Labhair Gaeilge
Gaeilgeoir - Irish Rights Are Civil Rights!
Gaeilgeoir – Irish Rights Are Civil Rights!

As Sinn Féin accuses the lacklustre Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition of abandoning key government demands during the recent talks between Ireland, Britain and regional parties in the north-east of the country, the BBC takes a look at one of the touchstone issues for northern nationalists and many others on this island nation: the Irish language.

“…why is the Irish language such a divisive issue between the largest power-sharing partners and the latest touchstone in Northern Ireland’s culture war?

This year’s nursery class at Beann Mhadagáin primary school in west Belfast contains some of the 5,000 or so children in Northern Ireland now educated entirely in Irish.

But in another part of Belfast, evening classes are under way. Not far from Stormont, locals are learning Irish in east Belfast.

An upsurge in numbers of Protestants learning Irish would not be surprising to students of history.

At the turn of the last century, Irish, although in decline, was seen as a language for all.

Partition prompted nationalists in Northern Ireland to embrace the language in greater numbers, according to the historian Diarmaid Ferriter.

“They felt completely abandoned by their southern counterparts, and in that sense there was more at stake for them when it came to the language,” he says.

The survival of the Irish language in west Belfast owes a lot to a pioneering project in the 1960s when a group of families decided to make the Shaw’s Road area into a Gaeltacht, an Irish speaking area.

A second wave of Northern Ireland’s lrish language revival movement occurred on another site – the Maze Prison.

As the campaign for political prisoner status escalated in the 1980s, learning the Irish language – in what became known colloquially as the Jailtacht – became a way for prisoners to set themselves apart from the prison officers.

Feargal MacIonnrachtaigh, whose father was interned in 1973, says republican prisoners would use the language as a means of both communication and resistance.

“People were inspired by this idea that you could reclaim your identity and you could go through a process of ‘reconquest’ in terms of the language,” he says.

Robin Stewart is a former loyalist paramilitary who is learning the language in east Belfast.

“Learning Irish isn’t going to make me a republican – in fact what it does is strengthen my own identity and lets me challenge republicans and their version of what Gaelic and Irish history is,” he says.

The classes he attends are run by Linda Ervine, a sister-in-law of the late Progressive Unionist Party leader, David Ervine.

The DUP’s Gregory Campbell remains unapologetic about remarks he made last month about the use of the language in the assembly by some Sinn Féin MLAs.

“I am offended each time, every single day that they abuse the Irish language,” he says.

Sinn Fein MLA Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, who is a prominent Irish language advocate, says: “It is deeply saddening that we have somebody who wants to use the Irish language as a stick with which to beat people.”

An Irish language act, aimed at helping to support and protect the language, could create an entitlement to use Irish in interactions with government bodies and a number of other services.

However, the actual proposals are not yet available and the minister responsible, Sinn Féin’s Carál Ní Chúilín, told Spotlight that she would bring an Irish language bill before the assembly in the New Year.

The issue is also one of the outstanding matters in the current round of talks.

In Northern Ireland less than 4% of the population is fluent, although over 10% say they have some ability in Irish.”

Meanwhile the determination of some British Unionist politicians to suppress and eliminate the indigenous language and culture of Ireland continues apace. There’s never a day off in the prosecution of ethnocide. From the Ulster Herald:

“A FRESH political row has broken out locally over the Irish language after the new Fermanagh and Omagh District Council approved a bilingual approach to branding.

The agreement reached last week by the shadow council will see the new supercouncil embrace both Irish and English on letterheads, signage and on vehicles such as bin lorries.

The proposal was backed by both Sinn Féin, the SDLP and independent councillor Bernice Swift (23-12), much to the ire of unionist members, who had backed a trilingual policy embracing Ulster Scots.

During the meeting, Sinn Féin stated that the party’s preferred position was using the Irish language only on signage, with agreeing to the inclusion of English as a compromise.

However Mid Tyrone Sinn Féin councillor Barry McNally said the party had received a significant lobby from a number of groups and individuals who wish to see the promotion of the Irish Language in the area.

“We felt that, in line with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML), this could be achieved and was certainly something we would support.”

Cllr McNally said part three of the ECRML included the Irish language, and called for ‘detailed undertakings to support and promote languages’.

“By adopting this bilingual policy we as a council have embraced this fully,” said the councillor.”

The North American Gaeltacht

In more positive news we have this (sometimes over-mystical) story from North America via Mint Press News:

“With their roots stretching back to a land oppressed by colonization, many Irish in North America are finding more in common with the native people of the continent as they work to breathe new life into the language of their homeland.

“Something extremely valuable was taken away from my family in a violent manner. If I don’t try to reclaim it, then it wasn’t very valuable to begin with,” said Dr. Aralt Mac Giolla Chainnigh, an astrophysicist at the Royal Military College of Canada and founder of the Permanent North American Gaeltacht, where the Irish language is spoken throughout the community and Irish traditions and culture are preserved.

Feeling that something was missing from his life, Mac Giolla Chainnigh began studying the language of his heritage about 25 years ago. He started out by buying a book and a tape, and he said it then became obvious that he needed to converse with fluent speakers.

“It ties together history and identification with ancestors,” he said. “There isn’t a more authentic identification than language. It embodies worldview and philosophy.”

Spearheaded by Mac Giolla Chainnigh, the network of Irish-speaking people purchased the 60-acre parcel of land in southeastern Ontario in September 2006, hoping to eventually establish a teaching center and residences there. Founded in 1826, the town of Tamworth was originally settled by Irish immigrants during the famine.

The Gaeltacht Cheanada (Canada’s Gaeltacht) opened on June 16, 2007. The opening ceremony was marked by speeches by Declan Kelly, then-Irish ambassador to Canada, representatives of Irish language education in North America and Ireland, and Éamon Ó Cuív, then-minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in Ireland.

Other speakers included representatives of Tyendinaga’s Mohawk language program and Comhaltas Ceóltoirí Éireann, a global group that promotes traditional Irish music.

Visitors and participants come from as far as Texas, New Jersey, California and British Columbia. They speak of ancestors who couldn’t bring with them the landscape of their homeland or many of their relatives, but they could keep their language and bring their music that carried remembrance of the sea and winds.

“They abandoned language and tradition to blend in, and learned English because survival depended on acquiring English,” said MacGiolla Chainnigh. “But pride in being Irish remained.”

He said the Gaeltacht language teachers meet with language groups among native peoples, who are also working toward revitalizing their languages and trying to pass them on to their children.

First Nations in Canada experienced the same assaults of forced boarding schools, which had been established by the government and run by missionaries, as the Native Americans and the children in Ireland.

“Students say they see a culture that belongs to them and they have a chance to take hold of it,” said Traolach O’Riordain, director of Irish Studies at the University of Montana. “They say, ‘We are Irish, we have a sense of being Irish, we feel there’s a language that isn’t being passed down to us.'”

Then-President of Ireland Mary McAleese visited with a $43,000 check from the Irish government to help launch the program in 2006. More than 400 college students and about 20 high school students are currently studying Irish language, history, culture, literature, dance or drama through the university.

In December 2006 the Irish government passed a 20-year strategy to help Ireland become fully bilingual, encouraging use of language in everyday life and in government meetings.

That same year, the Fulbright Commission in Dublin began supporting Irish language learning and teaching in the U.S. It was also designated as the coordinating body for Irish language learning in the U.S. by Ireland’s Department of Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht.

According to U.S. Census data, there are 39.6 million Americans who report tracing their ancestry to Ireland — almost seven times the entire 6.3 million population of Ireland.

Emma Loughney, administration officer of the Fulbright Commission in Dublin, Ireland, said the commission’s research identifies just over 50 third-level institutions and about 90 community-based groups that offer Irish language classes in the U.S.

“In addition to funding Fulbright Awards, the Commission funds 10 universities and several community groups,” Loughney said. “And to date, six U.S. students have received the U.S. Fulbright Award to post-graduate students fluent in Irish to complete a Master’s degree at an Irish university.”

Loughney said about 1,200 students were enrolled in Irish language classes in the U.S. during the 2013-2014 academic year through the Fulbright, up from 900 in the previous academic year. Participating U.S. institutions include University of Notre Dame, University of St. Thomas, University of Montana, Villanova, University of Connecticut, Catholic University, Elm’s College, University of Montana, Drew University, and New York University.

This year, 61 U.S. citizens from across the country were awarded grants to study Irish in Ireland’s Gaeltachtaí, including 41 undergraduates, postgraduates and professionals, and — for the first time ever — 20 secondary school students.

“The Gaeltacht Summer Awards scheme offers U.S. citizens an unparalleled immersion experience in Ireland,” said Loughney.”

15 comments on “Three Irish Tales

  1. Given that there are Scottish Gaelic speaking communities in Nova Scotia (Alba Nuadh), and even a Welsh speaking colony in Patagonia, it’s a little surprising given the massive emigration from Ireland to North America that no ‘natural’ Irish speaking communities ever seem to have formed back in the day.


    • Oz aka AmS

      It’s not surprising at all.
      In Ireland the Brits wouldn’t hire Irish speakers in Government jobs.
      Most Irish Mammies made their kids learn Irish..So as the kids would get jobs.
      Ergo speaking Irish was associated with poverty.
      When the Irish went to the USA, the British “Pilgrims” got there first.
      They protrayed the Irish as monkeys in a very infamous cartoon. Ergo. People of Irish descent were seen as third class citizens.
      It wasn’t until the American Civil war that the Irish got accepted.
      And by that time the British oppression in Ireland had done it’s job on the Gaelic speakers..And God alone knows how many Irish speakers would have been killed in the US civil war.
      So, like I say no surprise. Gaelic language was not fashionable in the USA.


    • the catholic church was very hostile to Irish. The reformed/protestant religions were much more positively disposed towards Gaelic. this probably contributed to the difference, at least a bit.


