From Behind The Curtains – A Calton Tale

By Pensionerbhoy


1.  My place.

It was the era of lethal pollution; it was the time of deadly diseases, of unendurable poverty, of hopeless disillusionment.   Life was inevitably short and death expectantly frequent.  I grew up in a miserable environment for a kid with dust filled cobbled streets covered in the main with a film of coal dross from the disused surface mines near to our homes.  In dry weather, it sieved through every nook, cranny and corner to settle and form a constant, dusty layer on both people and property.  In the wet and the winter, it turned to a black mire that stuck to everyone and clung to everything.  For most folk around my place it was the natural condition and living with it became the accepted way of life.  People had long abandoned the notion of regular cleaning except, perhaps, a few of the ancient stalwart grannies and old crones who had brought their slavish commitments to cleanliness and Godliness over from the “Old Country”.

The area I was born and brought up in was called Calton. The very old people sometimes referred to it as Blackfauld.  If what they said was true, it was given this name when it was a much smaller village situated on a patch of common grazing land that had been contaminated by the surface mining and peat digging at Gallowgate.  It was the oldest and largest single area on the western boundary of the Lanarkshire region of Central Scotland until it was incorporated in 1846 into what would eventually be the City of Glasgow.  It then expanded rapidly and several streets sprung up, Main Street, Kirk Street, Beggars Row, High Street, Stevenson Street and Calton Entry among them.  Many of these street names, however, had changed completely by the time I was born and by middle age many more had been altered beyond recognition.  Eventually the village name changed too and it became Calton or, as locals called it, The Calton.  When I was a boy the story went that the original village was actually part of some private estate or other at one time.  Apparently it even had its own independence for a short while and things were supposedly at their best then.  That was before the Irish Fenians arrived, of course.

2.  Life in The Calton.

It is hard to imagine how life could be much tougher than when I was growing up in The Calton.  Most of the time I ran about in a pair short trousers, made up for the most part, of patches.  Socks were more or less only for mass on Sundays and, in the summer, going to chapel was often the only time I was allowed to wear my precious but well scuffed ‘tackety boots’.  It was a genuine thrill for me to hear the tip-tap rap of the hob nails on the cobbles as my mammy took my hand while I ‘tap-danced’ along the street.  When the streets were crowded it was like a ‘tackety’ symphony played pleasingly harmoniously by the contact of cold steel tacks and nails from a multitude of boots striking the granite blocks.  But bare feet was the normal order of the day for practically every kid in the neighbourhood.  A shirt, already severely worn out by at least one older sibling, was my Sunday best covered in bad weather by a stringy serge jacket, about two sizes too big for me.  To make me look “dressed” my mammy tied a bit of rag from an old petticoat that once belonged to my long deceased granny, round my neck like a parcel bow.  It was meant to be a substitute for a cravat but I was convinced it made me look stupid like a ‘nancy’.  Weekday dress consisted of whatever relatively clean remnants were lying around at the time provided they offered a modicum of cover.  Families lived in squalor in dilapidated dwellings, crammed into single end rooms in crumbling tenement flats.  Despite the often heroic efforts of mothers and grandmothers to improve them or just keep them clean, they remained on the whole dirty and disease ridden, absolute death traps.

Going outside into the back yards was no relief.  They were dark, dingy, stinking and sunless areas confined by the walls of the neglected, and in some cases almost ramshackle, tenement buildings that surrounded them.  The stench from the outside ‘loos’ and outbuildings was everywhere and no washing or bathing could remove the stink once it permeated clothes and bodies.  Rats and other unknown vermin along with a myriad of grossly oversized insects and unseen minuscule ‘beasties’ holidayed in a Utopian Eden among the discarded household rubbish and all kinds of muck and rotting foodstuff that made up this infested landscape.  There was never a clean-up nor was rubbish ever removed and there was a constant buzzing in the air all around.  These so called back yards were nothing but well fertilized breeding grounds for a multitude of bugs and bacteria that regularly inflicted debilitating and fatal diseases indiscriminately on the local inhabitants, irrespective of age, sex, nationality or religion.  Such was life and such was death in Glasgow’s East End in the late 19th century.

