A Marvellous Thing
John Glass stood in the light Glasgow drizzle surveying the site with the trained eye of a man who knew the building trade very well. December could be a hard month in Glasgow and this year was particularly cold and wet. The sturdy master-carpenter stroked his beard as he often did when in deep thought. The hectare of land he was looking at was rutted, covered with puddle filled holes and hollows and there was even a possibility that it contained one of the many unrecorded mine shafts sunk all over the east end in earlier times. Pat Welsh broke into his thoughts by asking, ‘Well, what do you think John? He’s asking £50 a year for this plot.’ Glass exhaled and replied, ‘It’d take a few hundred men and a few thousand barrows of soil to make this place fit for sports. I’ll speak to Andrew and see what he thinks.’ As they walked along the Gallowgate Glass could see the barefoot children playing out in the rain. It always amazed him that they could play and laugh among such squalor. A pale young woman with sad green eyes hovered at the entrance to a close, her cheeks red with cheap make up. She smiled at the passing friends who ignored her. Glass could hear fiddle music drifting from the close, no doubt from one of the many illegal drinking dens in the area. Such Shebeens were common in the poorer parts of Glasgow and sold cheap gut-rot liquor to anyone who could pay for it. He could also see the dark figure of the young woman’s ‘stick man’ in the shadows of the close. Much as Glass hated the depths which poverty drove some people to, he hated even more those who profited from their misery. An older woman with wispy grey hair and a careworn face approached them. She was carrying a sleeping baby wrapped in her shawl, and looked Glass in the face, ‘You have a kind face Sir, could ye spare a copper for a hungry child?,’ Her accent, born in the hills of the north of Ireland, was one Glass knew well. He smiled gently at her and shook her hand, surreptitiously slipping her a few coins as he did so. ‘Get along to St Mary’s at two, o’clock, they do a warm bowl of soup there for you and the little ones.’ As they continued their walk Glass said wistfully to his long-time friend, ‘You know Pat, we need to do something for our people here, there is so much want. I’ll tell the good brother that we should lease the land and hopefully he’ll get the labourers required to make it ready.’ Welsh nodded, ‘I think you’re right John, it’s a month since we decided on this course and the patrons have already raised over £200. We should strike while the iron is hot.’ John Glass nodded, ‘It’s settled then.’ The two friends parted with a handshake, ‘The Committee meet tomorrow at East Rose Street Pat, I’ll see you there.’
John Glass made his way down Abercromby Street towards the church. He pushed open the heavy door of St Mary’s and stopping only to bless himself from the little font of holy water by the door, scanned the pews. There was no service on at this time but still a few score of the faithful dotted the pews and were praying quietly. He soon spotted the man he was looking for, eyes closed, lost in prayer near the front of the church. He walked quietly up the aisle and sat a few rows behind him and waited. He liked these quiet moments, they were times when he could just sit and reflect on the issues worrying him. He regarded his friend praying a few feet in front of him. He had known Andrew Kerins for a good few years now and knew him to be a good man, a man who lived out his creed. His hair was greying now as age and the effects of working so hard among the poorest in the east end took their toll on him. They did fine work these Marists, educating and training the children in difficult circumstances and Kerins had risen to be Head-teacher of St Anne’s School a 5 minute walk from the church. His friend sat up, as if sensing he was there, and opened his eyes. He regarded the beautifully painted Madonna above the altar for a long moment before slowly blessing himself. Then, turning to Glass, he smiled slightly and nodded towards the sacristy door. Glass followed him quietly and once the door was closed on the main body of the church, shook his hand. ‘Good day to you Andrew, I thought you’d like my opinions on the ground at Dalmarnock Road you asked me to look at. The other man replied, his Sligo accent undiluted by his many years in Scotland, ‘I hope it’s good news John, we want to invite our friends from Edinburgh to play the opening game sometime this spring. You know how it lifted our people’s spirits when they won the cup last spring.’ Glass nodded, ‘It’s in poor condition but with the efforts of our men folk we could make it ready in six or eight weeks. Could you ask Father to enlist volunteers at Mass this week if I sign the lease?’ The taller man nodded, ‘I shall indeed, I’m sure our people will rally round.’ They parted with a smile. There was genuine affection between the two men. As Glass turned to go, Kerins said to him in his quiet, understated voice, ‘John, none of this will be able to come to fruition without you. I hope you know that. Tis a marvellous thing you’re doing’ Glass nodded a little embarrassed at his friends praise, ‘We each do what we can Andrew, each has his gifts. I hope we can do justice to your vision.’ His friend smiled, ‘We shall John, with God’s help, we shall.’ As Glass turned to go he stopped short and looked at Kerins, ‘Pat Welsh and ‘I are heading over to Cathcart tonight to talk to young Tom Maley. He’s a fine player and a grand lad by all accounts. Would you like join us, it mind lend weight to our case as you can be a very persuasive man, Andrew?’ Kerins smiled, ‘I know the Maley family, good people, and there is no doubt that Tom would be a fine player to have on our books. Some say he is the finest athlete in Scotland.’ John Glass nodded, ‘We will stop by at seven tonight for you then.’
