Monday 6th November 1887 is a date with deep significance to any member of the Celtic family as this was the first official day in the charity focussed clubs existence, a long, singular and unbroken existence, which is presently stretching successfully over 128 years.
A greater day than most for the poor folk of Glasgow’s east end too, chiefly the 1st and 2nd generation Irish immigrant and refugee stock, as it was this community which was to benefit the most via financial contributions from The Celtic Football Club to help alleviate staggering and unparalleled levels of poverty.*
But this day was to also be a significant one for the Irish both at home and in Scotland for different and much more immediate political reasons, particularly the Irish Nationalists of a Republican persuasion.
William O’Brien MP – Politician, Republican, Rent Striker and Prison Rebel.
This same Monday that Celtic FC, a global symbol of the Irish diaspora was formed, was also the same one that highlighted a sizeable victory of Irish Nationalism over the bureaucratic and domineering rule of the British Empire through the determined, dogged and solidarity actions of a key player in the Irish National League and Westminster MP, Mr. William O’Brien. A fiercely tongued Irish Nationalist and propagandist from Mallow, who truly is one of Ireland’s forgotten rebel sons.
The victory in question relates to the prison disobedience tactics of O’Brien at Tullamore Gaol, which were inclusive of a three month long ‘demi-hunger strike’ and an insistence on sleeping naked as he refused to wear prison gear, all in the name of remaining a thorn in the side of ‘good old’ British order on the emerald Isle.
This direct and legitimate approach by O’Brien whilst imprisoned was typical of his unforgiving firebrand nature.
Indeed, the reason he was imprisoned in the first place was due to his hands on role as editor of the United Irishmen, a nationalist propaganda journal and for his role as agitator on the streets and farms in favour of the Plan of Campaign (1886-91).
This Plan was an attempt at providing funds nationally to help instigate a rent strike for the poor tenant farmers who were suffering under the weight of exploitative and overinflated rents bestowed upon them by the Irish Catholic elite and absentee landlords, most of whom were resident in mainland UK.
Prison Disobedience of O’Brien
His time in jail was widely reported on by the Glasgow based press – specifically the Glasgow Herald and the Evening Times – and was summed up by the Evening Times on the aforementioned 6th Nov. 1887 when it reported,
‘…it now appears that there is no longer any question of forcing Mr Wm. O’Brien M.P.,to wear the prison dress.’
The article then goes onto explain that O’Brien was denied the right to see the prison chaplain more than once and that the Governor, who had made numerous personal visits to O’Brien in his cell to enforce prison rules on him, was now, weeks after O’Briens initial incarceration, a broken and defeated governor as he was faced with a high profile, intelligent and determined prisoner in the shape of O’Brien who was exhausting every legitimate right to deny the UK prison estate it’s usual place of superiority over the prisoner.
In short, William O’Brien was an awkward, intelligent, rebellious and unrepentant Irishman who openly, but legally, denied and defied the British Crown even when, via Tullamore Gaol, they were his enforced landlord.
The exchanges between O’Brien and the prison governor were reported on widely due to his high profile status as MP and show a man who was prepared to suffer personally for a cause which was much larger than him – the true ethos of solidarity.
An excerpt from the Evening Times read,
‘I have told you already that I will not wear them’
‘Then I will have to use force to make you wear them’
‘Come, sir, you try it ‘en’
O’Brien, essentially offering a high ranking civil servant of the Crown a good old fashioned ‘square-go’, then continued by demanding, as is any prisoners right, to see the Prison Rules – knowing full well that no such law to use force existed.
Eventually after this very public and high profile standoff came to a head, it was done so in O’Briens favour as he was able to beat the Crown by dodging prison gear for the remainder of his time as well as beat the Crown by avoiding the use of force being administered on him.
How much of a ‘punishment’ was the Punishment Diet?
He was subject to a ‘punishment diet’ of bread and water for a three month period however, but he used his visits to let the exploited of Ireland know that he was actually thrilled to be on punishment diet.
As the article reported at the time,
‘The prospect of bread and water for three months has not had the slightest effect in making Mr O’Brien alter his resolution, on the contrary…when he became aware the authorities had no power to drag his clothes off by force, he was quite satisfied that he kept his promise and had beaten them’
Solidarity in Action as 1 Mans Behaviour Creates 10,000 Voices in Unison
Perhaps the most amazing outcome of this soul enriching saga of solidarity is that, the very same weekend that the Celtic FC was being taken from embryonic stage to actual birth, this was when O’Brien enjoyed his most public of victories as the story of how he beat the Gaol was being spread by journal and word of mouth from Cork to Cavan and beyond.
By Sunday 5th November, close to 10,000 Irish citizens had descended on Tullamore Gaol with,
‘..all the roads converging on Tullamore thronged with people hurrying to join in the demonstration’.
O’Brien was not the only political prisoner in the Gaol at the time which made the procession and protest even more significant. As the vast majority made their way from the main gate to the East Wing – reportedly where O’Brien was being held, the Evening Times reported that a loud chorus,
‘…struck up “God Save Ireland”…whilst defying the chill in the air and the evenings gathering shadows’
Quite often the story of Celtic FC appears a fairy tale with numerous plot twists and turns, whether it’s Lisbon, Seville or Hampden in the Sun.
But the narrative which unfolded that chilly weekend in Tullamore starring a naked and semi starved William O’Brien as martyred protagonist with a 10,000 strong supporting cast fighting his corner, is symbolic of much that is Celtic – proudly Irish, proudly solidarity focussed, proudly fighting to the end, proudly keeping the faith, fiercely unrepentant and, above all else, being successful.
There appears to be a poetic justice present in the sense that the very same weekend that O’Brien recorded a fine victory over the Crown and celebrated with 10,000 like-minded and exploited nationalist souls should be the same weekend that Celtic are born to alleviate further suffering on the poor and exploited souls of Glasgow, many of them being Irish in origin.
I can’t imagine that this story, which was covered heavily by the Evening Times early edition, was not being discussed by those present at the meeting in St. Mary’s Hall in the Calton where Celtic had life blown into it by Marist Brother and businessman alike.
So, Hail Hail, Mr. William.O’Brien MP and all those hardy Irish souls who joined in the chorus of ‘God Save Ireland’, your timing couldn’t have been any better.
*see here for my previous article regarding Victorian Glasgow poverty and the birth of Celtic FC which I wrote for the Celtic Star Magazine