Legal, Political & Faithful: Joseph Shaughnessy

Joseph Shaughnessy had a huge impact on the outwardly political identity of Celtic in the early years. Born in Bridgeton in 1850, to Irish parents, Shaughnessy grew up being well educated on the ideology of Irish Republicanism. At six months old his family moved to Rutherglen and he began school life being educated by the Marist Brothers at St Mungo’s Academy and the Jesuits at St Aloysius College.

Excelling academically, he went on to Glasgow University, where he obtained a law apprenticeship at the age of 21. Whilst in the role, Shaughnessy met and married a young Catholic from Fort Augustus named Marry McDonald. The pair married in Glenmorrison, but moved into their own home in Rutherglen. Despite these events in his personal life, there was no let up on the educational front as Joseph graduated as a student of law in 1877.

Shaughnessy wasted no time in utilising his qualifications. He swiftly opened a legal practice on Hope Street in Glasgow. He developed a reputation that saw him become the legal adviser to the largest Accident Assurance Society in the world and he attracted the attention of Scottish Trade Union leaders, who contacted him to take part in a number of high profile cases.

Indeed, Shaughnessy was heavily involved with ensuring the welfare of local mining communities in Rutherglen, whilst he also represented a number of miners that were imprisoned following the Blantyre Riots of April 1887. As a result, Joseph Shaughnessy was appointed as agent for the Scottish National Miners Federation, a position which saw him elected on to the Rutherglen Burgh Council for the next 18 years.

A man of great social conscience, it wasn’t just local causes that enthused Joseph. Make no mistake, like many of the founding fathers, Shaughnessy viewed himself as an Irishman living on Scottish soil. He was acutely aware of the reasons behind his parents move to Glasgow and he was a keen supporter of Irish Republicanism.

The personal and professional had already intertwined prior to his involvement with local miners, when he defended ten members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who were on trial under the accusation of bombing the gasometers at Glasgow’s Tradeston District in January 1883. Try as he might, Shaughnessy couldn’t get the Republican men off the hook, with five being sentenced to penal servitude for life, whilst the other five suffered the same fate for seven years.

Joseph Shaughnessy’s dedication to the working class and to the notion of Irish freedom was further evidenced by the organisations that he enlisted with. He was Secretary of the Rutherglen Liberals and a respected member of the Home Government Branch of the Irish National League (INL). Although the INL focused on Irish land and political reform, Glasgow’s INL branch also spread the message of Michael Davitt’s land rights campaign, which he had spoken about not only in Ireland, but in the Scottish Highlands too.

Davitt’s right hand man, John Ferguson, who was an Ulster Protestant, took the view that the Irish could unite with their Celtic cousins in the Highlands over common injustices in terms of land rights and landlord evictions. It was a position that Glasgow’s INL branch drove forth, thanks greatly to Joseph Shaughnessy rallying political support for the Highlander’s plight.

Though a staunch Irishman, Shaughnessy’s position may also have been influenced by his in-laws, whose hometown of Fort Augustus was very close to Glengarry. The family were originally shepherds and crofters, and the area of their residence had been a stronghold of Scottish Catholicism since the McDonald and McDonnell clans were driven south ahead of the reformation.

Joseph Shaughnessy had met many future founders of Celtic Football Club through his professional work and those political memberships of Irish organisations. Beyond those domains, he was also a deeply religious man, who was a member of the local conference of the Saint Vincent De Paul Society. This brought him into contact with yet more future founding fathers, one of whom (Joseph Nelis) he established the St Aloysius Assocation with.

It came as no surprise when Shaughnessy was invited to be part of the Celtic project from the beginning. One of three lawyers among the founding fathers, his legal advice and renowned contacts within local powers would have been key to setting Celtic afloat. Thereafter, he assisted with any legal concerns the club had, whilst at Celtic’s first AGM at Bridgeton Mechanics Hall on 21 June 1889, Shaughnessy proposed that Michael Davitt be named the club’s first Honorary Patron.

Davitt was a great Irish Patriot, a founder of the Land League and tireless campaigner for Celtic land reform. Davitt was also a convicted member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who had served several years in English prisons for his battles to free Ireland, which led to charges of gun running among other accusations. Celtic took forward the suggestion and duly appointed Davitt to the position.

Make no mistake, this was akin to having a Gerry Adams type figure as a public ambassador of the club. The move really symbolised what Celtic stood for in those early days, something that was further endorsed when Michael Davitt was invited to lay the first sod of shamrock smothered turf, freshly imported from Donegal, at the new Celtic Park in 1892.

Such bold moves show the esteem in which Joseph Shaughnessy was held at Celtic, but were highlighted once more at the club’s 1891 AGM when he was elected to succeed Dr John Conway as Honorary President. The legal and political had shown the importance of Shaughnessy to the Celtic project, whilst the faithful had ensured that he covered every dimension of the club’s identity.

However, Joseph was more than that to Celtic Football Club. Indeed, in December 1892 he outlined plans for floodlighting to be installed at the new Celtic Park, though the trial of this notion was an utter disaster. Nevertheless, Shaughnessy showed his worth again within a few months as he was one the club’s major guarantors and is listed as a leaseholder of the new stadium.

Joseph and his eldest son, John, took a big interest in the Celtic Cycling Club, which was established as a means of additional funding in the early years of the club. So good was the track perimetering the pitch, that the club would host the World Cycling Championship in 1897, the first time that the Championships were hosted in the UK. John was often found umpiring the cycle events at the ground, whilst Willie Maley handed out the prizes in Scotland V Ireland track races.

The renovations necessary to facilitate the World Cycling Championships would have a huge impact on the whole direction of the club and its turning professional. Those in favour of the club becoming a limited company banked on Shaughnessy’s enthusiasm for the sport to sway him in their direction. However, he had already raised the suggestion when discussions first started surrounding the notion at the 1893 AGM.

Shaughnessy donated vast sums of his own money to finance the club and felt that limited liability would enable the club to stand on its own two feet. Four years later, in February 1897, the matter was coming to a head.

There was a clear divide among the committee, but Shaughnessy said that he would resign from his position with the club and no longer be a guarantor of its debt, if limited liability did not happen. Of course the change did take place later that year and despite not taking a seat on the newly formed board, Shaughnessy put forward the suggestion that Willie Maley be appointed Secretary of the new Celtic Ltd company. The idea was seconded by James Curtis and duly went ahead.

Joseph Shaughnessy remained a huge Celtic supporter until his sudden death in 1906. On the day of his funeral all shops in Rutherglen were closed and the flag on the town hall was flown at half mast. He was laid to rest at Dalbeth Cemetery in Glasgow, where the Celtic Graves Society restored his headstone and held a commemoration for him in January 2018.

Shaughnessy’s oldest son, John, who was also a solicitor, was voted onto the Celtic board in 1911. This was not the last of the family’s association with the club though, for Celtic Director, James Farrell, joined the Shaughnessy law firm and stayed with them until the 1980s.

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 CairnsJohn O’HaraDaniel Molloy

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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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