Celtic FC – Born of Famine and Oppression

On the evening of Tuesday 8 May 1888, the first ever game was played at Old Celtic Park.

Excitement had been growing in the East End of Glasgow for some time and an astonishing crowd of 5,000 turned up to see a game between Hibernian the “mother club” of Celtic, and Cowlairs, Celtic’s closest neighbours. No goals were scored, but the pitch played well and it was a tribute to the hard work that the volunteers have put in over the winter.

The first game involving the new Celtic team would be played around three weeks later when Celtic skelped Rangers 5-2.

The Celtic support, as you can see from the photograph above, have never forgotten where we have come from or why our club was formed in the first place.


Exactly one hundred and thirty three years ago this evening football was played for the very first time at the Old Celtic Park.

Why that match took place 133 years ago this evening, why the ground was built and the grass grown and why the people were in Glasgow at all to volunteer to turn Celtic from being merely a dream into a reality was previously examined by Sean McDonagh on The Celtic Star.

However many may have missed that superb article so accordingly we’d like to give his contribution another airing today. It is strong stuff, sometimes a tough read but it is important part of our own story…

Forgetting An Gorta Mor 1845 – 52 (The Great Hunger) – the real Scotland’s Shame

Edward Said (1935 – 2003), the Palestinian American historian considered to be one of the 20th Century’s greatest thinkers, wrote in 2001 that the real tragedy of history is that so much of it is lost to time and is forgotten about, or, worse still, that it is mis-remembered in such a way that people of the present have a distorted narrative of their own past.

He goes further by adding that so much human tragedy and suffering is often sanitised in this way from the record books of history, usually to satisfy the wants and desires of a present day establishment.

I can think of no greater example of this than that tremendously tragic part of Irish history, very much a part of the Celtic families history also, the often misnamed ‘potato famine’ which should, quite rightly, be more commonly known as An Gorta Mor 1845 – 52 (The Great Hunger). After all, it is entirely inaccurate to describe a situation as a famine when the land is overflowing with food and belonged to the richest empire in the world.

This section of our proud history deserves to be more mainstream and, at the very least, deserves to be known by those of an Irish descent who are currently living in Scotland where there exists, strangely, no real commemoration to such a large scaled human tragedy which has had a tremendous impact in reshaping the Scottish social landscape right up until the present day.

Thankfully, there is a scheduled commemoration to be constructed next year within the Calton area of Glasgow, next to St Mary’s RC Church, the physical home of Celtic Football Club, thanks in large part to the An Gorta Mor Glasgow movement.

Anybody of an Irish extraction should, at this point, stop and ask themselves however, why exactly has it taken so long?

More to the point, as columnist Kevin McKenna has noted, why did Glasgow City Council stall over such a decision and then try to align it with a commemoration of Scottish clearances also?

Fundamentally, why is there a fear associated with commemorating an atrocity which terminally afflicted our Gaelic cousins in Ireland?

Remember that this horrific holocaust of humanity did not discriminate based on religion as both Catholics and Protestants suffered.

This article will attempt to contextualise some of the extreme inhumanity associated with An Gorta Mor as well as highlighting the establishment’s silence or attitude of ‘collective denial’ regarding Scotland’s, thus far, non-response in relation to An Gorta Mor.

An Gorta Mor: A Holocaust of Humanity

Historians more qualified than me have long argued this point about the sanitising of history by states and government establishments, academics such as Joe M. Bradley (‘Celtic Minded’) and Christine Kinnealy of Drew University, NJ, for example, but it is one which must never be forgotten and forever brought into the present context for as long as a country remains unflinchingly obtuse in facing up to its lack of empathy and understanding of the role it plays in purposefully forgetting such an avoidable disaster which was, according to some, tantamount to an economically motivated genocide.

In order to fully understand the historical denial which is to be unquestionably accepted by members of the Celtic family of an Irish heritage, both Catholic and Protestant alike, we must first remind ourselves of the sheer scale of the inhumanity and death that An Gorta Mor bestowed upon Britain’s Ireland between 1845-1852c, including parts of Ulster such as Lurgan and Newtonards where deaths due to An Gorta Mor were just as devastating as parts of the South.