3.  Our Gang.

While most kids in the street were forced to stay in their yards, my pals and I spent lots of time ‘scrounging around’ elsewhere looking for anything that we could sell, barter or just use.  We simply had to escape from the filth of those cesspools behind our houses.  We had formed a small gang for friendship, support and protection and we quickly determined that a practical way to meet the challenges of our gloomy lives was searching for anything that could be deemed useful or of value.  Even at our tender age entrepreneurial skills were honed by a desperate sense of survival.  In later years they were to render magnificent rewards for those of us who survived, on the stalls of the Barras and Paddy’s Markets.  We had a couple of favourite haunts.  One was a new factory being built down by the Gallowgate Green, a large park that ran all the way down from the southern end of The Calton to the river Clyde .  We rarely played on the green itself as a lot of it was private land and we were always being chased off by grown ups.  A  number of people from Bridgeton, further along towards the centre of town, went down there too and we were scared of them.  Though not nearly completed, the new factory was far enough up for us to find it worth our while exploring it, searching for any ‘rich pickings’ from whatever was lost or discarded by the workers.  It looked just like a castle or a palace and I heard people call it a Temple or something like that, whatever that was.  It seemed an odd name considering it was to be a ‘work’, a carpet factory I heard my daddy tell mammy.  When I got older I learned it was Templetons Carpet Factory modelled on the Doge’s Palace in Venice, Italy.  It was a Godsend as it brought lots of new jobs to an area bereft of employment opportunities.  I remember my daddy saying he hoped to get a steady job there but thought it could be difficult given he was a Catholic and a Fenian to boot.  There, on a really good day, we sometimes came across scraps from workers’ ‘pieces’, a bit of cheese or the like, that provided an edible treat.  But most of the time it was simply a question of trying to survive at a subsistence level.

School was not really to our liking and even though our parents were strict about attendance and we were given a penny meal at lunchtime if we were present, we still skipped off.  We used to get into terrible trouble not only from parents but from aunts, uncles and neighbours too if we were caught away from classes.  But for most of the time they were too occupied with trying to survive to give their full attention to what we were up to or to be able to check up on us.  Other than the priests who taught there, there really was no one to ensure we attended school.  To us it was worth a good ‘skelping’ now and again to be able to ‘dog off’.  It was not unknown for us to miss a whole day and sneak off somewhere to play but more likely to explore old and newly discovered surroundings for hidden ‘goodies’.  So, we spent much of our childhood days simply rummaging in the hope of finding something worthwhile.  Without doubt, one our favourite places for this was the Catholic church grounds and the land around the chapel hall with their nooks and crannies for hiding.  They were ready made for purpose.

4.  The Chapel and Chapel Hall.

The church had been built just up the road on what is now Abercromby Street but was then somewhere around the corner of Turner Street and East Rose Street.  I found out later it was only the second Catholic church to be built in the Glasgow area since the Reformation to serve the growing Irish-Catholic immigrant communities in the east end.  The chapel opened in 1842 and its style resembled a mix of Greek temple and Gothic mansion, totally different to the churches I saw in some of the pictures my mammy and daddy brought over from Ireland.  In the dark, the buildings looked quite scary to us youngsters.  The chapel was really big and the main entrance had a massive black double door that absolutely towered above us.  It scared me even when I went to mass with my mammy.  We used to be warned that the two angels flying around on the façade above the entrance were there to whisk us away to the eternal fires of Hell if we misbehaved in chapel.  We regularly braced ourselves for ghouls and monsters leaping from the shadows created by the tall, deeply inserted windows and the support columns along the sides.  It was called St. Mary of the Assumption and was a stone’s throw away from our house.  Any education we received was in St. Mary’s school just near to the chapel.  The priests from St. Mary’s chapel took most of the lessons.  The chapel hall was round the back of the church building off East Rose Street and it became a favourite haunt after school hours in spite of our fear of satanic retribution.

