Thousands of people have kicked a ball at Celtic Park – players, celebrities, fans, opposition teams; it’s an honour for many, but only one man can say he was the first to do so and that man is Dr John Conway.
John Conway was born in Glasgow in 1859. He was the son of a Glasgow Irish pawnbroker (John Conway Senior) and grew up in a very dedicated Roman Catholic household. Indeed, Conway’s father was the first Catholic representative on the Parochial Board in Glasgow, whilst Conway (Junior) was educated at St Mungo’s Catholic School, where a certain Brother Walfrid was his tutor. Excelling as a school pupil, Conway went on to study at St Aloysius College, before enlisting with Glasgow University as a student of medicine. Such educational exploits should be not be understated, for very few Catholics studied in this field at the time as most were not accepted.
Upon graduation, Conway was admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons in London. However, he decided against the opportunity in the English capital, in favour of assisting the poor in his native Glasgow, where poverty and infant mortality rates were among the most horrific in Europe. Conway opened a medical practise on Abercromby Street in the Calton, part of the city’s East End, which was the worst afflicted area. His role as a doctor in this region brought him back into contact with one of his old mentors, Brother Walfrid. Walfrid was by now the Headmaster at Sacred Heart School in Bridgeton, and Conway assisted pupils at the educational institution by acting as an unofficial medical adviser, on Walfrid’s request.
Beyond the realm of medical practises, John Conway was a prominent member of the Saint Vincent De Paul Society within St Alphonsus, the most local parish to Monteith Row, where he and his wife lived, beside Glasgow Green. The doctor also took up positions within the Catholic Union, the Catholic Benefit Society, the Catholic Literary Society and the O’Connell branch of the Irish National Foresters. All of these organisations were frequented by multiple men who would go on to found Celtic. Meanwhile, Conway further utilised his medical expertise in the community after Celtic’s establishment, when he became the honorary physician to the Whitevale Children’s Refuge in 1890, at the age of just 30.
John Conway was absolutely pivotal to the creation of Celtic Football Club. As a doctor, practising on local Glasgow Irish people, he courted enormous respect in the local community. His devotion to Catholicism and medical welfare ensured he was a keen supporter of the temperance movement, something that would later prove to be of great import in the fledgling days of the club as his presence brought respect to Celtic’s name and maintained the club’s close links with the very pro temperance organisations – The League of the Cross and Catholic Young Men’s Society – whilst a big oxymoron was being carried out by founding fathers such as John Glass, who utilised the licensing trade as a means of attracting players to Celtic!
Despite the importance of his credibility for the reputation of the club, it could be argued that John Conway’s most influential moment in terms of Celtic history, occurred on 12 February 1887, when Hibernian defeated Dumbarton by two goals to one to win the Scottish Cup. After the match, a jubilant reception was held in St. Mary’s Church Hall. It may appear surprising that the Leith outfit decided against returning to the capital, but the adulation with which Hibernian were greeted in Glasgow was more than a match for the support that they’d become accustomed to from the Irish communities of Edinburgh. Among the admirers were leading Glasgow Irishmen such as Brother Walfrid and John Glass, who would of course play immense roles in the founding of Celtic Football Club. Dr John Conway led the victory speeches. He remarked that “All Irishmen are delighted at Hibernian’s victory today,” and crucially that he “Strongly urges” his fellow Glasgow Irishmen to “Emulate their example, not only in social but in political matters as well, so that the goal of every Irishman’s ambition – legislative independence of his country – will soon be attained.”
It is reported in the Glasgow Observer, which Conway promoted and published, that Hibernian’s Secretary, John McFadden, responded with some final words before raising his hand in valediction. He thanked his Glasgow based compatriots for their “Warming hospitality,” and claimed that “Imitation is the sincerest flattery.” The reception then concluded with a heartfelt rendition of God Save Ireland, the unofficial anthem for Irish Nationalists at that time.
As the soiree departed, John McFadden is reported to have privately encouraged the Glasgow men to “Go and do likewise” (set up a football team for the Irish community in Glasgow). Dr Conway later said to his parishioners: “As it has become proverbial that imitation is the sincerest flattery, I think we could not please them (Hibernian) better than by following their example.” Given that there was a far greater Irish population in Glasgow than in Edinburgh, it made sense to accept the gauntlet that had been thrown down, especially considering that successful football initiatives held within the city for The Poor Children’s Dinner and Breakfast Tables were still fresh in the memory.
Some months later, Celtic were officially constituted in that same St Mary’s Church Hall. Conway was present at the meeting and was made Celtic’s first Honorary President. His greatest and most famous honour, came six months after the club’s inauguration, when the first Celtic Park was opened on 8 May 1888. The grand opening signified the launch of Celtic, with Hibernian invited to play against Cowlairs. Dr Conway took to the field and became the first person ever to kick a ball at Celtic Park, something that will have been much more memorable for the Honorary President than the rest of the match, which resulted in 0-0 draw.
Dr John Conway took his role with Celtic Football Club very seriously. He represented the Celts at multiple public events and spoke at a function for Celtic Club members and guests, on Waterloo Street (Glasgow), on St Patrick’s Day of 1890. His speech that night highlighted his pride in the fact that Celtic had paid off their £1500 outstanding cost for putting together the playing surface at Paradise, and that the club had still managed to donate approximately £400 to charity so far that season.
As great and as glowing as the report on Conway had been, change was on the horizon. A battle for the soul of Celtic was on, as professionalism and business priority loomed large. Without going into the dispute, which requires an article of its own, a split emerged within the Celtic committee. On one hand, people such as John Glass and John H McLaughlin viewed the professionalism route as not only preferable but necessary to the future stability of the club. On the other, the likes of Walfrid and Dr Conway felt that the club should not disobey its raison detre, which envisaged that all profits should be donated to charitable causes.
The matter came to a head prior to the 1890/91 AGM and wasn’t helped by the fact that two committee men had been paid without the consent of all members. Additionally, Conway was very unhappy at the fact that John Glass put forth the notion that Willie Maley should be paid for splitting his roles between playing for the club and acting as its secretary. This infuriated Conway, as season 1890/91 had completely gone against the script of the previous campaign when he gave his appreciative speech. Instead, £445 had been donated to charity (£220 of which went to The Poor Children’s Dinner and Breakfast Tables), but the club had a total income of over £4400.
Conway’s strong principles led to him being voted out of his role as Honorary President, his position being filled by Joseph Nelis, whilst the doctor also failed to oust John Glass from the overall presidency. The fall out left a bitter taste, resulting in Dr Conway cutting all ties with Celtic.
He didn’t live to see the club turn professional, as sadly he suddenly died on 24 January 1894, aged just 35. The cause of death was noted as apopolexy, which is an antiquated term for a cerebal hemorrhage that often invokes a stroke. It is an utter disgrace that nobody at Celtic made any reference to Conway’s passing and the only word on his death was given by the Glasgow Observer newspaper, who stated:
It was greatly owing to his (Conway’s) exertions that the Celtic Football Club was started and in acknowledgement of his efforts in that direction the members appointed him honorary president for three years.
The doctor was laid to rest in Dalbeth Cemetery. There is no known report of the funeral and thus it is unclear as to who, if any from his time at Celtic attended. Though, it is likely that Brother Walfrid would have been present if he could have travelled from London, where he was by then transferred.
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