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Oráid Sheamúis MhicSheáin ag seoladh leabhar “Language, Resistance and Revival” le Feargal MacIonnrachtaigh

Two Gaels, who I know well, were attacked this week in our town. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir is one of them and the author of this book Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh is the other. Máirtín was physically attacked by a gang of ignorant extremists who were incited by bigoted politicians and Feargal was subject to verbal insults by a prominent TV personality who was present at a talk that Feargal gave as part of Féile an Phobail. The man attacked Feargal ferociously because he had the audacity to explain to the audience about the damage that colonialism in Ireland had on the culture and language of its people.

DSC_7140-seamus-3This man was furious that Feargal was telling an aspect of the marginalisation and demise of the Irish language that didn’t suit his own ‘happy clappy’ view on the language and he went on to accuse Feargal of politicising the language and using as a weapon of war. This is a man of peace who you would imagine wouldn’t say ‘boo’ to anybody, who showed another side to his personality when he came across someone presenting a view that was contrary to his own.

But who is this Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh who incurred the wrath of the TV personality? A republican in his outlook and someone who believes, above all else, in the welfare of the working class. This is a family trait, no doubt, as he come from a highly respected clann of steadfast republicans who have suffered a lot on behalf of our people, during his own lifetime, including the murder of own of their sons by loyalists while out earning a living for his wife and children.

Feargal is one of those who received all of his education through the medium of Irish, along with Aisling Ní Labhraí, who sits beside us here today. From nursery school to primary school through to secondary school and university, all through the medium of Irish, where he improved his Irish and wrote poetry and short stories in the language. Something that is revolutionary in its own right. He is, therefore, an intelligent man and this book comes as the result of his work as a PhD student. It is the first doctorate, to my knowledge, to be awarded to a past pupil of Coláiste Feirste and his family and the school are undoubtedly very proud of this fact.

I was involved myself in the foundation and development of Coláiste Feirste at the beginning more than twenty years ago. I knew some of the pupils in the early years and as the school grew and knew less and less of them and it wasn’t until his last year in the school that I remember seeing Feargal.

When Tony Blair came to power, he sent over a guy called John McFaul as Minister for Education and he wasn’t long in the job when he asked to visit Coláiste Feirste and it fell on my lap, in the company of the school principal Fergus Ó hÍr to bring him around the school. At the end of his visit, he asked could he speak with the 7th years students and he asked did any of them have an interest in politics. One lad put his hand and when asked by McFall which political party he supported, the young lad said, ‘O I’m not fussed, ‘as long as it’s an anti-British party’. This took the wind out of McFaul’s sails who promptly left without saying a word!

It was Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh who silenced McFall, a man I would later get to know through his work with Forbairt Feirste. He is the chairperson of Glór na Móna, a group who promote the Irish language for the benefit of the community in the Upper Springfield. In one sense, Feargal and his group descend from another group of Gaels who did great work in the same area on behalf of the language over 40 years ago with the likes of Séan Mac Goill, Séamus De Napier, Ciarán Ó Catháin, Aonnraí Ó Catháin, Seán Mac Seáin and Donncha Ua Bruadair, except that they did it with a bloody war raging all around them.

In 1969, I happened to be working for Comhaltas Uladh and was asked to speak to as many people as possible in order to ascertain people’s views on the language. I spoke with a university graduate from France who was doing a PhD on the Gaelic League at the time, and I asked him why the Irish language interested him. He said that he wasn’t interested in the language but was studying the League as a social phenonomen that functioned amongst the ordinary people and changed their lives. He was interested in the social revolution being carried out by the League rather than the language per se. It was in the same year that Bombay Street was burned and it’s interesting that it was Irish speakers who went about its rebuilding and also created the Whiterock Industrial Estate with the stated aim of having an impact on the lives of ordinary people, just as the Gaelic League did when it was originally founded. Feargal and his group are of the same inclination and it’s no surprise that he chose the subject in this book at the theme of his doctorate.

I read somewhere recently that ‘”It’s the fools role to speak truth onto power” and if this is true then Feargal certainly is foolish, thank god, because this book speaks the truth to the powerful amongst us without a hint of hesitation. A copy of this book should be presented to every politician who speaks on our behalf, because it attempts to explain, in my view, why the ordinary communities around us haven’t benefited from whatever peace dividend that was supposed to emanate from the ending of the war, in which our people suffered so much.

Why, for example, is the unemployment rate twice as high in republican areas than it is in unionist areas despite thirteen years having passed since power-sharing began and 15 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement?

Or why are more than 50% of teenagers without work? Or why is health inequality much higher in West Belfast than in any other area? Or why is infant mortality on the rise again? Or why is the housing waiting list in nationalist areas much than those of other areas?

