‘What shall we do for timber? The last of the woods is down…’
Irish in the Glens – From Decline to Revival (1890-2004)
Eileen McAuley, Eamon Phoenix & Pádraic Ó Cléireacháin
Until the early 1900s, the Glens of Antrim and Rathlin Island formed one of the last Gaelic-speaking areas in Ulster outside of the Donegal Gaeltacht. The state of the language in the district, its gradual decline in the late nineteenth century and the attempts to preserve and revive it in the early 1900s are graphically charted in a series of fascinating documents from the 1890s to the 1980s.
In August 1897 the Belfast branch of the Gaelic League, led by its secretary PT McGinley (Cú Uladh), made a visit to Glenariff to meet its remaining Irish speakers. McGinley (1856-1942) was a native of Glenswilly, Co Donegal, and worked as a Customs & Excise officer in Belfast. The first meeting of the Belfast Gaelic League was held in his home at 32 Beersbridge Road in the city two years earlier, in August 1895.
The Belfast Gaels took the train to Parkmore before walking down the glen to Waterfoot. It is clear from McGinley’s report of the excursion in the Irish News of 9th August 1897 that Irish, while clearly in decline, was still spoken by some of the older people in Glenariff.
On Saturday we opened the season by a visit to the Irish speakers of Glenariff. We had only a small muster, probably because of the threatening character of the morning, but as our president and our piper turned up we considered ourselves fit and strong for the work before us. We arrived at Parkmore about noon and proceeding down Glenariff. We were soon greeted by Irish speakers who recognised us and remembered our visit from last year. Henry MacAuley, of Cloneragh, a good Irish speaker, came from his turnip field to bid us welcome. He is quite enthusiastic about the future of the language, and is willing and anxious to teach it to his friends and neighbours. His little four-year old girl talked some sentences to us with very good pronunciation. Henry is unfortunately without any literary knowledge of the language, but is a very intelligent man, and could be of the greatest use to any person seeking to acquire the spoken language.
Another MacAuley of the same district, a much older man, whom we found in bed, and who bade us a hearty welcome, spoke Irish as one ‘to the manner born’ and is also a reader of the language. He repeated for us the parable of the Prodigal Son in English and Irish, and gave us other illustrations of his power over both languages. Lower down near Waterfoot, an elderly man named Mr McKissock recognised the strains of the Gaelic League pipes, and came forth to welcome us. He has a literary knowledge of Irish, is an ex-teacher and has taught Irish to several generations of students. He is still an ardent lover of the language, and would be glad to teach it to willing students. His neighbour is a worthy shoemaker named McLernon who has also a fair knowledge of spoken Irish. He was glad to hear that an effort is being made to restore the old tongue and undertook that his family (one of which is monitress at Waterfoot National School) should take up the study of Irish and also intimated that he himself should at least recover the power of saying his prayers in Irish.
At Waterfoot we called on Mr James MacAuley, of the Post Office, a brother of Henry’s who acquired a knowledge of written Irish from Mr McKissock. He would like to see the Irish language restored but was afraid the rising generation at Waterfoot would hardly take the matter up. At Waterfoot a very pleasing incident occurred. A Scottish fisherman, hearing the pipes, approached us and asked Mr Martin’s leave to play upon them. This was readily accorded and the Scottish man handled his national instrument with consummate skill. But, what was of more interest, he proved to be a Gaelic-speaking highlander and appeared to be even more delighted to find that we could converse together without calling in the aid of Saxon speech.
At Waterfoot also, we were accosted by a Munster pedlar with a familiar ‘Go mbeannaidh Dia dhaoibh’ and an offer to sing us a Gaelic song, which just then we had not time to listen to. We next proceeded to Cushendall where we were joined by a noted gaelic ‘Seanachie’, James McNeachtin, who related many things to us in our native tongue. We called on Fr Convery PP, who received us kindly and offered encouragement to the future of the movement, saying that when classes are started he will himself become a student.
Before leaving Cushendall, a piper played a number of selections and as a number of people collected on the bridge, a member of the league took occasion to explain our aims and objects. We found the people everywhere favourable to our movement and we returned to Parkmore in the evening having, as we believed, done a good day’s work for Ireland.”
The second document on the state of Irish in the Glens was written by Joseph Duffy, the principle of Knocknacarry National School, in July 1900.
