The following is an attempt to examine the current situation of economic activity in the Irish speaking community in Belfast. Reference will be made to a survey undertaken by Glór na nGael in June 1993, entitled Work Survey The Irish language and Employment in Belfast. Because the Irish language community is relatively small, this paper shall try to account for the economic impact of all the individual projects involved. Therefore the approach taken here will be to look at what each existing group is doing, how they are funded, and how that fits into an overall picture, in terms of actual economic activity.
It must be pointed out that this report is by no means an adequate objective examination of the economic impact of the Irish language. Rather it serves to provide an overview of that economic activity, preparing the ground work for a proper scientific analysis. It also provides an up to date account of the state of play with the Irish language, for use as general information.
The Irish language community only began to grow significantly over the past twenty years, and primarily involved the spread of Irish medium education. It is only very recently that people involved in the language have come together to address the need for an economic development strategy, to serve the expanding community. Before a stragedy can be developed however, one must first of all put the Irish language scene in Belfast into perspective.
The growth of the Irish language in Belfast is a fairly recent but rapid phenomenon. It cannot be attributed to one single factor, but is the result of a culmination of influences. No doubt the tense political climate and the birth of the civil rights movement had an important influence. The Irish language is often used by people as a form of expression of identity, and the civil rights movement created a strong confidence of nationalist assertion. This coinsided with the settlement of a small number of Irish speaking families in the Shaws Road area of Belfast following the outbreak of what came to be known as the Troubles. These people had pioneered activity in the language during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The Ardscoil, an entertainment and education centre belonging to the Belfast branch of Conradh na Gaeilge, and Cumann Chluain Ard were very important social centres during these years. Indeed the Ardscoil was the main focus of activity until it was destroyed in a fire in 1984. Those involved in the language down through the years had formed pressure groups, social groups, writing groups and periodicals, and organised many exchanges to the Gaeltacht areas. As the young adults of the sixties married and started to build families, they realized the necessity to provide institutions and facilities to allow the next generation to enjoy the great wealth of the Irish language, that they had come to appreciate. Their own involvement in the language was increasingly becoming a way of life as opposed to a mere interest.
Facilitation of this need was not going to come from the state which at the time was under direct unionist control from Stromont, and rife with discrimination against the nationalist community, and hence the Irish language community. Any development of the Irish language would have to come from their own efforts. It was agreed to collectively purchase a sizeable piece of land on what was then the outskirts of Belfast. A row of terraced homes were built, and a portacabin erected which formed the first ever Irish language primary school in Belfast and in the north of Ireland, Bunscoil Phobal Feirste. Five families took up residence in the first five houses and others came to live in adjacent houses as they were completed. The birth and success of the school paved the way for the growth of the language throughout Belfast and other provincial towns. Growth was initially slow with the major filtering effects coming when Bunscoil Phobal Feirste had es ablished itself. The success story of the school had great influence throughout Belfast. Since there was no secondary Irish medium school, the children leaving the Bunscoil had to enter the English medium maintained secondary schools. It was found that children leaving the Bunscoil had on the whole, acheived a very high standard of education. Parents were quick to take note of this, and were keen to have their children educated through the medium of Irish.
The establishing of the Belfast branch of Glór na nGael in 1982, was central to the development of the language. Glór na nGael provided support to the emerging Irish language nursery schools which were springing up all over the city. All nationalist areas in Belfast were experiencing a resurgence in the language. More and more adult language classes were emerging, despite the fact that outside of these classes, there was little by way of a tangible and identifable language speaking environment. Most people learning the language, unless they were involved in the Irish schools, had no access to support outside the class. Glór na nGael erected Irish street signs in various parts of the city where the Irish language was spoken, to help raise the profile of the language.
By the end of the 1970s the first group of children were leaving Bunscoil Phobal Feirste. It was the only Irish school in Belfast. By the end of the 1980s, Bunscoil Phobal Feirste had 400 children attending the school. Gaelcsoil na bhFál, the second Irish primary school, was up and runing and there were some nine Irish preschools in the city. From having just a few Irish classes available to adults, there were now dozens of classes. The creation of Lá, the only daily Irish language newspaper, An Ceathrú Poilí, an Irish language bookshop, a small Irish language depatrment in BBC Radio Ulster, and an Irish medium drama group Aisteoirí Aon Dráma, were all successful initiatives not dealing with mainstream education, to emerge during the eighties. An tUltach, an Irish language monthly magazine had been in existence since 1926. Cumann Chluain Árd, an Irish language speaking club, had been providing entertainment and classes for many years.
The beginning of the 1990s brought with it an acceleration of activity, both in terms of educational development and in broader schemes. In October 1991, Cultúrlann Mc Adam Ó Fiaich, an Irish language centre opened on the Falls Road. The first ever Irish medium secondary school also opened at the same time and occupied the second floor of the Cultúrlann. The LÁ team, An Ceathrú Poilí, and Aisteoirí Aon Dráma all acquired space in the building. An Irish language café, An Caifé Glas opened on the ground floor. For the first time the Irish language community had an economic and activity centre of its own.
The establishment of the Cultúrlann has had a tremendous affect on the language. It has created a feeling of achievement whithin the Irish community, and is a constant hive of activity. A wide range of activities are organised from and in the Cultúrlann, and the profile of the language in Belfast has been raised to unprecedented heights. People elsewhere use the Cultúrlann experience as a source of inspiration, as was the case in the Gaeltacht area of Donegal, where a similar project was initiated the following year, in Gaoth Dobhair. An Irish language radio station, four annual festivals, and an annual singing competition, are among the additional projects to have been es ablished at the behest of the Cultúrlann, and plans are underway to form an Irish language television programme production company. Other recent developments not directly associated with the Cultúrlann, include the opening of an adult learning centre, Ionad Uíbh Eachach; a Belfast based support agency for the coordination of Irish medium education throughout Ulster, Gaeloiliúint; and an Irish language writing group, Craobh na Scribhneoirí.
Irionically, however the Cultúrlann management secured funding to acquire the premises during a period when the British Government had withdrawn funding from Glór na nGael, on its allegations that the organisation had paramilitary links. Despite requests by politicians from most parties in Britain and Ireland, and representations from community groups, the British government refused to clarify their position. It took a court case and an intense campaign to eventually force the Government to withdraw their allegations and restore funding in July 1992.
People working through the medium of Irish in Belfast will most likely be involved with one or more of the following groups, most of which have already been referred to. Bunscoil Phobal Feirste, Gaelscoil na bhFál, Glór na nGael, An Cultúrlann, An Caife Glas, An Ceathrú Poilí, Taca, Gaelghnó, Aisteoirí Aon Dráma, Lá, Meánscoil Feirste, Raidió Fáilte, Cumann Chluain Árd, Craobh na Scribhneoirí, An Ion abhas Ultach, the Irish preschools, Bunscoil an tSléibhe Dhuibh, Bunscoil Ard Eoin, Bogearraí sa Ghaeilge.
An individual look at these groups will give a better idea of what stage the language development in Belfast is at. Glór na nGael estimates that over 220 people are earning a living or getting a training through the language. 33% of that figure work in Belfast's language schools and 14% are involved in adult tuition, although this figure does not take account of the voluntary sector.
Since education accounts for such a high percentage of the total, the individual groups will be divided into two categories; educational groups and general groups, which are discussed in separate sections of this guide.