Below is longer written version of ‘Voices of the Voiceless’ speech
I want to start tonight’s talk by talking about culture. According to Kenyan writer and anti-colonial activist, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o:
‘The real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth; what they produced, how they produced it, and how it was distributed; to control, in other words, the entire realm of the language of real life. Colonialism imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. Economic or political control can never be complete without mental control.’
This undoubtedly echoes anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko’s famous dictum that; ‘‘the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the minds of the oppressed’. Indigenous cultures and languages were seen as a bulwark to colonisation by imperial powers. Ireland became the guinea big for the British Imperial project on a global scale.
When the national schools were formed in 1831 in Ireland, the tally-stick or bata scoir was used to count the number of times the monoglot Irish speaking poor spoke their native language before they’d be physically punished by the schoolmaster at the end of the day in accordance with the amount of times they had spoken in their mother tongue. This tally stick had become a ‘button’ by the time the policy has reached Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and his Kenyan community in the 1950’s, where those culprits who spoke Gikuyu were humiliated in the school yard with metal plates around their necks saying ‘I am stupid, I am donkey.’
The common aim was to inculcate inferiority complexes in the colonised. Such was the success of this policy in Ireland that by the end of the Nineteenth century, in the census of 1891, nobody wanted to admit that they could speak the Irish language. The Irish speaker, in the words of Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic league) founder Douglas Hyde became like the ‘abominable snowman’.
This explains why people like Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon spoke of the need for comprehensive decolonisation. According to Fanon, this process encapsulates a three-stage development for the colonised to ultimately progress them ‘back over the line’. While the first phase underlines a recognition that they have been thoroughly subjugated and assimilated into the culture of the occupying power; the second phase involves a returning to their roots where they will reclaim and recall their historic past. In the final phase, the aim is to revive and awaken their people and realign themselves with their cause for national independence while producing a relevant yet revolutionary national literature.
Therefore, within the context of colonisation, all attempts at cultural revival were by definition, explicitly political. As Fanon states; ‘…to fight for national culture means in the first place to fight for the liberation of the nation, that material keystone which makes the building of a culture possible.’
Developments in the Irish revolutionary period arguably correspond with Fanon’s analysis. The GAA, for example, which was founded in 1884 became the fastest growing sporting organisation in the world, with 1000 clubs, organised in parishes across the country by 1890. Conradh na Gaeilge which was set up to preserve and revive the Irish language by providing a counter-narrative to the discourse of colonisation became the fastest growing social and cultural movement in Europe with 80,000 by the start of the 20th century. In the word of Irish revolutionary Pádraig Pearse, ‘when the Gaelic League was founded, the Irish revolution began’.
Pearse himself became the first exponent of Irish medium education when he founded Scoil Éanna and Scoil íde in 1907 and 1909 respectively and he spoke of challenging the British Education system that he described as ‘the Murder Machine’; ‘Education should foster; this education is meant to repress. Education should inspire; this education is meant to tame…The English are too wise a people to educate the Irish in any worthy sense’. He spoke of challenging ‘mental enslavement’ and of ‘decolonising the mind’ for the first time in an Irish context.
This idea of ‘Liberation’ is worth returning in assessing what happened in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish war when Ireland was partitioned by British imperialism into two separate reactionary and conservative states. This helps us distinguish between ‘nationalist independence’ phases of anti-colonial struggles and decolonisation itself which should be viewed as an ongoing process that often persists long after successful nationalism has ended and coincides with the protracted injustices and inequalities of neo-colonialism. The continuing social and political struggles that aim towards more comprehensive humanist liberation see decolonisation divided into two phases. According to Palestinian cultural theorist, Edward Said; ‘the first phase of this dynamic produces nationalist independence movements, the second, later, and more acute phase produces liberation struggles’.
In the Irish context, one of the most interesting cultural and political critics of the new Free State would inspire a whole generation of activists in the Irish speaking Gaeltachtaí and others up in Belfast who would later take up his famous rallying call that ‘the re-conquest of Irish is the re-conquest of Ireland and the re-conquest of Ireland, the salvation of Irish.’
Máirtin Ó Cadhain, from the Conemara Gaeltacht in Galway lost his teaching job because of his involvement in the IRA. Ó Cadhain argued that the proclamation of the 1916 Easter Rising had been betrayed and that formal independence had brought the Irish people no closer to liberation. The fact that Dublin poor still resided in tenement slums and the impoverished Gaeltacht people who could still ill-afford to put shoes on their feet were testament to this fact.
