FROM the foundations of the first urban Gaeltacht on the Shaws Road and the establishment of the first bunscoil in the North in 1971, many West Belfast names and faces come to mind when we reflect on the campaign for the Irish language revival.
There have been milestones along the journey for language rights from the foundation of Bunscoil Phobal Feirste in 1971 and Meánscoil Feirste in 1991 to more recent achievements with the Irish language legislation passing in Westminster and becoming an official law.
Looking back over the last 50 years, there is much pride to be felt at the achievements of Irish language activists and pioneers – and it’s not over yet. The veritable renaissance of An Ghaeilge in Belfast began with a vision that the pioneers of the Irish language community had to make the Irish language accessible within the community.
This started with the houses scheme on the Shaws Road in 1969, building the foundation for what would later become known as the Shaws Road Gaeltacht. A plot of land was bought, five families moved in – and a small seed grew into a revolution. Speaking with the Andersonstown News recently, residents Seán Mac Seáin and Máire Mhic Sheáin told the story of how it all began.
“I went to the Cumann Chluain Ard to learn Irish as it was the language of the country. I was 19 at this point, we weren’t raised with it,” says Seán.
“It brought young people together outside of the classroom. We were all very rusty. The people who were teaching at that time, the men and women, they gave you every help and you never felt out of place. This is where I met Máire.
“The simple thing about it was, we enjoyed it, meeting other young people. Sixty years later, we still see each other, the ones out of us that are left.”
Máire learned Irish at school and then went to summer college in the Rann na Feirste Gaeltacht of Donegal. "I fell in love with the Gaeltacht in Donegal," she recalls.
“I was living beside Cluain Ard when I went to the classes and met Seán. There was a mixture of young people and we met together and we’re friends to this day. There was a strong spirit from the people who came before us. There were always people in Belfast with a plan for the Irish language but they were living in streets where the other people didn’t have any Irish.
“So, the thought came that it would be nice if families were together and that children could speak together and play together. As the kids grew older, we wanted them to have an education through the medium of the Irish language. So, a start was made on a school.”
Established in 1971, Bunscoil Phobal Feirste was the North’s first ever Gaelscoil, founded by the group of visionary parents. Beginning with nine children, the school now has a total of 427 pupils more than half a century later, making it the largest Bunscoil in the North.
Today, there are more than 7,000 pupils in Irish-medium education in the North. “We were lucky that we had the women, and they had their teaching and a high level of education and honestly that is what helped the most with the school,” says Seán. “We started in 1971, and we didn’t have a penny and we went out and raised the money and that was heavy enough.”
Máire adds: "The parents were very good. They went out and raised money during St Patrick’s Day, during Easter, events like that. They went to the championship games, and they raised money outside of the GAA games. The GAA were very good as well because when the school started off, they provided rooms for the preschool.
“It was incredible the way the community came together and the people who didn’t have any Irish. That spirit was always there even though they didn’t have Irish, they had respect for the Irish. And they had respect for people who had Irish among the general community. People wanted to help and we were very grateful for that.”
Since it opened its doors in 1991, Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich has been at the heart of the Irish language community, as important today as it was 30 years ago. The former Broadway Presbyterian Church on the Falls Road is named after Presbyterian businessman and Gaelic revivalist Robert Shipboy MacAdam and Gaelic scholar Cardinal Tómas Ó Fiaich.
The cultural community hub originally opened its doors to home the pupils of Meánscoil Feirste, the first Irish-medium secondary school in the North. Like the Bunscoil, Meánscoil Feirste began with nine pupils. Known as Coláiste Feirste today, the school grew in numbers and has a new home in Beechmount with almost 1,000 pupils. It is the biggest independent Irish language secondary school in Ireland.
Gearóid Ó Cairealláin, who co-founded An Chultúrlann, also founded Raidió Fáilte, which aired from the old Presbyterian church, and Aisling Ghéar, the Irish language theatre group. The Irish language daily newspaper Lá also worked within An Chultúrlann at that time.
Lá (launched in August 1984) is renowned as the first daily newspaper in Ireland to be published in Irish. Its successor An Lá Nua was a sister paper of the Andersonstown News until it ceased publication in 2008.
Ceardlann Amhránaíochta ar an tSean-nós le Seamus Ó Flatharta— Raidió Fáilte (@raidiofailte) December 28, 2022
Satharn 25ú & Domhnach 26ú Feabhra 2023, 10:00-13:00 pic.twitter.com/a05ZtBurll
Fergus Ó hÍr, another revered figure in the Irish language movement, helped to set up Meánscoil Feirste, becoming its first principal. He was also involved in the establishment of Raidió Fáilte which became the first legal Irish language radio station in the North. “I was the first principal of that school so there was a lot to do to pull it together and there was no funding. We started the school in the Cultúrlann.
"There was a café there and the Ceathrú Póilí bookshop and the newspaper Lá, all working within the same building,” says Fergus. “In the end, the school grew and grew, and we received funding after five years and then moved to where the school is now.
"Everything grew from the schools and Coláiste Feirste as it is now, Meánscoil Feirste as it was then, giving it that turbo speed ”
Fergus' involvement in the radio was a natural progression, he said.
“Media is needed so that people can discuss things together and to share their stories and put them out there. An effort was made to start the radio station, so when I left the Meánscoil I came directly into the radio to press that on. We began in the Cultúrlann and we moved to the Twin Spires and then we moved to our own building on Divis Street where we are now.”
Coláiste Feirste: Belfast Irish medium school to expand by 50%https://t.co/FnUpUAEqVo— Ciarán MacAirt (@ciaranmacairt) October 19, 2019
Máire Nic Fhionnachtaigh, a co-founder of Lá, remains as prominent a figure within Raidió Fáilte today as she did when it all began many years ago.
“I moved to Belfast to attend university and I met a lot of people who were involved in the Irish language movement at the time," she recalls. "There was a lot going on with the media with Preas an Phobail and Lá. I spent a time with the paper and then when the paper moved people were needed in the café in the Cultúrlann.
“I spent a lot of time working in the Cultúrlann and then myself and Fergus started together in with the radio in 2006. We got legality in September 2006 and I have been with the radio ever since."
Looking back on the growth and the revival of the Irish language over 50 years in West Belfast, many would agree that it can only be described as a revolution.
Today, there are 28 Irish language primary schools in the North, two post-primary schools and a further 10 Irish medium units attached to English-medium host schools. Seven are primary and three are post-primary.The Irish language is growing in every part of the North.
As the campaign continues for the implementation of the Irish language legislation in the absence of an Executive, the mantra popularised by Gaeltacht Bhóthar Seoighe founder Séamus Mac Seáin remains as relevant today as it was 50 years ago – 'Ná habair é, déan é'.