John Glass – The Man To Whom Celtic Owes Its Existence

Following from my previous article, for The Celtic Star, about one of Celtic’s founding fathers (William McKillop MP), I have decided to write about another of those men behind the formation of our great club.

Just as McKillop’s political life connected him to current affairs, the story of John Glass is equally relevant to recent news as the Celtic View reported, less than two weeks ago, that the below painting of has now been fully restored and is able to be viewed as part of the stadium tour at Celtic Park.

Portrait of John Glass – Celtic Founding Father

The painting was offered to the club by Mrs Coulter, the Grand-daughter of John Glass, in November 1946. It was then that Mrs Coulter wrote a letter to club manager, Jimmy McGrory, who put the matter before the board. In reply, McGrory broke the news that although the club was interested in the piece, they felt it was probably too big to be positioned in either the hall or the boardroom at Celtic Park, but that they would like a second look at the painting. Having reflected, the club thought better of it and decided to accept the gift.

The news of its restoration and return to Paradise is something that should please all with an enthusiasm for the club’s history. After all, in Willie Maley’s book, The Story of The Celtic, John Glass is accredited as ‘the man to whom Celtic FC owes its very existence’. Indeed, without diminishing the role of other founding fathers, it could well be argued that Brother Walfrid was the main man responsible for founding Celtic Football Club, whilst Glass was the man who established it.

It was Glass, who brought Maley to the club, along with Brother Walfrid and Patrick Welsh – as referenced in another Celtic Star article, which focused on Welsh. (The story is also included in Take Me To Your Paradise: A history of Celtic-related incidents & events). Yet, Glass’ role in the Celtic story carries much more significance than this.

John Glass was born in 1851 at the Broomielaw, in one of the poorest slums in Glasgow. He hailed from proud Donegal stock, his parents having fled Ireland to escape the devastation of the famine. A glazier by trade, he took up employment as General Manager of his brother Peter’s successful wood merchants and builders business in the Gallowgate. The business employed many of the city’s Irish population, which inspired Glass to meet regularly with Dr John Conway and Brother Walfrid to discuss ways of tackling the poverty that surrounded them, particularly within the Irish community.

John Glass – Celtic founding father

As a strong and stocky individual, Glass is said to have possessed a presence and sense of authority which was impossible to ignore. These qualities were invaluable when he became Celtic’s first President, Brother Walfrid’s right hand man and ultimately the man who made things happen for the club. He worked day and night to ensure that Celtic had a stadium and team good enough to prosper, and so devoted to the Celtic cause was Glass, that he never missed a single committee meeting from the club’s inception in 1887 to his death in 1906!

In Brendan Sweeney’s book, Celtic: The Early Years, Glass is described as ‘THE politician around the table at the time of Celtic’s formation’. This comment stems from the fact that Glass held many prominent roles within Glasgow’s Irish Catholic community. He led the Catholic Union Committee, a body set up to contest local school board elections, he was also the President and Secretary of the St Mary’s League of the Cross and the Treasurer of the Home Government Branch of the Irish National League, with whom he campaigned tirelessly for Irish Home Rule.

John Glass used his contacts in the building trade to obtain materials and enlist volunteers to assist Patrick Gaffney with his task of building the first Celtic Park in 1888. Such was his charisma and persuasion that he was the man, more than any other, who convinced various players, particularly from Hibernian, to join the club. The quote, previously alluded to, from Willie Maley’s book explains this point well:

John Glass is the man to whom the club owes its existence as he never shirked from that time till the day of his death to further the project which to him appealed as his life work. He was a great Irishman, ever ready to stand up for his rights and later did much politically for the cause so dear to him. These were not the days of written agreements and John Glass’ word was always as good as any bond. For years he thought of nothing but Celtic. It was thanks to Glass that the organisation fulfilled the object which the first committee set out to make good; to prove that Irishmen could build a club as good as anyone.