The horse drawn tram made its way along the Cathcart Road in the dark of a December night in Glasgow. Glass, Kerins and Pat Welsh sat downstairs out of the chill wind. They were wrapped in stout overcoats and busy chatting in quiet tones about their plans for the playing field they planned to create and team they hoped would grace it. Pat Welsh then relayed to them a story which had Glass and Kerins rapt attention. ‘I know Mr Maley senior very well,’ said Welsh in a low, almost conspiratorial tone, ‘After the rising in 67‘ I was a wanted man in Ireland. Spies and informers were everywhere. It was a hard time for rebels. I made my way to dockside in Dublin, hoping some sympathetic ship which might take me to America or even Liverpool. A stout soldier in the uniform of the Queen caught me hiding among the cargo boxes on the dock. I thought my time was up and a bullet or a prison cell would be my fate but the big sergeant was Irish born and although he risked much he told me to be on my way and be quick about it. It was my good fortune to run into Sergeant Maley on that night 20 or more years ago. He’s the father of young Tom, the lad we are seeking to enlist to our cause.’ Glass had known that Pat Welsh was involved with the Fenian rising in 1867 but had no idea that Mr Maley Senior had allowed him to escape Ireland after that rising had failed. ‘That’s an incredible tale Pat, its good you’re with us tonight.’ Andrew Kerins nodded, ‘Tis a good man who shows some mercy to a fellow countryman in need.’ Pat Welsh nodded, his mind drifting back to those events which helped shape his life. ‘Aye, Andrew, a good man indeed.’
As their journey ended and they walked towards the Maley house, Glass said quietly, ‘I’ll make sure this young fellow has every encouragement to join our cause.’ Welsh nodded knowing that Glass could be relied upon to arrange certain financial inducements to help make up a player’s mind. This was, after all, an era when players being paid to play football was strictly against the rules of the still amateur game. He also had great powers of persuasion and Tom Maley wouldn’t fail to see or be impressed by the new club’s charitable principles. They were a powerful reason for joining it and helping alleviate some of the misery in the east end. Glass knocked the door and it was opened by a tall, well-built youth who enquired politely what business brought them to the Maley household on such a chill evening. ‘We’d like a moment or two to speak with Tom Maley young man, is he at home?’ The young man shook his head, ‘I’m sorry, but he left an hour ago to visit his fiancé, would you like to come in for some tea as it’s a chill evening and you’ve obviously travelled far?’ He led them into the living room of a neat and fairly prosperous home. They sat by the fire as the young man introduced himself, ‘I’m Tom’s brother, William.’ He shook each of his visitors by the hand, noticing Kerins’ Marist robes as he undid his overcoat. ‘You’re welcome to our humble home, now warm yourselves by the fire and I’ll tell my father that we have visitors.’ He left them for a moment to fetch his father and prepare the tea. Andrew Kerins looked at John Glass, ‘He seems a fine young fellow, maybe you should cast your net over both these Maley boys?’ Glass smiled, I know Tom can play the game but I hear tell that Willie is known more for being a field athlete.’ Andrew Kerins raised his eyebrows, ‘He’s barely 20 John, a robust lad of intelligence can learn much at that age.’ Glass looked at his friend, ‘I suppose you’re right, Andrew. What harm can it do?’
As the long Scottish winter drew to a close, John Glass stood on a mound of earth which ran 110 yards along one side of the fast improving sports field. This mound would be formed into a rudimentary terrace for spectators and opposite him a small covered grandstand was taking shape. His team of joiners had volunteered to work in the evenings and weekends without pay to complete the work and were making fine progress. He watched scores of men wielding shovels and picks and dozens more moving earth with wheel barrows and carts. The rutted, hole-filled wasteland had been transformed into a level and smooth playing surface and the whole site was being enclosed with a tall wooden fence. ‘Good day to you John, this is a fine sight indeed to greet my tired old eyes,’ said Pat Welsh climbing the mound and standing beside Glass. ‘You’ve worked wonders here John and I hear tell that the good Brother has received word that the Hibernians will be most happy to play the first match on this hallowed ground.’ Glass nodded, ‘That’s good news indeed Pat, we should fit four or five thousand in here with ease when the Hibernians arrive and the Pavilion is set fair to hold 800 or more.’ Welsh, who knew Glass well, could see him stroke his beard again in that agitated way he did when something was bothering him. ‘What worries you John? All is going to plan is it not?’ Glass turned to his long-time friend, ‘The Hibernians are a fine team Pat and we are all rightly proud of them but what of our team? We have the Maley brothers and seven or eight others committed to playing for us but I’ll not be content to be a middling team. I want our team to be the finest in the land.’ The older man nodded, ‘Some fine Glasgow lads in the Hibernians team John, I’m sure they’d help out if they could.’ Glass stroked his beard again, ‘I’ve thought of them often Pat, they’d grace any team but I’d want them as our players, not as guests. Does that seem so selfish given that the Hibernians have been such an inspiration to us?’ Pat Welsh was quiet for a moment before responding, ‘Andrew is an idealist John but you’re a man who knows how to get things done. Look around you at how this community is working together. None of this would be happening if it were not for you Think also of the purpose of our team John. Think of what the good Brother wants his team to do in this area and to do it well, requires a successful football team. Sometimes for the greater good we must slight a friend, John.’ Glass exhaled loudly, ‘You may be right Pat but it still seems mightily ungrateful to be thinking of tempting some of those Hibernian lads into throwing their lot in with us.’ Pat Welsh patted his friends shoulder, ‘You’ll do the right thing, John. You always do.’ John Glass returned to stroking his beard as the sounds of hammers, saws and men’s laughter drifted over the field to where he stood.
