Irish National Foresters in Scotland 1885-1895


A retired librarian looks at the role played by benefit societies in addressing poverty among the Irish in Scotland in the late nineteenth century.

In the 1890s, Catholic Irishmen started to enter the skilled trades and climb the social ladder in Scotland.  But Irish men and women still mainly provided unskilled labour and lived in overcrowded conditions in areas with the highest death rates.  Letters to the Glasgow Observer in May and June 1888 describe the struggle of having to provide food, clothing and shelter for eight of family, while paying for the schooling of three children, out of a wage of about £1 a week with a grocery bill of 12/6d.  Sickness or unemployment meant dependence on the grudging and demeaning Poor Law with its system of outdoor and workhouse relief.

The benefit societies were an alternative.  With bucolic names like Foresters, archaic offices like Chief Ranger, Woodward, and Beadle, and anachronistic dress, they might have appeared quaint but they met a serious need.  The 1884 Rule Book of Branch ‘Heart of Erin’ in Cowcaddens, whose rules are typical of the society as a whole during this period, stated that the aim of the Society was ‘The raising of money by Contribution of members, entrance fees and donations in order to pay weekly allowance to members when bodily sick; pay for the decent burial of members and their lawful wives (and) pay for supplying medical attendance and medicines to members’.

The Irish National Foresters (INF), who had broken with the larger Ancient Order of Foresters in Autumn 1877 over political and religious issues, held their first meeting in Dublin in August 1877 with six members.  The Freeman’s Journal tells us that in May 1878, James Gilday of Anderston was initiated into the INF, received a ceremonial sash and was given permission to form a branch in Anderston.  ‘Branch Shamrock no. 2’, appears to be the first in Scotland.  By 1895, there were 64 branches, one more than in Ireland.

The local branch was the basis of the Society.  Branches combined into districts, and 51 Scottish branches were part of Glasgow and West of Scotland District, which included branches in the Lothians and Fife.  The INF was a self-consciously Irish organisation run by Irishmen for the benefit of Irishmen at home and abroad.  The INF central office in Dublin provided services, but tension between the Dublin office and the demand for devolution to branches and districts is a recurring feature of this period.

To be a member one had to be Irish by birth or descent and be male.  Candidates, who had to be proposed by an existing member, had to be certified fit for regular employment by the Branch Surgeon.  To be eligible for funeral benefit, the candidate’s wife also had to be examined by the surgeon.  Being a mutual-help society, the character of the candidate was also important and a dissolute or idle life were grounds for rejection.

Working women of course had the same problems and there were women’s branches in the late 1890’s.  The ‘Irish by birth or descent rule’ led to anomalies.  The INF got great support from local Catholic clergy but priests, such as Fr. Beyaert, after whom the Parkhead branch was called, were not Irish.  A proposed modification to the rule at the 1890 Annual Convention was defeated because of fear of loss of Irish leadership of the Society.

The 1884 benefit rates in the ‘Heart of Erin’ handbook were 10/6d for the first six months of inability to work due to sickness.  Dr John Conway, surgeon of ‘Branch O’Connell’, Calton,

emphasised the psychological as well as physical importance of not being forced back to work prematurely because of loss of wages.  For the next six months of illness, 6/- were payable and thereafter 4/- per week without a set time limit.  This was effectively a pension for men too ill for their normal work.  It is worth noting that no benefit was payable for self-inflicted, often alcohol-caused, harm.

The Glasgow Observer reported 270 payments of benefit by the Glasgow branches between January and June 1888.  From May 1887 to September1888 Branch ‘Wolfe Tone’ in Maryhill paid thirty-one benefit payments, two-thirds of which were for one week or less

Addressing Branch ‘Parnell’ in Bridgeton in April 1888, Dr Conway stressed that the advantages of membership went beyond material benefit  Making proper provision for ‘the evil day’ also made for independence and self-respect.  He noted the extensive membership of Benefit Societies among the Scottish working population and, in emulating them, the Irish community would ‘compel the respect of neighbours… irrespective of creed or nationality.’

Foresters were not isolated from the wider community and joined local celebrations such as galas.  Foresters’ processions were famous.  The ‘Irish Forester’s Gala’ in Blantyre was described in detail in the Glasgow Observer of 8th September 1888.  We are told that participants came from Glasgow, Motherwell, Hamilton, Kilsyth, Partick, Govan, Kinning Park, Coatbridge and other surrounding areas and ‘every second person wore a green sash or rosette’.  ‘Crowds of pedestrians came streaming in from the neighbouring towns and villages while from places at a distance special and ordinary trains arrived in rapid succession.’

The Glasgow contingent was accompanied by two brass bands.  Leading the body on horseback were men dressed in the Emmett costume which ‘gave to the procession quite a martial air’.  Colourful banners added to the spectacle and crowds of spectators lined the streets.

