THE YEAR 2006 was yet another eventful year for the Irish language in Belfast and Northern Ireland. International media outlets focused considerable attention on the arrest and ongoing trial of Ms. Maire Nic an Bhaird, a twenty-four year old school teacher and former student of Sinn Fein M.E.P. Bairbre de Brun, by the newly formed Police Service of Northern Ireland. The arresting officer claimed Ms. Nic an Bhaird was guilty of "disorderly behavior" while her supporters claimed she was victimized for speaking Irish in public. On appearing in court, Nic an Bhaird insisted her case be heard through the medium of Irish as the 1998 Belfast Agreement recognizes the Irish language and allows for some usage in official events. The case, currently undergoing judicial review, may well signpost the language's future in Northern Ireland. Readers of Aodan Mac Poilin's informative essay in Belfast and the Irish Language will experience a sense of deja vu and find similarities between the current controversy and past events in Northern Ireland. Despite the inclusive and eclectic membership of Belfast's first branch of the Gaelic League--Catholic and Protestant bishops, Presbyterian moderators, liberal unionists Grand Masters of the Orange Order, and misplaced Kerrymen--the language, however, soon lost its ecumenical appeal and became a divisive issue. Not surprisingly, therefore, Eamon de Valera on addressing a Belfast judge in the purest Munster Irish in 1928 was held in contempt of court and imprisoned for a month.
For anyone interested or indeed puzzled by the circumstances surrounding the roles, functions and status of the Irish language in Northern Ireland, Belfast and the Irish Language, edited by Fionntan de Brun, is an appropriate starting point. It is an easy-to-read, broad ranging presentation of Irish language politics, sociolinguistics and culture in Belfast. Ten essays, varying in length and style, cover the history of the language in the North's primary city from medieval times to the present day. Editor Fionntan de Brun, a lecturer in Irish at Saint Mary's University College, Belfast who authored the excellent Seosamh Mac Grianna: An Mhein Ruin (2002), explains in his introduction that Belfast and the Irish Language focuses on the language once it "ceased to function as the everyday language of social interaction and exchange in the Belfast area but was instead vested with a new significance as part of the cultural inheritance of the Irish people, a thing to be consciously regarded and located within the discourse of culture and politics, a language that many felt bound to preserve and to revive." Mac Poilin's essay on the Irish language movement in Belfast in the period 1892-1960 links the two key concentrations in this collection: contemporary Belfast (four essays) and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Belfast (three essays). These essays are preceded by Patrick McKay's overview of Belfast place-names where the reader learns that the first documented reference to Belfast occurs in the Annals of Ulster in 668 AD. While the author admits that this work builds on the existing scholarship it is nevertheless a useful and instructive guide for anyone interested in the city's place-names. A.J. Hughes contributes two essays, both of which center on Robert "Shipboy" MacAdam, (1805-1895) a Belfast Presbyterian who became a successful industrialist and important contributor to Belfast's cultural life. With MacAdam as a focus, Hughes depicts the cultural and intellectual life of nineteenth-century Belfast by unraveling MacAdam's impressive network of contacts, colleagues and confidants, among whom were: Edward Bunting, William Neilson and John O'Donovan. Those whose interest is sparked by these essays will find much more of interest in Hughes' 1998 edition of Shipboy MacAdam's collection of proverbs. Fiontan de Brun's study of the Fadgies in nineteenth-century Belfast is an original and stimulating piece of detective work. The suggestion that an Irish-speaking colony existed within Belfast is, as he states, "intriguing because, if true, it represents a direct link to the present-day Irish language revival and, particularly, to the establishment of an urban Gaeltacht, even if it transpires that this link is more symbolic than material." Based on folk memory, census returns, and Sean Mac Maolain's autobiography Glann Airbh go Glas Naion, he traces this bilingual colony of shop-traders from their origins in the Omeath area of County Louth to Charlemont Street and Black's Lane. Ironically the dispersal of the Charlemont Street Irish-speakers occurred at the same time as the Gaelic League established a branch in Belfast.
Aodan Mac Poilin's essay covers the years 1892 to 1960. Detailed and informative, it charts Irish affairs in twentieth-century Belfast and lends support to the argument that a series of such micro-histories of the Gaelic League in towns and cities may more beneficial that grand, but over-reaching, histories of the organization. Bridging the gap from the glorious era of Belfast as a thriving industrial city with an intellectual and cultural heart unbridled by sectarianism and strive, this essay chronicles the transformation from early days of the Revival to the emergence of "a Protestant State for Protestant people." The final four essays focus on late twentieth-century and contemporary issues. Sean Mac Corraidh provides an overview of Irish-immersion education at kindergarten, elementary, high-school levels and traces the struggles endured by parents and teachers to finance and sustain these voluntary efforts until State backing became available. In "Protestants and the Irish language in Belfast" anthropologist Gordon McCoy continues his groundbreaking research on Protestant attitudes towards Irish-speakers and learning Irish in Belfast and beyond. The importance, both symbolically and materially, of the Shaw's Road project, established in West Belfast, in the late 1960s, strikes the reader repeatedly. This urban Gaeltacht is the topic of Gabrielle Nig Uidhir's essay on the pioneering families that desired an Irish-language community for their children and this urban Gaeltacht community inspired and continues to inspire generations of Irish-language activists and enthusiasts across Belfast and beyond. In the final essay Sean Misteil considers Irish to be "a raw material of a significant cultural capital" and optimistically describes plans to foster urban renewal and regenerate a part of the city as a Gaeltacht Quarter similar to Dublin's Temple Bar that will "maximize the economic opportunities provided by a growing cluster of Irish language and culture-based enterprises." While rejuvenation is to be welcome, recreating Temple Bar in Belfast may not be the wisest of ideas given the problems and anti-social behavior associated with the Dublin site.
Belfast and the Irish Language has two primary merits that stand out. It offers an accessible and sympathetic insight into con temporary trends and projects in present-day Belfast and provides an English-language summary to much of O Buachalla's I mBeal Feirste Cois Cuain (1968). This work, cited over sixty times in this collection, remains the crucial text for any study of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century Belfast. While some of these essays have appeared in print previously, the editor is to be commended on collating them and providing an accurate index. An essay on literary production in Belfast would have been a bonus, but the extensive bibliography acts as an important check list for Irish Studies bibliographers and scholars seeking further information. The twenty-seven photographs include Orange Order banners, loyalist murals with Irish language mottos and the 1892 Ulster Unionist Convention featuring the slogan "Erin go Brach" are also noteworthy. Belfast and the Irish Language will appeal to those interested in the nineteenth-century Celtic revival, Protestants and the Irish language, and the changing cultural landscape in posted Friday Agreement Belfast. If the Good Friday Agreement delivers the peace, prosperity and mutual respect, Belfast and the Irish Language will be as a valuable reminder to future generations of the hardships and sacrifices endured by others to secure this heritage. Should the future be less positive, however, these essays may inspire Irish-speakers to continue struggling, believing and hoping.
--University of Notre Dame
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|Title Annotation:||Belfast and the Irish Language|
|Publication:||Irish Literary Supplement|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
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