Glass gave the players who joined Celtic a stable job, which was something that the likes of Hibs were reluctant to do. For many of the early Celtic greats, Glass gave them proprietorship of public houses – a source of payment in the days before professionalism in Scottish football. Of this notion, Glass was a pioneer in Scotland. He had observed the development of professionalism in English football and correctly predicted that Scotland would follow suit. Hibernian took a different approach, attempting to preserve the amateur game and stick to their Catholic only signing policy. Celtic, under the influence of Glass, adapted and made the aforementioned unofficial forms of payment through his businesses and contacts. The club also signed an Orangeman to play in goal during its second season, showing its inclusive credentials very early on.

The importance of Celtic’s progression was key. Celtic was one of an estimated forty Irish football clubs in Scotland at the time. Most failed to survive, including at least two other clubs that were also named Celtic! The foresight and financial support of people like John Glass enabled Celtic to maintain its competition with the establishment clubs of the time, such as Queen’s Park, who treated Irish influenced clubs with much disdain and indeed refused to sign players of Irish Catholic extraction. Thus, the involvement of those like John Glass, after the founding of the club, was essential in terms of allowing the initial ideas of the likes of Brother Walfrid to come to fruition.

His finest hour in the battle for the club’s survival was when he persuaded James Kelly to join Celtic on 28 May 1888. That same day, Kelly scored in Celtic’s first ever match – a 5-2 victory against Rangers at the original Celtic Park! James Kelly was an exceptional talent, who had been capped for Scotland, and his capture was a star signing, ensuring that an early interest was generated in Celtic Football Club. Enticing a player of this calibre to a fledgling Irish club was not easy, particularly when faced with stiff competition from more established clubs of the type such as Hibernian.

Glass and his committee made it a priority that the most important aspect was the team on the pitch, and the legendary Kelly was granted the honour of being Celtic’s first ever captain. It was famously said that had Celtic not signed James Kelly then it could have ended up a case of “No Kelly, No (K)Celtic!”

Speaking of the club name, there is a theory that Glass may have been involved in the choosing of ‘Celtic’. Glass and an Ulster Protestant named John Ferguson, ( who moved to Scotland and campaigned for the Irish Home Rule) organised several political rallies at which Michael Davitt (Celtic’s first Patron) addressed the Highland crofters. The theory goes that the name ‘Celtic’ may have originated from this popular political influence of the day, and that Brother Walfrid and John Glass may have seen this name as a suitable way to celebrate Ireland and Scotland. This is purely speculation, and others suggest there is no evidence of Celtic having anything other than an Irish Catholic identity in its formative year.

One point of contention on John Glass is his involvement in the events surrounding the club’s cessation of donations to the Poor Children’s Dinner Table, and its move towards professionalism. There are many factors surrounding the battle for the soul of Celtic, which would need another dozen articles to cover. However, whilst Glass is said to have called those in favour of prioritising charity “Soup kitchen cranks,” and “Dinner table sore heads,” it should also be noted that the club were in debt and Glass stated that once the debts were cleared then the club would be “Only too willing to do whatever it could to assist the charities mentioned.”

Those on the opposing side of the argument referenced the fact that the club’s board of directors, after becoming a limited company, consisted of six wine and spirit merchants and a builder’s merchant (John Glass) – by naming the board “Six publicans – only one Glass.”

The whole issue is not a black and white matter, and as mentioned there were many factors surrounding the issue. It’s a debate for another day/article.

John Glass died on 2 June 1906. His legacy lives on in the sense that without him there would be no Celtic, and for that reason it is criminal that his story is not better known. He is laid to rest at Dalbeth Cemetery, in Glasgow’s East End.

His greatest quote should, in my opinion, be on the walls of Celtic Park as a permanent tribute. After all, it is more relevant now than ever before: “Let them scoff and jeer. Celtic will yet win to their proper position by their merits and those who scoff today will one day have to applaud!”

John Glass’ grave after being restored by the Celtic Graves Society in 2011 – Dalbeth Cemetery

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