The 1880’s and 1890’s were a period of growth.  In 1887 and 1888 alone the Glasgow Observer refers to moves to establish branches in Bridgeton, Parkhead, Lochgelly, Falkirk, Loanhead, Renton and Denny.  Dr John Conway, in an address to ‘Branch O’Connell’ in April 1885, praised the work of benefit societies.  He made special mention of the INF who paid benefits equal to the other societies (save one unnamed society), but demanded substantially lower subscriptions.  The low subscription suggests that the target membership was drawn from the lower paid workforce and that this was a highly efficient operation.  James Shanks, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, asserted at the 1893 Annual Convention in Dundee that no other Benefit Society excelled the INF in efficient management.

Who were the members?  Records in the Scottish National Records and the National Census give employment information of 54 applicants to Branch ‘Sir Charles Russell’, Linlithgow, between 1890 and 1892, and 38 members in the Glasgow area from January to June 1888.  In Glasgow and Linlithgow the most common employment was labourer or miner and many of the workers responsible for machine minding and operating including retortmen (who operated shale extraction machinery) boiler-men, engine-men and gas workers.  In the Glasgow sample we find a higher percentage in skilled or semi-skilled trades such as joinery and bricklaying, blacksmithing and iron-moulding.  This might be explained by the higher number of branch officers and trustees in the sample.

In Glasgow and Linlithgow there are jobs as diverse as a quarryman, a mason, a calico printer, a paper manufacture worker, and a gardener (who was also described as a botanist).  In Linlithgow and particularly in Glasgow, the numbers of workers in the shop-based provision of retail and other services in notable; these include a draper and tailor, a butcher, boot and shoe makers, a hairdresser and a bookseller’s assistant.

Perhaps the best-known manifestation of the emerging self-confident entrepreneurialism within the Irish community at this time is Celtic Football Club.  No less than three of the first board of 1888 were also Trustees of Branch ‘O’Connell’ in Calton in 1890.  John Glass was a glazier who owned a builder’s business with his brother.  John O’Hara, a shoemaker, later a publican, was replaced in 1890 by James Quillan, a cooper with a business in Parkhead.  The other trustee was Dr Conway who was Celtic’s first honorary president.[i]  The fact that such diverse people from such different locations were members of the same association highlights the wide attraction of the INF.

The INF was a friendly society, not merely an insurance society. Members, while ensuring their own welfare, were also taking responsibility for the welfare of other members.  Visits to members on the sick list, for example, ensured proper payment but also maintained contact, as did the commitment to attend the funerals of members and their wives and to make these fitting occasions.  The members of Branch ‘Heart of Erin’ in the Cowcaddens collected a fund to pay off the dues of members who were behind because of unemployment.

Fraternity was expressed also in the symbols of the society: the sash was a symbol of membership.  It was a matter of pride and prestige to process behind the banner of the branch or to be elected to an office of the society.  Concerts, soirees and talks were regular features of INF, and the anniversary of the branch was a cause for celebration.

The Glasgow Observer in 1887 reported on the commissioning a banner from E M O’Grady of Dublin which required a special committee and fund.  It was of ‘finest Irish poplin’ and cost £25.  With the growth of the INF in Scotland, the Scots Foresters demanded more independence. The Central Office had insisted that regalia and administrative materials were purchased from Dublin.  The banner of Branch ‘Fr. McCluskey’ of Duntocher was created in 1897 locally by local artist William Donnelly of Old Kilpatrick.

The Irish community, while distinct, was not separated from the wider Scots community.  The INF, in common with other benefit societies, stressed their social contribution by reducing demand for rate-funded welfare.  Two events illustrate civic recognition of the INF and its members.  The 1890 Annual Convention was held in the City Halls in Glasgow, and the City Chamberlain welcomed delegates to view the then new City Chambers in George Square.  The attendance of the Lord Provost of Dundee at the banquet to celebrate the 1893 Annual Convention was seen as the seal of civic approval.

For photographs of an INF procession in Penicuik see the Scottish Cultural Resources website


There is a Pathe Newsreel from an INF procession in Dublin  in 1923 at


Joe Fodey is a retired librarian who worked with the historical Research Collections team at Glasgow Caledonian University. He was also involved in a number of historical projects in the east end of Glasgow.  His grandfather was a member of the INF Branch ‘William Collins’ in Strabane.  This article is based on a talk he gave to the Irish Heritage Foundation in Glasgow.  A longer version is due for publication in the Irish Voice newspaper.


[i] I would like to acknowledge Ian McCallum’s book “The Celtic, Glasgow Irish and the Great War: the gathering storms” as  a source of biographical information about the first Celtic Board.



Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.