‘Master Duffy’ (1840-1905) was a native of Co Mayo and had a good knowledge of the language himself. In his report, entitled ‘Reflections on the state of the Irish language in the Glens of Antrim in 1900’, the author ascribes the dramatic decline of Irish in the district in the nineteenth century to two factors: the building of the Glendun Viaduct (1835), which introduced English speaking workers to the area, and the hostile attitude of the Catholic clergy to Gaelic following the establishment of Irish medium ‘Bible schools’ in the district by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the late 1830s. Duffy neatly summed up the dilemma facing the local people at the time: ‘When Irish schools and teaching were denounced by the priests, the great majority looked upon it almost as a sin to speak Irish. Hence English – if at all known – became the conversational language.’
Duffy estimated that in 1875 around 20% ‘could converse freely in Gaelic’ but by 1900, only 5% could ‘with some difficulty’ understand Irish while a mere 3% could speak it. Morning and night prayers, he noted sadly, were no longer repeated as Gaeilge. He concluded: ‘Virtually the vernacular no longer exists here as a living language. It is gone, I fear, forever.’ If the language was to be revived in the Glens, he felt, it would require the support of the clergy and the gentry: “Nothing can rescue it from extinction except the work of restoration is set about it at the right end. If the clergy and gentry go into the work with a will, there is still some hope of its revival; otherwise, it can never return as the speech of the Glens.’
Interestingly, the foundation of Feis na nGleann in June 1904 was partly a response to Joseph Duffy’s timely warning. The Feis committee witnessed the involvement of a cross-section of the gentry of North Antrim including notably Miss Rose Young of Galgorm Castle, Miss Margaret Dobbs of Portnagolan, Miss Ada McNeill of Cushendun and Sir Roger Casement, as well as local clergy. The involvement of Miss Young (Róis Ní Ógáin), a liberal Unionist and Roger Casement, a British Conservative MP and strong Unionist, showed that the preservation of the Irish language in the Glens at that time was regarded as an issue that transcended creed and politics.
Joseph Duffy’s comments on the decline of Irish were drafted in pencil in an exercise book in July 1900 – four years before Feis na nGleann was founded. Joseph Duffy became joint treasurer of the first Feis Committee in July 1904. These are his thoughts, written in the month of July:
12th July 1900
Strenuous, and I must say, noble and patriotic efforts are being made by a few zealous Irishmen to re-establish the tongue of the Gael as a living spoken language. That it should be permitted to utterly perish would be a national loss and a great misfortune. So far as I can learn, it is a cultured language, abounding in elegance of expression, richness of utterance, and remarkably well adapted to all practical purposes of intercourse. It has lived for many centuries and has survived ancient languages of more recent birth. Coming down from the earliest ages, it is no conglomerate, but remains as pure and adulterated as it was in the days of St Columba.
14th July 1900
Up to the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, Irish, exclusively almost, was the commercial and the domestic language of the Glens. During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries English, of course, was used by government officials and those of necessity were forced to acquire a knowledge of Gaelic, and more especially so if they became residents.
English became fashionable in Glendun at the building of the viaduct (‘Big Bridge’) about the year 1835. This building brought in skilled workmen who spoke nothing but English. The National schools were called into being about the same time; and the teaching was carried out in English alone. Hence it was that the old tongue was despised, looked upon as a sign of ignorance, and was not attempted by the young people who let them know it or not, did all their conversation in English.
15th July 1900
One of the most powerful agents in the suppression of the vernacular was the opposition of the RC Clergy during the years 1835-40 when instruction in Irish was substantially encouraged by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Under the patronage of the Assembly schools were started, teachers paid and prizes awarded to scholars, with a view of qualifying the peasantry to read the Scriptures, i.e. in Gaelic. This means of proselytism amongst a RC people open and clear. The Priests denounced the schools in strong language, pointing out the insidious snares for the undermining of the faith. The Assembly cared nothing for the language.
Presbyterianism and its spread were their only objects. Thus the death blow came. It was looked upon as a sin to say a word in Gaelic if one could at all avoid it.
In the year 1875 about 20 per cent – mostly advanced in years – could converse freely in Gaelic, but as to book knowledge of the subject, they had none. In the present year (1900) there may be about 5 per cent of the population, who could with some difficulty partly understand Gaelic, and about 3% who might venture to speak in it. Morning and Night Prayers are no longer repeated in Irish. Virtually the vernacular no longer exists here as a living language. It is gone I fear, never to return.
If this ancient form of speech is to be revived, the movement must commence, where all improvements are to be looked for, from the higher social ranks, from the clergy and from the gentry. Except this be accomplished, the prospect for the revival and the extension of Gaelic is not of the brightest character.