He helped establish Muintir na Gaeltachta in Conemara in the early 1930s and they argued that the revival of the language couldn’t be divorced from wider political and socio-economic issues. They lobbied for fertile land for the Gaeltacht poor and finally pressured De Valera’s Fianna Fáil government to succumb to their demands in 1935 after they organised a famous cycle from Ros Muc in Galway to Leinster House. The result was the Rath Cairn Gaeltacht colony in county Meath, to which many of the Connemara poor would be relocated and where their descendants remain to this day.
Ó Cadhain would later spend almost six years interned without trial at the freezing free-state concentration camp at the Curragh of Kildare from 1940-45 where he founded a Gaeltacht hut and inspired hundreds of republican prisoners to reclaim the Irish language. He set in motion an organising methodology that future republican prisoners would adhere to. During this time in prison, he also refined his skills as the most acclaimed short story writer and novelist in the Modern Irish language. His masterpiece, the novel Cré na Cille, has recently been translated into English as The Dirty Dust, by the noted Irish scholar Alan Titley for anyone here tonight who wishes to sample this brilliance for themselves.
In the early sixties, Ó Cadhain founded the radical Irish language campaigning group, MISNEACH, while he lectured in Trinity College, Dublin. They used public protest and direct action to expose the Free State apathy towards the Irish language. This would later inspire the Gaeltacht Civil Rights Group who would successfully campaign for Raidió na Gaeltachta to be founded in 1972. Ó Cadhain came to Belfast in 1964 and spoke at Cumann Chluain Ard and inspired a Belfast branch of MISNEACH while he was here. He told a cohort of young activists who came through the Cumann Chluain Ard in 50s and 60s that the saviour of the Gaeltachtaí wasn’t to be achieved by Belfast Gaels relocating to them but by building new Irish-speaking communities in their own immediate locality.
In written correspondence with one of these young Belfast gaels, Seamus Mac Seáin, Ó Cadhain wrote,
‘Ba chóir go mbunófar Gaeltachtaí úra, eagrais siopadóireachta, tuille scoileannaí gaelach agus é a dhéanamh éasca iad a bhunú, coilíneachtaí Gaeilgeoirí mar Ghaeltacht taobh amuigh don Ghaeltacht’/ New Gaeltachtaí should be founded; shopping centres; and more Gaelic schools with it being made straightforward to establish them in addition to Gaeltacht colonies that would function as a Gaeltacht outside the traditional Gaeltacht’.
This Cumann Chluain Ard Belfast branch joined Ó Cadhain’s Dublin activists on a weeklong Hunger Strike in Easter 1966 to expose the failed state language revival in the south while determining to set up their own Gaeltacht in West Belfast.
Gaeltacht Bhóthar Seoighe in the Shaws Road in West Belfast was 9 years in the making but eventually came to fruition in 1969 on the Shaws Road in West Belfast without a penny of state subvention. The Shaws Road Gaels bought their own land, built their own homes and raised their children as native Irish speakers. However, to speak or promote Irish in the one-party Orange State was to be an ‘avowed enemy’ of the unionist establishment who used coercive legislation such as the Special Powers Act to imprison Irish language activists in every decade from the foundation of the state until it was prorogued in 1972.
When the Shaws Road Gaels wrote to the old Stormont Department of Education indicating that they wished to set up a school for their children where Irish was the language of instruction, they were threatened with imprisonment. By the time they built the first Irish school in the north in 1971 with only 9 pupils, the conflict was in full flow and the school in a no-go area where the threat couldn’t be implemented.
Yet their work didn’t stop there because when the Pogroms of August 1969 took place and hundreds of families in nationalist areas across the city were burned out of their homes by Loyalist mobs, while being aided and abetted by the police force of the state, the Shaws Road Gaels responded by offering to rebuild people’s homes. Over the next year, using their own inimitable practical experience, they rebuilt the whole of Bombay Street in the Lower Falls, while under threat of court proceedings from Belfast Corporation who refused to help its citizens, and under constant violent attack from loyalist mobs.
They brought their model of best practice to my own area in the Upper Springfield in the early and mid-1970s, one of the poorest communities in the north, and built a series of community co-operatives to provide employment for local people including Gáráiste an phobail (The People’s Garage), Ballymurphy enterprises and Whiterock industries. One of the primary activists of this period and the founder of this Cultural Centre, Seamus Mac Seáin was shot five times by Loyalists in 1974 as he managed the People’s garage. His co-worker, young Geraldine Macklin was murdered. Fortunately for this community, Seamus live to fight another day.
Their philosophy of self-help and ‘na habair é, déan é’ or ‘don’t say it, do it’ as they described it would provide the bedrock of cultural and community resistance practices in these parts for the following decades.
One other notable activist that they made a big impression on was Bobby Sands, who found himself in the Gaeltacht hut of Cage 11 in the early 1970’s. He was also reading Frantz Fanon and Paulo Freire and locating his newly acquired Irish language fluency within the internationalist politics of decolonisation where anti-colonial struggles in Africa, the anti-Vietnam war movement and Paris in 1968 shaped the ideological make-up of a new generation.
In 1975, he wrote out about Gaeltacht Bhóthar Seoighe stating that he viewed it as beacon for cultural and social revolution. He praised those pioneers who set up the Gaeltacht and the first school and encouraged people to join them and follow their lead in pursuing language re-conquest. He was also greatly inspired during this period by the writing of famous republican socialist, Liam Mellows who argued that the ‘government of the republic is and must always be, a reality’.
Sands recognised that Republic in the Shaws Road Gaeltacht; ‘it doesn’t have to stop there…they will be able to set up small factories first and then they will be able to move forward from there. Everything would be in Irish there and people would be able to come from outside to the Gaeltacht to work and use Irish there. As well as that, they would be able to make a profit for themselves and with that profit, they would be able to establish a new school, or factory, or new houses, or whatever they like’.
Sands would put these collectivist ideas into practice in the short 6 month period he spent on the outside in 1976. While living in the working-class Twinbrook estate, he organised a group of young activists to envision a Gaelscoil in the area, later to become Naiscoil and Bunscoil na Fuiseoige. He also set up a cooperative transport infrastructure; community festivals and concerts; a new community-centered tenants’ association; a radical newspaper; and many other such empowerment projects within this short period.
All this before he found himself re-imprisoned again and facing the ‘Breakers’ yard’ that was the newly-built H-Blocks and the British policy of criminalisation. Eventually, Bobby Sands, who would later be elected as a Member of Parliament, and 9 others from communities like these around us, would die on Hunger Strike in 1981 after a bitter 5 year Blanket and no-Wash protest. This would have a transformative impact on public consciousness not seen since the aftermath of the Easter Rising in 1916. Activists like Sands were recognised as fluent Irish speakers and hundreds of released prisoners brought their newly found language activism to working class communities across the north, where Irish language nurseries and community projects emanated from the bottom-up.
Crucially, the Shaws Road Gaeltacht had planted the seed, laid the foundation and provided an effective reference point that others could draw inspiration from and build upon. Irish Medium schools were founded as independent from Church and State where the power lay with the community who were increasingly empowered through active participation.
And this impetus wasn’t limited to the Irish language revival: we have the Falls Women’s Centre just down the road which my own Mother helped establish, Conway Mill Community Education centre, the People’s Theatre, the West Belfast Festival, Féile an Phobail, all developing from the bottom-up and challenging demonization and exclusion, celebrating working-class resilience, internationalising the struggle for freedom and justice; reinstating pride and self-esteem whilst fostering participatory bottom-up activism.
Now we have upwards of 5,000 young people being educated through the medium of Irish in the north of Ireland. I came through this system myself and was amongst the first to attend, Meanscoil Feirste, the north’s first Irish Medium secondary school which was established in this very building in 1991. Two well-known language activists, Seamus Mac Seáin and Gearóid Ó Cairealláin sat in Café up the road after meeting with the Springfield Charitable Association, who had told them that this old disused Presbyterian Church was to become available.
On the back of the café bill, they wrote down what they envisaged going in this building which included, the new Irish language secondary school Meanscoil Feirste; a Café and bookshop; the Irish language newspaper LÁ; the pirate radio station, Raidió Fáilte; the Irish language Theatre company Aisling Ghéar and a local nursery that was looking for a home at the time. Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiach was thus born and is now the most acclaimed cultural centre of its kind in Ireland. The very name highlights the explicitly anti-sectarian nature of the Belfast language movement with McAdam referring to renowned 19th century Presbyterian language revivalist, Linguist, and Industrialist Robert Shipboy McAdam and Catholic Cardinal, Tomás Ó Fiaich, who supported the Belfast language revival when others with power and influence turned their backs.
Where we now sit was our assembly and examinations hall during my time here, when our school’s struggle for recognition from the Department of Education became a litmus test for equality and parity of esteem in the emerging peace process. Our local, national and international campaign eventually won out after seven years in 1997 and the school moved to its current residence at Beechmount House in 1999. It now has 600 pupils, is the largest Irish medium post-primary on the island and its currently undergoing a 14 million extension and redevelopment.
However, nothing stays the same and everything changes. Anywhere where great achievements that emanate from bottom-up community resistance movements, eventually get bestowed with their rightful recognition and some modest status and resources, are the ever-present dangers of co-option, assimilation and institutionalisation.
Co-operation and collegiate approaches between activist groups often get replaced be competitive squabbling for funding crumbs from the state’s table. Prominent organisations and activists, as Harris points out ‘always face the danger of becoming an appendage of state clientelism as mass participation withers’ and they ‘are often incorporated into the state as local mediators with a power to distribute resources’.
As George Rude asks: ‘what happens to this new popular ideology, forged in the fire of revolution, when the ‘popular’ phase of the revolution is over or when the counter-revolution sets in?
There is no simple answer to this which is one of the perennial questions of our time. Both those who end up with a certain degree of state power in the power-sharing executive institutions, and those whose voluntary community organisations receive state funding face the same challenges as their narrative attempts to find space in the mainstream without becoming mainstreamed.
Where we must claw with our very fingernails for every inch of progress, development, acceptance while trying to maintain unity, community buy-in and participation, a sense of purpose and a radical, transformational edge. Can we, as Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire states, be ‘strategically inside and ideologically outside’ or will we end up stuck in the mud, ‘walking like them, dressing like them, talking like them’?
In terms of the language revivalism, the example of Wales offers some salutary lessons, where after devolution, a natural schism grew between two language movements; the official state revival and the grassroots community revival. There subsequently developed a mutually beneficial relationship between the two, or what Jerry Harris calls the ‘democratic dialectic’. He states that:
‘The tension between the two strategies, state power versus autonomous civil society and what can be accomplished in either political realm, will and should continue to be a contradiction within any truly dynamic democratic society. Establishing counter-hegemonic positions within the state and society are both necessary, with both having their strengths and dangers of co-option and corruption. Sometimes, they will complement and strengthen each other; sometimes their interaction will reflect different needs, perspectives, pressures and strategies.’
This also involves an honest recognition that successful resistance struggles, as Fran Buntman posits ‘may entail strategic acquiescence; the recognition that limited compliance may expand the scope for other strategies of resistance’. These strategies should move beyond defeatist rhetorical grandstanding because resistance is ‘not simply about saying no, reacting, refusing, resisting, but also and primarily about social creativity, introducing new values and aims, new forms of co-operation and action’.
In the Irish language movement and the wider West Belfast community sector, we must walk the tightrope of drawing down resources that we are entitled to while continuing to find creative, new and radical ways to write our own agenda, and shape more liberating future trajectories. This could arguably involve a realisation that we should return and reclaim the co-operative values of those on the Shaws Road Gaeltacht who understood that overt dependency on state resources is to quote renowned sociolinguist, Joshua Fishman, ‘tantamount to succumbing to slow-paced euthanasia rather than to the firing squad’.
Their example and their brave and ground-breaking ‘voices of resistance’ still echo in the ears of the current generation of activists who must ‘make our own history under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’
Throughout the world, ordinary people and diverse communities are channelling aspirations for social justice through structural participatory, democratic forms of activism that oppose socio-economic inequality and cultural assimilation.
The example of the contemporary Irish language revival undoubtedly provides a staging post in this wider struggle for a better world. As Maori activist Tuhiwai Smith explains; ‘the past, our stories local and global, the present, our communities, cultures, languages and social practices – all may be spaces of marginalisation, but they have also become spaces of resistance and hope’.
To listen to a shorter audio version of this talk and the other talks delivered on the evening. See the link below: