WHEN Ireland was on the rack, the dispossessed would find succour in the intrepid tales of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the Knights of the Red Branch.
Against great odds and displaying both heroism and humility to defeat the more powerful foe — who didn’t always play by the rules either — the Fianna of the Red Branch swept all before them.
And while the folklore light has of course dimmed over time, the Irish featly to the Red Knights’ motto of ‘beart de réir ár mbriarthar’ – ‘deeds according to our words’ — never faltered.
That much was clear in the morale-boosting mammoth turnout at last Saturday’s ‘Dearg le Fearg’ (‘Red with Anger’) Irish language protest cum celebration in Belfast city centre by our latter-day band of Red Knights.
Speaking the same language as the mythic warriors of old, Irish speakers and Gaeilge supporters turned out in their thousands to give notice that they will have their rights – despite many decades of broken promises and outright hostility.
Veteran Irish language campaigner Ciarán Ó Feinneadha (the Dubliner who won us TG4 and delivered the Irish county abbreviation on car plates) told Raidió na Gaeltachta this week that the Belfast demonstration was the largest-ever protest for the Irish language. Quite a boast – in a state where official recognition has been withheld from a language which has been spoken in these parts for over 2,000 years.
The case for respect for the Irish language was spelt out clearly in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 – in the 22 years since, however, both political unionism and their London allies have conspired to thwart the will of the people.
But the bigots got their answer in the deeds of the Irish speaking community which has blossomed from a one-room Portacabin school in the Shaws Road Gaeltacht — a veritable hedgeschool — in 1971 to a plethora of ultra-modern institutions of Irish language learning and promotion with the 900-pupil Falls Road Coláiste Feirste as its cultural cathedral.
Of course there were other reasons for cheer at Saturday’s celebration of these changing times. Until relatively recently, demonstrations for civil rights were banned from Belfast city centre by the authorities – indeed, when the first protest reached City Hall in August 1993, loyalists responded by shooting dead the son of a sitting nationalist councillor.
And it was only a heartbeat before that when councillors were put out of Council meetings for speaking Irish and Lá editor Gearóid Ó Cairealláin jailed for demanding his traffic offence court case be heard in his native language.
This phenomonal growth in An Ghaeilge has finally and begrudgingly forced the British hand at Westminster where new languages legislation has been introduced today. This is an important step forward for all those who kept the flame burning during tough times but be under no illusions whatsoever about the determination of unionist leaders to stymie and thwart this legislation too.
Neverthless, Red Saturday shows that this new generation of Red Knights will not be found wanting when it comes to protecting, promulgating — and most importantly, speaking — Irish.