The Irish language was almost destroyed as a result of centuries of British colonial policy. As the greatest imperial power in human history successive British governments understood the importance of destroying the language, identity and culture of a people in order to make it easier to control, occupy and exploit them.
Irish history is full of examples of policies intended to deter the use of the Irish language while promoting English. But it is also full of courageous men and women, from all classes and all sections of society who strove to defend the language and music and culture of Ireland. Here in Belfast one of the most important of these was Robert Mac Adam, a Presbyterian industrialist in the 19th century – after whom An Culturlann is named - and his family. His uncle, also Robert, had helped found the Irish Harp Society to provide a means by which blind boys and girls could learn the Harp and thus earn a living. The Society also promoted the study of Irish. Robert travelled widely and collected manuscripts in Irish which he then copied and preserved and which can be seen today in Belfast Central Library and in Queens University.
And there are many others, including those who established the Gaeltacht on the Shaws Road or the Ard Scoil in Divis Street or An Cumann Cluain Ard in the Lower Springfield.
It is no accident that the Irish language witnessed a revival in Belfast and other parts of the north during the years of conflict. While many of us had received some basic teaching in school, especially from the Christian Brothers, and some had gone to the Donegal Gaeltacht in the 1960s, the language was very much a minority interest.
But in the course of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s an estimated 20,000 men and boys, women and girls, from nationalist areas went through Britain’s penal system. In the Cages and H-Blocks of Long Kesh and in Armagh Women’s prison, and in other jails on this island and even in England, political prisoners of an older generation or Irish language speakers from Gaeltacht areas used the time to teach the language to those who didn’t have it.
Along with existing Gaeilgeoirí who loved the language for its own sake and worked valiantly to use and promote it, this new cadre of Irish language speakers joined the efforts to grow the language. Instinctively they wanted their own children to have the opportunity to learn and speak Irish in ways they hadn’t. This saw an increase in the demand for Irish medium education. There is now a thriving, vibrant activist community in this city and other parts of the island. Currently, five thousand children are being taught through Irish medium education in the North. They enter education at the age of 3 and are able to spend their entire pre-primary, primary and post-primary education in Irish medium schools through the medium of the Irish language.
Five years ago this month the then Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín MLA launched the Líofa Initiative - the word Líofa means ‘fluent’. Its objective was to get 1000 people to sign up to Líofa and commit to improving and using Irish. The target was then revised to 20,000 pledges by 2020. It currently stands at 18,257.
On Tuesday I attended the opening of Gael Ionad Mhic Gioll on the Whiterock Road. It is an amazing project. It is part of a pioneering type of bottom-up community and youth work through the medium of Irish which is being spearheaded by Glór na Móna. Gael Ionad Mhic Gioll is a £400,000 capital development which was jointly funded by An Ciste Infheistíochta Gaeilge, the Department of Culture Arts and Learning under former Minister Caral Ní Chuilin, and Belfast City Council.
I want to commend all of those involved in the project and especially my party colleagues in the Executive, the Assembly and Belfast City Council, including the local Upper Springfield Sinn Féin representatives, who have worked in partnership with the local community to secure the land and funding for this project.
The centre is purpose built and includes new modern facilities for Irish language classes for the local community, parents, as well as youth facilities. It will enable the Irish speaking community in the Upper Springfield to sustain and enhance a whole range of community services and to promote ‘Gaelsaolaíocht – the Gaelic way of life – within the area.
This centre is named after Sean Mackle who played a significant role in sustaining and developing the Irish language. As an architect and community activist he was intimately involved in the life of west Belfast, including the building of the Shaw’s Road Gaeltacht, the founding of Whiterock Enterprises on the Industrial Estate on the Springfield Road, the reconstruction of Bombay Street after the pogroms of August 1969, and the Ballymurphy Community Centre which is now the site of the nearby Fold apartments.
Sean Mackle was a very practical activist. He told me once that we needed to replace names of buildings and project with Irish names and that people would use them. He cited An Cumann Chluain Ard and the old Ard Scoil as examples of this. He said Sinn Féin should have done that with Connolly House and of course he’s right. An Chultúrlann is a good example of Sean’s philosophy. So is Féile an Phobail. An even older example is the name Sinn Féin. It is an honour for Sean and his family to have Gael Ionad Mhic Giollnamed after him. But it is also an honour for the Ionad to be given his name.
It is of course important to remember that there is still opposition to the language most obviously to the introduction of an Acht na Gaeilge and the resourcing of Irish medium education. I also have very real concerns about the decisions of DUP Education Minister Peter Weir in respect of Irish medium education.
Specifically, there is the failure by the British Government to honour its 2006 commitment in the St. Andrew’s Agreement to an Acht na Gaeilge. It is my view that the public is ahead of those unionist politicians who remain opposed to an Irish Language Act and the implementation of a Language Strategy.
While the struggle to attain full Irish language rights for all citizens has to continue it is a fact that due to the diligence, vision and hard work of Gaeilgeoirí huge progress has been made and that progress has to continue. That is how the Irish language movement has been built and it’s our duty to continue to support this work. As Seán Mackle told us at the opening of Gael Ionad Mhic Gioll; 'This is only the beginning'.