I don’t accept that Irish Republicanism is in Celtic’s history, anywhere in Celtic’s history… I don’t recognise Celtic being associated with Irish Republicanism.”
Peter Lawwell, Celtic FC Chief Executive
THE views of the current Chief Executive of Celtic—first expressed in 2015—became a topic of conversation once again in the aftermath of controversial Green Brigade banners displayed at the recent game at Celtic Park against Belfast’s Linfield FC. However, they are difficult to reconcile with the acts and beliefs of those who founded the club and guided it through its formative years.
The suggestion that at no time in the club’s history has there been an association with Irish Republicanism is misleading and flies in the face of available evidence. While the club are seeking to distance themselves from fans who advocate support for Irish Republicanism in all its varied forms—and suggesting, erroneously, that this automatically means support for proscribed terrorist organisations—in doing so they are overlooking the crucial part played in the club’s history by individuals who not only expressed publicly their support for the ideal of a United Ireland, but were actively involved in overthrowing British rule in Ireland in the 19th century.
“Willie Maley was his name, he brought some great names to the game, when he was the boss at Celtic Park.” Celtic’s first Manager is still lauded in song today at the modern Celtic Park, but his involvement with Celtic may never have happened if hadn’t been for a Fenian by the name of Pat Welsh. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) —commonly referred to as the Fenian Movement —was a secret, revolutionary body active in the late 1800s and committed to the establishment of an independent Irish Republic through the use of force. Welsh, who hailed from Killargue in Leitrim, was a Fenian activist. The IRB organised an abortive rising in Ireland in 1867 and were responsible for a dynamite campaign in English cities in the 1880s.
It was in the aftermath of the failed 1867 Rising that Welsh sought to evade arrest by the British by stowing away on a ship at Dublin Port. His plan was foiled when he was discovered by a British soldier—Sergeant Tom Maley. Welsh pleaded not to be arrested and sought to convince the soldier that he intended to put his violent past behind him if given the opportunity of a fresh start in a new country. Maley was himself Irish—from Ennis in Clare—and accepted Welsh’s promise that he would not return to Fenian activities. He let him go and Pat Welsh sailed to Glasgow. Just two years later, Sergeant Maley retired from service in the British Army and decided to move with his wife—who was Scottish—and their four sons to Glasgow, where Pat Welsh helped find them accommodation, in the parish of St Mary’s in the East End.
Pat Welsh (above left) went on to become a successful tailor, with premises in Buchanan Street, and as well as a prominent parishioner in St Mary’s where he became involved in charity work. He was also active in Irish political groups such as the Amnesty Association and the Irish National League (INL). In 1887, he was a central figure in the formation of an Irish football club in the East End and it was he who suggested to his fellow committeemen that he could use his connections with the Maley family to try and secure the signature of a leading player of the day, Tom Maley. It came to pass that this former Fenian—in the company of Brother Walfrid and John Glass—visited the Maley household in Cathcart in late 1887 to recruit Tom Maley, with Brother Walfrid famously suggesting to his brother Willie, who had played with Third Lanark: “Why don’t you come along too?”
Pat Welsh was an influential figure on the first Celtic FC Committee and many of the club’s founding fathers shared his interest and involvement in Irish social and political organisations in Glasgow, the most prominent being the INL, which campaigned for Home Rule for Ireland. A current Celtic FC board member, Brian Wilson, explained in the club’s official centenary book, A Century With Honour, that other Celtic committeemen who were also active in the Home Government Branch of the INL in Glasgow included John Glass, James Quillan, Hugh Murphy, Arthur Murphy, William McKillop and John McKillop. Wilson wrote: “The influence which the leading Home Government Branch exercised in the founding of Celtic ensured that the primary aim would be to create a club that was outward-looking, proudly Irish and excellent.”
Celtic Football Club’s formal identification with the cause of Irish independence reached its zenith in 1896. A three-day convention was held in Dublin, which attracted almost 3000 delegates from the global Irish diaspora to challenge British rule in Ireland and assert that the Irish were now ready to govern themselves without foreign oversight or interference. Only one sporting organisation attended the convention—Celtic FC. They were represented by a delegation made up of John Glass, treasurer James McKay and recently appointed club secretary Willie Maley. Others present at the convention included club captain James Kelly and committeemen Mick Dunbar, Joseph Shaughnessy, Dr Joseph Scanlon, Thomas Colgan, William McKillop, Joseph McGroary and John McGuire. The club was sending a clear and distinct message formally linking itself with the campaign for Irish independence.
The primary organising figure in the 1896 Convention was a man once described as ‘the one-armed Fenian chief, the darling son of their own Mayo, evicted like themselves, saturated with a hatred of Landlordism as fierce as their own, returning untamed by penal servitude to the old struggle, by new methods, perhaps, but with the old, unconquered men gathering behind him.’ In the late 19th century, Michael Davitt (above right) was second only to Charles Parnell as the most prominent Irish politician of the day.
Davitt had much in common with the people who founded Celtic FC. Like them, he grew up in the UK to Irish parents and considered himself Irish. While Pat Welsh was establishing himself in Glasgow in 1868, Davitt was a regular visitor to the city as the IRB’s Organising Secretary for England and Scotland, recruiting and raising funds for the Fenians and procuring guns and explosives. The academic Mairtin O’Cathain has written that: “Whether in secret conclave with artisans in an empty warehouse in Glasgow’s dilapidated and fever-ridden Bridgegate district or in a pub or temperance hall in rural Lanarkshire, Davitt was unconsciously making himself into a myth.”
Davitt was captured in 1870 and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. The ill treatment he was subjected to as a disabled prisoner caused a furore and led to his early release in 1877. Davitt moved away from the IRB and became a leading figure in the Irish Land League whose non-violent tactics brought about significant legal advances for farmers and agricultural workers. When the INL was formed in 1882 Davitt was a key driving force alongside Parnell but the former Fenian favoured land nationalisation and an Irish Republic while Parnell sought a Dublin parliament still under British rule, which was the INL’s principal objective.
Michael Davitt was a popular figure in Scotland where he sought to make common cause with the crofters movement, based largely on the west coast and islands. Despite being decried in Scottish newspapers as ‘an ex-felon Fenian,’ Davitt spoke to large crowds in the Highlands on his tours of 1882 and 1887. In one speech at Helmsdale he declared: “It ought to be the ambition of every Celt… to war against that system which has been the fell instrument in England’s hand for the extermination and enslavement of the Celtic race.” The Glasgow Catholic newspaper, The Observer, referred to him on its front page as ‘The Tribune of the Celtic Race’ in May 1887. Within six months, Celtic FC was formed by many of those heavily involved in organising Davitt’s tour of Scotland that year.
Celtic FC had no hesitation in publicly associating itself with Davitt, one of the most prominent Irish Republicans of the age although he no longer adhered to the physical force tradition within Republicanism. He was made an Honorary Patron of Celtic in 1889, the club’s second year. On the March 18, 1892 a banner with the legend ‘Céad Míle Fáilte To Davitt’ hung from the pavilion of the first Celtic Park while Davitt opened the new park just along Janefield Street, which remains home to Celtic today. Using a unique silver spade, which was gifted to him, Davitt placed a sod of Irish turf topped off with shamrocks in the centre of the new pitch. He wished the club well in its new home adding that he ‘fancied that the green sod conveyed from dear old Donegal would prove so slippery that any Saxon rival who ran over it would fall a cropper.’
It is unlikely that the current administration at Celtic Park would be rolling out the welcome mat to any Irish politician who had been imprisoned for treasonable activities against the British state, as Davitt was. Yet it is an undeniable truth that Irish Republicans had an active involvement in the club in its early years and that the club’s founding fathers sought to associate the club publicly with the cause of Irish freedom. Those who know their history won’t accept it being re-written to suit the purposes of a new agenda.
Peter Crumley is a regular contributor to The Shamrock, a historical Celtic FC fanzine: https://the-shamrock.net. Issue 4 of the fanzine features a profile of Michael Davitt, ‘Celtic’s Rebel Heart.’