Sunday, March 11, 2007

'Even the dogs bark in Irish': Fionntan de Brún's 'Belfast & the Irish Language'

This review appeared 30 May 2006 in The Blanket, the West Belfast-based online project for which I have been writing reviews since its founding over five years ago. You can link to this site from my blog's home page.

Cliché: a man on Belfast street listens to the hounds. They find more than one ear cocked in this collection of essays edited by Fionntán de Brún. Loyalists fearing native incursions repeat fears that the dogs themselves will revert to Irish, not only their Gaelic masters. As for the non-canine contingent, those not only native but many planted, of course, once spoke Irish and learn it today. This volume efficiently but thoroughly documents the fortunes of Irish throughout Belfast's eras.

Recent research has explored uses of Irish in the North so that the editor's wish for 'study of census figures' has already been undertaken. (14) Chapter 6 (pp. 134-171) of Diarmuit Mac Giolla Chríost, in The Irish Language in Ireland (London: Routledge, 2005), synthesises 1991 and 2001 census data. He finds, among many intriguing details, that females more than males identify with the language 'as part of their cultural identity'. (MGC 164) Females with advanced technical and managerial occupations supply many of the region's younger Irish-speakers, the 1991 data suggested; however, 'males in particular are over-represented in the class "No Paid Job in Last Ten Years'".(MGC 145) Has this situation changed in the last fifteen years?

The final essay in this collection, Seán Mistéil's 'The Gaeltacht Quarter', affirms optimism. He envisions how Belfast could follow William Morris' ideal to 'create commercial value from cultural wealth'. (191) Like Temple Bar in Dublin, a district (he does not locate where but implies West Belfast) could by signage, cultural centres, businesses, and schools entice and endure - Mistéil proposes - as a magnet for Northern urban Irish speakers. His scheme illustrates how visionary the youngest proponents (he was born in 1964 and raised in 'Gaeltacht Bhóthar Seoighe' his note says) have grown - as among thousands raised in Ulster's original language.

While any city dweller might guess the meaning of Béal Feirste as 'the mouth of a farset', what is a farset? Patrick McKay explains in 'Belfast place-names and the Irish language' how the city takes its name not (as is often erroneously assumed) from the river Farset under today's High Street, but from where the river's name derives: fearsaid: sandbank ford - that across the Lagan joining Down to Antrim. His essay explains the townlands of Belfast. How many readers have seen a map of these? Subsiding under today's districts, the old - often rural - toponyms ghost today's built environment. McKay provides each townland's etymology and appends a gazetteer of bilingual street names allowed under a Local Government 1995 order. He concludes by reminding urbanites that postal addresses now can restore townlands as well as numbered streets. Even those in the city may be able to add the ancient names underlying their current residences.

Belfast was settled by Irish speakers, but after 1603, the Plantation drove away most of its indigenous inhabitants. Aódan MacPóilin examines the state of Irish up to the 18th century. Its placenames exist as a 'palimpsest' but they were understood by fewer locals. Still, the language kept a tenuous hold in the countryside. First from evangelicals, and then sponsors of the 1792 Harp Festival, Irish recovered respect. Antiquarians feted bards. Stories and songs were transcribed by smitten scholars. (I note in passing that five out of these ten harpists were blind.)

A.J. Hughes in two lengthy essays recounts its revivalists. Robert MacAdam-whose name graces half of the Culturlann-lived from 1808 to 1895. That is, through the antiquarian enthusiasm that as Romanticism restored to the European elite's attention rural lore MacAdam was raised; he died the year the city's Gaelic League began amidst a second cultural revival. Both bookend the 19th century; both movements were funded and perpetuated by the Protestant gentry. Soho Foundry's profits allowed MacAdam his family's income to underwrote song collection in the Glens of Antrim. James MacDonnell, born there, was from a family who had hosted Art O'Neill, harpist at the Festival; MacDonnell wrote its P.R. circular. Patrick Lynch, an itinerant teacher of Irish, tried at the 'Inst' to conduct classes; his blurb predicted that within three or four months fluency could be attained sufficient for a gentleman to enter conversations with a Gaelic speaker while finally freeing the former from worry that the latter's employment of the ancient vernacular was a popular subterfuge to cheat the 'quality' when transacting business.