21st July 1900
We may well deplore the decadence of our ancient tongue, but there is little use in crying over spilt milk. There are still amongst us a solitary few who would willingly aid in the work of restoration. Why not invite and encourage them in the start of the good work and something of a practical and sustaining nature may yet be done?
The Feis Cheoil has achieved something in the preservation of ancient music; and the Feis Uladh promises well for the dissemination of Gaelic book knowledge, including writing, oratory and poetry. To these and kindred societies we heartily wish success.
Three causes have operated almost simultaneously in the decadence of the vernacular in the Glens. These are, the introduction of the National Schools, the attempts to proselytism through the medium of the Irish language by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, and the building of the Glendun Viaduct (‘Big Bridge’). The Assembly established Irish Schools for the purpose of teaching to read, so as to understand the Scriptures. The Irish schools were coequal with those of the National Board, but their span of existence was very limited. The ulterior view of the Assembly was quite apparent. When Irish schools and teaching were denounced by the Priests, the great majority looked upon it almost as a sin to speak Irish. Hence English – if at all known – became the conversational language.
25th July 1900
So far as I can learn, previous to the establishment of the National School system, there were some schools of a temporary nature kept open mostly during the winter months, in which the rudiments of English were clumsily taught. Semi-hedge in type and management, these schools aimed at imparting instruction in reading, writing and a little arithmetic. Spelling held the foremost place in the programme, and an English dictionary (Walker’s) was an essential textbook, and the pupil was forced to plod his way, time after time, in a language foreign to him (English), just as he might, from A to Z. The teacher considered it ungraceful and undignified to use Gaelic in elucidating in any school subject, and the old tongue was looked upon – if at any time used by a pupil – as a sign of deplorable ignorance.
The building of the Viaduct was commenced about 1834. Skilled workmen were employed in its construction, and these were English men, who understood no Gaelic. The natives in the immediate neighbourhood used their best efforts to acquire a knowledge of the strange language, so as to come on a level socially with the strange men who were much better dressed and more sumptuously fed. Hence Gaelic became inelegant and unfashionable. Disused in every quarter, it was doomed to perish.
In 1875 about 20 per cent of the population – all advanced in years – understood, and could hold conversation in Gaelic; now in 1900 about 5 per cent could partly understand it, and about 3 per cent might attempt to speak it.
We may well mourn its fate. Nothing can rescue it from extinction, except the work or restoration is set about at the right end. If the clergy and gentry go into the work with a will, there is still some hope of its revival; otherwise, it never can return as the speech of the Glens.
Roger Casement’s first involvement in the language revival in the Glens is chronicled in a remarkable letter from Mrs Annie McGavock of Glenarm to her brother, Professor Eoin MacNeill, in Dublin in March 1904. Mrs McGavock, who ran the MacNeill family bakery in Glenarm, described Casement’s dramatic appearance at a meeting in Cushendall to discuss arrangements for the first Glens Feis. The letter is dated 8th March 1904 and is of considerable historical significance. The ‘Mr Clarke’ referred to was John Clarke of Glenarm, or ‘Benmore’. The meeting inspired Sir Roger to compose his best known poem on the decline of the Irish language, ‘The speech of our sires’: ‘It is gone from hill and glen – The strong speech of our sires.’
The letter from Mrs McGavock to Eoin MacNeill (8th March 1904) reads as follows:
Mr (John) Clarke told me that at the meeting on Sunday week in Cushendall he said a few words about the movement and when he had finished a tall, soldierly looking man came over to him and said: “I agree heartily with all you have said; these have just been my own thoughts for years’, Mr Clarke thought no more of the incident but on Friday last he got a letter from the gentleman telling him he had heard of the little manuscript paper that had been started and enclosing a couple of verses on the Irish language for the March number. He is greatly interested in the Feis, hopes he will be here at the time, but as he is going to South Africa soon, he fears he may have to leave before 30th June. He subscribes £5. Mr Clarke says that he can hardly believe that a Casement of Ballycastle (they were considered tyrants in the old days) could hold such views.
Francis Joseph Biggar, the Belfast solicitor, historian and Gaelic Leaguer (1863-1926) was one of the most influential figures in the campaign to preserve the language in the Glens and Rathlin Island after 1904. In November 1906 he was instrumental in an effort by the Gaelic League to ‘preserve and encourage the use of the Irish language’ on Rathlin, where it was still spoken. To this end, Biggar proposed to send an instructor to the island. This notice was issued by Biggar from his Belfast residence, ‘Ard Righ’ in November 1906:
A number of representative Members of the Conradh na Gaedhilge are mostanxious to preserve and encourage the use of the Irish language, which is largely spoken on the island of Rathlin, off the coast of Antrim. With this object in view, it is promised to send a Gaelic Instruction to the island, a warm welcome having been promised for him on behalf of the islanders.
