John H McLaughlin: Celtic Founding Father, Fallout Bhoy, Rangers Glee Club Pianist & Man Who Brought Professional League Football To Scotland

John Herbert McLaughlin was born in Glasgow in 1863. His family roots were in Donegal and he frequented St Mary’s parish. In that sense he was a typical Glasgow Irishman and shared a similar story to many of Celtic’s founding fathers.

John H McLaughlin

If you’ve been following this series of founding father articles, you’ll know that many of the men behind Celtic’s formation were taught by the Marists, and indeed Brother Walfrid, at St Mungo’s. McLaughlin was no different. He was educated by Walfrid at the school and then went on to the famous Jesuit seminary of Stoneyhurst in Lancashire, where he obtained the highest honours and was gold medalist for two consecutive years. He also studied at St Aloysius, where he performed in shows alongside others who would go on to establish Celtic Football Club. On returning to Glasgow, McLaughlin studied law at the city’s university, but as a graduate he decided not to venture into the industry. Instead, he elected to join the the commercial department of John Tullis Ltd’s leather manufacturers in Bridgeton, working as a cashier.

By 1882, at the age of 19, John McLaughlin married Elizabeth Ann Shannon in the Cathedral Lodge. Three months into married life, the couple had their first child at Elizabeth’s mother’s home at 381 Duke Street. This was almost a home birth, for the McLaughlin’s lived at number 300 on the same road!

Outside of family life, John devoted a lot of his spare time to music. Like his brother, James McLaughlin, who was a Catholic priest based at Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire, John was heavily involved with the local church and would regularly play the piano or organ during mass at St Mary’s. Interestingly, he also played the piano at many social functions in the city, which led to him performing as part of the Rangers FC Glee Club in March 1888!

Prior to his strange combination of piano commitments, McLaughlin moved residence to Comley Park Street in 1887. His new address was in the Calton and it is likely that his contacts through the Catholic Church, coupled with his skill set as a cashier, meant he was brought into the Celtic project. At 24 years old, he was one of the youngest founding fathers and had no experience in football. Yet make no mistake, McLaughlin would soon become the best legislator that the sport had ever seen. His involvement in football would lead to professionalism being introduced in Scotland, along with the establishment of a competitive national league.

McLaughlin was at the preliminary meetings held to establish Celtic, including the meeting on 7 November 1887, when the club was officially constituted. A member of the original committee, McLaughlin was elected as club Treasurer in 1890, becoming the youngest office bearer in the process. A year later, at the 1891 AGM, he became club Secretary. This post was held by John for two years, when he was elected Vice-President in 1893.

As previously mentioned, McLaughlin’s involvement at Celtic had big ramifications for Scottish football. The game in Scotland was amateur when he first served on the Celtic committee. The notion of professionalism was something that appalled many establishment clubs, including Queen’s Park, who were the most successful team in the world at the time. This stance became problematic as the game in England turned professional. Inevitably, Scottish clubs lost their prize assets as players were lured south by better wage offers and the growth of the game was halted north of the border.

John McLaughlin was one of two representative sent to attend a meeting between Scottish clubs at the Commercial Hotel in Glasgow on 20 March 1890. The discussions that evening centred around establishing a league with competitive matches. McLaughlin cast his vote in favour of the idea and then played a huge part in setting the wheels in motion, becoming the Scottish League’s first Secretary. Though not alone in his efforts, the Scottish League would never have come to be, or sustained its success until the present day, if it wasn’t for the administration and organisation of John H McLaughlin.

With his work underway in terms of the Scottish League, McLaughlin stepped up to the mark for Celtic in 1892. When the landlord attempted to raise Celtic’s rent from £50 to £450 per annum, McLaughlin remarked “Being an Irish club, it is but natural that we should have a greedy landlord.” According to the combined research of Pat Woods and Tom Campbell, in their incredible book (Dreams & Songs to Sing), McLaughlin was partly the originator of the Paradise nickname for the new Celtic Park, which a local pressman then famously utilised in the headline ‘From The Graveyard to Paradise’. It is said that the Celtic AGM in 1892 witnessed McLaughlin telling his peers that when the new stadium was complete “A desert would become a garden of Eden.” In response, one member said “Would the players dream of Paradise when flitting on its sword?” Shortly after, the local press described the ground as like moving from the graveyard to Paradise. It seems too peculiar to be a coincidence.

It wasn’t long after the club’s move to Paradise that the debate over professionalism divided the Celtic committee and Scottish football as a whole. The SFA called a vote on the matter in 1893 and amateurism was preserved by 20 votes to four. President of the national football authority, Thomas Lawrie, moved that “All associations should unite to stamp out professionalism.” However, McLaughlin told those present “You might as well attempt to stop the flow of the Niagra with a kitchen chair as to endeavour to stem the tide of professionalism.”

During this period, John McLaughlin moved into the liquor trade like so many members of the Celtic committee. His family moved to Hamilton and it was there that he took over as a licensee of a local public house. Concurrently, McLaughlin took his first steps into politics at this time. He was by far the least politically minded of any Celtic founding father, something which he took public flack for during an argument with James Quillan. However, in 1893 he joined the Irish National Foresters, whose constitution called for ‘government for Ireland by the Irish people in accordance with Irish ideas and Irish aspirations’.

New businesses and debut political memberships didn’t abate McLaughlin’s campaign with the SFA to introduce professionalism. Most clubs used underhand payments to capture players in this era, so the notion of amateur football carried little credibility. Eventually football became professional in Scotland in late 1893. Willie Maley spoke of the groundbreaking conversion: “With the legitimisation of professionalism, influenced by convincing arguments of John H McLaughlin, football seemed in a fair way to becoming a more honest and better organised sport.”

After securing professional football in the country, McLaughlin was at the forefront of taking Celtic down the business route. He felt that Celtic had to become a limited company in order to survive, grow and realise its full potential. Despite the romance of preserving charity, Celtic would not exist as a giant of world football today had the likes of McLaughlin not taken the club in the direction it went. Perhaps more poignantly, Celtic would not have been able to contribute to charitable causes in the way it has done over the years, without being a club boasting vast finances and a huge global fanbase that carry the club’s ideals at supporter’s functions and fundraising events.

McLaughlin, with John Glass and Joseph Shaughnessy, led the charge towards limited liability. It was a heated and dreadful debate, which left those wanting to preserve Celtic’s origins in full purity, feeling outcast. Insults were thrown both ways. Those against limited company status were called ‘soup kitchen cranks’ and ‘dinner table soreheads’. Meanwhile, McLaughlin took more flack than any of those members supporting a different direction for Celtic. So tempestuous was the argument, that in 1896 John H McLaughlin sued club member, Frank Havlin, for slander. He asked for £100 in damages, but the case was laughed out of court.

Limited liability ultimately won the day. It disgusted many committeemen and parishioners who saw the move as a betrayal of Celtic’s roots, considering the club was specifically formed to provide funds for charities operating within St Mary’s, St Michael’s and Sacred Heart – all largely ran by the Catholic Church. Undoubtedly, some felt the club had been taken over by people wanting to line their own pockets. Others suggested that those favouring limited company status simply had greater foresight, noticing that the move was essential. John Glass also remarked that the club “Would be only too willing to continue supporting charities once debts were cleared.”

Regardless of the debate, the show went on. John H McLaughlin became the first chairman of Celtic in 1897. He held 150 shares, which rose to 300, and remained in the position for the next 12 years. His time at Celtic steered the club into its earliest glory days of six league title triumphs in a row. However, just like his fallouts with some committeemen at the club, and the disappointment felt by some within the parishes that Celtic were born to assist, McLaughlin got into further arguments. He fell out with Irish Nationalists in Glasgow and many of his board members at Celtic in 1899, when he donated 100 guineas to a patriotic fund for the families of British soldiers fighting in South Africa. The donation was made by the SFA, who McLaughlin was President of, whilst also acting Chairman of Celtic. Two former Celtic players, who were also brothers (John and James Devlin), were serving in the war. However, Irish nationalists and indeed Celtic Football Club, were very publicly opposed to the British role in the war and campaigned against British involvement.

Though McLaughlin had been a member of the Irish National Foresters, he was not politically minded and was not involved in politics for much of his life. Thus, he was completely out of step with the political ideals that Celtic and many board members represented. His political naivety was further demonstrated when he denounced Irish Nationalist opposition to the British government’s policy in South Africa, which led to the Anglo-Boer War, as “Being the prerogative of demented Irish politicians.” Among the so-called demented politicians was Michael Davitt, Celtic’s first Patron and a convicted Irish Republican, who resigned his parliamentary seat.

The issue of British imperialism split public opinion. In Glasgow, the Irish community felt some empathy with the soldiers as individuals, and also with the Boer farmers who were fighting to defend their country. Yet many abhorred the political decisions of the British government. The likes of John Glass, Jimmy Kelly, Arthur Murphy and John McKillop on the Celtic board, were all publicly anti-war. Strangely, McKillop did make a ten guinea donation to the same British soldier fund as McLaughlin, due to his sympathies with men doing a job on the battlefield, whilst Archbishop Eyre (Celtic’s Patron of the time) did likewise. A few other members of the board had sympathies with British forces in this instance too, and, in typically complex Celtic fashion, the 1900 Patriotic Games, which were held in support of the soldiers in South Africa, took place at Celtic Park!

Complex as the whole saga may be, the majority of the Celtic board were certainly not supportive of British imperialism in any way whatsoever. Thus, moves were made to have McLaughlin removed from his seat at Parkhead. These moves failed and he kept his position as Chairman of the club until his death in August 1909.

Among Irish Nationalist minded Celtic supporters, who comprised the majority at the time, McLaughlin was never forgiven. He appears to have been held in some contempt by his peers within the club too. Only Tom Maley moved to comment that professionalism and the Scottish League were monuments to his labour. He was well represented by Celtic members at his funeral, though the likes of Arthur Murphy from the club were absent. This could have been due to McLaughlin’s role in leading Celtic’s primary aim away from charity. It could also have been due to McLaughlin’s pro-British stance in the Anglo-Boer War and his disrespect towards Irish Nationalists at that time, though it could equally have been due to McLaughin’s attempt to sue Celtic member, Frank Havlin, for £100 (the equivalent of two years wages for Havlin, who was a gas labourer).

Politics aside, John H McLaughlin was a man who helped to found the club we love. He steered Celtic to a future few could argue has helped bring immense joy to many through memorable victories on the pitch and charitable contributions off it. These would not have been possible if Celtic remained amateur or prioritise business. His legacy is the success of Celtic Football Club, a European Cup, the millions of fans the club has worldwide, the ability of the club to make a big difference to charitable causes (even if it is a secondary aim) and the presence of both professional football and a League in Scotland.

His life was summarised by the Evening Telegraph on 12 August 1909, who reported the following in his death notice:

By the death of Mr. John Herbert McLaughlin, chairman of the Celtic Football Club, a well-known figure in Scottish Athletics has been removed. Mr. McLaughlin had been ill for eighteen months, and his death did not come in the nature of a surprise. Indeed, about a year ago his illness was of a severe nature.

Mr. McLaughlin died at his residence, Strathmore, Hamilton. He was one of the founders of the Celtic Football Club in 1888 and on its formation as a Limited Liability Company in 1897 he became chairman. He also acted as secretary and treasurer of the club at various times. He took an active interest in the affairs of the Scottish Football Association, serving for a time as its president, and also filled the office of treasurer. He represented Scotland on the Football International Board, and his opinion on football matters commanded much respect on both sides of the Border. Kindred sports also claimed a good deal of Mr. McLaughlin’s attention, especially bowling, and he was president for three years of the Hamilton Caledonian Club.

The deceased, who was 46 years of age, is survived by a widow and family. A native of Glasgow, he was educated in St. Mungo’s School and finished at Stoneyhurst College, where he took the highest honours and was gold medalist for two years in succession. An accomplished musician, he was organist for many in St. Mary’s Church, Abercromby Street, Glasgow, and latterly he held a similar appointment with much acceptance in St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Hamilton.

The funeral takes place on Saturday to Dalbeth Cemetery, and a pathetic coincidence is that on the same day the annual athletic meeting of the Celtic Club in which the deceased always took a great interest, will be held.

J H McLaughlin’s obituary in the Glasgow Observer

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 Curtis – Joseph Nelis – Francis McErlean – David Meikleham – Joseph McGroary – John Charles MacDonald – James McKayJames Quillan

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About Author

Hailing from an Irish background, I grew up on the English south coast with the good fortune to begin watching Celtic during the Martin O'Neill era. I have written four Celtic books since the age of 19: Our Stories & Our Songs: The Celtic Support, Take Me To Your Paradise: A History Of Celtic-Related Incidents & Events, Walfrid & The Bould Bhoys: Celtic's Founding Fathers, First Season & Early Stars, and The Holy Grounds of Glasgow Celtic: A Guide To Celtic Landmarks & Sites Of Interest. These were previously sold in Waterstones and official Celtic FC stores, and are now available on Amazon.

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