5.  Business Opportunities.

The area around St, Mary’s hall was a gold mine for us kids.  The men used to stand smoking and chatting to friends or neighbours at the hall doorway after mass before heading for a drink or going home.  If the hall itself was locked, some men nipped round the back of the building to ‘do the toilet’ and could leave discarded fag ends or even drop the odd coin.  If they had been in the hall itself, they inevitably had a quick smoke at the doorway before leaving.  The whole area was a treasure trove of fag ends and sometimes rendered some bits of loose change too.  Tobacco was a priceless commodity and we scraped the bits from the fags into a little tin that we secretly but affectionately nicknamed ‘Smokey’.  It took us quite a while to collect a decent amount even with all of us pooling our finds.  Once we had a workable amount we would sell it to the old men and the old grannies that smoked the clay pipes.  The price was generally buns or sweeties but now and then we could collect the odd farthing or two.  We managed to sell quite a few fills from our ‘wee tinny’ and ‘baccy’ income proved not a bad little earner for the gang over the years.  As I said, the place was also a rich source of dropped money, though cash finds were not as regular as the fag ends.  When we got them though they were direct income, no hard sales drives required.  Since they were usually discovered as we searched for fag ends they took little additional effort or time making the return much more profitable.

6.  Jackpot Bonanza and The Failed Bridgeton Mission.

Only once, however, do I remember a jackpot bonanza.  One of my pals had a previously unheard of and exceptional find, a whole penny.  The gang held a full members’ meeting at the gang H.Q., ‘den’ in our terminology, in the corner at the far end of the back outside wall of the hall, the one furthest away from the road.  We could not be seen there by people passing by on East Rose Street so it was the ideal location.  A decision had to be made about what to do with our new found fortune.  This was a lot of money then but the notion that it might mean a family going without a meal or clothes did not enter our childish minds.   We were besotted by our treasure and lured by its buying potential.  In the end we decided to treat ourselves to some cake.  However, we were well aware we could not go to the local baker’s shop up on Gallowgate, as he would have been suspicious and would have undoubtedly reported us to our parents.  So we opted to go to Bridgeton where we would not be known.

Now, at that time, Bridgeton was not a safe place for Catholics and in those days The Calton was pretty much all Catholic due to the massive Irish immigration there in the mid eighteen hundreds.  And we would have been more than suspected of being from The Calton given our dirty, scraggy appearance and because no one in Bridgeton would recognise us.  We had been well warned not to go there on our own by our parents and many others.  In reality, if truth be told, we did not actually need the warnings for we ourselves were pretty scared to go there anyway.  I remember hearing stories whispered up the closes about people being beaten and battered in that place, especially near the cross, and I would witness threats and fights myself more and more as I grew up.  However, hunger, desire and self indulgence make powerful bedfellows and the gang decided unanimously to take a chance and go anyway.  I ‘big-headedly’ volunteered to do the buying.