      • That’s certainly something I hadn’t thought of. It didn’t work for Italian-Americans, Spanish-Americans etc. but I suppose those languages were much stronger in any case. It seems a bit odd though, (although I don’t claim any detailed knowledge of the Catholic Church), because generally they like to keep their people in ignorance, e.g. burning people for translating the Bible and opposing literacy and debate amongst the laity compared to Protestants, so you’d think they be all for Irish. But then the first advantage the Irish got from Christianity was literacy, in (Old) Irish! For the time they were one of the most literate nations in Europe, probably this side of Byzantium. Would be interesting to look into when, how and why things turned around.


      • Why did the Irish follow the Roman Catholic Church if it was hostile to an important part of their identity?

        “The evil Brits” did not make them to do it – most of them were protestants.


        • Oz aka AmS

          Janis The British paid for the Catholic Church traininig college in Maynooth.
          So your “evil Brits ” argument is ill thought through.
          There was a Celtic Christainty in Ireland before the Roman church..But the Brits did away with it.
          So, the church in ireland was co opted by the Brits. He who pays the piper calls the tune and all that.
          Keep plugging away.


          • ar an sliabh

            It was Catholic nuns trying their bloody best to beat the Irish out of me back in the day. I didn’t really get that either. But then I don’t get the hostility to many things traditionally Irish in Ireland either. Is it so important to be British? Luckily, it appears more and more of the young folk are showing an interest in their Irish heritage now. It is almost like during that “little revival” period in the mid to late 80’s. Keep it going!


            • Oz aka AmS

              I regard the catholic church as suspect. When I was a kid..Having said that it was easy for me as I have; and, had at the time I was in school no interest in religion.
              The fact that the Brits paid for Maynooth is just the icing on the cake for me..You only have to compare Catholicism in France and Italy say to Ireland. To see the English stripe running through the Irish church i.e conserative and full of rules ( for others anyway- not for the priests/nuns )
              Fair play for you to survive that..By the time I was young the church was already on the wane although it still had some way to go.


              • ar an sliabh

                I was abandoned at a home for unwed mothers and unwanted children at a young age, so I was completely at their mercy. Aside from the occasional beatings for being too stupid to learn English, it was not all that bad, at least for me and as far as I can remember. One of the nuns was nice to me. I didn’t spend too much time there before I was adopted.


            • It was Catholic nuns trying their bloody best to beat the Irish out of me back in the day.
              This sounds like a great reason to become an atheist.
              I would never follow a movement or religion that was hostile to the Latvian language and identity.


              • ar an sliabh

                Maybe they thought it was necessary to free from that “mental disease,” and to “cure” me from my “backwardness”… I don’t know now and back then, I was really too young to understand all that. I wound up learning English much later. I never associated any of that with the actual religion. The secular pursuits of the church and the religion were always two entirely different things to me. Later when working with the poor and disadvantaged, I saw the benevolent side of the church and the religion.


              • Ar an sliabh, interesting. If you ever fancy writing up something on your experiences and publishing it as post here on ASF let me know. Always good to hear different voices.


          • Well I’m sure it was a lot more complicate that that. The Celtic Church came to an end with the Synod of Whitby, which was way way before there was any British Empire or colonisation of Ireland. The Irish missionaries working down from Scotland converting the pagan English, eventually came up against the Roman mission working its way north from Kent. After a lot of argument the Irish realised they were out of step with the all the rest of western Christianity (having developed in isolation for several centuries after the English invasions of Britain cut them off from Rome) and so gave in.

            When religion was serious power politics in W. Europe, a few centuries ago, the protestant English and Dutch were usually at war with catholic France and Spain, and for a long time it wasn’t clear who was going to come out on top. So the Irish presumably stuck with the catholic church partly because they were out on a limb, but probably mainly so as to gain support from catholic Europe against Britain.

            The Scottish highland were also catholic up until the ’45 afaik. They were then converted rather quickly and forcefully to an extreme form of Calvinism (basically if you enjoy something, then it’s clearly a sin). They destroyed much art and culture, bit like the Taliban, smashing musical instruments and statues etc. South Uist, Barra etc. are still Catholic though.


    • Marconatrix, the Irish experience of “assimilation” in the United States followed a slightly different path to that of other nationalities, largely due to the Anglo-American culture of 18th and 19th century North America, especially in terms of race and religion. Contrary to the popular stereotype, particularly as believed by the British since the 1700s, most Irish people in the United States quickly abandoned any sense of Irishness in order to survive, including their language (c.75% of Irish immigrants to the US in the 1800s were “Gaelic-speakers”). The controversial if still lauded publication “How the Irish became White” charts some of this. The effects of that period are still felt in the US.


      • ar an sliabh

        Until recently, most immigrants readily abandoned their native tongues in America. Many felt almost embarrassed to speak their language. This is still very apparent in immigrants dating back to the 50’s and 60’s, regardless of heir origin. After that, immigrants are almost insistent their language is spoken and understood.


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