Interview with Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh on ‘Language, Resistance and Revival’

Feargal New Book 184mj13 (2)

Ciarán Dunbar interviews Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh for An Tuairisceoir about his new book:

“Language Resistance and Revival: Republican Prisoners and the Irish Language in the North of Ireland”

Tell us how this project began and how long you are working on it?

I started this project for the first time as an MA thesis in Queens University Belfast back in 2004 and then continued it as doctoral research between 2005 and 2009. I succeeded in getting a contract from international political publishers Pluto Press in 2011 and it took this long to reach fruition.

Why did you write the book in English?

I realised from the outset that this was a story that could engage an international audience and go much further and wider that a fluent Irish language readership, while offering significant historical, political, sociological and sociolinguistic lessons. It was for this reason that Pluto press accepted my proposal as their first ever book that deals with the Irish language.

In addition, not all of those who took part in this critical phase of our history, including those interviewed, had fluent written and spoken Irish. Even though many of them had been central to many great achievements in the community revival including setting up schools and community projects, they hadn’t, for one reason or another, retained complete spoken fluency. That said, the majority of the interviews in the book are in Irish with English translations underneath. The activists and narrators were given a choice and I suggested that they used the language in which they felt most comfortable expressing themselves in order that they could give an accurate account from memory.

I think it’s crucial that our story is told on an international scale and unfortunately, and for reasons explained in detail in the book, the English language has garnered such as a status for itself on an international stage because of the colonial and imperial processes imposed by British power on a global scale. Again, I think its essential that an Irish language version of this story is available and provided for. I intend, to prepare a more accessible version of this story in Irish for primary and secondary school pupils.

Why was it important that republican prisoners spoke Irish?

Initially, it is an interesting issue that is closely intertwined with the turbulent history of Ireland and with the history of the revival itself. The tradition of Irish language learning amongst republican prisoners goes back to Frongoch in 1917 after the Easter Rising; and it is apparent again on the prison ships Argenta and Al Rawdah in the twenties and forties; and again in Crumlin Road jail and the Curragh in the Forties with people such as Máirtín Ó Cadhain playing a central role; and again in the fifties with various activists, right up to the Long Kesh era.

This happened for various reasons; a way of mental release in the context of persecution and loneliness, an means of struggle against the system, for cultural reasons, through ideological and political inspiration around which the culture and tradition grew. This book examines this tradition comprehensively. I took a particular interest in this issue however as I understood that the Long Kesh struggle played a transformativd role in the contemporary revival into which I became involved as a student of Bunscoil Phobal Feirste in the mid-eighties and as an activist after that.

Although former prisoners who were fluent Irish speakers played an active role in every period in the twentieth century when they were released from captivity, I realized that the Long Kesh prison struggle had a remarkable influence on the community based revival that exploded after the hunger strikes and which was different in many ways. Firstly, there was a tumultuous political context during the hunger strikes when the nationalist community were inspired in a deeply emotive way about issues of identity that was not present since the Easter Rising, but more importantly still, because the Shaws Road Gaeltacht pioneers had laid down solid foundations that activists could build on. They both adhered and followed the Gaeltacht motto, ‘Na hAbair é, déan é’, and due to their great work, remarkable progress ensued.

What influence do these speakers have on the Irish speaking community in the north today?

These activists are fully involved in the community throughout the six counties and further afield who are working on a multitude of Irish language projects and playing a positive role in attempts to revive the language.

Certain people would say of course that republican’s interest in Irish had a detrimental effect on the language and that they should just speak English, what is your opinion on that?

To be honest, I think that there is a certain amount of arrogance and fascism connected with the view that certain groups of people shouldn’t speak Irish for fear they may damage it. No one group, community or class has exclusive ownership of the language and people have a right learn and promote the language for whatever reasons that motivate them personally. Be that cultural, linguistic, political, ideological or spiritual motivation; these reasons are legitimate for the person who has been inspired be them..

If some person or group is offended in some way because certain people with certain opinions are speaking Irish, then it is quite clear that they are the ones with the problem regarding their perception and general attitude to fairness. I think this narrow view opinion stems from the classic excuse used by political unionism and a succession of British governments, who, in certain periods, and continually display blatant intransigence and discriminatory practices when dealing with the Irish speaking community. It is these same forces who played a primary role in the historical decline of the language for their own selfish cultural, political, and socio-economic reasons even before any ‘republican’ became interested in the language, that impose this hypocritical notion upon us.