So we headed for Bridgeton, dallying yard by yard, close to close, forcing our dread infused wobbly legs to keep moving while nonchalantly trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.  We must have looked anything but innocent and probably appeared more like a kiddies’ version of sneaky bandits furtively creeping to our next job.  We were absolutely terrified of giving ourselves away.  We received some suspicious glances from passers-by and strong stares from some of the women nattering to each other from their tenement windows.  But, thankfully, no one actually challenged us.  Eventually we came to a grocers and, rather than have to sneak any further to find a bakery, went in.  We endured the longest glare and stare I have ever encountered but eventually, after quite a few nudges from my so called pals who were keeping well back, I picked up the courage to ask, in the most sheepish voice I have ever used, “Can a have a loaf a’ bread, mister?”  My craving for cake had completely evaporated by now.  The threat of an enquiry into how we could afford something normally well beyond the means of grown ups, was now foremost in my mind.  Big man I might have pretended to be, but I was now regretting showing off.  “Where did yees get money fir a loaf?”, came the question back, screamed at us rather than spoken.  The grocer was a big man too, physically that is, not metaphorically like me.  He seemed like a real life-size giant to us wee ones.  His voice had that same harsh guttural menacing accent that the Scots families up round our way spoke with.  There were not a lot of them in The Calton and we were far more familiar with softer Irish voices.  “Ma mammy”, I said quickly and nervously.  I felt on the verge of collapse as my mouth became parched with fear.  “So, whit yees dain’ doon in Brigton an no up at the Gallowgate where yees belang, ya wee Fenians?”  I now deeply regretted opening my ‘big mouth’ and pretending to be a Braveheart when we made our plans back at the ‘den’.  However, even though scared out of my wits, I made the bold, if potentially foolish, decision not to surrender to this grocer’s aggression.  It seemed to me there was no turning back now and besides, I had rights.  I was more and more convinced I had to brass-neck my way through the ordeal.  “The shop up there was all out ‘f bread, mister”, I lied, “so a was sent down here and ma pals came t’ help and keep me company; honest, mister!”  Then, with a sudden and cowardly change of tact, I blurted, “Look, a can tell ma mammy you don’t have any either.  Nae bother, honest.  A’ll just go back empty handed.”  “Haud it ya wee shit”, he growled commandingly, “ye’re here noo so ye can hiv wan a’ thae black breeds.  It’s a’ yous scum ‘r worth.  Yees Fenians scunner me ‘n if a hud ma way yees widnae get onythin’ tae eat at a’.  Yees tak oor jobs and bring ye’r filth and Irish twangs and ye’r blasphemous religion” – I understood not a word of that but somehow I knew it was not very nice, childish instinct, you might say – “’n yous greetin’ wanes dressed in rags.  Jist luk at yees.  Yees is worse ‘n animals.  Yees stink tae high heaven tae.  ‘n yees expect us tae feed and look efter yees ‘n yees a’ gettin’ oor hard earned money frae the poor hoose tae.  We’re jist expected to grin and bare it, a suppose, eh?  Weell, we’re no gonnae and ye’ll soon be daein’ the rest o’ ye’r growin’ up ower by, where yees came frae.  Here tak ye’r blidy ‘blacky’ ‘n git.  That’s a farthing tae yees Fenians.”  He took not a pause for breath during the whole outburst which probably explained his now redish-purple face and protruding neck veins.  The tirade halted to an absolute deathly silence as he opened the drawer to get our change.  I have become fairly vociferous in later years but I was verbally bombarded into utter speechlessness at that moment.  Fear can temper every man’s excesses.  “Noo, here’s ye’r blidy chinge and awa wi ye’s.  Get oot ‘n dinnae appear here again or a’ll get the bogie man tae yees.  If a wir yous a’d run a’ the wie hame an dinnae look back.  Go’n, git, ya blidy wee Fenian …….!”  I never quite caught the last word for I had grasped the change in an uncontrollable, quivering hand without consciously knowing how I was managing to hold onto it, and flew from the shop like Hermes making his get-away from an aborted godly venture he had messed up.  Instinctively, rather than deliberately, I kept my eyes straight ahead fearing that, if I turned around, I might be changed into a pillar of salt like the lady the priest told us about in one of his stories or, perhaps, suffer an even worse fate at the hands of that big ogre of a grocer should he come chasing after us.  As I ran full pelt I was definitely remembering the stories about Bridgeton I had heard up the closes at home.  I had never in all my few childhood years had to withstand such a vocal barrage and, for that matter, from a total stranger to whom I had caused no offence.  I was emotionally and mentally shot blasted.  We were all beyond terrified and if we had run that mile or so back home enough times at the speed we did that day, we would have all become Olympic champions.  In the end, we managed to return to The Calton unscathed and without ever being ‘found out’.  And, we still had the unappetising  but filling black ‘breed’ to eat and three penny-farthings to spend among us.

