Last night I came face to face – sort of – with a very old friend. Brother Thomas Finbar Beausang – or wee Beau, as he was endearingly called by those of us he taught in St. Mary’s grammar school in Barrack Street and then on the Glen Road, was a renowned Irish language activist.
His bust now proudly adorns the entrance to Gael Arás Mhic Ardghail, an Irish language cultural centre in Newry.
Gael Áras Mhic Ardghail is the culmination of a huge amount of work by the Newry branch of Conradh na Gaeilge, in co-operation with Newry and Mourne Council; An Ciste Infheistíocha Gaeilge and many others.
I was there to say a few words at the formal opening, in part because of the role Sinn Féin played in securing a £20 million package of funding for the Irish language from the British government at Hillsborough Castle in 2010. £8 million of this has gone to An Ciste Infheistíocha Gaeilge.
The Ciste provides capital funding for Irish language projects like Gael Arás Mhic Ardghail and many others across the north. Its role is to sustain and assist the development of Irish language communities; provide financial support and fund capital projects which will create jobs, and to develop cultural hubs.
But before our time stalwart language activists, including those in the Newry Gaelic League, campaigned and pioneered for decades for language rights, including the right to education through Irish.
The Newry Branch was especially active. In its early days it helped establish the famous Omeath Feis in 1902; it helped found Coláiste Bhríde Ó Méith in 1912 where Pearse, it is reported, composed a draft of the Irish Proclamation; it appointed the first full-time, salaried Gaelic League travelling teacher in Ireland, an múinteor taistil from South Armagh Francis Nugent; and it encouraged the gaelicisation of the local press, especially the newly founded ‘Frontier Sentinel’ (1904).
The Newry Gaelic League also collaborated with Killeavy and Omeath Gaelic Leaguers in erecting what are believed to be the first Irish language road signs on the island at the Corr na Muclach junction half-way between Newry and Omeath.
After partition the unionist regime at Stormont discriminated against and actively oppressed the Irish language and culture. However, in the 1930s and 1940s, the Newry Urban Council, again in direct defiance of unionism, erected new bilingual street signage at James Connolly Park and Michael Mallin Park.
And, it was Newry and Mourne District Council who appointed Ireland’s first local government Irish Language Development Officer in Maolcholaim Scott.
So, Newry and its hinterland, which straddles the border, has a proud history of promoting the Irish language. This is the context for Gael Áras Mhic Ardghail and its role as a provider of Irish medium education, art, music, debate, and the promotion of Irish culture and heritage.
It is an exceptional building, well designed and constructed. At its heart is the family home of the McArdle family who in an exceptional and generous gesture donated it to this project. But it has been expanded to include exhibition space and class rooms.
Audience at formal opening of Gael Áras Mhic Ardghail
As you enter the foyer there is an old desk, similar to those we had in Barrack Street and on a pedestal behind – as if looking over the pupils shoulder – is Brother Beau. The bust is a very good likeness of the man. And it is entirely appropriate that it should greet visitors as they enter Gael Arás Mhic Ardghail, not just because this is originally the site of St. Patrick’s – the first Christian Brothers school in Newry, but also because Brother Beau was such an influential figure in Irish language circles over many years.
He was a part of my experience of learning Irish. My own interest in the language began when I started primary school at St. Finian’s De La Salle School on the Falls Road.
However it was St. Mary’s Grammar School run by the Christian Brothers which really bonded me to the language. And Brother Beausang was a big part of that with his summer breaks to the Donegal Gaeltacht.
My next real opportunity to extend my limited knowledge of the language was in prison.
Political prisoners, particularly in the cages of Long Kesh, created Irish language communities in prison – Gaeltacht huts – where they lived and breathed the language each day.
And because we had political status we were permitted Irish language text books. It was there that Bobby Sands learned Irish.
Subsequently, many of these prisoners and others who had been interned continued with their work on the language when they were released. Later when the cages were replaced by the H Blocks and when the Irish language became the daily language of most of the protesting prisoners at that time, this had a huge impact on the consciousness, particularly of young working-class nationalists.
When prisoners were released from the Blocks, many of them brought the language skills and teaching methods they had learned back into their communities conducting classes in pubs, clubs, community centres and homes.
But it was Irish language stalwarts like Brother Beau who helped keep the language alive in the north during the bad days. For that he will be fondly remembered by all of us who knew him.
Brother Beau is also remembered in far off places. Another person who was taught by him was catholic priest Kevin McGarry. Just over a decade ago when Father McGarry opened a school in the town of Embulbul, just outside greater Nairobi, in Kenya, he decided to name it after Brother Beausang. A fine gesture for a great teacher.