Celtic – The Name

About Celtic | Foundation

Celtic – The Club Name

Defn: Celtic

Oxford Dictionary:
/keltik, sel-/
noun: a group of languages including Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Breton, Manx, and Cornish.
adjective: relating to Celtic or to the Celts.
Celt and Celtic can be pronounced either with an initial k- or s-, but in standard English the normal pronunciation is with a k-, except in the name of the Glaswegian football club.

The Background

Celtic badge - Kerrydale StreetCeltic is easily one of the most recognisable names in world football. Say ‘Celtic‘ to anyone and the first thing that most people will identify with the word is our grand old football club.

So how did the name come about? The romanticised and most commonly sited narrative is that in the earliest days of the club’s history, the priority was obviously to simply set up a football club that was to play and attract crowds to help out the local charities. Anyhow, but a name was required. An obvious idea was to emulate Hibs and name the club Glasgow Hibernian (Hibernian is an archaic Latin term for Ireland).

However, this was not going to be popular with some from Edinburgh, and it was decided to choose Celtic to reflect not only the Irish heritage of the club but also the Scottish origins and foundations. Celtic’s ethos was to be an ecumenical institution, and the historical ties of Scotland and Ireland were to be reflected in our name, and no word better captured that than ‘Celtic‘.

It was at the inaugural meeting to set the club up, that the name was suggested by Brother Walfrid, and warmly received it was too. Celtic has since been a proud icon for the Celtic diaspora around the globe to take pride from in their roots. After centuries of oppression (both in the Highlands as well as in Ireland itself), this was a beginning for a rehabilitation to put the pride back into the name ‘Celtic’, and the club has more than done it proud.

A more practical reasoning to the choice of name
It is more likely that there is a less romantic truth to the choice of name.

Celtic was chosen primarily in order to reflect the heritage of the founding people of the club (of that there is no doubt), however, it is likely the name was also partly chosen for more practical reasons as well. At the time of the foundation of the club, Irish roots were looked down upon by the establishment in Scotland. There had been a number of other Irish-themed sides in existence already, such as Hibs, Dundee Harp and even a couple of other clubs called Celtic.

The reports of the earliest meetings suggest that Brother Walfrid promoted the name of Celtic against a significant challenge in favour of Glasgow Hibernians. While running the youth team Columba he came across other youth teams in the same league called Celtic although the name was already out there – Partick Celtic had formed with Partick Hibernian to form a new team under the parish name of ‘St Peter’s‘ – which just happened to be one of the teams involved in Brother Walfrid’s first organised friendlies.

Most of those clubs had openly complained of lack of exposure from contemporary sports journals of the time, of which some of these journals even ignored the respective club’s fixtures. Hibernian (Hibs) had themselves complained of discrimination against them from various sections of society, tensions exacerbated by their recent success in the Scottish Cup (1887).

Back in 1875, the then new Hibernian FC had applied to the Edinburgh Football Association for membership. The EFA told them they had to apply to the Scottish FA first, after which the SFA rejected their application with this explanation: ‘We are catering for Scotsmen, not Irishmen‘. The Edinburgh FA then instructed all of its member clubs that they could play no matches nor have any contact with them. Hibs were subsequently admitted, but the anti-Irish attitudes were embedded in parts of society, and these factors must be taken into account in any review of this period.

Attendants at the inaugural meeting in St Mary’s RC Church are likely to have had this in mind, some of them having possibly already been previously organisers of sports clubs, so they will have been well aware of the significance of the club’s name and its impact.

Celtic‘ was thus possibly a (slight) re-working on the Irish aspect in order to broaden our appeal to the Scottish communities, as well as to attract a bit more acceptance (or less resentment?) from certain sections in Scottish society. Ironically, early games against Queen’s Park (then Scottish football’s establishment club and top gunners) were being billed as ‘Scot v Celt‘ (sic!) by one journal, so unbelievably the ‘Celtic‘ name didn’t end up making enough of a difference in some quarters. In any case, Celtic were widely dubbed as the Irishmen in reports so maybe Celtic played upto that too.

It has been said that in various circles ‘celtic‘ meant Irish more than it meant Scottish, so a ‘Celt‘ was an Irishman. Maybe naming the club as ‘Celtic‘ was less antagonistic for some than having ‘Hibernian‘ or ‘Irish‘, so that helped promote the ‘Celtic‘ name above others. However, this is disputable. Queen’s Park when choosing their name on their formation proposed ‘The Celts‘ as a possibility (ironic taking in the above).

If ‘Celtic‘ was a Catholic Irish identifier, then why would a Protestant establishment club in the West of Scotland have even considered it? Possibly as there were Highland influences within the club and in any case ‘Queen’s Park‘ was chosen but only by a majority of one vote over the alternatives. In addition a magazine around the time was called ‘The Celtic Magazine‘ and was devoted to Celtic influences but predominantly ‘Scottish Celtic‘ influences. So the word ‘Celtic‘ cannot be singled out as referring to being ‘Irish‘ alone as some have suggested.

It could be theorised that the main Irish monikers (Hibernian and Harp) had already been oft taken and used by other clubs, and Celtic was a distinguishing factor to other clubs, but we can’t confirm that theory.

In any case, Celtic’s significant patronage and financial backing enabled the club to be able to hold its own and not be bullied by various sections of the sporting establishment in Scotland as had been the case with other Irish-tinged clubs and associations.

Criticism for not being Irish enough
Incredibly, Celtic were even criticised for the choice of name for not being Irish enough.

After Hibs’ first game against Celtic on 4th August 1888 an ‘open letter‘ was issued to the media, believed to have been written by Hibs’ Secretary John McFadden, warning their new rivals that ‘evil deeds never prosper; the duplicity of the founders of the Celtic club will defeat its purpose.’

In the range of criticisms directed against the new Bhoys was this:

‘Patriotic Irishmen, truly, the Celtic and its supporters; patriotic Irishmen indeed who, in order to raise the name of Celts – a name which may cover Welsh, Highland Scotch, French, and all the nations of that family – dealt as they thought, and by means which are apparent to everybody, a death blow to the Hibernian club.’

After an early critical reference to a “white flag with green crossbar flying triumphantly above” the new Celtic Park, presumably as opposed to a Harp or Shamrock flag, McFadden went on to criticise the colours of Celtic’s shirt:

‘ . . . the feeling that I had was that the Hibernians did not pretend to be anything else than true Irishmen; who are not ashamed, but proud, to wear the green, and who don’t wear a white shirt and edge the collar with green so that it requires a microscope to detect the colour at all.’ (The Scottish Umpire, August 7 1888, p.15)

It seems that Hibs’ chief official was criticising the choice of name of Celtic as less Irish than that of Hibernian, Harp or Shamrock and along with the flag and jersey was suggesting that the new club weren’t as truly Irish as their Eastern counterparts.

The Highland influence
Another aspect to the name is possibly from the following (as taken from the ‘Not the View‘ Celtic fanzine):

“John Glass (first Celtic President) helped to organise several political rallies at which Michael Davitt (an Irish republican campaigner) addressed Scottish Highland crofters. The question must therefore be asked: did the name ‘Celtic’ originate in part from this popular political influence of the day, and did Brother Walfrid and John Glass see in this name a method to celebrate Irish-ness, symbolise Irish-ness, yet simultaneously join hands with Scottish Celts? After all, historically speaking, the peoples of Ireland and Scotland were one and the same – Celts!”

One point that is often overlooked is that the Roman Catholics in Scotland weren’t all of Irish descent. There were many from the Highlands who had moved south to the lowlands who were Catholic, and there was a number located in Bridgeton who were of Highland descent (the area where Celtic Park is now located). The area even got given a nickname of “Glengarry” reflecting this fact.

So it’s a possibility that Celtic was chosen to encompass Catholics not only of Irish descent but of Highland stock as well. St Columba brought and preached Catholicism to the Scottish Highlands, and Columba was the name of a team earlier formed by Brother Walfrid, and it was a possible choice for our own club’s name before settling on Celtic. So who is to say that Celtic was not chosen for more than its Irish overtones?

Must add that for Celtic to gain as much support as possible it needed to reach out as far as possible. There was even very real hostility in the Catholic Church in Scotland to the large numbers of Irish priests coming in to service the phenomenal increase in parishes from the mid 1850s onwards. From what we understand, the hierarchy did not look too kindly on the ‘gaelicisation‘ of the church in Scotland, favouring a more non-contentious Anglican-type approach to community relations.

Bishop John Murdoch was later discovered to have made some very alarmist (and what might today be deemed racist) comments about the inflow of Irish worshippers and priests and the appointment of the Englishman Charles Eyre, who was Celtic’s first patron before Michael Davitt, was perceived as an attempt to reduce tensions between the factions.

All of this will have had some influence over the choice of name. Brother Walfrid and the St. Mary’s parishioners were very adept (and often active) politicians and possibly that they wanted the Church broadly very much onside at the club’s formation. By the time of the second Celtic Park a few years later the church/clerical influence was much reduced, Michael Davitt was the new patron, and the club was on a different course.

The Glasgow Celtic Society Cup

Before ‘Celtic‘ the first major ‘Glasgow Celtic‘ name was actually in shinty, where the Glasgow Celtic Society Cup began in 1879 so before Celtic FC was around, and continues to this day as a knock-out cup competition in the sport.   Originally the competition was not run by the Celtic Society but presented the trophy to the Glasgow Shinty Association. Coincidentally, in 1888 (the year of birth of Celtic FC), Inveraray played Furnace in the final and disputed the validity of a goal, which led to legal action and the cup was suspended for 12 years.

Therefore it could be argued that this interim period allowed the ‘Glasgow Celtic‘ name in the early years to transfer over and fully identify with Celtic FC and not be shared with the Scottish Gaelic sport of shinty.

Some of the finalists in those early years of the competition actually were teams who were to become better known in years to come for football: Glasgow Cowal, Vale of Leven and Renton.

It is another example that evidences that in Scotland the word ‘Celtic‘ cannot solely be seen to identify as Irish. In the sporting sphere, it can be argued to be as much Scottish as Irish.

The Name
The choice of the Club’s name was likely derived from various sources, and we can only theorise now about the significance of each. Maybe we are making too much of it but in Roman Catholic circles a title can have strong significance and symbolism. Brother Walfrid is itself an adopted name, and throughout Catholic communities the titles of schools, clubs and places are taken from patron saints or religious icons, usually with a particular reason. It is therefore a credible point that the choice of name of our club had likely more care and thought placed in its choice than sceptics at first may wish to accept.

In any case, ‘Celtic‘ was the name chosen and its romantic heritage and overtones have helped to play as important a part in our Club’s history as any brick or mortar in the foundations of our fine stadium has ever done.

Glasgow Celtic Celtic - The Name - The Celtic Wiki

Commonly in European games, you will hear the club being referred to as ‘Glasgow Celtic‘ (or even ‘Celtic Glasgow‘ [e.g. in games against German teams]). Makes it easier for fans from abroad to locate where the club is based. However, the club’s official name does not include the ‘Glasgow‘ pre-fix. It’s simply ‘The Celtic Football Club‘.

Glasgow Celtic‘ is just for simple reference as used by various media outlets abroad, and has stuck with the club whenever the first team play in Europe. Maybe in time as Celtic play in Europe in the Champions League more regularly then the ‘Glasgow‘ pre-fix will become increasingly unnecessary and the club will become referenced throughout the European game simply as ‘Celtic‘ just as it is domestically.

Actually, one of the first public postings on Celtic attributed the then new club as ‘Glasgow Celtic‘. The sporting journal ‘The Scottish Umpire‘ announced the founding of the club in the below quote as ‘Glasgow Celtic‘, so maybe the term isn’t so wrong after all.

Properly, the club’s title is simply ‘The Celtic Football Club‘.

“We learn that the efforts which have lately been made to organise in Glasgow a first-class Catholic football club, have been successfully consummated by the formation of the ‘Glasgow Celtic Football and Athletic Club’, under influential auspices. They have secured a six-acre ground in the east-end which they mean to put to fine order. We wish the ‘Celts’ all success.”
Scottish Umpire and Cycling Mercury (1887)


Further Articles

From “Welcome to Paradise” Fanzine (2010)

As Celtic supporters one constant source of pride is that our club is different from any other and our inception makes us unique in world football in that we were formed by an Irish Marist Brother to provide maintenance for the soup kitchens to feed the impoverished Irish Catholics of the parishes in the East End.

We are equally proud that we are and always have been welcoming to all faiths and none and have carried this ethos as part of our identity.

Both of the above make us what we are today, an all welcoming Irish football club and Scottish institution (all people, communities and institutions have a hyphenated identity when they are born out with their country of origin), proud of the history, heritage and culture of our people.

With this in mind we ‘should’ have nothing to hide.

However, the Mission Statement on the official website states the following:

“Celtic Football Club is legendary and as with most legends as much myth as fact surrounds its history and what the Club stands for today. The Social Mission Statement aims to simply define what the Club stands for and seeks to promote within society.”

So lets examine one of those myths.

The rewriting of history has the foundation of Celtic by Brother Walfrid having two principal aims instead of one. The official Mission Statement tells us:

“Celtic Football Club was founded in 1888. Its principal founder was a Marist Brother named Walfrid. The Club had two principal aims:

“The first aim was to raise funds to provide food for the poor of the East End of Glasgow, an area of the City that was greatly impoverished and had a high rate of infant mortality.

“Within the East End was a large Irish community and friction was growing between the native Glaswegians and the new influx of Irish. Brother Walfrid saw the need for social integration and his vision was a football club that Scottish and Irish, Protestants and Catholics alike could support. A new football club would be a vehicle to bring the communities together and this was the second aim.

“The Marist brother sought for the Club to have both a Scottish and Irish identity and hence, the Club’s name “Celtic” came about, representing a bridge of cultures across the Irish Sea.”

There is much to be said about the evasive and corporate nature of this ‘club’ statement and about the people who have constructed this version of Celtic and its supporters’ history.

If we focus on one part, we see that according to this version the name Celtic, or so we are to believe, came from Brother Walfrid and ran contrary to the popular name Glasgow Hibernians that was supposedly the choice of the majority of our founding fathers.

The reason we are told is that Brother Walfrid wanted us to have a name which bonded the Irish with the native Scots, or as Fergus McCann would claim over a century later, would give us a team that Catholics and Protestants would support.

Let us examine the facts.

In truth as perusal of newspapers from the 1880s will show in less than an hour thanks to the Mitchell library there already was a team called Glasgow Hibernians who played in the East End on Cumbernauld Road.

The two largest junior teams in Glasgow (before the advent of professionalism) were Glasgow Hibernians and St Mungo’s who planned to amalgamate in 1886 before it fell through which would have seen one larger united Irish Catholic team. Both clubs continued to fight for the title Glasgow Hibernians.

So lets take ourselves back to November 6th 1887 (the actual date of Celtic’s founding) in St Mary’s Hall when those present discussed the foundation of our football club. Feeding the poor in the streets of the East End was the immediate need in hand. So from where originates the suggestion that Brother Walfrid proclaimed the need for a club that would foster links between Scotland and Ireland and unite both Catholic and Protestant?

Outside of a context of a club’s existence partly addressing the poverty on its doorstep, as creating a symbol of pride for Glasgow’s (and Scotland’s) Irish and through its Catholic identity being in every practical way an institution open to all, is there in fact any evidence of another plan to unite Scots and Irish or is it all just revisionism and a way of dealing with hostile external perceptions of our club and its support?

This bearing in mind that it was the Irish Catholic community that was being discriminated against in the first place and that part of the Brother Walfrid and his compatriots’ rationale was almost certainly to allow this community to be able to ‘participate’ in this aspect of Scottish society and to acquire a dignity and respect afforded to others – at least on the field of play.

Surely there would be plenty of examples of ecumenical quotes and speeches in existence from Brother Walfrid and other founders at the time giving their reasons for such a grandiose plan, if this was all about ecumenism?

Lets look at the first circular which was sent out in January 1888 and headed:

“Celtic Football and Athletic Club, patrons his grace the Archbishop of Glasgow and the clergy of St Mary’s, Sacred Heart and St Michael’s missions and the Principal Catholic laymen of the east end.

The above club was formed in November 1987 by a number of of Catholics of the east end of the city. The main object is to supply the east end conferences of the St Vincent de Paul Society with funds for the maintenance of the dinner tables of our needy children in the missions of St Mary’s, Sacred Heart and St Michael’s.

Many cases of sheer poverty are left unaided through lack of means. It is therfore with this principle object that we have set afloat the Celtic and we invite you as one of our ever ready friends to assist in putting our new park in proper working order for the coming football season. We have already several of the leading Catholic football players of the west of Scotland on our membership list.

They have most thoughtfully offered to assist in the good work. We are fully aware that the elite of football players belong to this city and suburbs and we know that from there we can select a team which will be able to do credit to the Catholics of the west of Scotland as the Hibernians have been doing in the east.

Again there is also the desire to have a large recreation ground where our Catholic young men will be able to enjoy the various sports which will build them up physically and we feel sure we will have many supporters with us in this laudable object.”

In summary the Catholic Irish founders sent out an appeal to the local Catholic parishes looking for assistance to build Celtic Park, “a recreation ground where our Catholic young men will be able to enjoy various sports”. It clearly states the main object “to supply the east end conferences of the St Vincent de Paul Society with funds for the maintenance of the dinner tables of our needy children in the missions of St Mary’s, Sacred Heart and St Michael’s” and goes on to state that “we can select a team which will be able to do credit to the Catholics of the west of Scotland as the Hibernians have been doing in the east”.

Far from having ecumenical intentions in reaching out to the native Protestant Scots, the founders first main task was to unite the local parishes in a realistic project that would feed their poor and tackle the main problems on their very doorsteps. This was not to be done in a way that would be about raising up a community that was typically seen as religiously, socially and culturally oppressed and economically marginalised.

By his nature and by the nature of his faith when practised properly, Brother Walfrid was inevitably ecumenical, but his greater concern for the moment was to stave off the threat of the Protestant soup kitchens in the east end of Glasgow which could tempt away his flock to what was known as apostasy, in other words “taking the soup” in return for forsaking your religion.

The ecumenical nature of the club and its support was engrained with its institution but Celtic’s founders did not feel a need to state that. Several of them for example were Irish nationalist activists and this political philosophy had for almost a century previous always embraced Protestants as part of their membership – Robert Emmett and Wolfe Tone being only two of the most notable figures.

Willie Maley’s history of Celtic was written to celebrate the 50th anniversary in 1938 and in it he states that “We have always been a cosmopolitan club since our second year” and also in the same book “For 48 years we have played a mixed team”.

The book was originally published in 1939 and suggests that we played an all Catholic team for the first year at least, although this was well and truly blown out the water by 1891 when goalkeeper Tom Duff signed for Celtic, the first Orangeman to do so! The “not so” Holy Goalie?

Celtic of course were not the first team which Brother Walfrid started having founded a local Catholic junior team which he called Columba and who played in Rutherglen, to keep the local school leavers off the streets.

There were already two teams called Celtic playing in Glasgow before our own and significantly one was directly above Walfrid’s team Columba in the list of amateur teams in the books of the time. Although Columba can often be represented in the Scottish media in straightforward Iona terms he was of course a Donegal prince and had arrived in Scotland as part of a self-imposed exile/punishment.

As early as 1873 there is a Celtic listed as playing at Flesher’s Haugh on Glasgow Green against a team called Eastern. Coincidentally Rangers were formed in that year and played their home games at the same park.

Over 40 Irish Catholic teams had been started up in this era in Scotland but until Celtic only Hibernian and Dundee Harp (to become Dundee Utd) survived.

In Liverpool, another city with a large Irish population there were 11 Irish teams in the 1880s. Significantly four were called Celtic and one Hibernian. It’s unlikely that they had all copied us, a team still in our formative years so why would an Irish team in England call itself by a so called Irish/Scots name?

There’s no doubt that history shows during our first number of years we were known as the Irish team (the Rangers Director still referred to Celtic as an Irish team in 1938 when toasting our half century), our colours were the colours of Ireland, green and white, our badge was either the Celtic Cross on our first jersey or the harp on the blue background and significantly in the 1892 Scottish Cup Final in which we beat Queens Park at the first Hampden it was billed as the Scots v the Irish.

There are no mentions of a Scots/Irish team anywhere. Celtic were seen as Irish and any Scots/Irish notion didn’t come into it – that is certainly a most recent fabrication and has more to do with the socio-cultural climate that Celtic and its support experienced in Scotland and the way this is dealt with.

Indeed in John Cairney’s Heroes Are Forever, he states that “As far as the Scottish Establishment was concerned, the enemy was Celticism, (pronounced with a soft “C”) which was the word coined for Irishism, which was now seen as a dangerous wave of anti British nationalism breaking on Scottish shores. Anything Celtic was automatically unpatriotic”.

Later in the same page he states “They, however, could only avail themselves of this nourishment (Protestant soup kitchens) by renouncing their Celticism and that meant Romanism to non Catholic eyes.”

In Tom Campbell’s Celtic The Encyclopedia he describes the suggestion of the name Celtic being an early gesture of ecumenism as fanciful as Walfrid’s personal views have never been recorded.

Having examined the evidence we agree.

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