Why is the poverty rate of 43% amongst young children in West Belfast in comparison with 21% in the East of the city? Or why do 60% of families often struggle without sufficient food? Or why do 19% of families in the West of the city not have enough money to buy shoes for their children when they need them? Or why are 80% of families depending on money usurers to survive from week to week? And why can Peter Robinson boast of billions of pound invested in his own East Belfast constituency when all we can boast of are longer dole queues and the biggest heath centre in the city at Beechhall!

It’s a poor dividend, in my view, after 40 years of hardship and suffering during a war and that’s why only 38% of the West Belfast community voted in the last election.

Although this list of statistics could foster despair and hopelessness; I now understand, having read Feargal’s book that we are no exception in this country in terms of continuing hardship after the revolutionary phase and Feargal shows how a similar fate has befallen countries throughout the world, especially those that were colonised by the imperial forces of Europe. It is therefore, no surprise that Feargal focuses on the countries of Africa and the devastating impact that colonialism had on the continent whilst also including many references to African writers who wrote on this subject.

The South African state and our own state in the north are often compared to each other in terms of a history of civil and religious apartheid that people fought courageously against and suffered a lot in the process. Some of the political leaders here in the north boast of how close they are to the leaders of the new state in South Africa but I’m not no sure that this new state( as is the case with our own) is anything to be proud of.

We know that Steve Biko was the Bobby Sands of the South African revolution and that he was brutally murdered. He was undoubtedly a hero and a brave man but his wife, who fought bravely by his side, is now on record as saying that South Africa is corrupt state, whose leaders have betrayed the values of the revolution in favour of wealth, power and financial profiteering, despite many of them having spent long periods in prison as ex-combatants in the liberation struggle. Biko’s wife has now embarked on forming her own political party to oppose the corruption of the ANC. She has the backing of Archbishop Tutu but will no doubt have a serious fight on her hands, with the seeds of corruption deeply embedded in South Africa society by this time.

What happened to the revolution in South Africa and to Bobby Sands’ revolution closer to home, that our people remain just as bad off as they ever were despite the revolutionaries being in power? Feargal explains in this book just how this happened. He describes in detail about the workings of neo-colonialism throughout the world and how it functions in countries during the post-revolutionary phase when the state assimilates and co-opts the insurgents into the new state in order to ensure the consolidation of colonial interests under a different leadership

Habitually, when the neo-colonists take control of the state apparatus, they fill its posts and committees with people who agree with them and they marginalise those people who are independent in their viewpoint. Freedom of speech is forbidden and those who don’t accept the ‘group-think’ of their masters are silenced. Resources are divided amongst the community through bribes and favours rather than being allocated on the basis of human rights or objective need. This is the seeds of corruption being sown and after a while, the community cannot function without surrendering to the system of currying favour with ‘friends in high places’ and adhering to a policy of ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ if they want to bring any project to fruition.

This is how silence is bought and at this point the entire political corpus of the community is corrupted and it takes a massive effort to shift this. It appears that this stage has been arrived at in South Africa but the question is have we arrived at this point in our home town? You can judge this for yourselves by looking around you. Are the specific traits of neo-colonialism visible amongst us? Are the majority of community organisations controlled by those who adhere to the establishment’s view of what is in the ‘interests’ of the people? Are the community’s resources being divvied out to people who are obedient to those who control the purse strings? Is this why, for example, that there isn’t mass action and protests regarding the chronic disadvantage amongst the West Belfast community, despite the greatest concentration of community groups being based here?

Are the traits of neo-colonialism so embedded amongst us that we are now so dependent on the establishment for funding and jobs that it becomes difficult to speak out in case we upset the establishment political parties? Or as one republican, who took a stand about the injustice imposed on young Gaels, was firmly told, “stop it your embarrassing the minister!!”

Is this why that Sinn Féin education ministers could refuse free travel to the children in a Gaelscoil despite a court order stating that this should be provided? Or does the republican minister support the decision of the Department of Education that it is acceptable, in this day and age, for children from Ardoyne to be told to walk down the Shankill Road to Coláiste Feirste, while being denied a bus pass?

Is this where we find ourselves at the minute and are we content to accept this? I don’t think that this was what Bobby Sands died for and Feargal’s book clarifies what takes place in this society we live in, especially for those of us who understand that something is fundamentally wrong but can’t articulate it!

In my opinion, the information and analysis that Feargal has provided us with in this book is a starting point. We need a complete change of direction, in my view, if our people are to realise their rights and there is no doubt that the noble corridors and marble halls of Stormont won’t lead us there. This book of Feargal’s can shine a light on how best to get us there if it is widely read. Buy the book and read it. It provides a basis for reflection.

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