400 Gaels demanding recognition in our City’s history

It was Irish speakers who shone the spotlight on Belfast City Council’s latest historical revisionist project. There was representation amongst a few generations of Gaels last week at the Lord Mayor’s Office when ‘Cairt Bhéal Feirste 400’ was presented to officers of the council on behalf of 400 signatures from the Irish language community. The ‘Cairt’ was a vibrant, challenging and creative response to the ‘400th anniversary commemoration’ currently being undertaken by City Hall to ‘celebrate’ the ‘beginning of civic government in Belfast in 1613.’ Even though the council recognises that ‘this history isn’t universally shared’ and that they have a duty to show ‘balance’ and ‘inclusiveness’ in the historical narrative being propagated, there is no indication of how this will be delivered in the commemorative programme that runs from January to September 2013. In addition, any 400th anniversary ignores and disregards the rich Gaelach history of Béal na Fearsáide and its native people who were victims of the colonial process.

Belfast was given ‘town status’ in April 1613 when the English King, Seamas I, signed the Charter that founded Belfast Corporation in the same period that similar charters were hoisted upon 39 other towns throughout Ireland. The English authorities implemented a system of local governance across the country to

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bolster the violent colonial plantation and to enslave native communities through the iron fist. As the seventeenth century progressed, this ensured a bloody legacy where plantation, dispossession, physical destruction and native resistance became ever present in the national landscape. By the end of the century, 85% of Irish land had been expropriated and transferred to planted settlers and English Colonisers.

Despite this, the blood-soaked context of the ‘civilising’ of Belfast goes back much further than the Ulster Plantation at the beginning of the century and as far back as the reign of Walter Deveraux, or the Earl of Essex, and his slaughter of the people of this locality in 1574. He continued on then to Rathlin where the entire population of the island were exterminated with Deveraux announcing ‘how godly a deed it is to overthrow so wicked a race the world may judge… how many lives soever it cost; putting man, woman and child to the sword’. Deveraux’s murderous reign laid the proper foundations for Arthur Chichester who started out as Governor for Carrickfergus during the ‘nine years’ war’ at the end of the sixteenth century and said of the battle with the forces of O’Neill; ‘a million swords will not do them so much harm as one winter’s

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famine”. Chichester detested Irish Catholicism and oversaw ferocious persecution against Catholics including ordering the execution of two bishops. Having played a leading role in the Plantation of Ulster and the dispossession and genocide of millions of Gaels, the ‘Baron Chichester of Belfast’ was to the forefront of the system of colonial misrule imposed on the populace of Belfast in 1613.

It is difficult to see then, how Gaels could view this period of ‘ethnic cleansing’ as something to be celebrated as a ‘shared history’. This would be akin to asking the Jewish community to celebrate the Holocaust! It is only through a measured and honest reflection of our history that education can be accurately fostered in order to build a fairer future. If lessons aren’t learned from the past, then we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. This is why 400 Gaels demanded that our valuable history, before the brutal era of colonisation, isn’t airbrushed from history. As Séamas Mac Seáin stated, ‘there are people who believe that the world is 6000 years old and that Belfast is only 400 years old.

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We are respectfully reminding them that they are misguided on both fronts.’ ‘Cairt Bhéal Feirste’ demands recognition and homage for the rich culture of this ancient locality and the corresponding rights and resources that would stem from such recognition. It remains to be seen whether our city’s ‘civic leaders’ are capable of rising

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400 Gaeil ag lorg aitheantais i stair na cathrach!

Is Gaeilgeoirí a shínígh an spotsholas ar an togra athscríofa staire is déanaí ag Halla na Cathrach, Béal Feirste. Bhí ionadaíocht i measc cúpla glúin éagsúil do Ghaeil i láthair na seachtaine seo caite ag Oifig an Ard-Mheára chun ‘Cairt Bhéal Feirste 400’ a bhronnadh ar oifigí na comhairle, thar cheann 400 sínitheoir ó phobal na Gaeilge. Freagra bríomhar, dúshlánach agus cruthaitheach atá sa Chairt ar an ‘comóradh 400 bliain’ atá idir lámha ag Halla na Cathrach san am i láthair chun teacht an ‘rialtas sibhialta’ go Béal Feirste in 1613 ‘a cheiliúradh’. Bíodh is go n-aithníonn lucht na comhairle nach ‘stair roinnte’ a bheas á ceiliúradh acu, agus go bhfuil dualgas orthu ‘cothromas’ agus ‘cuimsitheacht’ a léiriú san insint staire a chraobhscaoileann siad, níl iomra ar bith ar an bhealach a dhéanfar seo sa chlár a ritheann ó Eanáir go Meán Fómhair 2013. Le cois, déanann aon chomóradh 400 bliain neamhshuntas agus neamhaird do stair ársa Ghaelach na lonnaíochta seo i mBéal na Fearsáide agus an mhuintir dhúchais a bhí mar íobartaigh an phróiseas coilíneachta!

