THE life and work of Brother Walfrid is something which many—particularly with the Irish community—would confidently claim that they know something about. The most commonly known facts are well established. Brother Walfrid —or Andrew Kerins—found his way to Glasgow from his native Sligo. Once there, in the parish of St Mary’s in the Calton, and inspired by the 1887 Scottish Cup victory by Hibernian FC, he led the foundation of Celtic Football Club in order to meet the physical and social needs of the poor and hungry Irish people that he had encountered.
At this point in the story of Brother Walfrid, the story of the club he created—Celtic—tends to take over and, carried by its own momentum, grabs the attention away from the humble priest who had breathed life into it.
Some of the historians associated with Celtic have sought to track Walfrid in his years after Celtic, while Catholic investigators have worked to uncover the story of his religious formation and subsequent ministry, but the efforts to truly uncover the details of Walfrid’s life and to decipher the clues which point to how he was influenced and the influence he had on society will now move on to a new level of study.
Michael Connolly, a postgraduate student of Stirling University, is the man who will spearhead this new examination of Brother Walfrid, through his PhD study, titled Faith, Community and Football: Searching for Brother Walfrid.
Supported by a £25,000 grant—and backed by both the Archdiocese of Glasgow and Celtic Football Club—Michael hopes that the four year-long project will build on and add to the body of work already done on the history of the Irish and Catholic communities in Scotland by eminent academics Professor Sir Tom Devine and Dr Joseph Bradley.
Indeed, the lasting and permanent legacy left by Brother Walfrid to the Irish and Catholic communities today will also be analysed in order to fully examine the ways in which the work of Brother Walfrid well over a century ago still benefits the descendants of those he set out to help.
With so many passionate Celtic supporters excited by the news of a serious academic study of their club’s founder, Michael may almost feel that he has thousands of sets of eyes peering over his shoulder and trying to get an insight into what he is learning, discovering and concluding about the life of Brother Walfrid.
Rather than letting this distract and him steer the study in any other direction, however, he is making the most of the high profile his subject enjoys to draw in new perspectives and gather little known, or even as yet unpublished, information on Brother Walfrid.
“As it stands there are big gaps in the story of Brother Walfrid, but since the announcement of the study I have had contact from lots of people who know much more about him than me—football historians and religious figures in particular—and tapping into those contacts and that knowledge will be very valuable,” Michael explained to The Irish Voice. “It’s important that we follow in Walfrid’s footsteps though, so I’ll be travelling to Sligo to track his journey from there. The opportunity to visit France and learn more about Walfrid’s studies there as part of his religious formation will be invaluable, as the records there are well-maintained and will help us understand what he was doing at that time.”
Michael remains aware, obviously, that while his academic focus must remain undisturbed, his subject is one which excites the passions of many thousands, for the very good and simple reason that he understands those passions because he happens to share them.
A Celtic supporter and a member of Scotland’s multi-generational Irish community who retains a keen interest in and knowledge of Ireland’s history and of the history of and issues faced by Irish communities around the globe, the story of one of the most prominent and influential Irish emigrants was always one which was likely to catch his attention.
He first made Brother Walfrid a subject for study while doing his undergraduate degree at the University of Glasgow. Studying Economic and Social History, he wrote his dissertation on Celtic’s founder and traces his current PhD subject back to that earlier work.
“I did my dissertation on the subject of Walfrid, which I was inspired to do because of my own general knowledge of Walfrid and the different aspects of his involvement in charity, both in Glasgow and in London after his move there,” he explained. “I had always been aware of his part in the history of Celtic and of his association with the Marist Brothers, but I knew much less about his background in Sligo before he moved to Glasgow and his activity in London after he moved there in 1892. It’s those parts of Walfrid’s history that I hope to explore in more detail in order to build a fuller picture of the man.”
Speaking earlier of his choice of dissertation subject, and what he hopes to produce through the study, he said: “I called it Charity and Community: The Social and Economic Development of Celtic Football Club Between 1887 and 1900. It was then I began to understand the importance of Brother Walfrid—not just to Celtic, but to the wider Irish immigrant population he sought to support by creating the football club in Glasgow.
“The works of academic authorities such as Dr Joe Bradley and Professor Sir Tom Devine helped fuel my interest in the themes of immigration, Irish identity, poverty, charity and community, which of course motivated Walfrid to found Celtic. I feel excited to be given the opportunity to return to study a subject I am so passionate about.”
Support for study
With the PhD study set to be undertaken through Stirling University, the support and infrastructure they offer will mean that while Walfrid has been examined before, never before has anyone been able to devote this amount of time to his life and approach the subject with such academic credentials and support in place. The partnership with Celtic will also allow Michael to make the most of the club’s own ability to open doors in the quest to uncover the facts of Walfrid’s whole life legacy, not just his his role in the foundation of Celtic
“Having had contact with Celtic and through my initial research looking into the archives at the Mitchell Library, I was able to build a very clear picture of his role in the founding of the club,” he explained. “All the accounts at the time point to a man who was very much at the top of the table in all the early efforts and committee meetings, but really Walfrid was only involved in Celtic for the first five years of the club’s history. That helped make it clear that more study has to be done to understand his life and work, and I’m delighted now to be undertaking this first PhD study of Brother Walfrid.
“The title of the study is Faith, Community and Football: Searching for Brother Walfrid, and it will focus on those three areas, but we will also be going to those places where Walfrid worked or which informed his social conscience—Sligo, where he was born, and France, where he studied, as well as the cities like Glasgow and London where his charitable efforts were so prominent. We want to bring together these elements and places to better understand Walfrid.”
Having been influenced by other academics who have brought the history of the community which Walfrid lived and worked amid, and which inspired his charitable efforts, his PhD study has brought Michael further into that sphere, and will allow him to draw on the support and experience of those who inspired him. The study will take place through the Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, University of Stirling, under the supervision of Dr Joe Bradley, whose Celtic Minded series of books gathered a diverse range of experiences and insights into the Irish in Scotland in its collections of essays.
Explaining his view of the study as it was launched, Dr Bradley spoke of the different areas in which Walfrid’s legacy is still felt, and of the importance of establishing the extent of his legacy for Scotland’s Irish community.
“This research aims to explore the figure of Brother Walfrid (Andrew Kerins), one of the most significant Irish immigrants to Scotland, an outstanding individual in relation to education and charity in Glasgow and a major contributor to the emergence of organised football in Scotland in the late 19th century,” he said. “Despite his more obvious credentials and general knowledge around him, especially in relation to being a prime founder of Celtic FC, Walfrid’s story remains largely obscure. This PhD, by research, will closely examine and investigate the ‘real’ Walfrid, and his meaning and legacy for the multi-generational Irish Catholic community in Scotland and beyond.
“It aims to substantiate the partial image we currently have of Walfrid and, indeed, of the circumstances that provided the conditions for the emergence of Celtic Football Club: a unique representation of the Irish diaspora in world sport.”
And as the expectation in the Irish community builds for the eventual publication of the study, the Catholic community in Scotland is also waiting expectantly for the day when they will have a fuller account of one of the most celebrated figures in the modern history of the Scottish Catholic Church.
Although a member of the Italian community of Scotland, Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow is well acquainted with the story of Brother Walfrid and his work. Brought up in the city’s east end in one of the neighbouring districts of the Calton, and a dedicated supporter of Celtic Football Club, Archbishop Tartaglia has spoken out in praise of the ‘Apostle of the Poor’ in the past, and considering his role as a Catholic religious in his archdiocese the archbishop is eagerly anticipating the outcome of the study.
“As Glasgow’s current Catholic Archbishop, as a very proud Glaswegian who was brought up in the city’s East End, and as a Celtic supporter and football man, I look forward to the eventual publication of this new study on Brother Walfrid, Marist Brother, founding father of Glasgow Celtic FC, ‘Apostle of the Poor,’ and a champion for all Glasgow’s people,” Archbishop Philip Tartaglia said. “This new study will be a major contribution to the Brother Walfrid story. It will surely shine an academic light on the person and faith and motivations of Brother Walfrid, on the underlying facts of his life and activity, on the local and broader historical context, on the local circumstances and the personal interactions of Brother Walfrid with the Glasgow of his time, the City Council, the Catholic Church, his own religious congregation, and the local community leaders.
“We have all heard that Brother Walfrid and his associates wanted to make Celtic ‘a club open to all.’ That purpose sounds visionary and progressive for its time. As such, it can only be good for the present and future of Glasgow.”
The parish of St Mary’s looms large in the story of Walfrid, and it was there that Michael announced the news of the PhD study, joined by parish priest Fr Tom White, Celtic FC Chief Executive Peter Lawwell and Emma O’Neil, owner and manager of Nine Muses (above).
It was Nine Muses which commissioned the fantastic Peter Howson portrait of Brother Walfrid, which is displayed in the church, and they are continuing their commitment to charting the story of Brother Walfrid—having already produced a documentary on the subject—by funding this more detailed examination of him.
“At Nine Muses, we know a lot about Brother Walfrid,” she observed. “More than most. We’ve made a good start—commissioned a painting and produced a one-hour documentary—but there are so many questions left unanswered, and they’ll remain unanswered unless there’s an in-depth study of this great man’s contribution to religious, social, economic and cultural life in late 19th century Glasgow and Scotland.”
“Over 25 years, Andrew Kerins was a pivotal figure in helping poverty-ridden, demoralised and desperate immigrants displaced from Ireland to Glasgow because of the Great Famine, a terrible period in European history. Walfrid helped give them food, hope, and, through Celtic, pride, and we want to raise awareness of his life and works.
“People can sign up and pledge their support for the campaign for free and hear first-hand about all the latest discoveries. And if anyone has any new information about Brother Walfrid we’d love to hear from them.”
With a statue of Walfrid in front of Celtic Park, and ever-present charitable efforts in his name, the influence its founder still exerts over the direction Celtic travel in is still obvious to even the most casual onlooker. As he joined those whose work, knowledge and commitment has launched the PhD study in St Mary’s, Mr Lawwell welcomed the raised awareness of his club’s central figure which will result from the study.
“Brother Walfrid is a hugely important figure and someone whose contribution to Celtic Football Club and to wider Scottish society is most deserving of this kind of academic study,” he explained. “He was a man who gave people hope at a time of desperation, and in adversity someone who brought people together by creating a Club open to all—his dedication to helping others has left a phenomenal legacy.
“It is Brother Walfrid’s vision of charitable purpose and community through football, which Celtic will always hold dear and will always strive to honour in everything it does. Indeed, we are proud that Brother Walfrid’s spirit remains so strong at Celtic as we continue to make a positive difference to the lives of people in need.
“We congratulate all those involved in delivering this study, which we are sure will be very important, raising awareness and understanding of someone who did so much for so many.”
Pursuing a passion
But while the next four years will see the hard work of the study done, with Michael’s reading and writing on the subject finally distilled into the most comprehensive and illuminating study the Irish community in Scotland have ever seen undertaken on one of their most prominent members, the man at the centre of it is still grateful of the chance to pursue not only one of his passions, but a passion which he shares with the many thousands in Scotland and elsewhere who follow Celtic.
“Everything came together when I began to read and study modules focusing on Victorian urban poverty, looking at cities like Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool,” he said. “That triggered a wee spark. I saw that I could bring it together with something that I was already very passionate about. This was in 2013, during Celtic’s 125th anniversary season, when there was already such a focus on the foundation of the club.
“I still see that interest there and I’m very lucky to have it. I spend a lot of my time sitting beside others who are studying really interesting but really niche subjects, while I have a level of public interest in Walfrid’s story, which is hard to grasp. That sort of interest and input from others will prove very important for the study.”
To read more about the study or to pledge your support visit: http://www.brotherwalfridart.co.uk