7.  The Chapel Hall.

The chapel grounds of St. Mary’s, or perhaps more accurately the chapel hall, had a strong appeal for our gang.  There we had the perfect hideout our ‘den’.  It was where we planned our search strategies and made decisions about sales and spending.  In the matter of finds, it had by far the best long term financial prospects as long as we were careful about what we did with them.  And we had discovered another advantage to spending time up there.  If it rained or was cold, we could get into the hall to keep dry and a bit warmer.  We had found a way to squeeze through the coal delivery chute at the back of the building and slide down into the boiler room.  It meant we got pretty black from the coal but our mothers just concluded we had been messing about over at the old mine workings just off the Gallowgate and did little bar reprimand us for getting so dirty.  “Do ye t’ink t’ings are not dirty enough around here wit’ dat coal dust everywhere wit’out you bringing more in on yerself?  Go on wit’ ye now!”, my mammy would say in her full Irish ‘twang’ that still sounded sweet and loving even when she was angry.  She did not expect an answer and, to be truthful, I always felt it wiser not to proffer one.  If I brought a few bits of coal home with me, it helped disperse any annoyance or lingering suspicions on her part.  Once grounded in the hall basement, it was easy to get through the door at the top of the wooden steps and into the back of the main hall itself.  The area we would enter into was a wooden platform at the rear end of the main hall about 18” high, the full width of the hall across and twenty or so feet deep, though then I had no concept whatever of size other than big and small.  I know now it was a home made stage for the parish social events that took place there every so often.  It had two very long heavy curtains at the front end, each pulled back and tied against the walls on either side.  Even though tied back, they protruded a good couple of feet back onto the sides of the stage at the top and bottom.  I have no idea what material they were made from.  I certainly had never come across any as big and heavy as them before either at home or elsewhere.

If we were fairly sure that no one would come in, we used to have a ‘kick about’ in the main hall with a rag ball that we made from tied together old bits of cloth we had collected.  The main hall was fairly large, about a small dance-hall size and, one could say, ready-made for an indoor game of ‘footy’, a game the priest had introduced us to at school, or Gaelic football with which we were more familiar.  The latter was difficult on the hard surface, though, given the rough and tumble nature of the game so it was mainly the new football game or our version of it at least.  When finished playing and before going home, the gang would often sit on the stage platform blathering or discussing ideas about new things to do and fresh places to explore, most of which were more likely than not to get us into further trouble.  But then, we were just kids after all.

8.  Trapped.

It was on one of these evenings while having our post-‘fitba’ debate on the stage that we were suddenly caught on the hop by the noise of the hall door being unlocked and the sound of several voices outside in the front porch.  We had never been discovered on the premises before but from the threats we received for simply being in the chapel grounds without permission, we did not fancy the consequences of this interior trespass.  A quick escape seemed a wise move but by the time we had regained our composure and planned some form of get-away by means of our customary exit, a couple of men had already entered the main hall.  By means of a few hand signals and other bodily gestures to each other, we mutedly agreed that our best bet was to lie down and hide behind the wide bottoms of the stage curtains.  So some of us cowered behind the left one while the rest got behind the one to the right.  I earnestly prayed that the noise level from the men’s conversations would drown out our heavy breathing or any scraping sounds we made on the wooded stage floor.  We then settled down for an unexpectedly long, late night.  I can tell in advance my prayers were answered, good fortune was with us and our excessively loud and laboured breathing did not betray us.

9.  The Meeting.

The first two men to enter were deep in conversation as they advanced along the floor of the hall.  I could not hear every word but it sounded to me as though they were talking about football.  Continuing to speak to each other without pause they set up a couple of tables and pulled several chairs from against the wall to set alongside them.  Seconds later, a group of men, about five I think but I am not absolutely sure, came in conversing with each other in such a mangled way that it sounded more like the babble of a gaggle of geese than the intelligent discourse of grown-up men.  They were addressing each other to left and to right and to front and to rear, often all at once as they moved towards the tables and chairs.  Everybody seemed to have something to say.  When each man reached the tables he selected a chair and sat down.  Some men began to smoke while others merely sat and continued talking to one another.  Two men went to a small room at the top end of the hall and came out with some cups and a few spoons.  They went back to the room and returned after about five minutes with a metal teapot, a jug of milk and a tin with sugar in it.  One of the seated gentlemen placed a bag on the table and we could see there were buns in it.  We guessed they were going to have a cup of tea and a bite to eat, a sight that only added the agony of parched throats and starving stomachs to the discomfort of our already dire circumstances.  Nothing could be done about it though, given our awkward situation.  I did not know any of the men by name although I had seen some of them collecting money for the poor at the chapel and one or two had served at the penny meal tables when I was there.  They all looked quite old to me and appeared much more smartly dressed than any of the men in our neighbourhood.

In the midst of all this ongoing commotion the door opened again and in came a priest.  As he scurried towards the tables, his black cassock was flapping and a crucifix round his neck bounced around against a stiff white kind of cravat that was tucked into his cassock collar just under his chin.  He was not a very tall man and his hair was starting to go grey at the temples even though he did not look to me to be really, really old.  He had rosy chubby cheeks and his mouth formed a shadow of a grin that gave the impression of having been set as a permanent facial fixture.  I recognised him right away.  He took classes at school and I had also seen him helping to give out food to us poor kids at the penny meal tables.  I remember him being very kind and gentle when he spoke to us youngsters.  He could be strict and stern too at times but it was usually because we had done something very wrong.  What struck me most about him, even though I was just a child, was his energy.  He seemed to be for ever ‘on the go’.  He was the exact opposite though when saying mass or praying in the chapel.  Then he was as peaceful and calm as a visionary in deep meditation.  I heard lots of people talk about how good and holy he was and how he gave food and money to people no matter who they were or where they came from.  I remember he constantly told us to look out for one another and anyone else who needed help.  At the time it used to make me feel really guilty when I thought of my ‘baccy’ enterprises and the lost money, especially the ‘whole penny’.  Unfortunately, his words were never effective enough to make me want to stop.  He also said we should treat everyone the same, something about ‘not only Catholics but Protestants too’.  I did not fully understand then but I now know he was telling us to be ‘all inclusive’ and to treat everyone equally even though they might not act the same way towards us.    I remember his eyes.  They seemed to posses a constant twinkle and I found them truly comforting when he looked at me.  When he spoke, he had a soft mild accent reminiscent of my parents, my aunts and uncles and many of the grown-ups in the area.  It had a lilt and flow to it, not like the gruff harsh ones some other people had, like those in Bridgeton for example.  I later discovered they were not Irish like us and not Catholics but native Scottish ‘Prodies’ and, in spite of what the priest used to tell us, not our friends.  However, that is another story for another day.  All that mattered to me was that this priest was a nice man who did really good things and that was enough for me to like him.  I was never sure of his funny name and though I now know it to have been Brother Walfrid, we kids just called him ‘Father Waly’, though never to his face.

‘Father Waly’ greeted everyone at the table, put down the bundle of  papers he had been carrying under his arm and sat down, all in one seemingly graceful motion. A general conversation ensued until everyone finished their cup of tea.  Then an imposing gent with a beard called for everyone to pay attention.  He spoke for a short while then asked ‘Father Waly’ to speak.  I did not understand any of what was going on and I am sure my pals did not either.  ‘Father Waly’ passed out some of the papers he had brought with him and the men exchanged these among each other several times over.  I could pick up odd words and phrases like “football”, “meals for the poor”, “charging a penny”, which caused me flash-backs, and names like Hibernian and Celtic, although ‘Father Waly’ kept saying “seltic” in that soft musical voice of his.  I had heard these words and names mentioned at home when my parents spoke about Ireland or my daddy spoke about Gaelic football so I took it to mean that maybe ‘Father Waly’ was wanting to introduce it into Scotland.  I then heard the men say something about “buying ground to play proper games” and about “collecting money to provide more penny meals for the poor”.  It seemed very serious and important and it certainly had the interest of everybody there, everybody that is, except the gang.  To us terrified youngsters back there on the stage, it was just going on and on and on and we knew we were going to be in really big trouble with our parents for going missing and staying out late even if we avoided getting caught here.  I honestly thought the meeting would never end and resigned myself to some sort of night’s sleep on the stage.  I started to dose amid a constant drone from the body of the hall.  Now and then a raised voice or what sounded like an argument shuddered me back to being awake.  Eventually, after what felt to all of us kids to be a lifetime, I heard the older gent who had started things off saying that “everything was settled” and they should “get the ball rolling right away” at which the men chuckled for some reason.  Then they all began to rise from the table.  For a while they chatted among themselves as they drifted towards the exit though ‘Father Waly’ rushed ahead of everybody else with a whispered goodnight and a thank you to everyone.  It was as though he still had his day’s work in front of him.  All I was thinking was “Will they ever leave?”.  The fact there could be some good ‘baccy’ pickings after they had gone was of no consolation.  I wanted to get home before my mother and father “killed” me.  Besides, it was November time, the 6th of November 1887 to be exact, and I was freezing.