Statistically speaking, the Great Hunger is almost incomprehensible.

For example, consider that between the 1841 and 1851 Irish census the entire population is decreased by a staggering 20 – 30% – put another way, approximately 1 million Irish men, women and children starved to death and approximately 1.5 – 2 million Irish folk left the country.

A historical myth can be seen here however, the idea that these Irish sufferers of hunger were somehow migrating to a better land for increased opportunity aboard ticketed ship with luggage in tow; these people, the forefathers and mothers of many within the present day Celtic family, were seeking genuine refuge from An Gorta Mor, they were emaciated, psychologically tortured and on the brink of death with no real help from their colonial oppressor based across the pond in Westminster – these people were, in my opinion, refugees.

James Burrowes tells us in his book ‘Irish’ that thousands upon thousands of these refugees hoped to find solace across the Atlantic but many more could only get as far as the Mersey or the Clyde coastline and they did so aboard what he termed as a ‘coffin ship’.

Many of these poor souls aboard the coffin ships would have an informal burial at sea as their wretched and emaciated bodies could no longer stand the inhumanity and the pain of it all, whilst others would make it to their destination only to be already within the throes of death as their bodies, starved of nutrition for over a month, had now past the point of no return. It has been recorded by post mortem analysis that some of the contents of the stomachs of those murdered by the Hunger could consist of stone, grit and human flesh. A sickening act of inhumanity which, if historically sanitised correctly, is seen as an accidental happening due to a natural disaster, a so called ‘famine’. This is at best misinterpreted, at worst, a manufactured myth.

Additionally, just how could the potato crop failure that blighted Ireland, which was already predicted, blight other lands such as Belgium, some of the Germanic states and parts of France, however, there was no An Gorta Mor there?

Some in the present context are then led to believe that it was because of the fecklessness of the Irish that they ‘over relied’ upon the potato crop – utter nonsense. When your master, the British, does not allow you to take control of your economy or even your own industries, such as coal for instance, and you are made to work on absentee landlord crofts, whilst your rent is going up and your crops, which are not being spoiled, are being exported from the mouths of hungry crofters and their children under military guard to be delivered to dinner tables throughout the rest of the British empire; this cannot be regarded as famine and there is no stupidity on the part of the now starving farmer, often Catholic but also Protestant. This is what happens when the priority of power, profit and Empire takes precedence over people, humanity and life.

This blueprint of exploitation, perhaps ethnically based again, repeats itself with the Madras Hunger (1876 – 1879) where, according to Daniel Margrain, Whitehall’s Lord Lytton, the British ruler for that part of British India, allowed for a record weight of 320,000 tonnes of wheat and other crops to be exported to the rest of the empire and the global marketplace whilst 5.5 million deaths due to starvation and malnutrition were recorded.

Whether these ‘famines’ where ethnically or economically based, the lack of morals and humanity are astounding, and yet mainstream history calls them famines and natural disasters, a horrific distortion of historical narrative with awful consequences for the present day understanding of empire and attitudes towards ethnic minorities, whether White skinned or not.

For a wee bit of context, we should also be aware that by the time An Gorta Mor hits in 1845, the Irish are already a troubled and tumultuous people, not for the first time, due to the actions of a British established elite. Remember that the Irish, particularly Catholics, already had a lot to deal with by being positioned under the colonial rule of their British landlords.

For example there already existed a diseased relationship between the British Empire and the often rebellious folk of Ireland, again regardless of religion, witnessed in the 1798 United Irishmen Rebellion, led by a man of Protestant heritage in Theobold Wolfe Tone.

Lastly, being Irish and particularly Catholic, merely existing as a 19th Century British subject was no easy task in itself in relation to prejudice, racism and bigotry, exemplified in the fact that Daniel O’Connell was one of the first Catholics allowed in Westminster in over 100 years when he took his seat in 1830, after he doggedly fought for the Catholic Emancipation Act to be passed, which it did, in 1829.

Hunger Refugees and their Generations in Scotland

The numbers of An Gorta Mor survivors and refugees who made their way to Scotland’s west coast, chiefly Glasgow, are truly staggering. For example, Tom Devine states that an area roughly the size of Motherwell’s population had made Glasgow their new home by 1851 as a result of the continual movement of refugees from across the Irish Sea, mostly via coffin ship.

It would be Glasgow in particular where 1000 would be arriving weekly over a 7 week period at the height of An Gorta Mor at its peak and by 1851 just over 7% of Scottish citizens were listed as Irish born, this is roughly 208,000 people.

If not for these strong willed souls who would soon call Glasgow their home, we may never have had a Celtic FC which is eventually founded out of the interests of charity and poverty relief for all, but initially for the inner city poor of Glasgow’s East End, an overwhelming majority of which were of Irish refugee or migrant in their heritage.

Although as much as Scotland became a new home to these tortured folk, these victims of economic priority over humanity and subjects of a ruthless ignorance by Westminster MPs such as Lord Clarendon who declared the Hunger as an act of God no less, before adding, “the departure of thousands of Papist Celts must be a blessing to the country they quit”, in relation to the supposed ‘positives’ to be taken from An Gorta Mor, highlights a strong ethnically discriminative basis to the attitudes of some within the British elite.

It wasn’t all plain sailing for these refugees and their subsequent generations in order to adapt to mid-Victorian Scotland however, as the views of leading Scottish historian, W. H. Fraser, show, “For the Irish in Scotland…the formation of Irishness in what, after all, was, for some, a hostile environmental combination of ancient oppressor and rival religion”.

Such a journey these people made, such a trouble they went through and at such a cost, the most expensive of which would be with their own life. A people who clearly left their mark on the Scottish social landscape for the better, through hard graft, local politics and progressive changes to a more inclusive education system to name but a few. But still, it has taken a scandalous 167 years to receive any positive response from the Scottish state to a legitimate commemoration to this horrific event which led to these peoples catapult here in the first place, whilst over 100 cities throughout the world have already commemorated it.

An Gorta Mor memorial in Dublin

However, perhaps we, as members of the Celtic family who obviously have a rooted connection with our Gaelic neighbours on the old land of Eire, should not be too surprised at the tremendous lack of response through the generations in relation to the collective denial of An Gorta Mor from a Scottish or British perspective, after all, it was only in 1995 that Fergus McCann tells us that he was asked explicitly by the SFA to remove the Irish Tricolour at Hampden, where Celtic FC had their temporary home.

Lastly, what is perhaps needed is the bravery for people who associate themselves with the Celtic family, any Scottish citizen of Irish extraction or anyone who wishes to right the wrongs of historical injustice to collectively confront such denial and seek greater awareness which inevitably leads to greater inclusion of ethnic injustices over the years for the generations of these people who now live here presently.

Perhaps we ought to be more direct and seek change of this, perhaps we should ask, collectively, for a change to our high school education curriculum to reflect this pivotal moment in Irish-Scots history or perhaps we could urge the great folk who already do so much good at the Celtic Foundation to include history as part of their education curriculum.

Whatever we should do, even after next year’s long awaited unveiling of a physical commemoration to An Gorta Mor in the Calton, it cannot consist of leaving things as they are and being acquiescent with a Scottish psyche which likes to ignore and deny certain historical truths, for this mind-set, at best one of ignorance, at worst, one of purposeful denial, truly is the real version of ‘Scotland’s Shame’.

Sean McDonagh

* First Published on The Celtic Star on 8 May 2018

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About Author

The Celtic Star founder and editor, who has edited numerous Celtic books over the past decade or so including several from Lisbon Lions, Willie Wallace, Tommy Gemmell and Jim Craig. Earliest Celtic memories include a win over East Fife at Celtic Park and the 4-1 League Cup loss to Partick Thistle as a 6 year old. Best game? Easy 4-2, 1979 when Ten Men Won the League. Email editor@thecelticstar.co.uk

1 Comment

  1. Interesting article, however the author once again plays the “victim”. The foundation of Celtic , as suggested, does not have its roots in the famine, it is in fact due to the good works in attempting to stop young men from drinking and to give what the Victorians call a moral purpose. Similar schemes existed all over Scotland by way of cultural and sporting associations.But, still an interesting article.