The Coise Gnótha has already been approached for pecuniary assistance, and the whole scheme will be under that direction and approval of the Dáil Uladh. Liberal promises of support from individuals have already been received. It is desired to have the list of subscribers as large as possible before a public appeal be made in the press.
Subscriptions may be sent to the Honorary Treasurer for this fund.
Another Protestant nationalist deeply committed to the Gaelic Revival in the Glens and Rathlin was Bigger’s friend, Roger Casement (1864-1916), who attended the first Glens Feis in Glenariff in 1904. Following a visit to the island around 1906 Casement recorded the details of its Irish-speaking population in a letter to a friend:
The population of Rathlin, by the way, was taken by our teacher, Mr Green. He found it (over two years of age) to be 325 persons. Of these 218 were Irish speaking and 107 spoke English only, having no Irish at all, but of these 107 English speakers, 35 belonged to the lighthouses, public works, etc. – all imported people for special work – so that of the island population itself – native born – only 72 had no Irish. Of these 218 who spoke Irish only 10 were non-native born – Irish from other parts of Ireland. So there is a good big residuum of Irish speaking still in Rathlin to keep alive.
In February 1907, Dr Beatty, the Inspector of Schools on the Ballymena Circuit, noted the introduction of Irish as a subject in a number of schools in the Glens:
Irish is taught in a large number of schools; mathematics, with fair results, in somewhat less than 30; French in three, to a small number of pupils.
Mr Heron (School Inspector) writes:
About half-a-dozen schools in the district have taken up mathematics as an extra subject with success. About the same number in the neighbourhood of the Glens of Antrim have taken up Irish, and have been inspected by Mr Manager. One teacher taught mathematics with fair success. Irish is taught in a few schools in the Londonderry uplands, under the inspection of Mr Manager.
One consequence of the interest of both Biggar and Casement in the prevalence of Irish on Rathlin was the establishment of St Malachy’s College of Irish on the island in 1913. During 1914-18 it was not possible to hold the annual Summer College on Rathlin owing to wartime restrictions. Instead the classes were held in Ballycastle. The success of the college, known as St Malachy’s College of Irish, was reported in the Irish News in July 1918 as follows:
A meeting of Coiste Malachi was held last week in the Irish College, Bank Street, Belfast. The secretary and registrar of the Summer College submitted a report on the work of the past year, of which the following is a brief summary:
The fifth session of St Malachy’s College of Irish began on July 1st, 1918 and ended on August 31st.
The session was divided into two four-week terms. There were no classes held on Rathlin owing to war restrictions. At Ballycastle the work was continued as usual. The attendance was excellent and beat all previous records.
Included in the large number of students enrolled were University graduates and undergraduates, Gaelic League teachers and King’s cholars. The College was under the charge of Michael Maguigan. The assistant teachers were Tomas Ó Suilleabhain, Miss Rosin Ní Dhochartaigh, Miss Nora Grange, and Miss Cait Ní Bhriain, BA.
The thanks of the Coiste Malachi are due in a special manner to Very Rev.E Muphy PP, VF, for his very deep interest in the classes at Ballycastle and for the facilities afforded there, and to Rev A McKinley P Rathlin; and Rev. Professor Clenaghan, BA, BD, BCL, Principal of Rathlin College, to whose zeal, ability and energy the marked success of the College is chiefly due.
The Irish language movement in North Antrim was greatly disrupted by the ‘Troubles’ of 1919-22. During the Truce of 1921, however, an Aeridheacht was held in Glenarm.
The following report appeared in the Irish News:
The Gaelic day at Glenarm gives every promise of being most successful, given good weather. An amount of enthusiasm so necessary to make a success has been thrown into the work. A large number of entries have been secured for the field sports, and keen contests are expected in notable events. The five-a-side hurling has brought in a number of Glens teams; exciting contests are expected. The football struggle gives promise of good play. St Mary’s Larne; Eire Ogs Glenarm; and the Pearse Club Cushendall have entered. Gaelic dancing and singing, recitations and dialogue in Gaelic, will prove very interesting features of the day. Competitions in Glens history and art have induced not a few scholars to enter. Another feature which will enliven and brighten proceedings will be the attendance of a number of rare pipers from the Ballycastle Pipe Band, travelling specially for the day. Felix Devlin, GAA, Belfast, will act as official starter and handicapper, assisted by a number of capable officers from local clubs. All arrangements are complete. The admission to grounds is 1s. Surplus finds go to help the Irish White Cross. Tournament starts sharp at O’Neill grounds 2 o’clock.
The Irish dialect spoken in the Glens and Rathlin bore striking linguistic similarities to the Scots Gaelic (pronounced ‘Gallic’) of the Western Isles. The historic ties between the Glens and Gaelic Scotland were symbolised at the 1946 Feis in Glenariff when the oration was delivered by Rev J MacKechnie, a minister of the Church of Scotland and Director of the School of Scottish Studies in Glasgow. The theme of Rev MacKechnie’s address was the state of Gaelic at the end of the Second World War (as reported in the Ballymena Observer, 5th July 1946):
The time has now happily passed when the very mention of the word ‘Gaelic’ led people to think at once of revolutions, riots, disputes and political and religious wranglings. The eyes of those people of narrow outlook have been turned to the wider world beyond the bounds of Britain and Ireland, and they have seen Gaelic in its true place and perspective. It is the language which has preserved and, we firmly believe will preserve, all that is best in the culture and civilisation of the Celts.
Gaelic today is on the verge of a great awakening. The follies and cruelties of the past are past, and may well be forgotten. The future lies before the Gaelic speakers, and the names of the Gaels found among all the great nations of the world testify to the fact that the Gaelic people are still the bearers of culture and civilisation to all nations everywhere…
Scotland and Ireland have many things in common in connection with Gaelic, but most important it is that once again the fellowship of letters, of music and of other precious things that once existed between the two lands shall be renewed.
A vote of thanks to Rev MacKechnie was proposed by Rev T Toal PP, Carnlough and seconded by Miss Margaret Dobbs, Portnagolan.
The Irish language declined dramatically in the Glens from the 1920s onwards. A few native speakers remained, however. The last speaker of Antrim Gaelic was Seamus Bhriain Mac Amhlaigh (‘Big Jim’ McAuley), who died in February 1983. The late Jack McCann, the well-known Ballymena solicitor, paid this tribute to him in the Irish News:
As the French fairies were leaving Glenariffe for the last time they met a great procession of white lights coming down from Ballymena. When they looked back the lights had turned red.
Not a fairy tale.
What has passed in the night was the funeral cortege of the main on whose lips that fairies had lived for so long. To us who sadly have not the Irish he was Jim McAuley, but to the wee folk he was Seamus Bhriain Mac Amhlaigh, last native Irish speaker of the Glens of Antrim who died on February 25th 1983.
His tale of a troop of fairies all astride benweeds riding off to France every, ‘Big Jim’ learned from his father, Briain Mac Amhlaigh, who gave Glenarm’s Eoin MacNeill, founder of the Gaelic League, his first lesson in Irish.
Thanks be that another greatGlensman, and collector of folk tales, Hamilton Delargy, beat the reaper to Brian’s door, for the old man is 45 years dead.
We, in our time, are indebted to Alex McMullan of Glenariffe for having recorded Big Jim’s re-telling of his father’s stories; of stilkin the grugach, of the pieste who carried off a baby boy to its nest near Killarney, of an enchanted town at Coill Bheag, of the man who shod the devil’s horse for a bottomless hat of gold and so on.
The old tongue is hushed now in a glen where 150 years ago numberless legendary and fabulous tales and songs were recited and sung in Irish round the fire and where ‘many neither spoke nor understood English but all spoke the Irish’.
The last great Irish storyteller in the Glens is stilled. For some, a statistic. For us, a reminder that we scarce paused in our pursuit of pence to mark the passing of a centuries-old oral tradition, or long enough to realise that the man laid to rest was the last of a people from whom we got our family names, the names of our townlands and of every field that’s in them.
I have no words to properly express my sense of loss for I have not the tongue. Let this translation from the Irish say it for me: ‘What shall we do for timber? The last of the woods is down…’
People like Casement, Biggar, M Dobbs, R Young, Ada McNeill and others saw in the Feis another vehicle for the advancement of the language. It was another opportunity to show people without a living language, and especially a spoken language, their culture and history had no meaning. This today remains a principal aim of Feis na nGleann.
Language competitions were an important element in the first Feis. In this and in all the early Feiseanna there were junior and senior competitions in conversation, storytelling and recitation. Prizes usually consisted of books. There were also at times competitions for best short story in Irish, best poem in Irish, best play in Irish, best list of placenames with meanings, etc; some of the prizes were presented by donors and others were given by the Feis committee.
