by an old, familiar guilt measured in the years since you last attended confession.

You first pass through wooden doors bearing the following inscription: Catholic Church est: 34AD. St Mary’s est: 1842. A baptismal font sits in its own wooden vestibule, guarding infants from the wiles and false promises of Satan.

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Above an altar gilded with flowers and all the familiar ironmongery of the old faith there’s a tryptych mural with several of the church’s most recognisable A-listers: John Paul II, Mother Teresa, Padre Pio, our very own St John Ogilvie and (maybe) St Mungo, patron saint of Glasgow.

I counted eight statues and began to play Catholic bingo in trying to identify them. St Mary must be one of them and Jesus (obvs). Then there’s St Joseph, Mary Immaculate, Mary Queen of Heaven and St Peter in his Bishop of Rome period. My mother would have identified them all immediately and probably recited their signature prayers too. Peter Howson’s starkly beautiful painting of Brother Walfrid appears at their side.

On the walls at the back of St Mary’s though, sits a row of posters and leaflets speaking to an earthier urgency. They provide a bridge between ethereal reverence and the temporal needs of a parish where hunger, homelessness and multi-deprivation rebuke a modern society which has failed to eradicate them.

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The MSPs and councillors who represent this neighbourhood are each represented here as well as services for those who were targeted by the Windrush scandal and services for old people encountering loneliness. There’s an adoption service and adverts offering Universal Credit support for people on low incomes struggling with the cost-of-living crisis. Mary’s Meals are here too, seeking volunteers to help feed hungry children in other countries.

Tony Hamilton, CEO of the Celtic FC Foundation, says that this football club founded to relieve the suffering of those first waves of Irish immigrants, must never forget why it came into existence. “Brother Walfrid, from Ballymote in County Sligo, founded Celtic in response to a need,” he said.  

“Through our Foundation, we are reaching out to other marginalised and impoverished people who, even in the 21st century, are still being forced daily to make basic choices about their essential needs. The world has changed beyond recognition since Celtic were founded, but not for those still stalked by the poverty that engulfed those people we were founded to help.”

The Catholic Church in Scotland and Celtic FC would both be much reduced without the Irish. But their joint existence would be meaningless if these essential works of mercy were not also at their heart.