So, a lot of prisoners did not bother learning the Irish language – why was that, in your opinion?

Why doesn’t everybody in Ireland learn the language? I think that is a very general and wide ranging question. Republican prisoners can’t be taken as one homogenous group or ‘unit’. Often it boils down to there being various age groups, organisations, classes and ideologies as well as people from different areas, both urban and rural etc. Different people have different motivations based on the political context in which find themselves. I feel that the language was at its strongest point in the prisons during the Blanketmen Protest in Long Kesh due to the incredibly harsh and brutal conditions the prisoners had to endure 24 hours a day. In this scenario, the language functioned as a very powerful instrument of struggle and identity.

Will you be writing any other books in future?

I intend to prepare an Irish language version of the book but have no current plans apart from organising an active book tour throughout Ireland and further afield. I have been invited to America at the end of April for a series of launches in New York and Boston where there is great interest in the Irish language and Irish history.

If any groups or activists are interested in organising a launch in their own area, please contact me on or phone 07841101630. More information:

Sadly your father, Terry Snr. passed away recently and your brother Terry Óg was murdered in 1998, so as well as it being a great day for you with the launch of the book, it will be tinged with sadness as your brother and father won’t be there – how have they influenced you?

It will be sad, certainly. My eldest brother Terry was murdered when I was studying for my A Levels in Coláiste Feirste. He was an inspirational and energetic person, who worked tirelessly on behalf of his own community, especially with young people and who made an impression on everyone who met him. Terry’s memory continually inspires me and gives me courage while this book was written in tribute to him.

As well as that, as you mentioned, my father passed away before Christmas after a short illness. He was a former republican prisoner who learnt Irish in Long Kesh continued to have a great interest in the language thereafter. He took the opportunity to send me to an Irish language primary school and he inspired me as an Irish language activist since then. He contributed to the book along with 45 others who I interviewed and it is a source of personal sadness to me that won’t be there to celebrate this night with me. There are three others I interviewed who are sadly no longer with us, Willie John McCorry, Eddie Keenan and Billy Kelly.

That said, he was alive to see me finish the book and proud that I achieved the vision that I first envisaged when starting on this endeavour many years ago. He was a well-known community activist in West Belfast who devoted his life to helping the community, and that is how he will be remembered. I remember him of course as my father and dear friend who will stay with me in my heart, forever. He and my brother Terry óg are both heroes of mine and this book would certainly not have been written without their encouragement. They were two Giants of men who I miss and to whom I will be eternally grateful.

The Belfast Launch of ‘Language, Revival and Resistance’ will take place in Coláiste Feirste this Thursday, 18 April at 7.30pm. Music, Wine and Nibbles will be provided on the night where the Phil Scraton and Jake Mac Siacais will launch the book.

Jake Mac Siacais:

Jake is from Belfast and was sentenced to the Cages of Long Kesh from 1975 to 1977 where he learned the Irish language. Shortly after his release, he was re-arrested and sentenced to the H-Blocks of Long Kesh where he was imprisoned from 1977 to 1982. During this period he played a central role in Irish language development in the prison. Following his release, he has been very active in Irish language and community development in Belfast for the past thirty years. He worked as a sub-editor with the Andersonstown News and newspapers before taking up his current post as Director of Belfast Irish language Development Agency, Forbairt Feirste, which is centrally involved in the development of the Gaeltacht quarter in West Belfast.

Phil Scraton:

Phil Scraton originally from Liverpool and began his forty year career in research working with full-time with its Irish Traveller community. He is a Professor of Criminology in the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice, School of Law, Queen’s University, Belfast. He is world renowned academic activist and has published widely on: prisons and imprisonment, the regulation and criminalisation of children and young people; controversial deaths and the state; the rights of the bereaved and survivors in the aftermath of disasters; the politics of truth and official inquiry. These include Hillsborough: The Truth (Mainstream, 2000), and Beyond September 11: An Anthology of Dissent (Pluto, 2002). His latest books are Power, Conflict and Criminalisation, Routledge (2007), The Violence of Incarceration, Routledge (2009, ed. with Jude McCulloch), Hillsborough: The Truth, Mainstream, (2009, 3rd Edn) and The Incarceration of Women, Palgrave Macmillan, (forthcoming with Linda Moore). He is co-author of The Hurt Inside: The Imprisonment of Women and Girls in Northern Ireland (Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, 2005), The Prison Within (Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, 2007). He also led the research of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, and was primary author of its Report published in September 2012 to universal acclaim.