When the Feis was revived in 1928, scholarships to the Donegal Gaeltacht were introduced. Several colleges had been opened during the 1920s. During the 1950s and 1960s up to 20 scholarships were awarded each year. The Feis funded most of the scholarships, but others came from Comhaltas Uladh (the Ulster Section of the Gaelic League) and donors such as the Irish News and the GAA. When the late Miss Dobbs was alive, she gave a scholarship each year out of her own money.
In May 1971, buses taking children to the literary and history competitions in Ballymena cam e under attack in Harryville. In the interests of safety it was decided to suspend these competitions indefinitely and scholarships were allotted to schools that had traditionally sent entries. This continued until single-day competitions were renewed in 1992 at the Feis in Carey, where they have been held each year since. Over the years, the number of applicants for Gaeltacht scholarships had decreased, and the Feis committee have also given grants for intensive A-level Easter course and to the Tír-na-nÓg Irish Summer School for beginners which is based in Garron Tower and run by Comhaltas Uladh. Fewer secondary school children are following courses in Irish, due mainly to the proliferation of other subjects in the curriculum. The cost of a three-week stay in the Gaeltacht has also increased considerably, so that grants towards the cost rather than full scholarships are now awarded. It should be noted that local branches of the Gaelic League also give grants to students attending Gaeltacht colleges, and several local GAA clubs have done the same.
History competitions at the first Feis involved written work only. At present the competitions cover both oral and written history and are held along with the language competitions.
Early in 1988 a meeting was held in Cushendall under the auspices of Feis na nGleann to consider how best to continue promoting Irish as a spoken language in North Antrim. The meeting was the brainchild of Fr John Moley, then Parish Priest of the Braid and a member of the Feis Committee. It was addressed by Caoimhin Patton and Seán de Búrca from Teach Comber in Claudy, Co Derry, where very successful Irish classes were and still are being held. They stressed that intensive classes over a relatively short period were much more effective than one-evening-a-week classes over longer periods. Later that year classes were started in Dunloy, inspired mainly by Michael Breslin who had attended the meeting in Cushendall. Classes lasting three hours were held on three evening s a week from September to Easter. They were an immediate success, attracting students, mainly adults, from a wide area and from across the community.
After two years four classes were necessary, and in 1990 it was decided to start a naíschoil for pre-school children. Several years later a bunscoil (primary school) was also started and both operated in the Teach Cheoil and in an attached mobile in GAA grounds. The facility suffered a serious setback in 1998 when it was attacked by arsonists. The damage was repaired and the schools continued for two more years. They are no longer functioning, but some students who had started there now continue at an all-Irish bunscoil in Maghera, Co Derry.
In 1989, after the commencement of the classes in Dunloy, Comhoiste na Gaeilge Aontroim Thuaidh was set up to try to co-ordinate the work of the different bodies involved in reviving the language. It included representatives of Feis na nGleann, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and branches of Conradh na Gaeilge in Cushendall, Ballycastle and Dunloy as well as other interested individuals. An important achievement was the setting up of a video-conferencing link between the classes in Dunloy and Rathlin Island, whereby classes on Rathlin can follow the teaching in Dunloy by video link. This has been running successfully for the past four years and Rathlin now has its own branch of Conradh na Gaeilge.
In the mid-1990s also, a number of people from Ballycastle and Carey who had been attending classes in Dunloy decided to organise classes in Ballycastle. They formed a working body called Glór na Maoile, the name being selected as a result of winning a Glór na nGael competition. This very active body, which is part of Comhchoiste na Gaeilge, still runs classes including an intensive course each February and a week-long summer school in Carey that attracts up to 100 participants.
A naíscoil and a bunscoil now also operate in Ballycastle. They were set up and organised by a body called Pobal an Chaistil which is separated from and unconnected with Glór na Maoile. An attempt by some parents associated with the Ballycastle schools to start a naíscoil in the Middle Glens has so far failed because planning permission to erect a mobile on a proposed site has been refused. Irish classes have now started in the Glenariff GAA clubrooms.
For most of the 1990s the Comchoiste received funding from bodies such as the Uladh Trust and Community Relations Council, which allowed the appointment of a Development Officer. This position has been held in turn by Pádraig Ó Coileáin, Donncha Ó Broin and Deaglan Ó Doibhlin. The position is vacant at present.
In 1992 the Comhchoiste organised the first Éigse na nGlinntí. This was a high-profile exercise opened in Dunloy on Thursday 14th May by John Wilson, the Minister for Education and Tánaiste in the Fianna Fáil government. The Éigse moved to Loughgiel on the Saturday and to Glenariff on Sunday 17th May, where a plaque was unveiled at the birthplace of the writer Seán Mac Maoláin. Speakers included Dr Brendan Ó Doibhlin from Maynooth and Dr Micheline Kearney Walsh from UCD.
The 1993 Éigse was in Glenariff and was opened by Eámonn Ó Cuiv, Minister for the Gaeltacht and grandson of Éamonn de Valera. In 1993 a plaque was erected in Dunloy in memory of Aindreas Ó Dubhaigh and in 1994 a plaque was erected at the birthplace of Professor James Hamilton Delargy in Cushendall. His daughter, Mrs Catriona Miles, carried out the unveiling. The 1995 Éigse Éamonn Ó Cuiv, Minister for the Gaeltacht and grandson of Éamonn de Valera. In 1993 a plaque was erected in Dunloy in memory of Aindread Ó Dubhaigh and in 1994 a plaque was erected at the birthplace of Professor James Hamilton Delargy in Cushendall. His daughter, Mrs Catriona Miles, carried out the unveiling. The 1995 Eigse was held in conjunction with the Co Antrim Fleadh Cheoil in Cushendall. Éigse events were held in a marquee in the garden of the house where Dr James McDonnell was born in 1763. Jean Kennedy-Smith, United States Ambassador to Ireland, unveiled a plaque commemorating his life; Janet Harbinson and harpers from the Belfast Harp Orchestra gave a recital. Dr McDonnell had been responsible for the original Belfast Harp Festival of 1792 as a result of which Edward Bunting was to collect and publish three volumes of old Irish tunes, many of which would otherwise have been lost.
The Éigse each year included a trip to places of historical interest. The 1998 trip was to Antrim town, where a huge crowd had gathered for a re-enactment of the Battle of Antrim in 1798. It was a truly cross-community spectacle in which politics were forgotten. The ‘rebels’ arrived in Antrim carrying pikes, firing muskets and beating drums, some of which bore the names of local orange lodges. Each year the Éigse concluded on the Sunday with an ecumenical service in Irish. Regular Irish-speaking participants included Dr Bill Boyd, retired Presbyterian Minister, Dr Donald Caird, former Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, and Fr Eddie Coyle, PP Culfeightrin, and a native speaker from Donegal.
During the early and mid 1990s there was also an October weekend in Kilmore House, Glenariff, consisting mainly of intensive language courses. The autumn weekend in 1997 was in Ballintoy and featured visitors from Cairdeas Chloich Cheann Faola in Donegal. This very useful contact has been maintained and is actively developed. At the 2001 Éigse in Dunloy a book containing a collection of the writings of Aindeas Ó Dubhaigh (Andy Dooey) was launched. Most recent Éigsí have been in Ballycastle, Rathlin Island and Ballintoy.
Monthly get-togethers for Irish speakers were at least until recently taking place in both Cushendall and Waterfoot. The Glens Choir, which has a repertoire of hymns in Irish, was chosen to sing in Aifreann Feirste which was performed for the first time in St Mary’s Chapel, Belfast on Sunday 18th May 2003. Belfast musician Patrick Davey composed the music for the Mass and a special orchestra of classical and traditional musicians was assembled. Éamonn Ó Faogáin as a soloist joined the Glens Choir for what was a truly historic occasion. Aifreann Feirste, with the Glens Choir, was later celebrated in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin and live on RTÉ 1 on St Patrick’s Day 2004.
An Bealach Romhainn
Without a doubt the most difficult aim to achieve and the one requiring the greatest effort is the preservation of Irish as a spoken language. There is today a vibrant and varied literature in Irish, but the dead word on the page of a manuscript is no substitute for the living word on the lips of the people.
Traditional Gaeltacht areas are contracting due to the influence of English-language media and the proliferation of holiday homes whose owners are almost exclusively English-speaking. When planning permission was granted for these developments, no consideration seems to have been given to the disastrous effect it would have on the last remnants of an ancient culture. Gaeltacht areas are now largely English-speaking due to the sheer numbers of imported Béarlóirí.
Each branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí plays a small part by using Irish names of tunes where possible and by incorporating Irish phrases in the general business. Each branch appoints a Treoirí na Gaeilge to help promote the language. GAA and camogie clubs are also charged with promoting the use of Irish by using the Irish form of names etc, but progress beyond this point is slow. Better coordination between the different organisations might prove to be worthwhile.
