The Mighty Atom
The Poorhouse in the 19th Century was not a pleasant place. The austere and daunting building which once stood on the outskirts of Millford in Donegal was built in 1846 and saw its share of misery in the dark years of the Great Hunger. As the century neared its end, poverty and ignorance remained endemic in Donegal and the Poorhouse was seldom less than full. In March 1891 a child was born to illiterate and poor parents in the Millford Poorhouse and they called him Patrick and that impoverished wee boy was to have a major impact on the history of a football club on the other side of the Irish channel. His family, desperate for work to give themselves some pride had heard there were jobs to be had on Clydeside and like so many Donegal folk through the years, crossed the sea to Glasgow. Young Patrick came too.
In the 125 year history of Celtic Football Club a few players have been genuine footballing geniuses. Patsy Gallagher was one such genius. When Willie Maley signed the skinny little Irishman from Clydebank Juniors in 1911 and introduced him to the first team, Jimmy Quinn, that bull of a centre-forward, who was Celtic’s leading scorer remarked, ‘Boss, you can’t put that wee lad onto the park, if you do it’ll be manslaughter.’ Quinn was right to be concerned as football in the early twentieth century could be brutal. Tackling was robust to say the least and teams knew that if a player limped off there would be no substitute to replace him, that novelty was still decades off. Skilful players were usually targeted from some ‘treatment’ from defenders who wore boots more suitable for working down a mine. You had to be tough or quick to survive the physical side of football in Edwardian Britain. However, despite Quinn’s concerns about ‘Wee Patsy,’ within a few weeks he was in the starting eleven for the visit of St Mirren to Celtic Park. The tough Centre forward, from the Celtic heartland of Croy, had his eyes opened on that blustery day as Gallagher gave defenders the slip with audacious dribbling and lightning speed. Celtic won 3-1 and a legend was about to be born.
Patsy Gallagher played with such grace, style and courage that those who saw him recognised that they were in the presence of greatness. Press reports of the time speak of the ‘Mighty Atom’ who could fool the best of defenders with his dribbling and feints and who possessed a shot of ferocious force for such a slight man. He also had an eye for the killer pass and his scoring prowess puts him sixth in Celtic’s all time goal scoring chart just behind his concerned team mate the ‘Mighty Quinn.’ It has been said that Patsy was like a combination of Jimmy Johnstone and Henrik Larsson, a creator and a finisher in one feisty, courageous package. His antics on the field were the stuff of legend and his arrival signalled the beginning of another golden era of Celtic domination of Scottish football. Within a year of his debut he was outstanding and scored as Celtic defeated a strong Clyde team 2-0 in the Scottish cup final of 1912. In Patsy’s 15 year career with Celtic he won six league titles four Scottish Cups, four Glasgow cups and eleven Glasgow charity cups. He played for the Northern Irish and Free State Irish teams in the days before FIFA told the two Associations to either join together or separate completely and stop picking players who had already played for the ‘other’ Ireland. He also represented the Scottish League. But as most fans know football is about memories and not just counting medals. Patsy gave the Celtic supporters some incredible moments.
James E Hanley in his excellent book ‘The Story of Celtic’ (published in 1960) spoke of Patsy Gallagher in this manner…
‘It is hard to refrain from claiming that he was the greatest forward the Scottish game has ever seen. From the beginning, fresh from Clydebank Juniors, a stripling of seventeen, he caught the popular fancy with his unorthodox style, his inexhaustible treasury of tricks, his magical elusiveness expressed in uncatchable wriggles, slips, swerves, hops and famous 'hesitation' stops. Physically speaking, he should have been wafted off the field like thistledown. His small, fragile form seemed altogether out of place in First Division football. Only his supreme cleverness saved him from annihilation, for he had incredible pluck and tenacity and took alarming risks. For such a puny frame his stamina was phenomenal, and at the close of play he was worrying the opposition with the same degree of doggedness that had marked the opening minute.' (p. 89)
Jimmy McGrory recounted his first Cup Final against Dundee in 1925 when as a young forward he saw ‘Peerless Patsy’ score perhaps the most audacious goal in Celtic history. Patsy raced at the packed Dundee defence, jinking past one tackle then hurdling another. When it seemed as if the packed defence must see him off he’d swerve past another defender until he was close to the goal. At last a robust challenge knocked him off balance and the defenders rushed at him as he fell to the turf. Incredibly Gallagher trapped the ball between his feet and somersaulted into the net to score an incredible goal! Hampden rose to a man for this exceptionally gifted footballer. They knew a genius when they saw one.
Off the field Patsy was a character with as much fire and devilment as he showed on it. His good friend and Rangers player Andy Cunningham begged him to play in the blue of Rangers in a charity game. Patsy was torn as he was real Celt and worried about his own supports feelings on the matter. Cunningham persuaded him that he should put pride aside and play for the blues after all his reputation would put thousands on the gate and as a good Christian he couldn’t refuse a charity? It is said that thousands attended the charity game to see Patsy in the blue of Rangers. Celtic fans were among them just to see what would happen. Patsy trotted out in the blue shirt of Rangers and the groans of the Celts were drowned out by the cheers of the Rangers fans. He played a blinder and dazzled the crowd with his skills. As the game ended the Celtic fans shook their heads as the teams began to leave the field. They stood looking in puzzlement though as Patsy began to remove his blue Rangers shirt in the centre of the field. Puzzlement turned to laughter and cheers when they saw that under his blue mud splattered shirt was the pristine Hoops of his beloved Celtic. Patsy had worn both shirts for the 90 minutes with the one he loved closest to his heart.
On another memorable occasion, the dictatorial Maley had the team in a plush spa hotel with orders to bed down early and avoid the Bar. Just to be sure no one broke the curfew, the Boss sat in the Hotel foyer watching the door. Knowing this Patsy, who fancied a pint in town, persuaded a chambermaid to fetch him some women’s clothes and make up. The slim Patsy then dressed as a woman, complete with a wig, and walked through the foyer, swaying boldly past the watching Maley. To his astonishment Maley stood like a gentleman and held the door for him as he left the Hotel and headed for the pub.
Patsy Gallagher deserves to be remembered among the very highest echelons of Celtic legends. This supreme footballer gave Celtic 15 dazzling years before Celtic announced he was retiring without bothering to tell him. It seems they wanted to save some money by getting rid of a loyal and dedicated Celt. This Celtic great, who once had poisoned toes because Celtic refused to buy him new boots forcing him to borrow a pair that were a size too small, shook his head at their parsimony and played for 6 more years at Falkirk. He was, in the press reports of the day, simply peerless, a player without equal in the game.
The great Patsy Gallagher died in the Summer of 1953 as Celtic were setting about winning the Coronation Cup. In every discussion Celtic fans have about who was the greatest ever Celtic player his name will be mentioned. Patsy was a fantastic footballer and if his genius was not captured on film it perhaps leaves us to ponder the testimony of those who saw him play all the more keenly. The waif of a boy who showed up at Celtic Park as a thin 17 year old and who dazzled the supporters for 15 wonderful years will not be forgotten by the Celtic faithful. Not bad for the baby born into poverty in the Millford Poorhouse all those years ago.
Patsy Gallagher 1891-1953 Proud Celt, genius, Legend