Feargal New Book 184mj13 (2)

Ciarán Dunbar interviews Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh for An Tuairisceoir about his new book:

“Language Resistance and Revival: Republican Prisoners and the Irish Language in the North of Ireland”

Cuireann Ciarán Dunbar agallamh ar Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh do, An Tuairisceoir fan leabhar nua s’aige:

“Language Resistance and Revival: Republican Prisoners and the Irish Language in the North of Ireland”

Abair linn, cad é mar a thosaigh an togra seo agus cé chomh fada is atá tú ag obair air?

Thosaigh mé ar an togra seo don chéad uair thiar in 2004 mar thrachtas MA in Ollscoil na Banríona agus ansin lean mé liom ar an ábhar ceanna mar thaighde dochtúireachta idir 2005 agus 2009. D’éirigh liom conradh leabhar a fháil óna foilsitheoirí polaitiúla idirnáisiúnta Pluto Press in 2010-11 agus ghlac sé chomh fada seo le theacht i gcrích.

Cén fáth ar scríobh tú an leabhar i mBéarla?

Thuig mé ón tús gur scéal a mheallfadh suim idirnáisiúnta a bhí idir lámha agam, a rachadh i bhfád níos faide agus níos doimhne ná lucht léite na Gaeilge amháin, le ceachtanna sonracha ó thaobh na staire, ó thaobh na polaitíochta, ó thaobh na socheolaíochta, agus ó thaobh an sochtheangeolaíochta de. Is ar an bhonn seo, a ghlac Pluto Press, leis an mholadh s’agam a bhéas mar an chéad leabhar ariamh a d’fhoilsigh siad a phléann le scéal na Gaeilge.

Le cois, ní raibh Gaeilge iomlán líofa idir léamh agus scríobh ag gach duine a ghlac páirt sa tréimhse staire seo agus ar cuir mé agallamh orthu. Bíodh is go ndearna cuid acu éachtaí ó thaobh na hathbheochana de, ag bunú scoileanna is tograí pobail eile, níor choinnigh/nó níor bhain siad, ar chúis amháin nó eile, líofacht iomlán labhartha amach. Sin ráite, tá an t-uafas iomlán do na hagalllaimh sa leabhar i nGaeilge agus aistriúcháin béarla mar fhonótaí. Thug mé rogha don díograiseoir is mhol mé daofa an teanga is compordaí a roghnú le dtiocfadh leo léamh beacht a thabhairt ó chuimhne. Sa chaoi seo, tá mórchuid na n-agallamh i nGaeilge.

Sílim féin gur thábhachtach go n-ínsítear scéal na hathbheochana s’againn ar scala idirnáisiúnta agus ar an drochuair, agus ar chúsieanna an mhíníonn an leabhar go mion, tá an stadas sin mar theanga idirnáisiúnta ag an Bhéarla de bharr an próiseas coilíneach agus impiriúil a d’fhorbair cumhacht na Breataine ar fud na cruinne. Arís eile, sílim féin go bhfuil sé rithábhchtach go bhfuil leagan Gaeilge don leabhar agus an scéal seo curtha ar fáil chomh maith. Tá rún agam, mar sin, leagan níos inrochtana a ullmhú i nGaeilge a

bhéas forsteanach do pháisti scoile agus meánscoile srl.

Cén fáth a raibh sé tábhachtach go raibh príosúnaigh poblachtacha ag úsáid na Gaeilge?

