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CLG Laochra Loch Lao – Fostering an Irish Speaking Community

Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh

Background: Amalgamated Club

When we established Laoch Loch Lao back in November 2006 in the clubrooms of Gort na Móna CLG, we certainly did not imagine or envisage that the amalgamated club would flourish into a standalone club in the longer term. We attracted fellow speakers from some of the other clubs in the west of the city, Gort na Móna, St Paul, Lámh Dhearg, Rossa, St John, Na Sailsealaigh, Naomh Úna and Naomh Gall. In truth, our core aim at the time was to support the development of the Gaeltacht Quarter and to put Belfast’s Irish speaking community on the national stage.

It was great publicity for the club, when in 2007 Laochra Loch Lao were permitted to play in Comórtas Peile na Gaeltachta, in no small part to the leadership of Jake Mac Siacais and Forbairt Feirste who drove the concept over the line, gaining support from Antrim County Board with Gearóid Mac Róibín and Jim Murray being particularly helpful. We built alliances and long-lasting friendships with other Gaeltact areas like Ros Muc, An Rinn Waterford and the Áran Islands of Galway and both encouraged and inspired the use of Irish amongst other Gaeltacht communities.

We immediately recognized the unique power and spirit of the project. It stimulated the social use of the language in an enjoyable, informal setting among former Gaelscoil pupils these efforts had a powerful and symbolic impact on a very deep sociocultural level. As a very practical sociolinguistic experiment, we saw ‘passive bilinguals’, who believed that they had lost the ability to speak the language, regain their fluency after a few days together.

Aodan Mac Póilín and the Ultach Trust recognized the importance of this project and gave £5000 in 2010 to support its development. The only stipulation that Aodan placed on the grant was that we paid for a supporters’ bus to the Gaeltacht Football competition to ensure that we created a social network of Irish Speakers for the weekend of the competition.

In addition, we also developed local partnerships and we supported Irish-medium activists such as Seán Fennell who had been organising Comórtas Peile na mBunscoileanna for many years. We renamed the competition in memory of Liam Ó Muirí in 2010 and it has been flourishing ever since then with twelve Irish medium schools and almost 350 children taking part annually.

We also set up a senior football competition for teams in South Antrim that we named the Oliver Kelly Cup, in memory of the well know Gael and solicitor, it was also fitting that his two sons Cathal and Diarmuid were playing for the Laochra. Róise Níc Chorraidh and Gráinne Holland won the Cailín Ghaelach competition in 2009 and 2010 at Gaeltacht competition which generated great publicity for the club and the Belfast language revival on the Gaeltacht radio station, Raidió na Gaeltachta.

Ceara Ní Choinn and Imagine Media made a BBCNI television series about the Laochra in 2010 which was the most watched Irish language program in the history of the station.In 2011 we also established a women’s team, the same year the men reached the junior All- Ireland Final at Comórtas Peile na Gaeltachta, where they lost against Naomh Muire by one point a game that was shown live on TG4. During this time, under the management of former inter-county manager Micky Culbert, there was great support for the project from the Antrim county board and we succeeded in attracting fluent Irish speaking inter-county players such as Paddy Cunningham, Declán Lynch and and Paddy McBride.

Nothing lasts forever and the energy for this phase of the project slowly drained away. It was clear that the project had reached its peak, as we were now struggling to get a team on the field to compete. The good will of the local GAA clubs began to ebb away and it became ever more difficult to attract players to play in the annual competition. At one point in the early years, we had to turn players away players but between 2013-2016, we found it increasingly challenging to field a team with some club refusing to release their players to play. In the national contect, Na Gaeil Óga CLG were formed in Dublin city 2010 and and Gaeil na Gaillimhe were formed in Galway City in 2014 and independent, standalone Irish speaking GAA clubs. In one sense, the followed the Laochra’s example but went much further with the courageous step to establish as standalone clubs. The challenge was laid down.

Challenge: A stand alone and independent club?

In the same period between 2013-16 as the amalgamated club was struggling to survive, there was an explosion in the development of Irish Medium youth work in the city. Arising from this and some other projects that focused on the social use of the language, several younger activists began to suggest that weexplore the possibilities of establishing a juvenile GAA club for the Laochra. This conversation began in earnest in 2016 and there were also strong and varied opinions about the establishment of a standalone senior team. This stimulated intense and passionate debate that was both sensitive and controversial in many ways.

