01 June 2006

BOOKS - Understanding the development of Irish in Belfast

Daily Ireland

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usThere is a theory doing the rounds that the future caighdean oifigiuil in Irish will be determined in Belfast. Two generations ago people used to learn Munster Irish.
The centre of gravity switched to Connacht sometime in the 1950s when nobody was looking, and was firmly implanted there with the establishment of TG4, while Donegal seized the stage in Irish language song.
The fervour which kept the Irish language alive is recorded by the ten contributors to Fionntan de Brún’s new book on the Irish language tradition in Belfast.
“All the early teaching of Irish in Belfast was Munster Irish. One of the first teachers in the Ardscoil was Gearóid Ó Núallain, Myles na gCopeleen’s uncle, and even though he had grown up in Belfast he taught Munster Irish,” says de Brún.
“It was very hard to get published material in anything except Munster Irish.
“As late as the 1930s there were protests that Belfast boys were being taught Munster Irish in the schools.”
Customs and excise men from Cork, Kerry and Limerick lead the language revival at the beginning.
“The first Irish speaking family to fill in the census form in 1901 saying all their children spoke only Irish was a family from Limerick whose father was a customs and excise man and their servant from Kerry,” says de Brún.
“PT McGinley from Donegal was a customs and excise man, as was Pédraig Ó Sé from Kerry. It was a self help movement, and remained so as the Stormont government did everything in its power to stifle the Irish language movement.”
Belfast has an image of a dark industrial city with a utilitarian ethos and people clung on to a cultural revival as an antidote to that. Even back in the 18th century Robert McAdam was a great collector of manuscripts.
A lot of the Irish literary tradition, songs, stories and history was collected by McAdam.
Here was a classic Belfast protestant industrialist with his own iron foundry, and this was his passion, cultural revival and cultural antiquarianism.
In 1795 when Bolg an tSoláir, the first Irish language magazine, was published in Belfast by the Northern Star. MacAdam had plans for the first Irish language newspaper in the mid nineteenth-century, now we have Lá, an Irish language daily published in Belfast - not to mention the Daily Ireland and The Irish News' Irish pages.
There really hasn't been a time when the Irish language has not been a central part of the life of Belfast.
When you hit the 20th century you have a group in a working class area of the Falls Road running a small university ignored by the states.
Even the strong pre-independence protestant Irish speaking tradition managed to survive. R R Kane, the Orange Grand master and organiser of the first convention to oppose Home Rule, was a member of the Gaelic League, and an early banner inscribed Erin go Brágh indicates “that part of unionist tradition saw regional identity,” according to de Brún.
Fionntan grew up in North Belfast living off the Crumlin Road and then the Antrim Road.
He graduated form Queens in 1992 with a degree in Irish and French and taught in St Mary’s for the past eight years, moving to Coleraine in the autumn to teach Irish literature and Irish language.
“I was inspired to put together a collection of essays on the history of the Irish language mostly because I was sure the Irish language had featured prominently in the history of Belfast from its earliest roots as a settlement down to the present day,” he says.
“I was eager to see how the story would develop and what the overall picture would look like.
“I think it is important at this time, with Belfast undergoing major change, that people are aware of the place of the Irish language in the city's history and culture.”

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