Ar dtús baire, scéal suimiúil atá ann atá fite fuaite go mion le stair thruamhéalach na hÉireann agus scéal na hathbheochana féin. Téann an traidisiúin foghlamtha Gaeilge i measc príosúnaigh poblachtánacha siar go Frongoch i ndiaidh Éirí amach na Casca in 1917; agus feictear arís é ar phríosúin longa ar nós an Argenta agus an Al Rawdah sna fichidí agus daichídí; feictear arís é ar phríosún Bhóthar Chroimghlinne agus sa Churrach sna Daichidí le leithéidí Máirtín Ó Cadhain i lár aonaigh; arís sna caogaidí le díograiseoirí eagsúla; agus a fhad chuig an tréimhse comhaimseartha leis an Chéis Fhada.

Rinneadh seo ar chúiseanna eagsúla; beatha intinne i gcomhthéacs gearleanúna agus uaignís, gléas streachailte in aghaidh an chóráis, cúiseanna cultútha, spreagadh ide-eolaíochta agus polaitiúla agus d’fhás cultúr is traidisiún thart air seo. Cíorann an leabhar an traidisiún seo ina n-iomláine. Chuir mise spéis ar leith sa scéal seo, áfach, mar gur thuig mé gur imir streachailt phríosúin na Ceise Fada rol claochlaithe san athbheochan comhaimseartha óna shíolraigh mé fein mar scolaire de chuid Bunscoil Phobal Feirste sna lár ochtóidí agus mar dhíograiseoir ina dhiaidh sin.

Bíodh is gur imir iarchimí rol gníomhach san athbheochan in achan tréimhse san fhichiú aois nuair a scaoileadh saor ón gheibheann iad le Gaeilge ar a dtoil acu, thuig mé go raibh tionchar suntasach ag an streachailt phríosúin sa Cheis Fhada ar an athbheochan pobalbhunaithe a phleasc i ndiaidh na stailceanna ocrais a bhí difriúil ar go leor bealaí. Sa chéad dul síos, bhí comhthéacs pholaitiúil corraitheach ann in aimsir na stailceanna ocrais agus an pobal náisiúnach tógtha ar bhealach tochtach fá chúrsaí feiniúlachta nach raibh amhlaidh ó bhí aimsir Éirí Amach na Casca ann ach níos tábhachtaí arís, mar go raibh dúshraith forbartha leagtha síos ag ceannródaithe Ghaeltacht Bhóthar Seoighe a dtiocfadh le díograiseoirí tógáil air. Lean siad mana na Gaeltachta, ‘Na hAbair é, déan é’ agus shíolraigh forbairtí iontacha óna gcuid díograise.

Cén tionchar a imríonn na cainteoirí seo ar phobal na Gaeilge sa Tuaisceart inniu?

Tá na díograiseoirí seo sáite sa phobal ar fud na sé chontae agus níos faide i gcéin ag obair ar an illiomad togra Gaeilge agus ag imirt ról déarfach sna hiarrachtaí athbheochana teanga.

Déarfadh daoine áirithe ar ndóigh, go ndearna an spéis a chuir poblachtanaigh sa Ghaeilge dochar don teanga agus gur ceart do phoblachtanaigh Béarla amháin a úsáid, cad a deir tú féin?

Leis an fhírinne a dhéanamh is dóigh liom go bhfuil sotal agus cineál faisisteachas éigin ag baint leis an tuaraim nár cheart do dhream éigin an Ghaeilge a labhairt ar eagla iad ‘dochar’ a dhéanamh. Níl úinéireacht ar leith ag grúpa, pobail nó aicme ar bith an teanga agus tá sé de cheart ag aon duine í a fhoghlaim agus a chuir chun cinn ar cibé cúis a spreagann iad féin go pearsanta. Bíodh seo ina spreagadh cultúrtha, teangeolaíochta, polaitiúil, ide-eolaíochta nó spioradálta- tá na cúiseanna dlisteanach ag

an té ata spreagtha acu.

Más rud go nglacann duine nó dream éigin olc de chineál éigin nuair a labharann daoine áirithe le tuarimí áirithe an Ghaeilge, ansin is léir gur acusan atá an fhadhb maidir le dearcadh agus cothromaíochta de! Is dóigh liom go ndéanann an tuaraim seo tagairt don leithscéal a thug aontachtachas polaitiúil agus Rialtas na Breataine, i dtréimhsí áirithe, don cos-ar-bolg a rinne agus a dhéanann siad in aghaidh Phobal na Gaeilge. Is na forsaí ceanna seo a d’imir rol ceannasaíochta i meath stairiúil na teanga, ar chúiseanna santacha cultúrtha, polaitiúla agus soch-eacnamaíochta s’acu féin, sular chuir aon ‘poblachtánach’ suim sa teanga, a bhrúann an bhréathuaraim fímíneach seo anuas orainn.

