‘Walfrid: A Life of Faith, Community and Football’ explores the lesser-known areas of the Marist brother’s life from previously-unseen documents.
The book, by Dr Michael Connolly of the University of Stirling, ‘pieces together his life from birth to grave’, including newly-found photographs of the Celtic founder.
Dr Connolly said that through contact with Br Walfrid’s living relatives, he was able ‘to get a picture of him as a person rather than as a statue outside a stadium.’
It emerged Br Walfrid’s character possessed a ‘good sense of humour’ combined with a charism to ‘energise and organise those around him’.
“He’s described as an ‘organising genius’. He likely wasn’t very hands-on involved in the day-to-day operations of the club,” Dr Connolly said.
“The main theme, though, that sticks out in his own writing is his concern for poor children. I can only conclude that that emerges from his experience of famine.
“He was born in 1840 in Sligo, which was only five years before the onset of the series of crop failures known as An Gorta Mór [The Great Hunger]. He was only 15 when he came across to Scotland,” he said.
The second son in the family, his brother would receive the bulk of the inheritance and it was often the case the younger son would discern a priestly or religious vocation.
“There’s this strong tradition in Irish history. There’s unique aspects to Walfrid’s story but there’s also parts that fit into a wider narrative,” he said.
Andrew arrived in Glasgow not as a Brother but as a railway worker, just three years before the Marist Brothers did in 1868. The Marist brothers grew exponentially following the Irish influx to the British Isles following the famine.
“The family confirmed he likely came into contact with them after a hard day’s work on the railways,” he said. “Likely it was in his late teens, early twenties.”
It was in France in 1864 that he took the habit.
“The inspiration for Celtic comes from Edinburgh’s Hibernian after winning the Scottish Cup of 1887, where they were invited to St Mary’s Chapel Hall to celebrate and toast their success.
“It’s there we see the newspapers reporting that the Hibs committee men threw down the gauntlet and said, ‘why don’t you do likewise here in Glasgow? Why don’t you form an Irish football team for the betterment of your own community?”
Whereas Hibernian had been founded out of St Patrick’s in the Cowgate, Dr Connolly believes the success of Br Walfrid’s club comes from its being the amalgamation of three ‘huge’ parishes.
“Celtic holds that unique distinction of being formed with the express vision of being an outlet for Christian charity.
“Less than 12 months later Celtic plays its first game and it’s advertised as raising funds for the Poor Children’s Dinnertable, a charity set up by Walfrid himself a few years earlier.
“A whole raft of football clubs in Victorian Britain were founded in church halls. Celtic’s distinction is that it was founded as a charity first and foremost.”
Only at the helm of Celtic for a few years, Dr Connelly said it was ‘quite emotional’ to uncover that Br Walfrid received telegrams of the club’s results until his last days.
He said the order to relocate to East London would have been difficult but not tragic.
“His priority and his life was in service to God through being a Marist brother. It’s part of the deal, and he makes huge contributions there as well.”
Even within the Marist brothers, Br Walfrid’s role in the founding of Celtic is little known.
The former Archivist General of the Marists had explained that having lived in a community of 20 brothers, nearly all knew of Celtic without being aware that it was founded by a Marist.
“The ethos of being a Marist brother is all about simplicity, humility, preferential option for the poor. They’re not really ones to shout things from the roof tops,” Dr Connolly said.
“That’s made visual in Br Walfrid’s final resting place in Dumfries. The Brothers’ graveyard is there, their graves are set out uniformly with a very simple metal cross.
“That’s how they live in life and that’s reflected in death. The main departure for Walfrid is that his grave has always got a Celtic scarf.”
The Marist Brothers’ influence today, like many others, is ebbing away. At the graveyard, though, there now stands a commemorative stone, which Dr Connolly said acknowledges their role not just in the founding of Celtic, ‘but also of their impact on Catholic education in the United Kingdom.’
Photo credit: Paul McSherry