Adam Smith, regarded by many as the father of modern economics, once observed that crop failures caused dearth but that it took “the violence of well-intentioned governments” to convert “dearth into famine.” Throughout the 19th century, governments, social-reformers and subsistence –dwellers learned the enormous human cost that resulted when the poor were left to starve.
Ireland suffered regular famine for more than a century before when what became known as THE Irish Famine first struck the country in 1845. The potato blight travelled across Europe before arriving in Britain and then Ireland, but in most places the links between those who were suffering and those who were in a position to alleviate that suffering were sufficiently established to ensure dearth did not become cataclysmic famine. Not so in Ireland.
The famine lasted until the 1850s, a million starved to death. Nothing would ever be the same again. The blight returned in 1879 but by then the Celtic population of Ireland, who suffered disproportionately in earlier famines, were politically better represented and had structures in place to ensure those in need were assisted. As a result, the 1879 blight caused great hunger but cost fewer lives.
Brother Walfrid lived through the famine of the 1840s. The community who 125 years ago today decided to form a football and athletic club in order to feed the starving either lived through the same hardship, or were the progeny of those who did. All were informed by the actions across the water in 1879. Squalor, disease and starvation afflicted Glasgow, as it did many of the newly industrialised cities of the world. Walfrid and his colleagues were not going to stand idly by and hope for the best.
Celtic Football Club was not the only institution established in those years to cater for the poor. Across Britain others campaigned for clean water, sanitation, better working conditions and occasionally health care, but Celtic were quite unlike any others.
Football had caught the public imagination and benefited from the increased availability of leisure time in the early 20th century. Brother Walfrid could just as easily established a musical troupe to raise funds. If so, there would be no Celtic. Those who met in St Mary’s hall had seen how successful other football clubs were becoming and decided to copy their ways. They watched how successful Hibernian, from Leith, had become and decided Glasgow’s east end would be equally fertile ground.
Hundreds of other football clubs were formed in the 19th century but no others had the unique story of Celtic. If you listen to modern brand consultants you will hear them talk about establishing a legend for your brand. Adorn it with positive, aspirational sentiment that people want to be a part of. Whenever I hear this kind of talk, or watch a business try to position itself along these lines, I think of how getting the foundations right on day one set our club out on this enormous journey.
No one was trying to establish a brand in 1887, in fact, those in charge of the club seemed immune to the concept for over a century, but all of the positive sentiment which is persistently associated with Celtic can be traced back to that meeting at St Mary’s, even down to what might have seemed like small detail. Unlike Hibernian, Celtic would not be a club for members of a church or parish, this would be a club who wanted all members of society to work with, support and play for. From conception, the message of social responsibility was evangelised.
The world is enormously different today than it was back then, and our community reflects those changes, but anyone who counts himself a Celtic fan is a product of the club’s history. You are here for a reason.
Tomorrow night’s opponents proclaim they are ‘more than just a football club’. In their case that is correct, but this is a truism for most football fans. Few will say, ‘Although I turn up every week, there’s nothing special about this place’. Those who understand how much more Celtic are than just a club, know that it is no longer the responsibility of Brother Walfrid, now it is yours and mine. We have the enormous responsibility to take care of that 125-year heritage and, if possible, enhance it. That’s the challenge every time you get your ticket out your pocket, you scribble on a blog, or you’re asked to assist someone in need.
What an enormous privilege.
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