10.  Release and Safely Home.

By the time the meeting was all over, it was pitch black both in the hall and outside so the gang had little trouble ‘escaping’ once the hall was empty and locked up for the night.  We made a fast exit through the back door and down the wooden steps to the boiler room.  We slipped and slithered one by one back up the coal chute till we were all gathered safely outside.  We then made our way home exchanging horror stories about how each of us would be punished.  We had the odd feeble attempt at trying to understanding what had gone on at the hall but none of us could make heads nor tails of any of it.  Besides we were too tired to be bothered.  It seemed a big deal though whatever it was.  In reality we merely had a nosy curiosity but no real interest.  It was all grown up stuff after all and that was simply boring or so we concluded.  We walked really fast on the way to each others houses both to heat ourselves up and in order not to be out even later still.  We only stopped to wish each other good night as we reached each house in turn.  A few seconds were spent finalising arrangements for the next day’s exploits then it was on to the next house.  It was very late when we eventually reached my close.  I said cheerio to the pals that were still with me and then headed towards the rickety outside stairs to our excuse for a flat.

I was shaking quite violently by now and decided I ought to take some precautions before going up.  I turned round and headed to the foul outside ‘lavy’ terrified at the creepy crawlies that might be lurking about my feet.  But needs must and I relieved myself in spite of the little nasties.  I returned to the stairway and crept up as silently as I possibly could.  I was quivering like a wobbly jelly by the time I reached the door.  I opened it as quietly and as carefully as I could in the hope that the creaky thing would perhaps not give me away on this one night.  No chance.  My mother heard it the minute it moved and pounced like a fox on a vole.  I remember well she slapped me somewhere and then went into a tirade about how I had scared the living daylights out of her, not knowing where I was at that time of night.  “I was worried sick”, she half shouted, half whimpered and then, with a tug that felt like an uncertain mix of affection and wrath, sat me down at the old kitchen table in the middle of the room.  My big brother was peeping from the covers in our shared recess bed and he was sniggering at me.  I threatened to “bash” him in the morning if he did not stop. So he did.  Mammy gave me a bowl of ‘tattie’ gruel which, though not very appetising or filling, tasted delicious after having nothing to eat all day.  It was then night prayers, which included God’s forgiveness for her sinful son of course, for all of us and off to bed with me.  I can still hear mammy telling me that “Ye’r t’ get it yet from ye’r daddy tomorrow mind.  So, don’t you dare go t’inkin’ ye’ve gotten away wit’ it, me boyo.  Ye’ll find out tomorrow, that’s fer sure now.  Off to sleep wit’ ye now.”  She gave me a hug that was a combination of reluctance and relief and a quick peck on the cheek once I was in bed.  I crawled in beside my big brother and tried to get to sleep not knowing if I was relieved at my reprieve from mammy or dreading the belting I would get from daddy.

For while I could not sleep.  My mind was distracted beyond control with the fear of daddy’s whipping tomorrow and all the goings on up at the hall.  I made a final conscious effort to dismiss the events from my mind and eventually went to sleep oblivious of the momentous evening I had been witness to.  I had no idea then the impact that meeting would have not only on my life but the lives of millions of others through many generations and in places as yet unheard of in The Calton.  The historical records show that a group of men held a meeting along with a Marist priest called Brother Walfrid in St. Mary’s parish hall, The Calton, on the evening of November 6th 1887 to establish a football club in order to raise money in conjunction with the S.V.D.P. for the “Poor Children’ s Dinner Table”.  They consequently and subsequently became the founding fathers of Glasgow Celtic Football Club.  What is not recorded is that a gang of ragamuffin, dirty, scruffy, impudent little kids from The Calton also attended that meeting, undeniably uninvited and without the knowledge of those present, but most assuredly witnesses to the proceedings from behind the curtains.


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8 years ago

brilliant – I read it while pretending to listen to my wife’s pre-xmas babble -I’ll be in touble tomorrow for not doing whatever it was she was telling me I need to do, but it’ll be worth it for the enjoyment I got from the story.