Ar ndóigh, níor bhac cuid mhór príosúnaigh leis an Ghaeilge ar chor ar bith – cén fáth sin meas tú?

Cad chuige nach bhfoghlaimníonn gach duine in Éirinn an teanga? Is dóigh liom go bhfuil an chéist seo chomh leathan céanna. Ní féidir glacadh le príosúnaigh poblachtáncha go haonchínealach mar ‘aonaid’ amháin. Go minic bhí aoisghrúpaí eagsúla, eargraíochtaí eagsúla, aicmí eagsúla, ide-eolaíochtaí eagsúla ann, chomh maith le daoine ó cheantair difriúla idir chathair agus tuath srl. Bíonn spreagadh difriúl ag daoine difriúla bunaithe ar an chomthéacs pholaitiúl ina mhaireann siad. Measaim féin go raibh an teanga ag an phointe is láidre sa phríosúin i rith Agóid na Pluide sa Cheis Fhada mar go raibh

coinníollacha fulangach dochreidte deacair ann, ina raibh príosúnaigh ag maireachtáil i mbruidiúilacht olc 24 uair in aghaidh an lae. Sa chás seo, d’mir an teanga rol iontach cumhachtach mar ghléas streachailte agus mar ghléas féiniúlachta.

An mbeidh tú ag scríobh leabhar ar bith eile amach anseo?

Tá sé ar intinn agam leagan Gaeilge don leabhar a ullmhú ar dtus baire ach seachas sin, níl de phlean agam ach camchuairt gníomhach a reachtail leis an leabhar seo ar fud na hÉireann agus níos faide i gcéin. Fuair mé cuireadh dul amach go Meiriceá ag deireadh Mí Aibreán chun sraithe lainseálacha a dhéanamh i Nua Eabhrac agus Bostun, áit a bhfuil spéis láidir sa Ghaeilge agus stair na hÉireann i gcoitinne.

Más suim le grúpa nó diograiseoir ar bith lainséail a eagrú ina cheantar féin, níl le déanamh ach rphost a chuir chugam ar nó scairteadh air 07841101630. Tá tuilleadh eolais ar fáil air:

Ar ndóigh, fuair d’athair, Terry Snr. bás ar na mallaibh, agus dúnmharaíodh do dhearthair Terry Óg i 1998, lá iontach a bheas ann duit féin nuair a sheolfas an leabhar ach beidh brón ort chomh maith nach mbeidh do dhearthair is d’athair ann – cén tionchar a raibh acu ortsa?

Beidh sé brónach cinnte a chara. Dúnmharaíodh mo dhearthair is sine Terry agus mé ag déanamh staideár do mo chuid A’Leibheál ar Choláiste Feirste ag an am. Duine iontach spreagúil agus fuinniúil a bhí ann a d’oibir go díograiseach dá phobal féin go príomha le daoine óga agus a chuaigh i bhfeidhm ar mór ar gach duine ar bhuail leis. Tugann cuimhne Terry spreagadh agus misneach dom i dtólamh agus scríobhadh an leabhar seo i ómos do.

Le cois, mar a deir tú, d’éag m’athair roimh an Nollaig i ndiaidh tinneas gairid. Iarphíosúnach poblachtánach a bhí ann a d’fhoghlaim Gaeilge sa Cheis Fhada agus a chur spéis ann ó shin i leith. Thapaigh sé an deis mé féin a chuir ar Ghaelscoil agus spreag sé mé mar dhíograiseoir teanga ina dhiaidh sin. Is trachtaire é sa leabhar seo mar aon le 45 trachtaire eile ar chuir mé agallamh orthu agus is trua mór dom féin go pearsanta nach mbeidh sé ann in éineacht liom leis an oíche a cheiliúradh. Tá triúir trachtairí eile nach maireann a chuir mé faoi agallamh, mar atá Willie John McCorry, Eddie Keenan agus Billy Kelly.

