‘…the return to the local can be a form of resistance, a defensive response to globalisation, the struggles of those on the margins to reclaim some form of representation for themselves.’ Stuart Hall
The distinct value of local activism is recognised the world over. In this era of globalisation, participating in the improvement of your local area is both a reaction and a form of resistance against the dominant world-view. This very process facilitates and generates activists, organisations, and community events that give people hope by involving them in their own destiny. This approach can be particularly powerful when it engages those based in the most marginalised communities. It fosters empowerment, self-help, consistency, co-operation and pride in our native place.
A case in point would be the Upper Springfield area, one of the most socio-economically disadvantaged areas in the north of Ireland, but also unique for its ability to showcase exemplary self-help community initiatives spanning over fifty years.
It was renowned Gael and Whiterock native, Seán Mac Goill, who was central to one of the first developments of this kind when the Ballymurphy Tenants Association (BTA) was built in the late sixties to provide both social and employment opportunities to the local district. Seán’s practical experience benefited the Gaels on Shaws Road when he designed their Gaeltacht village around the same time and also a couple of years later in 1969, when Seán and the Shaws Road Gaeltacht cohort rebuilt Bombay street after it was burnt to the ground by loyalists under the watch of the forces of the orange state.
Their natural sympathy for the abandoned and the oppressed encouraged further efforts in the same community in the 1970’s when Mac Goil, Séamus Mac Seáin, Seán Mac Seáin, Donnchadh Ua Bruadair and Seamus de Napier were pivotal to a series of community co-operatives including: Ballymurphy Enterprises, Garáiste an Phobail (the People’s Garage) and Whiterock Industries that created employment and a sense of optimism in the community.
Unfortunately, the military conflict and British Army occupation impeded and hindered these efforts. The British Army murdered 11 civilians in August 1971 in the Ballymurphy Massacre and hundreds of others were interned without trial; young Geraldine Macklin was shot dead and Seamus Mac Seáin seriously wounded in the garage in 1974; and the British Army would later burn Whiterock Industries to the ground before building the super-base Fort Gerico a couple of years later. Despite this, a resilience and defiant imagination always defined the community response during the most challenging of times and the hugely popular Upper Springfield festival of 1973 and 1974 were amongst the most dynamic answers to emanate from the community which both confused and wrong-footed the forces of occupation. Street parties, colourful parades, concerts, youth events and political debates gave respite from war and evoked pride in the area….
The voices of these Gaels shaped the ideals of those generations to come who recognised the Irish language as a means of regeneration and empowerment that fulfilled the same objectives. Local Gaelscoileanna were established as the heartbeat of the revival and activists renewed these foundations by establishing groups and community projects that catered for the next generation, their parents, relatives and families who put their faith in the language reconquest. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the likes of Maureen McGuinness, Jim McCann, John-Boy Ó Muireagáin and Matt Lundy emerged from this genesis by making the vision of Irish medium education a reality in the area.
Standing on the brave shoulders of these giants are Glór na Móna, who have been working in the Upper Springfield area as a youth and community organisation since 2004. There is a strong sense of bottom-up philosophy and methodology in their work which provides innovative projects in the area that promote the language throughout the community while also developing the community through the medium of the language.
This approach was clearly articulated and demonstrated in Féile na Carraige last week which attracted hundreds of Gaels and supporters of the language to a wide range of events, the majority of which took place in the recently opened Gael-Ionad Mhic Goill, which is named in honour of Seán Mac Goill himself. A lively platform was given to a diverse mix of youth and community events that encouraged participation, positivity and a sense of ownership in both the local and wider community.
Open and welcoming spaces were provided that allowed people to enjoy a pleasurable and comradely atmosphere in which they could reflect on history, community, politics and culture. This, in turn, inspired feelings of resistance and hope where people can recognise their agency and ultimate potential to change things for the better.
There were many quite special events with powerful historical symbolism, such as, when activists and learners questioned Seán Mac Goill, Seán Mac Seáin and Seamus Mac Seáin about their aforementioned work in the area 40 years previously. The same energetic an emotive atmosphere was evident when children and young people discussed the legacy of Bobby Sands and the Hunger Strike with Séanna Breathnach and Jake Mac Siacais. The festival organising committee welcomed opportunities for critical reflection, challenge and debate in a way that normalised a progressive outlook based on solidarity and mutually beneficial collaboration on questions and causes that are relevant to people’s lives.
All the speakers agreed that the methodology and approach to struggle that worked in the 1960s or 1980s would not be transferable to the 21st century. There was a broad understanding that a more open, flexible and attractive set of methods would be required of the current generation in order that they leave their own creative stamp on the future of our language, and our community.
In this sense, it was both fitting and appropriate that young people who were born and raised in Ballymurphy and Turf Lodge were both central and to the fore in leading this memorable Féile. They are a confident and capable new generation who view the language as a tool for community transformation rather than as hobby or profession. They see it as a life-choice and as a means to make a difference in a community that is one of the worst ravaged with the legacy of neo-colonialism in Ireland. Young Gaels who are embedded in their local place and attached to its unique history. People who are proud of their area and determined to build on foundations bequeathed to them by previous generations.
The distinguished activist and writer, Naomi Klein talks about this phenomenon when referring to the ferocious fight demanded of humanity in light of the horrors of climate change. She draws on the wisdom of farmer-poet Wendell Berry, who lauds our duty to our local and native place. ‘Stop somewhere’ he advises, ‘and begin the thousand-year-long process of knowing that place.’