On a bright Tuesday night in May Dr Conway and Mr Shaughnessy, both patrons of the new club, led the players of the famous Hibernian FC and Cowlairs onto the newly completed arena to a huge cheer from the five thousand spectators gathered. The wealthier among them filled the small grandstand while around three sides of the field stood the common men; labourers, factory workers, carters and unemployed of the east end. All were eager to see the great Hibernians, champions of the Scottish-Irish community. John Glass stood at the back of the grandstand watching the game commence, hoping that all the work, all the preparations were sufficient. It seemed as if half the clergy in Glasgow were present and his old friend from St Mary’s, Father Vander Heyder smiled at him as he headed for his seat. ‘A most impressive arena you’ve built here Mr Glass, I trust our own team will be of sufficient standard in time to give these two fine teams a game.’ Glass smiled, ‘We have some fine lads ready to play Father, and others I have in mind will make our boys formidable opponents.’ Glass knew if the new club was to reach the required standard then it would need the best players playing in its colours. He watched the game thunder from one end of the field to the other, a notebook in hand scribbling the names of players he would like to see come play in Glasgow’s east end on a regular basis. It seemed as if he had the names of half the Hibernian team on his list.
Barely a fortnight after the first game at the new pitch, Glass entered the front door of Penman Brothers, a well-known Drapers shop in the Bridgeton area of Glasgow. The man behind the counter recognised him instantly, ‘Ah tis yourself Mr Glass,’ he said opening the counter and shaking John Glass by the hand. ‘I have put in some extra hours on my gift to the new club and I hope it meets with your approval.’ He took a brown parcel from a nearby shelf and placing it on the counter opened it carefully. Glass looked on as he unveiled a pristine white football shirt trimmed with a green collar. On the left breast was a red oval containing a green Celtic cross. Glass smiled, ‘It’s perfect, the good brother will be well pleased, especially with the Celtic cross.’ The man beamed, ‘I have 15 full kits ready to go for your first game. I’m so pleased it meets your approval.’ Glass held the first ever Celtic shirt up to the light, ‘Perfect.’ He said again.
On a bright spring evening on the 28th day of May 1888, John Glass stood with his friend Pat Welsh at the rear of the modest little pavilion at the little ground now being called ‘Celtic Park.’ A good crowd had gathered, despite the great Exhibition opening in the west of Glasgow earlier that day. ‘A proud day John, I hope our boys do well.’ Glass smiled, ‘Good of the Rangers lads to give us a game. But I’m thinking our team has the beating of them. He could see Andrew Kerins sitting further down among the clergy near the field. ‘He was the man who inspired all of this, Pat. There’d be no Celtic without him.’ Pat Welsh looked at John Glass, the stress of building the stadium and putting a team together had been considerable but for now it had lifted and he looked content.’ ‘Don’t belittle your achievement too John, you’ve driven this from the start. The good Brother may have been our inspiration but you ensured the Celtic came to birth successfully.’ There was a roar as the teams came out of the little pavilion which temporarily ended their conversation. Celtic looked splendid in their white shirts with the Celtic cross above their hearts. The game was soon underway and the crowd could see the Maley brothers, James Kelly and the dashing Neil McCallum were up for the challenge. After barely 5 minutes of Celtic pressing and harrying of the Rangers defence they won a corner. Dunbar glanced up at the crowded penalty box before delivering a firm and accurate corner into the crowd of players. Neil McCallum rose above the defence and headed the ball into the goal. A mighty cheer erupted from the assembled Celtic crowd as the new club’s first ever goal was scored. ‘First of many to come I hope,’ commented Pat Welsh with a smile on his face. John Glass was however looking down to his left where Andrew Kerins, whom some knew as Brother Walfrid, had turned from the field to look at him. The Sligo born Marist smiled and nodded at Glass who met his gaze and returned his smile. The Celtic were up and running. What would the future hold?
Dedicated to John Glass, the man who played a vital role in the birth of Celtic FC.