Sin ráite, bhí sé beo nuair a chríochnóidh an leabhar agus bródúil asam gur tháinig ann don fhís a bhí agam ón chéad uair a thosaigh mé ar an togra seo na blianta fada ó shin. Díograiseoir pobail iomráiteach a bhí in Iarthar Bhéal Feirste a chaith dúthracht saoil ar son an phobail agus is mar sin a dhéanfar cuimhne air. Ar ndóigh, cuimhním féin air mar athair agus dlúthchara a bhéas i mo chroí istigh go deo na ndeor. Laochra do mo chuidse atá ann maraon le mo dhearthair Terry óg nach maireann agus is cinnte nach mbeadh an leabhar seo ann ach mar gheall ar an spreagadh a fuair mé ón bheirt seo. Fathach fir a bhí iontú beirt; cnóithóidh mé iad agus beidh mé buíoch daofa go deo go ndeor.

Beidh an seoladh feirsteach do ‘Language, Revival and Resistance’ ag tarlú i gColáiste Feirste ar an Deardaoin, 18 April ag 7.30pm. Cuirfear ceol, fíon agus soláistí ar fáil ar an oíche agus déanfaidh Phil Scraton agus Jake Mac Siacais an leabhar a lainseáil.

Jake Mac Siacais:

Is as Béal Feirste do Jake agus daoradh é chuig Cásanna na Ceise Fada idir 1975 agus 1977, áit ar fhoghlaim sé an Ghaeilge. Go gairid i ndiaidh gur scaoileadh saor é, rinneadh é a ghabhadh arís agus daoradh chun na Blocanna H é sa Cheis Fhada, áit ar coinníodh i ngéibheann é idir 1977 agus 1982. Le linn an tréimhse seo, d’imir sé ról lárnach i bhforbairt na Gaeilge sa phríosúin. Nuair a scaoileadh saor arís é, tá se iontach gníomhach san athbheochan teanga agus forbairt phobail le tríocha bliana anuas. D’oibir sé ar mar éagarthóir leis an Andersonstown News agus nuachtán LÁ sular thosaigh sé ar a phost reatha mar stiúirthóir ar an Áisíntacht Forbartha Gaeilge i mBéal Feirste, Forbairt Feirste, atá lárnach i bhforbairt na Ceathrún Ghaeltachta in Iarthar Bhéal Feirste.

Phil Scraton:

Is as Learpholl ó dhúchas

do Phil Scraton agus thosaigh sé a shaothar taighde daichead bliana ag obair go lán-imseartha leis an lucht taistíl Éireannai. Is Ollamh le cóireolaíocht é san Institúid Coireolaíochta agus Ceartas Coiriúil sa scoil dlí in Ollscoil na Banríona. Tá clú domhanda bainte amach aige mar gníomhaí acadúil le foilseacháin fhorleathan ar: príosúin agus príosúntacht; rialacháin agus coiriúliú páistí agus daoine óga; bás conspóideach agus an Stát; ceartaí íobartaigh a thagann slán tar éis tubaistí; polaitíocht an Fhírinne agus fiosrúcháin oifigiúla. Ina measc tá Hillsborough: The Truth (Mainstream, 2000), agus Beyond September 11: An Anthology of Dissent (Pluto, 2002). Sna leabhair is déanaí a chur sé amach, tá Power, Conflict and Criminalisation, Routledge (2007), The Violence of Incarceration, Routledge (2009, ed. with Jude McCulloch), Hillsborough: The Truth, Mainstream, (2009, 3rd Edn) agus The Incarceration of Women, Palgrave Macmillan, (ag teacht in éineacht le Linda Moore). Is comh-údar é ar The Hurt Inside: The Imprisonment of Women and Girls in Northern Ireland (Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, 2005) agus The Prison Within (Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, 2007). Stiúiraigh sé an taighde de chuid Paineál Neamhspléach Hillsborough agus eisean a bhí mar phríomhúdar ar an Tuarisc a foilsíodh i mí Mheán an Fhomhair 2012 le creidiúint is ardmholadh idirnáisiúnta.