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1 July 2004 Edition

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Ag foghlaim Gaeilge

JIM GIBNEY writes about his struggle, over many years, to learn Irish.

Political struggle is a tough and at times a weary business. So, when you get a special moment, you treasure it all the more. I had one such moment a few weeks ago.

I was in the Cultúrlann, the centre of the revival of the Irish language in Belfast and further afield, engaged in a lunchtime political review of the week discussion with Tom Hartley, Séamas Mac Sheáin and Gearóid Ó Cairealláin. Séamas and Gearóid have led the revival of the Irish language in Belfast and elsewhere over the last 40 years.

Séamas is particularly associated with the establishment of the first Gaeltacht and Irish language school on Belfast's Shaw's Road in the late '60s, the rebuilding of Bombay Street after the 'B' Specials and loyalists razed it to the ground in 1969, and the Andersonstown News, which he joined in the mid-70s and which has grown in strength year on year.

Séamas symbolises a 'do it yourself' republican spirit. His life's history shows he is prepared to take on projects no matter how formidable if they advance the cultural and political cause of nationalists and republicans.

But it is the development of the Irish language for which he is best known. During the lunchtime discussion, I was moving from English into Irish in a rather awkward and self conscious manner because I was in the company of Gaels who are 'liofa', fluent.

I didn't see Séamas leave the company but I saw him return. He thrust inside my shirt pocket a small package and tapped me on the shoulder, "Comhghairdeas," a dhúirt sé and he resumed his seat.

I didn't know what to expect when I took the package out of my pocket to look at it. It was a 'Fáinne Óir' a gold Fáinne (awarded for achieving fluency in Irish). I looked at it in shock. I was moved and felt tears in my eyes. I was lost for words. In a childlike fashion I showed the company the Fáinne and was greeted with smiles and encouraging words.

I know the significance of a Fáinne Óir to those learning Irish. To receive one is the highest accolade and a personal achievement. It is the goal which many people set as they go through the stages of learning Irish; the first target being a Fáinne airgead, a silver Fáinne.

A Fáinne Óir is out there, somewhere, never quite within reach. Sometimes it is only a decision away to take the oral exam to try to get it. I had been trying for years to make the decision but always backed away, afraid I wasn't up to it.

And now it had landed on my lap in an unplanned way, given to me by a highly respected Gaelgeoir. The occasion set me thinking about my struggle to learn Irish.

I started learning Irish in the early months of 1973. I was interned in Long Kesh at the time. Ted Howell was my first múinteoir (teacher). Out of almost 100 men in Cage 3, Ted was one of a few who was a fluent Irish speaker and he was in his early 20s, compared to the others who were in their 50s or older.

Looking back to those days, it was a bit like being a lonely long distance runner, so few were interested in learning the language among the internees.

Nowadays, it is like running in a marathon with thousands of others alongside you of all ages, but especially young people. That is essentially the big difference and I suppose the story of the growth in interest in the language in the Six Counties over the last three decades.

When I was growing up in the Short Strand in the '60s, there was one family who spoke Irish and they were very well known for doing so in a quaint sort of way. Today, there are scores of people who can speak the language in the district.

Until ten years ago, I associated learning Irish with periods of imprisonment. As I said, I started to learn it when I was interned.

When I got out of internment in September 1974, I went to an Cluan Ard, one of the few, if not the only club in Belfast at the time, where Irish was being taught.

But within a few weeks of my release, I was on the run again until internment ended the following Christmas, so my visits to an Cluan Ard were fleeting.

My next protracted period of studying Irish was when I went back into Crumlin Road prison in September 1976. The British government had embarked on its criminalisation programme, so life inside the prison was difficult and there was little opportunity to learn.

Part of the motivation to learn Irish in the Crum then was you got out of the cell for two hours a week. We were on 24-hour lock-up so the take up for the class among the lads was massive. How much Irish was actually learned in those fraught circumstances is questionable but it kept my flicker of interest alive.

I got out the following September and the demands of the struggle dominated my life for next five years until I found myself back in prison again in January 1982.

Prison life had been transformed by the protest for political status and the deaths of the ten hunger strikers. There was much more freedom and opportunity to learn Irish in the prison through the classes provided by the authorities and those prisoners who had enough Irish to teach us.

Paddy Kelly from Tyrone, who was later to be killed at Loughgall in 1987 by the SAS with seven other IRA Volunteers and a civilian, took to learning Irish like a duck to water. I watched him with amazement as he soaked up the language and carried his large dictionary about 'C' Wing. Within a year he was nearly liofa, while I struggled on.

The charges against me carried a life sentence, so I was under immense pressure and this was my excuse for the lack of progress.

I knew I was 'going down' - the question was for how long - so my plan was to immerse myself in the language when I reached the H-Blocks, where the language was on everyone's lips.

But I was to be very disappointed when I arrived in the H-Blocks in mid-'84. The language was no longer the first tongue of communication between the lads. With political status and freedom of movement restored, English had returned and Irish had been pushed off the wing corridors into Cell 26, where those in search of it were taught. And that is where I stayed for the next four years, until my release.

During the blanket protest and the hunger strike, Irish was the language of resistance, an impenetrable weapon in the hands of the prisoners in the war against the prison authorities. The language provided a steel barrier behind which the prisoners planned their every move against the authorities, including the hunger strike.

It was a living language with a sense of purpose.

There was a large body of men who continued to converse fluently in Irish and there was the rest of us, who looked on in envy and in hope that one day we would do the same.

I remember Gino Mac Cormaic, who was serving a life sentence, taking part in an 'Irish Times' competition to find new Irish words for the rapidly expanding IT sector, while he translated from Irish a dictionary for the various Celtic languages of Europe.

My knowledge of Irish grew in those years, but prison life for me was a deeply unsettling experience and, whereas others absorbed the language like a sponge, I made moderate progress.

The journey continued as a free man and I was back in Cluan Ard in September 1993, once again at the bottom of the ladder, a 'bun rang' (beginners' class). The Irish I had allowed me to help others and I organised a weekly rang in my flat for those I met in my bun rang.

In the intervening years, I have advanced steadily. And today I am the proud owner not only of a Fáinne Oir but of a Diploma in Irish, which I passed a few weeks ago after two years of twice-weekly night classes.

I have a bit more to do before I join the ranks of those who are liofa, but I hope to add another chapter to my odyssey in September, when I will be teaching Irish to beginners at night time, a lifelong ambition of mine.


An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland
 

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