We’ve come a very long way since the Ardscoil

By Máirtín Ó Muilleoir

I ALWAYS allow myself a little holiday in the heart when I attend an Irish language event in the Dome of Delight — as I did on Tuesday evening. That’s partly because I was thrown out after ten minutes of my first-ever meeting in City Hall back in the eighties because I spoke Erse, and that’s partly because it’s a thrill to witness the strength and vibrancy of today’s Irish language movement.

I attended the last of the Ardscoil meetings in the early eighties when we sat in a dimly-lit, damp céilí hall pushing for a better deal for An Ghaeilge. You negotiated a darkened corridor littered with hidden, shin-high obstacles and took your life in your hands to plug in the ancient three-bar electric fire to keep the winter out (the inner flame was only so useful even back then). Lest you think I exaggerate, the firetrap that  was the Ardscoil went up in smoke in 1985 when a contractor building what is now the Belfast Met in Divis Street hit a mains line.

This week’s meeting of representatives of over 20 Irish language groups from across Belfast took place in much more auspicious surrounds: the Lavery Committee Room in City Hall itself. The location told its own story of how the Irish language has progressed in 30 years, moving from a situation where we had just one Irish medium school to today when we have flourishing Irish schools from kindergarten to A-Level age from Twinbrook right across to Glengormley.

But my linguistic rags-to-riches story was trumped by one of the speakers at the meeting: Fergus O’Hare of the phenomenon which is the Irish language station Raidió Fáilte.

As a representative of People’s Democracy, Fergus entered City Hall in 1981 on a wave of support for the H-Block prisoners. As he told the assembled Irish language advocates from every part of Belfast (and from both communities, uniting everyone was love of An Ghaeilge), he was from an era when you didn’t need to speak Irish to get thrown out of Council meetings. Many’s the night he was ejected by the RUC when making his point in the Queen’s English!

“I never thought I’d see the day when we could hold a meeting like this in a City Hall committee room,” said Fergus (in Irish).

And indeed, there has been progress: £40,000 for the Gaeltacht Quarter tourism project, bilingual street dressing banners promised for the same tourism hub, a Nollaig Shona sign on City Hall, and guided tours in Irish now a regular occurrence in the Dome itself. But as lawyer Michael Flanigan told the meeting, these represent only the tip of the iceberg when set against the scale of the opportunity.

And while we don’t yet have an Irish Language Act, the European Charter on Lesser-Used Languages does guarantee an enlightened approach to the Irish language which is contradicted by Belfast City Council policy. How could it be otherwise when the Council’s current policy forbids the erection of signs in Irish anywhere and under any circumstances – even where it relates, for example, to the placing of a safety sign for pupils of Irish schools in local leisure centres?

The good news? Tuesday’s meeting marked the start of a co-ordinated campaign to make major advances for the Irish language in Belfast. We need to see the Council transformed across three areas: Rights, Services and Provision. Rights mean that rate-payers who speak Irish should be able to deal with the Council in Irish and be treated respectfully in their own language. Services means ensuring Council services are also available in Irish. And Provision means the Council putting its money behind the Irish language projects building Belfast.

To the eternal shame of City Hall, it put not a farthing into the £2m extension to Ireland’s greatest Irish language arts centre, An Chultúrlann. The new investment package must mark an end to that type of narrow-minded approach. And the first chance to show things have changed will come when Raidió Fáilte bids for substantial support from Council for its planned £1m station in the Gaeltacht Quarter.

We travel in hope and – after Tuesday’s meeting – with a spring in our step.

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