ANY Celtic supporter who knows their history could tell you that the Parkhead club was formed by Brother Walfrid in 1887 to raise money for the Catholic poor of the East End of Glasgow.

A large number of the Scottish champions’ fans, too, will be aware their founder was a Marist Brother who originally hailed from County Sligo in the west of Ireland and had been born Andrew Kerins.

But beyond that most would struggle to provide any meaningful information; details about the man who started what has become one of the biggest and best-supported clubs in the world 135 years ago this month have long been scarce.  

That, though, has changed with the publication of Walfrid: A Life of Faith, Community and Football by Michael Connolly. It is a remarkable, forensically-detailed and long overdue work which has been “a decade in the making”.

Connolly, a Celtic supporter from just outside Glasgow, was inspired to find out more about the romantic and intriguing figure during his heroes’ 125th anniversary celebrations back in 2012.

“There was a lot of interest generated around the club’s origins and formation back then,” he said. “There was a special communion mass at St Mary’s Church in the Calton area of Glasgow which Barcelona officials attended before the famous Champions League match against Celtic. That was the genesis of the idea.”

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The PhD research student received funding from Nine Muses, a Glasgow-based arts company which had commissioned the portrait of Brother Walfrid by the renowned Scottish artist Peter Howson which now hangs in St Mary’s, to pursue his project.

“The portrait created an interest in him,” he said. “Off the back of the portrait, Nine Muses decided they didn’t know a great deal about his life. They knew he was Irish and they knew he was a Marist Brother. But that was pretty much it. I had a blank canvas.”

So how did Connolly set about writing the life story of someone who had died aged 74 in 1915? “I spent the first 12 months reading everything that had previously been produced about Brother Walfrid,” he said.  “What quickly emerged was that nobody had taken on his life story, had really written about his existence. Large swathes of his life hadn’t been pieced together.”

Connolly even discovered there was even a widespread misconception about what a Marist Brother actually was. “A lot of people at Celtic probably don’t know,” he said. “When I was reading about him I saw him described as an Irish priest, monk and cleric.

“But his job was a Catholic teacher. The Marist Brothers had their origins in Lyon in France. Britain was the first country they came to outside of France. They set up in London, Dundee, Dumfries and Glasgow. They focused on educating the most impoverished in the Irish immigrant community.”

Brother Walfrid had once been one of them. He had, like millions of his countrymen and women, left his home in Ballymote, where his family were simple farming folk, aged just 15 in 1855 to escape “An Gorta Mor”, The Great Hunger.

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“He was the second-born son in a family of four,” said Connolly. “There was a great tradition of the first-born son inheriting the family farm land. So there wasn’t a great deal of opportunity for him. By necessity, he had to go elsewhere.

“He travelled across on a coal boat and ended up in Broomielaw. He found employment in the railway industry in the north of Glasgow like many young Catholic Irish immigrants.

“That is where the Marist Brothers took root, around the St Mungo’s parish in the Townhead area. Three years after Andrew Kerins arrived the brothers arrived. They put on night classes for men looking to improve themselves.

“At that time, it was the custom for prospective brothers to serve a six year apprenticeship as a pupil-teacher with a view to “taking the habit”, the distinctive black cloak worn by the brothers. He travelled to France in 1864 and trained in Beaucamp just outside Lille as a postulant.”

So why was Kerins named Walfrid? “It is an interesting story,” said Connolly. “A lot of brothers at the time were given the name of Irish and Scots saints. But the reason Brother Walfrid was given this particular name was three years before an Italian religious figure called Galfrido of Pisa, who had died in 765, had been canonised by Pope Pius IX.

“The English translation of Galfrido was Walfrid. Brothers were given the names of recently canonised saints to increase their relevance, to make themselves noticeable in the community where they ended up working.” 

Brother Walfrid initially taught for eight months in London before returning to Glasgow in 1865 and taking up a position at St Mungo’s School.

After a brief stint back in Beaucamp teaching English-speaking novices in 1968 – Connolly discovered that Walfrid had a flair for languages and was listed in a census of the time as a “professor of French” during his research - he came to Scotland once again and taught at St Mary’s School.