8 years ago
Reply to  andy docherty

Thank you so very much, Andy. I feel guilty about your black eye. If it doesn’t heal soon, I’ll order a big steak – mind you, I’ll charge it to you. I am sure your wife will show some good will, at least till Boxing day 🙂

I know I am late but the old laptop caught the flu at the weekend and I could not get a connection till this afternoon, but could I still wish you and yours all the season’s best wishes. At least in another week we can take off again doing serious reading on important topics 🙂


8 years ago

Great stuff.

Merry Christmas!

tom o'neill
8 years ago

Another Marist, James E. Handley summed it up in his The Irish in Scotland when he opined that the only things that did not get into Edinburgh’s nineteenth century slums were fresh air and sunlight.

8 years ago

Fantastic !!! ,brought back some great memories. I was a ”prody ”Celtic fan ín Brigton in the 70’s and your story of tryin to avoid the other ”gangs” was oh so true. I remember getting ”caught” ,but i managed to talk my way out of a ‘doing”, because i knew one of the gangs cousins ! .Igot a clip on the back o the heed and a kick up the ar#e and i bolted !!! ….back to the safety of my territory (street!!) GREAT TIMES !

8 years ago

What a lovely tale and told so eloquently that it brings pictures to the mind clear and bright, a momentous day indeed 06/11/1887. Thank you for that HH

8 years ago

Enjoyed that-especially the bit in the hall! Very atmospheric.

Son of pensioner bhoy
8 years ago

I’ll wait for abridged version 😉

8 years ago

It WAS a short story not a brief comment. But I guess criticism is always strongest nearest to home 🙂


8 years ago

Well Hail Hail ……

Big Mike
8 years ago

Great story, must have been awful in them days. One thing for certain their power over the Catholic has been diluted and get it right up them. Mon the Hoops!

8 years ago

From an old book about CALTON, formerly called Blackfaulds, not so many years ago was ruled by its own magistrates. It was made a barony of burgh by Crown charter on 30th August, 1817: its town council consisted of a provost, three bailies, a treasurer, and eleven councillors. At that time the village, with its toiling handloom weavers, formed an important industrial suburb of Glasgow. But, alas for Calton! Its giant neighbour absorbed it in 1846, and its town council meets no more to decide questions of importance to the Caltonians. Its representatives now share in the deliberations of the town council of “Greater Glasgow.” With its mills, factories, and foundries it is a busy hive of industry, in which is invested large capital, backed by genuine commercial enterprise.

[page 24]
In the earlier years of this century the district had only two churches. One was a chapel-of-ease in Tobago street, of which the Rev. Mr. Graham was minister. He was regarded as a faithful and devoted pastor, and greatly esteemed. His brother was Captain Graham, of the Glasgow police force – a chief constable very much respected by the community. Its other church was the Relief Church in Kirk Street, which had pew accommodation for at least 1,400 People. When the Rev. Alexander Harvey, an able and popular minister, was its pastor there was not an unlet sitting. At this day, under its present minister, I believe this is still the case.

The BRIDGETON, BARROWFIELD, and MILE END districts, with their extensive weaving and spinning mills, and other textile manufactures – their large iron industries – and until recently the Singer Company’s Sewing Machine Works, form a very important factor in the industries of the City. Previous to the opening of Rutherglen Bridge in 1776, the ford at the suburb of Barrowfield was the only access for traffic between Glasgow and the ancient burgh of Rutherglen. After this the district was known as Bridgeton, and, until absorbed by the City, had magistrates and a town council of its own, like its neighbour Calton. Under the new regime, and with confidence in the steady progress of trade, for home and foreign markets, the plodding Bridgetonians pulled down old buildings and erected new and handsome ones in their stead. Specially is this, to be observed in and around Bridgeton Cross..

8 years ago

Well written , great story

8 years ago

Good story and all very romantic. Brother Walfrid was of course headmaster of Sacred Heart school in brigton which had and still has one of the largest churches in Scotland. As a Marist Brother he was of course not a priest and would never say mass, however, I’m sure he was a very holy man; frequent in prayer. As Pope Francis said this week however prayer without works of charity is only half done and thus Celtic was born.

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