The most promising development is the growth of the Gaelscoileanna – both naíscoileanna and bunscoileanna and, more recently, meánscoileanna (secondary schools). It is a proven fact that pupils from these schools continue to speak Irish amongst themselves long after leaving the all-Irish environment. As numbers increase, better use of the Fáinne would identify these students to each other and to anyone else willing to speak Irish. It has the potential to transform the restoration of Irish as a spoken language.
The Feis committee will endeavour to follow in the footsteps of those who have worked hard over the years to protect and preserve the most important aspect of out native culture – the living language. That is what sets us apart as a nation. In this duty we must not fail.
Among those with roots in the Glens is the Auxiliary Bishop of Down & Connor, Dr Donal McKeown. This is an extract from his address to mark the centenary of Feis na nGleann in June 2004:
You are very welcome here tonight whatever cultural or religious tradition you come from and whatever your own role may have been in the culture of this part of our island.
Because of my long-standing family and educational connections both with the area and with the Irish language, I am happy and honoured to be here this evening for this part of you celebrations of one hundred years of Feis na nGleann. We give thanks for the work of people of all faith traditions and none who have worked here – and elsewhere – to enable communities to celebrate their cultural heritage in a way that enriches all and impoverishes none. Francis Joseph Biggar and his colleagues were not concerned with theological issues when they founded the first Glens Feis. They wanted to celebrate the great cultural tradition of the area – where my granny was born in 1890 – so that the lives of the people could be enriched.
Culture is not easy to define. It is not just about certain cultural expressions. Such expressions – like dance, music and stories – can be removed from their cultural context and exploited for financial rather than human purposes. The culture of the Glens involved language, dance, storytelling, customs, music – and of course hurling. But the culture also involved neighbourliness, solidarity despite hard time, the importance of celebration and fun, a belief that this life was to be understood in the context of eternity, that there was the possibility of forgiveness for everybody, that life was a gift and love was a virtue. Such a culture is a pervasive atmosphere, how we do things round here, the things we take as normal that others view differently – rather than an articulated system.
Thus this evening, we celebrate the cultural achievements of so many people here and the rich cultural life that they have been encouraged to appreciate – after long periods when they had been told that their practices were savage and uncultured, and that they should drop their silly old language. The whole history of the Gaelic League and the GAA sprang from a concern with getting communities off their knees and able to be proud of what they did and who they were. That contribution has helped many local communities throughout the country to take pride in themselves and in their unique contribution to the rich God-given tapestry that is the world.
That is why people of faith have always been keen to get into the heart of a culture, not to enslave but to enrich it. Certainly, there is always the temptation to use cultural features in a way that closes people off from others, rather than opening up horizons. There has been the assumption in some quarters that to be Irish and Catholic meant the same thing, and that was indeed the case since the time of the Reformation and the Plantation. Much of the great Irish poetry of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was inspired by religious imagery and a deep spirituality. Such an excessive link may have been understandable in a time of conflict. But it limited horizons. It meant that many from the Protestant community did not feel particularly welcome where there were expressions of Irish cultural identity. And there were Unionist leaders who despised Irishness. Thankfully, that has been changing – in the model of both the United Irishmen and people like Francis Joseph Bigger.
The celebrations have been about celebrating the great richness of gifts that people in the Glens have had over the generations. Cut off, as they were, from much of the island and with strong links to their Scottish brothers and sisters in the Highlands and the Islands, they developed their own unique version of the cultural traditions of these islands. Many people – teachers and local leaders – encouraged that and sought t hand it on to a new generation. We thank God for those gifts and for the giftedness and generosity of so many people. That great tradition of the Glens Feis was about a positive celebration of identity and achievement. It was not based on an assertion of victimhood or self-pity. It was an attempt to assert that we are somebody because we are not somebody else. It was a proud statement of what people were and are and an invitation to others to share in that culture. It was thus about encouraging confidence. And where people were confident about their own identity and achievements, they are to be open to others to share in that culture. It was thus about encouraging confidence. This specific culture can be salt to the earth and light to the world. But it brings all the more light and flavour to life when it does not retreat behind barricades but rather moves out into the world, aware of its own strengths and keen to engage with others and with their culture. Here I hope that we will have increasing opportunities to do that in the context of the peace process and of the increasing number of people from other countries and cultures who are coming to live and work in this island of ours. Cultural diversity will enrich us all here, just as our Irish culture has travelled the world and has been received with great enthusiasm elsewhere.
Adapted from Phoenix, E., Ó Cléireacháin, P., McAuley, E. & McSparran, N. (eds) (2005) Feis na nGleann: A Century of Gaelic Culture in the Antrim Glens. Feis na nGleann & Stair Uladh.