Tugadh ‘stádas baile’ do Bhéal Feirste in Aibreán 1613 nuair a shínigh Rí Shasana, Séamas a hAon an Chairt a bhunaigh corporáid Bhéal Feirste sa tréimhse chéanna inar bronnadh cairteanna den chineál chéanna i naoi mbaile eile is tríocha fud fad na hÉireann. Chuir cumhacht Shasana córas rialtais áitiúil i bhfeidhm ar fud na tíre chun an phlandáil choilíneach fhoréigneach a bhuanú agus pobail dhúcháis na tíre a smachtú leis an lámh láidir. Dé réir mar a d’aosaigh an seachtú haois déag, chinntigh seo oidhreacht fhuilteach ina raibh, plandálú, díshealbhú, léirscrios fisiciúil agus frithbheartaíocht dhúchasach ina chuid shuntasach den tírdhréach náisiúnta. Faoi dheireadh an chéid, bhí 85% de thalamh na hÉireann aistrithe chuig lonnaitheoirí plandála agus coilínigh Shasanacha.

Mar sin féin, chuaigh comhthéacs fuilteach ‘sibhialú’ Bhéal Feirste níos faide siar ná plandáil Uladh ag tús an

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chéid agus chomh fada siar le réimeas Walter Deveraux, nó an Earl of Essex, agus an slad a rinne sé ar mhuintir na dúiche seo thiar in 1574. Lean sé leis ansin go Reachlainn inár díothaíodh daonra iomlán an oileáin agus Deveraux ag fógairt, ‘how godly a deed it is to overthrow so wicked a race the world may judge… how many lives soever it cost; putting man, woman and child to the sword’. Leag slad marfach Deveraux an dúshraith chuí do Arthur Chichester a thosaigh amach mar ghobharnóir ar Charraig Fhearghais i rith chogadh na naoi mbliana ag deireadh an séú haois déag agus a d’fhógair faoin chath le fórsaí Uí Néill; ‘a million swords will not do them so much harm as one winter’s famine”. Bhí an dúfhuath ag Chichester ar Chaitliceachas na hÉireann agus d’eagraigh sé géarleanúint fhíochmhar in aghaidh na gCaitliceach inar maraíodh beirt easpag. I ndiaidh dó ról ceannasach a imirt i bplandáil Uladh agus díshealbhú agus cinedhíothú na mílte Gael, is eisean, mar an ‘Baron Chichester of Belfast’ a bhí go mór chun tosaigh leis an chóras smachtaithe coilíneach a bhrúadh anuas ar mhuintir Bhéal Feirste in 1613.

Is doiligh feiceáil mar sin cén dóigh a dtiocfadh le Gaeil ‘glanadh eitneach’ na tréimhse seo a cheiliúradh mar ‘stair roinnte’. Bheadh seo cosúil le hiarraidh ar an phobal Ghiúdach an tUileloscadh a cheiliúradh! Is trí athmhachnamh tomhaiste, ionraic ar an stair s’againne gur féidir oideachas cruinn a chuimsiú agus todhchaí níos cothroime a mhúnlú. Muna bhfoghlaimeofar ceachtanna ón stair, is cinnte go ndeánfar na meancóga céanna. Seo an fáth ar éiligh 400 Gael nach ligfear i ndearmad an stair luachmhar s’againne sular tháinig ann do ré brúidiúil na coilíneachta. Mar a dúirt Séamas Mac Seáin, ‘tá daoine ann a chreideann go bhfuil an Domhan 6000 bliain d’aois agus go bhfuil Béal Feirste 400 bliain d’aois. Táimid ag cur in iúl dóibh go measúil go bhfuil dul amú orthu ar an dá cheist.” Éilíonn ‘Cairt Bheál Feirste’ aitheantas agus ómós cuí do shaibhreas cultúrtha na lonnaíochta ársa s’againne agus na cearta agus acmhainní oiriúnacha a shíolróidh ón chineál seo aitheantais. Caithfear feiceáil cé acu ‘an bhfuil ceannairí sibhialta na cathrach’ inchurtha leis an dúshlán.

Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh