Like many members of the Celtic family I am also in favour of any worthwhile community cause which aims to end social and economic inequality, particularly if it is done so via a formidable grassroots approach.
In this sense, I, like hundreds of thousands of others from within the Celtic family, can easily claim to know in just how many different ways that Celtic Football Club is so much more than just a club.
I think here of the key roles played by Celtic in relation to food drives, the Celtic Foundation and the Green Brigades internationalist outlook in relation to awareness and fundraising of issues such as the Palestinian child refugee charities and so forth.
All of which makes for a comfortable argument when declaring that Celtic are befitting of such a phrase.
Although to a certain extent the Barça inspired ‘more than a club’ phrase is banded about all too easily these days.
However in relation to Celtic, for me what is missing from this statement is a lack of historical context which highlights the mottos real significance.
For example, it is common knowledge to most that Celtic FC began its life as a community enterprise in order to alleviate inhumane poverty levels in what was Glasgow’s belching inferno of poverty: it’s east end.
Celtic and Charity
An enterprise which existed to raise money via football donations and gate receipts which were then dedicated to the Poor Children’s Dinner Table Society, the first of which was based in Sacred Heart RC Primary School in Bridgeton.
All of which was spearheaded by the same man whose original idea it was, Co. Sligo’s Brother Walfrid.
This is obviously a history and story of inception which, rightfully so, is recalled to the millions of Celtic fans worldwide through excellent folksong, community presence and timeless historiography of the club.
However, what is perhaps missing from this proud narrative is the sheer extent of the inhumanity of poverty which was present within the labouring classes’ life’s at this time.
Horrors of Poverty
It truly was staggering, and no late Victorian period drama or documentary of a mainstream persuasion dare tell the whole story unless it aims to challenge the dominant narratives of the so called ‘great’ British Empire.
Once the Celtic fan truly appreciates the inhumanity, horror and stomach churning reality of late Victorian squalor within Glasgow and her overly burdened and creaking east end in particular, then the idea of Celtic being far more than a club becomes even more special and poignant.
A statistical account of the causes of death of Glasgow inhabitants between the years 1881 – 1885, the immediate period before Celtic’s birth, show just how bad the painful reality of poverty was.
For example, the publication, ‘Vital Social and Economic Statistics of Glasgow 1880 – 1885’ tells us that, on average, 321 Glasgow children were dying annually from illnesses as simplistic as Diarrhoea – easily fixed by one of the world’s richest countries, if the desire is there of course.
But like in so many of Europe’s insatiable Empires, it’s the poorest folk, whether indigenous or migrant, who are always taken for granted, grossly exploited via cheap labour and eventually allowed to rot at a rapid pace with no state intervention.
The average annual figure of those poor souls dying from Bronchitis, think here poor air quality continually made worse by the stench and dehumanising qualities of leather tanneries, chemical works, locomotive production and steel moulding to name but a few toxin infused industries, was to be 2,114.
In 1884 deaths as a result of Diphtheria peaked at a then high of 174 – although commonly mistook as a disease which lasted no more than the length of the Victorian period, this is a misconception, for as late as 1940 children were still dying in Glasgow, from Belvidere Hospital to the Royal Infirmary, of certain types of Diphtheria.
The city’s subhuman housing standards, truly unfit for cattle, exacerbate the problem and are quickly built in the shameless pursuit of profit and private enterprise for the budding landlord – worthwhile to remember here that Glasgow did not provide any council house or real social landlord until the post WW1 era.
Glasgow: Kingdom of the One Roomed Home
One such example of thousands of the life limiting hovels was to be found In Orr Street of the proud district of the Calton, a minutes’ walk from St Mary’s RC Church on Abercromby Street, the very birth place of Celtic FC,
‘One privy (outdoor toilet) and one midden supplied the needs of one hundred and thirty eight houses…’
This was according to internationally renowned historian of all things Irish in Scotland, including an official Celtic FC biography, James E. Handley.
Remember, that the size of a family in this era could be between 5 – 12 persons at any one time.
Furthermore, in 1888, the Glasgow Medical Officer for Health Dr. James Burn Russell, who occasionally championed causes of thought over ignorance in relation to the idiots who shamed the cities poor folk for being poor, wrote,
‘The East-end must not be allowed to groan under the burdens of its physical necessities, while Hillhead and Pollockshields lie in luxury…paid for by the Glasgow poor.’
This was taken from a pamphlet entitled, ‘Kingdom of the One Roomed Home’ which was edited by Russell as he was trying to change housing policy to be more sanitary and humane for the city’s poor.
Allegedly, when he read this aloud at one of his lectures in Glasgow University, nice and cosily positioned as it was and still is in the city’s more affluent west end, a large number of students, no doubt the sons of many a private slum landlord amongst them, heckled him before leaving the room.
An uncomfortable truth never makes for a popular figure.
New Century, Same Problems
As the clock ticked over from Victorian era to Edwardian in 1901, approximately 20% of the entire Scottish population was living in Glasgow, most of which was concentrated in hurriedly built one roomed slum dwellings in the east end to cater for rapid bursts of urbanisation.
Glasgow may well have been the ‘second city of the empire’, occasionally jostling for position with both Birmingham and Calcutta in terms of industrial output and economic necessity to this ‘great’ empire, but for poverty, Glasgow unfortunately reigned supreme for many years.
Shame on those who watched on and did nothing; shame on the leading academics of the time who did nothing; shame on the corporation (City Council) who had an excessive amount of private slum landlords registered within it and continued to do nothing of substance for the city’s labouring classes.
New Millennium, Same Shameful Problems
Lastly, Scotland in 2018 is a country where one of the fastest growing rates of poverty is ‘in work’ poverty – whereby one or both parents are in employment but still ‘earn’ less than the wage needed to escape poverty – and where we still have ‘poverty postcodes’.
The obvious myth of ‘working your way out of poverty’ is easily exposed here. Take note Michelle Mone and like-minded ignorant others.
These poverty postcodes, geographically speaking, are very similar to those same postcodes which would have topped the list anywhere between 1870 – 1920.
For example, a quick analysis of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD, 2016) tells us that Springburn, Calton, Garngad and Govan, amongst others, all rank as a score of 1 from 10 in relation to Health and Housing, where a 1 is most deprived and 10 is least deprived.
It does not take long to realise that certain areas of Glasgow, despite the façade of modernity and the odd gleaming shopping centre here and there, are not particularly kind to the cities poorer classes and that for over a hundred years now, generations of families have been trapped by intergenerational poverty, substandard housing and, consequentially, early death.
It is for these structural reasons that Celtic FC of 2018, particularly its community outreach and Celtic Foundation programme and the significance of its history and how it was born, must remain to be just as significant as Celtic FC of 1888 in relation to, quite literally, being a lifesaver and direct attacker of those oppressed by poverty and exclusion.
Celtic were formed, essentially, as a charity focussed community based movement whose very reason for existence was to alleviate poverty for those most marginalised of peoples.
This ethos still beats loudly at the clubs heart.
Sure, the football aspect was successful very quickly and the business model which we have in place now is very much a product of its profit chasing time.
But the genesis of the club which is where the morals emanate from, are what the fans identify with much more than anything else.
This is also where the nature of ‘Celtic Mindedness’ springs from.
So, the next time you see, hear or are reminded of the ‘more than a club’ motto in relation to those clubs throughout the world who are often gimmicked with it, remember that Celtic FC, as always, stand as a truly deserving class apart and are indeed, in every sense, ‘more than just a club’.
– Image Credit: Tobago Street, Calton (Virtual Mitchell at http://www.mitchelllibrary.org)
– This is an updated version of an article that I originally published via The Celtic Star Magazine in 04/2018