Attendance by pupils was irregular due to the poverty in the most densely populated city in Europe and the Marist Brothers took to offering sweets and fruit as incentives to turn up at classes. A football was bought at St Mary’s in 1872 to encourage boys to “remonstrate if parents wished to keep them at home”.

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“Brother Walfrid was able to pick up on the phenomenon of football taking off in the city of Glasgow,” said Connolly. “The Marist Brothers used physical exercise and even the object of the football to encourage engagement in education. They were aware of the potential of football, not just for recreation.”

Brother Walfrid rose to become headmaster of the new Sacred Heart School as well as the Brother Superior of the Marist community near Glasgow Green and started to champion the cause of impoverished children. He was able to use his high standing in the Irish Catholic community to organise the foundation of Celtic.

He held a meeting at the League of the Cross Hall in the St Mary’s parish of Calton on November 6, 1887, at which the club was constituted. He was by no means alone. But many of the committee men who were influential in establishing the new entity were his former pupils. They all credited him with being the instigator, the early driving force. 

“The approach of Marist Brothers to Christian charity was to be ‘strongly based on community effort’,” said Connolly. “With football enjoying an increasingly prominent position in Scottish life, as both the most popular spectator game as well as the most widely practised sport, by the late 19th century, Brother Walfrid saw an opportunity.

“He envisaged harnessing the potential of the Irish Catholic diaspora through the vehicle of a football club. This had been achieved by friends in Edinburgh with Hibernian. He believed his endeavour could in turn provide monies which could be used to charitably ameliorate the situation of the neediest members of the community.

“The famous mission statement in the circular that was sent around local parishes in the January of 1888 about supplying “funds for the maintenance of the dinner tables of our needy children” is believed to have been written by Brother Walfrid himself.”HeraldScotland:

Brother Walfrid moved to London in 1892 just five short years later. “I am often asked: ‘Why did he leave?’” said Connolly. “Well, it wouldn’t have been his choice. He had taken a vow of obedience. He had gained a reputation as having an ability to organise and fundraise and was marked out as someone with good potential.

“He was sent to a London school in the hope that he would be able to replicate his achievements in Glasgow. He spent a further two decades as a teacher in central London and the East End of London. He worked up until his late 60s when he took ill health and retired to Dumfries.”

His association with Celtic by no means ended when he departed Glasgow. “He returned to Celtic Park on a couple of occasions after he left and maintained an interest in the club,” said Connolly. “Indeed, he received telegrams with their results on a Saturday. He was a genuine football fan who was interested in the progress of the club.”

Connolly produced a thesis entitled “Faith, Community and Football: The Life of Brother Walfrid” and was awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Stirling this summer. The book has been borne out of his academic endeavour. 

Shortly before he finished, Connelly did an interview with The Celtic View, the Parkhead club’s official magazine, and appealed to anyone with articles or information about Brother Walfrid to contact him. He was stunned when he was approached with an offering which provided an insight into his subject’s personality. 

“The Robb family in Edinburgh got in touch with me via email,” he said. “They were in a position to send me a conversation they had with their grandfather Joseph, who had been taught by the Marist Brothers in Dumfries as a boy and had encountered Brother Walfrid, in 1982.

“It was a short conversation, but he was able to give a good sense of the man’s character. He recounted how he had a great sense of humour despite being in poor health after suffering two strokes and that he was physically quite large, a presence in a room.

“I was very grateful. It was amazing to get a tangible sense of what this guy was like in person. It wasn’t something that I was expecting.”

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The striking granite and bronze Kate Robinson sculpture of Brother Walfrid that is situated at the front of Celtic Park in between the statues of Jock Stein and Jimmy Johnstone is a reminder on match days of the individual who had formed the club in the November of 1887.

Connolly believes his values remain deeply embedded in the Celtic DNA to this very day.

“When we had the book launch at Parkhead this month, Tony Hamilton, the chief executive of the Celtic Foundation, was able to explain the influence of Brother Walfrid in the charitable work that Celtic do to this day,” he said.

“Since 1996, they have raised over £7m. That is a fitting tribute to the original purpose Brother Walfrid envisaged for Celtic Football Club.”

 

Walfrid: A Life of Faith, Community and Football by Michael Connolly is published by Argyll Publishing and costs £20.

 


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