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Irish In Belfast, Not The Full Story

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There’s an interesting if at times clichéd article on the Irish-speaking community of Belfast in the Economist magazine. While it makes several valid points in relation to the growth of Irish in the city there are also some quite debatable ones, including the claim that official backing in the north-east of the country for the right to use Irish could adversely affect its popularity. In fact the example of Ireland’s 2003 Official Languages Act as well as numerous international comparisons have long proved that language rights are inextricably linked to legal rights. One cannot exist without the other. The feature also glosses over the determined opposition of the political leadership of British Unionism in Ireland to the very existence of the Irish language let alone those who speak it. No mention is made of the racist and colonial-era roots of that opposition nor that the British state itself impedes the rights of Irish-speakers, including banning the use of Irish in the locally administered court-system in violation of Britain’s agreements with Ireland and the European Union.

“THE fabric of Coláiste Feirste, a secondary school on a hill overlooking the Falls Road in the Catholic heartland of West Belfast, ranges from faded elegance to decrepitude. Tagged on to the main building, an 18th-century linen-merchant’s mansion, are concrete classrooms. Dilapidated mobile homes are parked in a huge yard. There are no sports fields. Chemistry is taught in a store-room, drama in the foyer of the technology department; 563 pupils are being educated in space designed for 380, yet their performance is well above average for an all-ability school.

The principal, Micheál Mac Giolla Ghunna, is not your average tweedy pedagogue. Like many of the school’s parents and governors, he is a veteran of Northern Ireland’s armed struggle. He took his second degree, in political science, in prison; on his release he became head of the cultural arm of Sinn Féin. Once the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, Sinn Féin is now a partner in the uneasy power-sharing arrangement between pro-British and Irish-nationalist parties in the province.

Another unusual feature is the medium of instruction and conversation in the school—Irish, an Indo-European language as distant from English as Lithuanian. Maths, physics, film studies, all subjects are taught in Irish; when a class debates the 19th century, pupils talk not of independence but of neamhspleáchas, not of laws but of reachtaíocht.

Coláiste Feirste is the showpiece of a drive to revive a language whose use in everyday speech virtually died out in Northern Ireland in the mid-20th century.

…Since peace and the devolution of power, the status of the language has changed dramatically. Across Northern Ireland nearly 5,000 children receive Irish-medium education. That is still less than 2% of the total school population—but the figure understates the profile and political muscle that Irish-medium teaching enjoys. Two of Belfast’s past three lord mayors have been Sinn Féin activists associated with the school.

The project has an economic as well as a cultural rationale. Clive Dutton, an English pundit on urban renewal, recently presented the latest version of his plan to turn the Falls Road into a tourist magnet based on Irish language and culture to a gaggle of VIPs at the school. In this vision, the battle-scarred streets of West Belfast would became a “Gaeltacht Quarter”, where businesses would operate as happily in Irish as in English.

The language’s proponents intend to go further. They want to see an Irish Language Act, similar to the Welsh Language Act of 1993, which would create fresh entitlements to use Irish in all interactions with officialdom; like the Welsh law, it would force the creation of many more jobs for fluent speakers. The British government had agreed in principle to such a law but since devolved government was restored in 2007, the measure has been vetoed by Sinn Féin’s coalition partners, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Despite that logjam, both supporters and sceptics freely acknowledge that there is now huge momentum behind the language movement.

Mr Mac Giolla Ghunna insists that Irish-language education is not sectarian. In his establishment, secular leftism, not piety, defines the mood. Red stars, not crucifixes, adorn the wall; pupils do not begin the day with prayers. There are parents of many backgrounds, from lapsed Catholics to lapsed Protestants to migrants.

Most other Irish-medium schools are similarly secular, and in principle a child of any background could attend one.

Irish has flourished in Belfast through years of opposition and hardship. Now it has official backing and resources. That sounds a blessing but may prove a greater challenge: warm air can breed complacency.”

As always read the full article for yourself but it certainly dodges the hard questions on the hostility to the Irish language from within the political elites of British Unionism on this island nation, hostility that stems from far deeper roots than disingenuous concerns about supposed “sectarianism” in the education system.

3 comments on “Irish In Belfast, Not The Full Story

  1. Yes indeed, I also examined Unionist opposition to the Irish Language Act – it’s not a pretty story.
    I doubt if the Economist’s argument “Give them their Irish Language Act and watch all interest disappear. They’re just pushing it to rile you” will ever convince the DUP/UUP.
    I don’t think anything or any argument ever would – so Irish language enthusiasts should just push on regardless.


    • I tend to agree though it would be good to see the British government taking more of a lead in promoting/funding Irish language classes in the “PUL” community, separate from any Irish or joint governmental input. That would be one way to allow those with an interest to be involved without feeling quite so self-conscious about it.


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