When Hibs and Celtic met for the first time in the Scottish Cup final back in 1902 not everyone was happy. Indeed many decried it as an “all Irish cup final’ of ‘impostors and renegades’.
But as one Edwardian journal had the prescience to comment: “It is a peculiarity of Scottish football to find two Irish clubs, Hibernian and Celtic, contesting the final tie for the Scottish Cup; but if we remove these two teams from the sport much of the life and attractive power of the game would disappear”.
With hindsight, perhaps just a touch of understatement and the article also signed off – “Hibernian won the trophy cleverly” – which would be the last time that would be said for at least 113 years.
Scottish football, of course, would not only have been very different without them but the poorer for it. Today both are very much, first and foremost Scottish clubs and have been seen as such for most of their history, albeit with proud Irish identities.
Their dual identity is a unique aspect of the Scottish game and something Scotland can and should be proud of. For all that sectarianism has tainted the Scottish game what is too rarely emphasised is overall how successful, harmonious and fully integrated the clubs became.
But ironically there was not always sweetness and light between the “Irish blood brothers”, as they were tagged by the press back in 1902.
Indeed the very birth of Celtic came to be viewed in Edinburgh’s “Little Ireland” as an act of fratricide, worthy of Cain and Abel. The recent banner displayed by Glasgow fans “Hibs: Celtic’s Feeder Club Since 1888” only rubs salt into an old wound.
Football, as they say, is all about opinions and they are often formed by myths, legends, apocryphal tales and self-serving histories. The very passion of the game feeds feuds, nurtures bias and ultimately a one-sided view not only of a club’s history but last week’s match.
So while it’s accepted Hibs did play a crucial role in the founding of Celtic it would be wrong to assert, as it has been by some football historians: “If there was no Hibs, there would be no Celtic”.
With or without Hibs’ inspiration, financial aid and players, a prominent football club would still undoubtedly have sprung up among the 250,000 strong Irish community in the west of Scotland at that time.
However Hibs were to supply all of the above and more to Celtic in 1888. Founded a decade earlier in 1875 they were the pioneers for the Irish community. The club had been set up by Canon Edward Hannan and Michael Whelahan, their first captain, as part of St Patrick’s Catholic Young Men’s Society in Edinburgh’s Cowgate.
Hibs were to be run as a charitable organisation, adhering strictly to Catholic ideals. They were also sectarian as all players had to be members of St Patrick’s CYMS, attend weekly mass and abstain from alcohol.
Initially the new club was rejected by the SFA who told them: “We cater for Scotsmen, not Irishmen”. Undaunted Hibs arranged their own fixtures and a year later the SFA recanted and Hibernian were admitted appearing, no less, in strips of green and white hoops.
Over the next decade Hibs porved trailblazers for Scotland’s Irish, and as Alan Lugton, Hibs historian, points out in The Making of Hibernian (John Donald) the club became the symbol “of national and political aspiration of every Irish Catholic in Scotland”.
Their annus mirabilus was 1887 when Hibs won the “double”, beating Dumbarton in the Scottish Cup and the “Invincibles” of Preston North End in what was dubbed “The Association Football World Championship” by the English press.
After Hibs’ Scottish Cup triumph a reception was held at St Mary’s Hall in the East End of Glasgow before their return to Edinburgh. The final proved the catalyst for local priest, Brother Walfrid, and others, most notably businessman John Glass, to fast track their plans for a club for Glasgow’s Irish community.
However there would be a fundamental difference from Hibs as it would be a non-sectarian, commercial organisation independent of the church, albeit with purportedly a charitable purpose.
Momentum gathered and Hibs gave a financial donation and provided a team to play Cowlairs for the official opening of Celtic Park in May 1888.
What then happened between May and the start of the new season in August was to stun Edinburgh’s Little Ireland. Celtic enticed six members of Hibs cup winning team plus four other players, who had already agreed to join Hibs, to instead go west.
Journalist Kevin McCarra in Celtic: A Biography in Nine Lives (Faber) says: “There is little to be said in defence of Celtic …. it was galling (for Hibs) to be victims of friends who suddenly revealed themselves as predators.”
As Hibs lost the nucleus of their team what is often forgotten is the club were simultaneously dealt another blow from no less a figure than Archbishop William Smith of the Edinburgh diocese.
The Archbishop acting on edict from then Pope Leo XIII to separate “politics from faith” called for the dismissal of Michael Flannigan, president of St Patrick’s CYMS, due to his support of Charles Stuart Parnell and Irish Home Rule movement. Most of the committee resigned in solidarity with Flannigan.
Hibs were now basically a shell of club and a further blow awaited as the club’s secretary John McFadden absconded to America with club funds. Tensions were already bubbling under at what was a charitable institution in a sport that was increasingly becoming professional. This was evident in the SFA investigation at the same time of Hibs for making “illegal” payments to star player, the now Celtic-bound Darlin’ Willie Groves.
Something would have had to give at Hibs but they never expected it to happen in such a manner and to come from such quarters.
Glass, though, could see the changes coming and recognised the commercial potential of Celtic. His foresight would see Celtic go on to dominate Scottish football in the pre-First Worl War era and lay the foundation for the world famous club they are today.
So was Glass an unprincipled opportunist or a visionary? A bit of both, it would seem, like many successful entrepreneurs. What he did possess undoubtedly was a single-minded drive and commercial acumen akin to another wee fella who would play a pivotal role for Celtic a century later, Fergus McCann.
However it was not long before the Glasgow Observer, a newspaper founded for the Irish in Scotland in 1885, was complaining that the supposedly charitable purpose of Celtic had been superseded by naked commercialism .
While the charitable element still survives at Celtic today, the romantic myth of Brother Walfrid and its roots glosses over the hard-nosed commercialism of the men who really ran the club. Brother Walfrid, more a figurehead than anything else, had moved to London by 1892, while Celtic’s meteoric rise took off.
No less an authority than Celtic legend Willie Maley was in later years to describe Glass “as the man to whom Celtic owes its existence”.
Meanwhile Hibs were traumatised and the bitterness spilled over in Celtic’s first visit to Easter Road in October 1888. As they went 3-0 up through goals by former Hibs players Mick Dunbar (2) and John Coleman the Hibs supporters could take no more and invaded the pitch with the match eventually abandoned.
Hibs struggled on for a couple of seasons before going out of business in 1891-92. But they bounced back and were readmitted to the SFA in 1893, reconstituted as a non-sectarian commercial organization independent of the Church now following the Celtic model.
Football was now a business and Hibs had had to adjust albeit in extremely painful fashion. But within a decade they had won the Cup beating Celtic at Parkhead in the final and won the league championship the following year in 1903.
However they would now be looked on primarily as the Edinburgh club, the Leith team, while it was Celtic who took forward the mantle as Scotland’s leading Irish club.