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Celtic's Foundation - The Social Environment of the 19th Century
From Scottish Catholic Observer newspaperThe story of one of the world’s most well-known and successful football clubs, Celtic FC, is intrinsically linked with the Catholic community in west-central Scotland. In the second installment of his two-part feature on the beginnings of the club, DR JOSEPH M BRADLEY surveys the social, economic and cultural context that accounts for that cherished link
BY THE 1860s and 1870s, the vertically segregated residential pattern of pre-modern urban Scotland in which different social classes occupied the various storeys of the same tenement had been replaced by a horizontally segregated residential pattern.
Inner-city Glasgow was abandoned to the poor. In the infamous Drygate area of Glasgow, next to the modern High Street and only a couple of miles from today’s Celtic Park, an incredible density of people existed that could only shorten the lives of its inhabitants. One thousand people to an acre (less than half the size of the modern Celtic pitch) was the pattern in an area where contagious diseases, poverty, unemployment, malnourishment and premature death flourished in such confined conditions.
Not surprisingly, Glasgow experienced recurring disease epidemics. In this part of Glasgow’s east end lived the predecessors of a good number of today’s Celtic support. It was also to this environment into which Brother Walfrid and his compatriots infringed.
During the period of Celtic’s founding famous Glasgow hospitals such as the Western and Victorian Infirmaries were established. Despite this advance and the provision of some support for the poor on the part of the Board of Supervision and Poor Relief, the vast majority of Glasgow’s poor had no safety net. This was at a time when medical science had no answers to the tuberculosis, whooping cough and measles that contributed to the persistence of appalling mortality rates amongst infants.
This ‘massacre of the innocents’ was reflected in a Scottish infant mortality rate (the annual average number of deaths under the age of one per 1000 live births) of 120 in the 1850s and 129 in the 1890s. Improved nutrition, cleaner water and more efficient sewerage systems were still in the future. For example, Loch Katrine’s fine water had still to be fed into Glasgow.
At the time of Celtic’s founding almost one third of houses in Scotland had only one room. Overcrowding was particularly bad in Glasgow’s poorer areas that were not solely, but were disproportionately filled by Catholics who had come from Ireland. This was often replicated throughout parts of Lanarkshire and elsewhere. Ironically, for many this was even better than the miserable existence they and their families had experienced in Ireland itself.
Today many people in developing countries eke out existences for themselves making wages that contemporary workers in Scotland would not recognise as adequate and proper. However, for a huge number of the people reading these pages they will have had grandparents and great-grandparents who in 1887/88 would have formed the almost 27 per cent of the adult male workforce in Glasgow who earned no more than the basic minimum of £1 per week.
Add this to a large family of possibly eight, ten or 12 children and further exacerbated by the factor of the uncertain employment patterns that most of the Irish unskilled workmen faced. Many people in Glasgow, particularly those in the east end, lived in some of the worst housing in Europe and almost half the families lived in single rooms. It would be the middle of the 20th century before town planners began to devise ways to disperse Glasgow’s dense population.
It is no surprise that life was very demanding for many people in Scotland, particularly for the poor that comprised the Irish in the west central belt. Indeed, these are some of the very conditions that were identified by Seebohm Rowntree and Charles Booth in their seminal research that led the way to some dramatic changes in public attitudes with regards poverty, the reasons why it existed as well as some of the possible solutions. From such reports eventually emerged the National Health Service.
At the time of Celtic’s founding in 1887/88, the life expectancy for men in Scotland was 42 and for women 45: life expectancies typical in the ‘Third World.’
The reality was that once a person had survived infancy then they had a better chance of survival, although large numbers of children of school age died of diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles or whooping cough and many were crippled for life by rickets caused by a lack of sunlight and proper diet. More than one in every four children died before the age of five. Around two in five did not make it to the age of 25. Around six out of a thousand pregnancies ended with the death of the mother.
Ironically, by the time of Celtic’s founding, Glasgow was well on its way to becoming the shipbuilding capital of the world: the Clyde producing almost a fifth of the world’s shipping output by the time of the First World War. But it has always been the case that wealth and poverty can exist side by side.
In 1888, the year that Celtic played its first match against Glasgow Rangers the City Chambers in George Square was opened. The new municipal headquarters consciously paraded Glasgow’s global achievements in an era of imperial rivalry. The chambers was open amidst much ceremonial pomp by Queen Victoria who had reigned over Kingdom during the time of the Great Hunger in Ireland.
Where the chambers were located was of course at the head of the city centre’s George Square area: a lavish statement describing Scotland’s status as the junior partner in the great project that was the British Empire. Just a few hundred yards away to the east lay the great wastes of humanity that existed as Glasgow’s poor and destitute: a mile away lay the deprivation and degradation that enveloped the area around Celtic Park.
In electoral politics the 19th century had been a long hard struggle for those who were concerned with popular representation in Britain’s political life.
The First Reform Act in 1832 heralded a great breakthrough while in 1868 the Second Reform Act admitted a large swathe of urban working-class men on to the electoral register. The Third Act of 1884/85 extended the franchise to the rural counterpart of the urban working class. For many ‘men’ at this time politics were important to their everyday lives and of course politics and political activity was to be crucial in the stimulus and the coming together of the men who founded and gave birth to Celtic FC.
As well as significant involvement in the developing British union and electoral politics of the time, for Irish Catholic immigrants in Scotland during the period of Celtic’s birth and first few decades of existence, it was Fenianism, the cause of Irish ‘Home Rule’ and Irish independence that pre-occupied many of their minds.
Many of the first supporters of Celtic would have been involved in, or would have had family involved in, several of the 19th century struggles for ‘Irish freedom.’ For example, Pat Welsh, one of Celtic’s main founding fathers was a Fenian in Ireland while Celtic patron Michael Davitt was also a member and had been imprisoned for his revolutionary activities. Mr Davitt later turned to constitutional means to acquire Ireland’s liberation and became a founder of the Land League in Ireland as well as an Irish Parliamentary Party MP in London.
Politically, up until the 1880s most of Glasgow Corporation leaders were Liberals. But this was to change as the 20th century began to unfold. Importantly, the political consciousness and awareness that Irish Catholics either brought to Glasgow or developed there eventually gave rise to a significant involvement with Labour politics.
Glasgow’s County Waterford born socialist John Wheatley (1869-1930), founder of the Catholic Socialist Society and future British Government minister, was a major figure in bringing around the immigrants and their offspring to establishing a deep and long lasting relationship with the British Labour Party that although somewhat changed and challenged in recent years, remains exceptional to this day.
The social and economic conditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as the story of Irish Catholic migration to Glasgow and other areas of west central Scotland, reminds us about the essence of Celtic.
In addition, although Irish and Catholic are at the core of Celtic’s and its supporters’ identities, so also is the fact that it is rightly a club open to people of other ethnic and religious backgrounds and has always welcomed them as officials, players and supporters.
Celtic’s triumphs can never be simply classed as ‘football’ achievements. They have been community accomplishments. As intended by its various Irish founders, Celtic became for many a means by which the human dignity of a Catholic community otherwise excluded from social recognition and affirmation came to be proclaimed. Through their attitudes, beliefs, behaviour and practices, genuine Celtic supporters maintain Brother Walfrid’s legacy and continue to pass it through the generations.
For many people, the real value and meaning of being a supporter of Celtic goes far beyond the football pitch.
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