William Neilsen capitalised on such practicality for learning Irish. The North's countryside could scarcely be traversed, he reminded potential students, without Irish; besides, this Presbyterian minister cherished 'the beauties of one of the most expressive, philosophically accurate, and polished languages that has ever existed.' (qtd. 52) Hughes investigates the eloquent champions of the 19th century language revival. In 1830, they formed the Ulster Gaelic Society under mainly Protestant impetus and guidance. Enmeshed within religious battles with Catholics over proselytising in Irish to rural folk, the revivalists and the preachers both believed that - even as the Famine attacked its bastions- ability in Irish remained a necessity for educated Northerners. But after the Gaelic League assembled its Ulster branch in 1895, such ecumenism ended. Sectarian and political divisions segregated the learners of Irish behind nationalist militants.

Up until 1980, de Brún uncovers in the next essay, descendants of native speakers of Irish on Falls Road continued as fruit vendors - a profession brought by their families as far back as 1856 from Omeath, where the bardic heritage echoed from medieval Oriel. These speakers were known in Belfast as 'Fadgies' from the vocative mode of address: 'A Pháidí'. In Smithfield and Marquis Street (now part of Royal Avenue), this community linked natives with learners such as Seán MacMaoláin; MacMaoláin in turn led Irish's municipal revival in the mid- 20th century. Each generation, then, a few families raised their children in Irish. His memoir, I mBéal Feirste Domh (1942) recounts these decades.

With the Gaelic League, sectarianism prevented the promotion of Irish outside of a few Catholic enclaves. In 1895, P.T. McGinley hosted the inaugural meeting of the League in Belfast. Unionists joined. By 1912, the IRB elbowed them out. In 1913, McGinley - as 'Cú Uladh' (Ulster's hound) - asserted: 'It is because of the spirit of nationalism that so many of the people of Ireland learning [sic] Irish and having their children learn Irish. And they have that right.' (qtd. 121) Meanwhile, 'ordinary people are not interested in these things' - they are not scholars, for mastering Irish proves neither easy nor relaxing.

Republicans dominated the 20th century control of Irish. Those Protestants determined to learn it were not welcomed by either camp. Aódan MacPóilin in this chapter scrutinises the survival of Belfast Irish from 1892 up to 1960. After the statelet's establishment, ironically the separation of the political from the cultural that Douglas Hyde sought for Conradh na Gaeilge reified itself in the North. After partition, under a regime hostile to nationalism, those promulgating Irish had to retreat towards a more idealistic rationale. Since the recovery of a Gaelicised Ulster was impossible, efforts to revive Irish energised these grassroots if marginalised community-based efforts. Although this volume distances itself from the political realms of the language (cf. Camille O'Reilly's 1999 book [endnote]), the role played by IRA prisoners who came out of jail able to communicate in Irish gains attention.

I was delighted to read more about Tarlach Ó hUid (born in Deptford as Terence Hood) who left Crumlin Road's confines determined not to let the 1940s anti-IRA crackdown interfere with his adventures. Even among the ranks of notable eccentrics who as Republican volunteers have not meekly served their time, Ó hUid's idiosyncracies - he wrote two memoirs in Irish - stand out. Imagine including in War News such 'useful sentences in Irish' as 'throw the hand grenade' and 'aim the rifle at him.' (qtd. 133) Non-sectarian, Social Credit advocate, English Greenshirt, briefly converted to Catholicism, adult learner, and bomb-maker, Ó hUid perches as a progenitor once removed of many in Belfast who can trace their own fluency to a prison stint. While hard to independently verify, in his account Faoi Ghlas ('Locked', 1985) Ó hUid claims that a Gaelic Society was started in jail in 1941 by ten men able to speak Irish; by the next year seventy-five prisoners conversed thus; in 1945 the fluent numbered in the hundreds.

Another agitator, Cathal McCrystal, suffered for his non-sectarian Gaelic leftism. MacPóilin shows how separatist the Northern advocates could become. The Clonard branch of the League, started in 1936, thrived so that its members sought to create an 'English-free zone' by 1953, inspired by activists determined to save the Gaeltacht. Cumann Cluain Ard fought with Comhaltas Uladh (which itself in 1926 had split off from the League; republican Fr Lorcan Ó Muiredhaigh proposed an independent Northern organisation, supported by Seán MacMaoláin). This intentional provincialism, even by those committed to Irish, demonstrates a repeated tendency for the Northern speakers of Irish to rally around their surviving Donegal dialect.

Northerners sought to preserve and renew their version of the language apart from the strong pull from the 26 Counties, especially after 1922. Clonard's linguistic holdouts debated those on the political front, who rose to power by promising to aid Gaelic only to betray their vows once elected. Trade unionist and fervent but stubborn Catholic, McCrystal went to the USSR in 1955 and praised the Soviet treatment of women. Therefore he was fired from his twenty-year editorship of An tUltach, denounced from pulpits, and removed from Comhaltas Uladh. While he may have exaggerated his exile, his freethinking showed the risks courted by those who opposed clerical and political pieties. In later years, another tongue also tempted his allegiance: he conspicuously would sit in his pew at Sunday mass- brandishing a Russian-language missal.

Gabrielle Nic Uighir (as Maguire) in 1991 published 'Our own language', the first academic study of West Belfast's linguistic struggles for legitimacy during the Troubles. She surveys the Shaw's Road Gaeltacht, started in the mid-60s by half a dozen families. Now, it reigns as the largest urban community of Irish speakers; its pioneering dynamism, however, has not spurred settlement of Irish speakers over the rest of the city or the North. West Belfast spins centifugal rather than centripetal force when the energy of Irish is measured. This may account for Seán Mistéil's supposition that any future Gaeltacht must build upon that already formed into An Bhóthar Seoighe, with its infrastructure of schools, housing, committed families determined to nourish anew a nursery and a garden for Irish in the 21st century city.

Yet, can such a seed truly flourish in a soil still inhospitable to many Protestants who wish to learn Irish? Gordon McCoy presents bluntly exclusive reality vs. inclusive rhetoric. Republican Movement chauvinism - the Cause glowers over the language revival to fend off other suitors - repels many potential students across sectarian and neighborhood divides in Belfast. McCoy observes: 'During the conflict Irish speakers appeared more strident in Irish and more conciliatory in English.' (151) I add an addendum in support of McCoy's claim: in the 2001 guide Fáilte Feirste Thiar/ Welcome to West Belfast, 'nationalist murals' described on p. 24 pose a markedly more revolutionary attitude in detailed Irish, compared to prim English terseness.

McCoy offers quotes from interviews with young Protestants, testimonies from learners, motivations that tempted learners, fears that learners evoked from nationalists and loyalists, and a century of Protestant linguistic intersections at 'sectarian interfaces'. His essay, disturbing in this mild-mannered collection, defies the barrier behind the bunting. Ultach Trust works to bridge the perceived gap between Gaelic Irish and Ulster Scots pride. UVF and Red Hand Commandoes have incorporated Irish language phrases into iconography; some Loyalist prisoners have learned a bit of Irish in prison. RUC and PSNI recruits likewise have studied Irish. But these efforts meet with suspicion from both sides. Nationalists, McCoy concludes, gain positive attributions by their ties to the Irish language; loyalist learners receive negative reactions.

Few Protestants learn Irish in local school, despite the efforts of activists; Irish-medium education, as Seán MacCorraidh reveals - although he avoids any mention of sectarianism - thrives within Catholic Belfast's enclaves. Still, he notes the early example of Cumann Cluain Ard in attracting learners from throughout the city; more study of the cross-community nature of those educated through Irish would have been welcome in his short essay that blends his own experience as a teacher with a statistical summary of nursery, primary, and secondary enrollments. Community support, as Nic Uighir also finds, invites families with passive, limited, or no knowledge of Irish slowly into the vision that those more adept have framed; this blend of learners at young ages with their parents at all levels of fluency provides a generous opportunity.

Finally, we edge back near where we started, with Mistéil's hope of a Gaeltacht that prospers not only within homes and schools but in public, as visual as well as verbal expression. Fulfillment of this dream generated by Mistéil and his peers - as the first generation substantially raised bilingually and educated in Irish - demands a third revival. One shortcoming of this book: it neglects any mention of Belfast's most prominent writer, one raised solely in Irish, as he claims, until the age of ten. Ciarán Carson, poet in verse and prose in English, translator of Irish among other tongues, merits mention as one who, a decade before Shaw's Road, blazed a lonely path until recently rarely roamed within Belfast - many more follow his direction now.

These Irish speakers circle the city back to its mediaeval nomenclature and out to its most cosmopolitan visionaries, a trail that tracks its course not by intervening English but spirals of indigenous Irish.

Camille O'Reilly, 'The Irish language in Northern Ireland: the politics of culture and identity'. (Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan, 1999). A notable omission from works cited by the collective contributors: Lisa Goldenberg's M.A. thesis, published as: 'The Symbolic Significance of the Irish Language in the Northern Ireland Conflict' (Dublin: Columba P, 2003). For a comparison by a Derry city native speaker (born in the Donegal Gaeltacht): Pádraig Ó Mianáin, 'Passing the Torch to the Next Generation.' In Ciarán MacMurchaidh, ed. '"Who Needs Irish?" Reflections on the Importance of the Irish Language Today'. (Dublin: Veritas, 2003) Pp. 113-122.

No comments: