The Battle To Preserve Irish Is Far From Over


THE welcome meeting of minds at Stormont last week set a train in motion which will see the last vestige of the Irish Penal Laws disappear.

GAEL FORCE: Irish-speaking schoolchildren bring their protest to Stormont last year

For the first time, Irish will be legally recognised in the courts in the North of Ireland. The historian Eamon Phoenix informs us that some years ago, Sir Patrick Mayhew – a former Secretary of State for the North of Ireland and an eminent barrister – attempted to do away with this anachronism, but his efforts were blocked. Under Penal Law, Irish people weren’t allowed to speak or read Gaelic or even play Irish music. These ludicrous laws were scrapped after Irish Independence. But the ban on Irish in the courts was allowed to continue in the North of Ireland until now.


To most observers, the agreement reached last week looks very like the one the DUP was unable to get over the line two years ago. This was because of a threatened backlash from strong anti-Gaelic elements in the Orange Order. The DUP may yet rue the day it decided to move forward this time without the rednecks. Certainly those connected to loyalist Paramilitaries who voted for the DUP are furious at the speed with which the party signed up to accommodating the Irish language. But my advice to Irish language activists is do not be lulled into thinking you can now rest on your laurels. Because it takes much more than mere legislation to preserve a language. It’s a never-ending battle. That said, last week was a magnificent step forward.


But the herculean efforts and sacrifices of previous generations should never be forgotten. One such incident in Derry stands out, when several young men ended up spending four years in prison for the crime of speaking Irish. For the Catholic/Nationalist majority in Derry, St Patrick’s Day 1951 was a milestone. Members of the Nationalist Party and the Anti-Partition League joined forces and marched into the walled city centre behind an Irish national flag. The RUC used this as an excuse to baton-charge the parade which was soon scattered.

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But in July of the same year, nationalist hearts lifted with the arrival in the city of Eamon de Valera to help celebrate Gaelic week. Tricolours festooned the Bogside and Brandywell areas as nationalist Derry welcomed the great hero of the independence movement. Local republicans submerged their opposition to Dev, hoping unionist attitudes had changed. But on 17th March 1952, the RUC once again baton-charged marchers displaying Irish flags. A schoolgirl, Helen Kelly, was photographed marching along Sackville Street seconds before she was hit over the head by a police truncheon.

LAW CHANGE: Sir Patrick Mayhew

The image was published in an English newspaper, causing at least some British politicians to ask questions about exactly what was going on inside the unionist North of Ireland. But it was the 1954 St Paddy’s Day march which really stood out. As the parade made its way down Shipquay Street to Guildhall Square, the RUC once again laid into marchers with batons. Among those injured were Brendan Duddy, later to become a hero in the back-channel negotiations which lead to the 1994 PIRA ceasefire. Irish Language activists Proinsias O Míanáin and Pat Leo O’Donherty also felt the ferocity of the police violence. Three years later, as the same lads were making their way home from an Irish-speaking céilí, they were accosted by three armed RUC officers demanding their names and addresses. At gunpoint, the boys duly obliged. But because they opted to do so in Irish, they were immediately arrested and taken to Victoria Barracks.


And within an hour, they were on their way to a Belfast Prison where they spent the next four years as internees under the Special Powers Act.

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As the lads had failed to return home, had failed to return home, their parents were seriously worried about them. And it was only when a bread delivery man called at the O’Doherty home they got some kind of indication about what had happened to them. The bread man had allowed a police vehicle to emerge onto Strand Road. And he spotted Pat Leo inside with both hands raised, revealing he was in cuffs. A duty sergeant later told Mrs O’Doherty he wasn’t obliged to inform her that her son had been interned! From a purely cultural point of view, I’ve never understood unionist hostility to the Irish language.

The writer Brian O’Nolan – a native of Strabane and a fluent Irish speaker – once claimed many English people have a limited vocabulary of around 400 words, while the average Irish-speaking peasant in the west of Ireland has at least 4,000. And he further claims that in some parts of Donegal, it’s a matter of family pride to use a Gaelic word only once in the course of a lifetime! Now I don’t care what you say, that’s impressive!

With many thanks to: The Sunday World and Hugh Jordan

Hugh Jordan The Sunday

for the original story

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