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Ireland, Politics and Passion
While Catholicism is frequently regarded as the driving force behind the foundation of Celtic it was not religion alone which drove the men behind the fledgling football club. Faith did indeed play a hugely important role in the life of the club’s founding fathers – as it did in the Irish-Catholic community as a whole – but so too did politics and the quest for Irish independence.
Today politics and sport are often uncomfortable bedfellows. But back in the late 1880s the political passions of Celtic’s early committee men would help forge the club’s identity within not just Scottish football but also wider society.
John Glass, of Donegal stock, was a hugely energetic, inspirational and influential figure in the formative years of Celtic. As club President his passion for the Bhoys was interwoven by his political desires. Like many from Glasgow’s Irish community Glass, a joiner and builder by trade, was an eager supporter of the Home Rule movement and was actively involved at the highest level with groups such as the United Irish League. He was also founder of the O’Connell Branch of the Irish National Foresters.
Glass’ fellow Celtic committee member William McKilliop was an MP for North Sligo and then South Armagh. Fellow committee men James Grant, James Kelly and Tom Colgan also represented the club at rallies for Irish Home Rule. This passion for politics – and the love of Ireland - was not confined to the Parkhead committee room. Prominent players such as Barney Battles, Sandy McMahon and Johnny Campbell also made public appearances at Nationalist events.
The political views of these committee men and players mirrored the views of the wider Celtic support. This was reflected in the rapturous response given to Michael Davitt (pictured above) when in 1892 he laid the first sod at the new Celtic Park. Davitt, founder of the National Land League and a convicted Fenian, was honorary president of the Bhoys and a political idol to those on the committee and the terraces.
Like the men behind Celtic, Davitt saw the Irish struggle as one not defined on sectarian lines but rather as a fight against imperialism and the oppression of the working classes. Indeed Davitt identified strongly with the impoverished Presbyterian crofters in the Scottish highlands and visited them on numerous occasions in a bid to highlight the inequality and poverty they faced.
Celtic and football, just like Irish politics, have evolved considerably in the past 120 years. Irish nationalism is no longer as simple, as black and white, as it once may have appeared. From the Civil War to the ‘Troubles’ a lot of water – and far too much blood – has passed under the bridge.
Irish politics and history however remains a keen interest for many Hoops supporters, on both sides of the Irish Sea, but the formal link between the nationalist cause and Celtic has long since disappeared. But while this change in circumstances has to be acknowledged the passions and aspirations of men like John Glass should not be forgotten or dismissed.
There’s was a legitimate and noble cause rooted in a desire for social justice and equality. It is also a cause which is genetically linked to the growth and early identity of Celtic Football Club.
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