GAA members are well aware that there is a powerful family and parochial connection at the heart of the GAA communal ethos. As is reflected, in the well-recognized, ‘One life, One Club’ mantra that reflects the importance of loyalty and continuity in the character of the club. There was a strong possibility that community-based GAA members would be genuinely reluctant, fearful and some of them even hurt or angry at this type of project. This is always the case with projects that are new and different, but there is a particular depth and complexity to the internal workings and politics at the heart of the GAA. On a personal basis, I wrestled with these conflicts, as a long-standing member of Gort na Móna CLG in the Upper Springfield area since early childhood. Gort na Mona’s home pitch, Páirc Mhic Ionnrachtaigh, is named in memory of my late brother Terry who was murdered by loyalist in 1998, whichobviously only served to strengthened my family’s ties with the club.

We realized that everyone else would be in the same boat and that it would only be a tiny minority from our amalgamated club who would be willing to make the move and break with the loyalty to their own club.

We also realized that there are significant differences between the GAA culture in Belfast and the types of developments that are taking place in Galway, or in Dublin, where there are 1.3 million people and more than 10 Senior Football Leagues. In Antrim, for example, there are only 3 Senior Football leagues and there have been serious internal discussions taking place at county level for many years with the common consensus being that there are too many GAA clubs in West Belfast and that some of them should amalgamate with each other. In recent years, a series of long-established clubs such as the Sean Mac Diarmada CLG, who were playing Gaelic Games on Falls Road since the 1930s have folded. In addition, the most recently formed GAA club in Belfast, Cumann na Fuiseoige, who were established 2004 in Twinbrook/Poleglass areas, started amidst a wave of energy and growth with teams at every level before ultimately folding.

The visit of renowned Professor of History, Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, who came to speak in Gaelionad Mhic Goill in March 2017 had a great influence on us with our plans and the debate in full swing. In addition, the power andinspiration of An Dream Dearg campaigning network was gathering pace in the same period. We asked Ó Tuathaigh, who is also an expert in Gaeltacht affairs and sociolinguistics on his view regarding the importance of the Irish Language Act.

He agreed that legal status for the language and legislative protection were of particular significance to protect the language, as was thecommunity campaigning that went with it, but he warned us not to view it as the ‘panacea of the language movement, as the limitations of official status in the Republic of Ireland has shown‘. It was more urgent he suggested to establish, ‘community-based, innovative projects that created strong ‘social domains’ in which Irish was the ‘dominant acoustic’ rather than a footnote, a remnant of tokenism and arestrictive false bilingualism’.

He explained excatly what our movement needed and why is was so crucial for the Laochra project to be established and succeed. The initiative was completely rooted in the, energetic methodology that defined the Dream Dearg campaign with a natural overlap with many activists from the same collaborative networks. The Laochra would be utilised as another vehicle to implement the radical approach of the visionaries of the Shaw’s Road Gaeltacht to deliver our own self-sustaining communityservices regardless of state support. Like the work of the Shaws Road Gaeltacht visionaries, the self-help methodology and philosophy of the Laochra is rooted in the politics of decolonisation that was inspired by the likes of Pádraig Mac Piarais and Máirtín Ó Cadhain whopointed out that the reconquest of Irish is the reconquest of Ireland and the reconqeust of Ireland, the salvation of Irish.

Establishing and Developing the club

The Tomás Ashe commemorative weekend at the end of the September 2017 and the ten-year celebratory Laochra Loch Lao dinner was chosen to launch the new club. Speaking on the night, the newly appointed Chairman of the club, Martin Mac Gabhann, quoted the famous Algerian revolutionary, Frantz Fanon, “Every generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it” as an indication of the important role that the heritage and history of the Gaelic revival played in the decision to establish a standalone Irish Speaking GAA Club. A commemorative booklet was published on the night which celebrated the 10th anniversary of the amalgamated club and Mac Gabhann finished, We say and we do … This remarkable chapter of ten years of the emalgamated team is now engraved in stone and we will instantly start a new chapter and create a new journey. ‘

Guest speaker on the night, President of the GAA, Aogan Ó Fearghail, supported thesesentiments and praised the new development as “a historical opportunity to increaseparticipation in Gaelic Games and to place the Irish Language front and centre of the GAA both in Antrim and throughout the province of Ulster. Ó Fearghail finished by laying down a challenge for the assembled crowd in the PD that it would be great to see ‘Comórtas Peile na Gaeltachta coming to Belfast in the future’.

The Juvenile club was launched earlier that day in the Gaeltacht Quarters new state of the art sports facilities; Spórtlann na hÉireann, with the generous support of Coláiste Feirste. Spórtlann na hÉireann is a £ 13.4million capital project that was completed just a few months earlier after many years of intense struggle and obstruction from the Department of Education,who finally rebalanced the underinvestment in the north’s first Irish Medium Post-Primary school.

On the first morning we attracted 48 children for our Nursery program, U6 and U8 for both boys and girls. Speaking on the day, chairperson of the juvenile club Conchur Ó Muadaigh said, “This new project is trying to ensure that young people have the opportunity to live their lives through Irish and our club is a natural extension of the wonderful and innovative experiences that your children already receive in the Gaelscoileanna and our youth clubs’.

The impact on the GAA in the area was immediate with other clubs in the city starting to post bilingually on their social media. As is often the case, the women moved straight to action, motivated by the energy of Dearbhla Ní Ruanaidh, when the men were still talking. The female Laochra called their first public training session in mid-October 2017.

Twenty women took to the field that night and a few weeks later they contacted Antrim Ladies Football Association to register the new club. Antrim LGFA were very sympathetic to the concept which corresponded with their own efforts to attract newly formed clubs into the developing leaguages in recent years.

The men started a few weeks later at the beginning of November and the demand for the project was evident from the start with 34 players answering the call to our Facebook post which encouraged people to ‘try out some football and get reconnected with using their Irish at the same time at our pitch at Coláiste Feirste.

Of these, there were 3 distinct cohorts: a very low percentage of players who had played with the amalgamated team over the past ten years; other players who played for Coláiste Feirste or other local clubs at an under-age level but who fell away in their late teens; and fluent Irish speakers without any experience of football or the GAA. Some players told us on the first night that they were worried that they had lost their fluency in Irish as they had not spoken it for many years. They were very surprised when the Irish language phrases began to come back to them without much effort and they were communacating in Irish on the football pitch within a few weeks.

We received an official date to go before the county board for the end of January 2018 and make the case that the men’s senior football team be admitted to Antrim Senior League (Division 3) and that the county board would officially affiliate the whole club, including the juvenile club with Croke Park as a new GAAClub. We made a presentation to the County Management Committee with great support from Terry Reilly, deputy chairman of the county, Paul Molloy and County Chair, Collie Donnelly. Despite the strong support for the concept, there was serious concerns regarding the practicability and sustainability of the club. There hadn’t been a new team permitted into the Antrim men’s football leagues since St Brigid in the south of the city in 1998.

Cumann na Fuiseoige collapsed after this and people were worried that we would face the same difficulties. In addition, the transfer window opened on the first day of January 2018 and was due to close on February 28 and no players were able to transfer to us until we received the official status as a club from Croke Park. This left us only several weeks to transfer and register all players. In addition, fixtures were due to start in mid-April had already been drafted. One of delegates suggested that we wait another year as it would be a ‘logisticalnightmare’ to sort all this in the timescale available.

We explained that we thought this would put the project at risk and we took on the challenge of transferring and registering each player within three weeks. This offer was accepted unanimously but it was stated that our status would not be publicized until we had completedthe task. And complete the task, we did, due in no small part due to the to the hard work of our registrar Fiachra Mac an Bhiocaire who registered 40 players and arranged 28 transfers within a couple of weeks.

For the first year, we set out a few key goals: fostering interest and a sense of ownership in the club, the concept, the project and the language revolution; to build a club culture and identity; to establish the widest participation in the club’s events with an open door policy; provide the language community with professional and highly organised approach; to consolidate a culture of growth and development; and most importantly be as competitive as possible on the football field at all times.

We certainly did all this and more. The women won their first few games in Division 3 of the women’s league and were on top of the table at one point. The men won one game, got a draw in another and claimed an historic victory in Comórtas Peile na Gaeltachta in the Downings, Co Donegal against Lios Póil from Kerry, thanks to four goals from the irrepressible Diarmaid Mac Pilib. The juvenile club went from strength to strength from month to month and we ended up with 90 young people at the end of year celebrations between the nursery program, under 6 and 8 teams. We built solid relationships with the local Irish medium primary schools in the city and put coaches into them as part of a pilot scheme that delivered a 6-week program in four separate primary schools.

Now that the seed has been planted and a strong foundation laid down, we realize that we are on the right track. We created the demand and fulfilled a community need. As prominent Gaeltacht man, former All-Ireland winningKerry captain and All-Star winner Dara Ó Cinnéide said when he spoke at our presnation night in November 2018, ‘we use and speak Irish, because she is ours.’

Not only do we feel that we are contributing to the valuable social infrastructure required by the language coomunity in the city, but we also are developing good, energetic, positive people that will have a galvanising effect on this community in the future. It was also evident from the outset saw that this new project has had a special power and a unique spirit that seems tocompletely change the lives of those people who actively participate in this transformative project. A power to bring hidden Gaels out of the wilderness and bring them back home to the language and back to the community.

We are also now fully aware of how difficult, daunting and challenging it is to run a GAA club from week to week. We are under no illusions of the long and winding road ahead of us. Although we may still at the bottom of Mount Errigal, we can only descend upwards with integrity, courage and honesty on the shoulders of those giants who went before us.

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