Francis McErlean: Belfast Bhoy To Founding Father

The connections between Celtic Football Club and the city of Belfast are innumerable. It could be argued that the club has no greater link with any other city throughout Ireland. Equally, Celtic has a higher volume of historical attachments to Antrim than any other county on the emerald isle.

Francis McErlean was one of those figures. Born in Belfast, Co Antrim, in 1845; Francis moved to Glasgow in his 20s. His migration likely came as a result of the economic devastation which followed the famine. He embedded himself into life in the Dear Green Place and married a local girl of Irish descent, named Bridget Gallagher, in 1869. Bridget was the daughter of Charles Gallagher, who was a pawnbroker in the East End. Soon after the wedding, the pair moved to Belfast where Francis was a wholesaler of spirits, which he supplied to local taverns. They settled in Ireland and had three daughters born between the years of 1872 and 1882.

Although the family immersed themselves in Belfast, the McErlean’s moved back to Glasgow in the mid 1880s. Francis followed in his Father-in-law’s footsteps, when he rented a property on 735 Great Eastern Road in the Gallowgate and opened a pawnbroker’s shop in the upper flat. Disaster struck on 5 March 1888, when a defective chimney caused a fire which severely damaged the shop. Fortunately, Francis was insured and able to claim £600 for his losses (equivalent of £78,500 in today’s money).

A parishioner of St Michael’s in Parkhead, Francis McErlean was a key member of an important parish in terms of the discussions that took place between several East End parishes and an embryonic committee of men who would found Celtic in 1887. It is beyond doubt that McErlean became involved with the budding Celtic project during this time, unambiguously making him a founding father of the club.

In June 1889, James Quillan led a breakaway from the club at Celtic’s very first AGM. Those who abandoned the Celtic project to form a rival Irish club in the city at this time were known as Quillanites. Quillan had been the Vice-President and his position was filled by Francis McErlean. Being an Irish Catholic businessman and a major player in the St Michael’s parish, Francis fit the bill in terms of aligning with Celtic’s values and having the connections necessary to help the club succeed.

He sold tickets to club events from his shop to reach a wider support base. Naturally, as a Belfast native, he also accompanied the Celtic delegation on the club’s tour of Ireland in 1896. During a match against Belfast Distillery, McErlean alerted Willie Maley to the talents of the Irish club’s half back, Patrick Farrell. Maley took heed of the advice and brought Farrell to the club ahead of the new season. A debut appearance wasn’t handed to the Irish defender until 9 January 1897, when Celtic infamously lost 4-2 to Arthurlie in the Scottish Cup. The result is still regarded as the most embarrassing in Celtic history. Farrell had only been selected to make up the numbers as Celtic only had seven first teamers available due to player strikes, injuries and suspensions. Suffice it to say that he returned to James Curtis’ reserve team and never made another senior appearance for Celtic until he left for Woolwich Arsenal in May 1897.

Outside of the football and business arenas, McErlean dedicated a lot of time to faith and family. He was appointed Treasurer of the Fr Beyaert Presentation Fund Committee, which was established to ensure that the Catholic people of St Michael’s parish were able to present a suitable leaving gift for their local priest, who was to be transferred to Kirkintilloch. Not only was Fr Beyaert a priest, but he was one of the earliest Celtic supporters, whose name can be found on the list of subscribers that donated money when the founders of Celtic pleaded for assistance in order to set the club afloat. He gave the Celts 20 gratefully received shillings.

In January 1891, Francis’ eldest daughter, Bridget (named after his wife), married the Celtic captain James Kelly. Kelly was an absolute legend in Scottish football. He was an internationalist and so pivotal to attracting crowds that the famous saying of the day was ‘No Kelly, no Celtic’. Needless to say, the wedding took place at St Michael’s Roman Catholic Church, with Fr Beyeart conducting the ceremony.

Three months after welcoming James Kelly to the family, the McErlean clan (including James Kelly) resided together in Burgher Street at Parkhead Cross. This location meant that the men of the house only had to walk a couple of hundred yards to their beloved Celtic Park. It was an interesting time for the household in terms of their respective positions at Celtic. Indeed, at the AGM that June, Francis McErlean was not re-elected as Vice President. However, he could take comfort in the silver lining of his son-in-law being voted onto the committee. The fact that an MP in the form of William McKillop was the man to oust him from his position may also have curtailed too much disappointment as few individuals bring as much to the table as a man of that stature.

McErlean was voted onto the committee again at the 1896 AGM, yet when the club became a limited company a year later, he didn’t take the opportunity of purchasing additional shares. It is evident that he moved back to Ireland with his wife and children at this point. He remained on home soil until his death at Portglenone, Co Derry, in February 1906. He was 61 years old.

Click on the links below for articles on other Celtic Founding Fathers:

Patrick Welsh – William McKillop MP – John Glass – Hugh Darroch – Dr John Conway – Michael Cairns – John O’Hara – Daniel Molloy – Joseph Shaughnessy – James CurtisJoseph Nelis

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About Author

Hailing from an Irish background, I grew up in Bournemouth with the good fortune to begin watching Celtic as a young child during the Martin O'Neill era. Still living on the south coast, I have a season ticket at Paradise and also travel to European away matches when possible. At the age of 19, I published my first Celtic book (Our Stories & Our Songs: The Celtic Support). Then, last year, I published my second book (Take Me To Your Paradise: A History Of Celtic-Related Incidents & Events), which is sold in Waterstones and official Celtic FC stores.

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