Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Irish - 'a bullet in the freedom struggle'

I have a particular interest in minority or lesser-used languages and regard them as part of the cultural wealth of a people.  However here in Ulster the Irish republican movement has, for more than a century, used the Irish language as a cultural weapon.
In the current post I want to show when and how the Provisional republican movement came to that position of turning a cultural wealth into a cultural weapon.
In 1982, in the wake of the IRA hunger strikes, Sinn Fein formed a cultural department to promote the use of the Irish language.  In the years that followed it was very active in promoting the language for political ends and it became part of the Sinn Fein strategy of 'broadening the battlefield'.  This was a strategy which regards republican activity in the political, cultural and social fields as complementing the 'armed struggle' of the Provisional IRA.
As part of its programme Sinn Fein organised a 'Public Seminar for People Learning or Planning to Learn the Irish Language' and it was held in Conway Mill on the Falls Road on Saturday 26 May 1982.  The first speaker was Padraig O'Maoicraoibhe, a Sinn Fein cultural officer and a teacher in Belfast (later Cathaorieach of Scoil Ghaelach Bheal Feirste).  He told those who were present at the seminar:
I don't think we can exist as a separate people without our language.  Now every phrase you learn is a bullet in the freedom struggle.
Padraig O'Maoicraoibhe also said that the restoration of the Irish language was part of the process of the decolonisation of Ireland.
The process of decolonisation will have stopped half-way if, the day we succeed in driving the English from our shores, what is left behind is an Irish people possessed of the language, culture and values of the English.
Here he linked the learning of the Irish language to the campaign to 'drive out the Brits'.
The second speaker was Gearoid O'Caireallain, later editor of the Irish language newspaper La.
These speeches were followed by four workshops on Irish and the National Struggle, Why Learn Irish?, Irish and the Community and Difficulties with Learning Irish.
At the workshop on Irish and the National Struggle:
Everyone was agreed that there was a definite link between the National Struggle and the Cultural Revival.
Indeed the chairperson of that workshop, Sinn Fein activist Tarlach MacIonractaigh, joined together IRA terrorism and the Irish language when he said that:
The armed struggle is the highest point of the cultural revival.
Afterwards and in order to give the content of the seminar some permanence, Sinn Fein produced a bilingual booklet entitled Learning Irish - a discussion and
information booklet.  It had an introduction by another Sinn Fein cultural officer Mairtin O'Muilleoir, the speech by Padraig O'Maoicraoibhe, including the quotes given above, and reports on the workshop discussions.
The author of the introduction, Mairtin O'Muilleoir has gone on to greater things.  He was a Belfast councillor, went off to head up the Belfast Media Group and the Andersonstown News, and has now returned to Belfast City Council, serving one term as lord mayor.  Thirty years have elapsed but he was a central figure in the birth of Sinn Fein's cultural war and provided the introduction for the booklet which helped to launch that cultural war.
The author Camille O'Reilly makes reference to a variant of the notorious 'bullet' statement in her book The Irish Language in Northern Ireland, which was published by the Ultach Trust in 1997.  There she reports a prominent member of Sinn Fein, who was also an Irish language activist, as saying that:
Every word of Irish spoken is like another bullet being fired in the struggle for Irish freedom.
The inclusion of the 'bullet' phrase in the booklet and the reference in O'Reilly suggests that the phrase was fairly widely used at that time by republican Irish speakers.
Earlier this week I heard a presenter on Radio Ulster question a unionist politician who had quoted the phrase about 'a bullet in the freedom struggle'.  He asked the politician who had said it.  Well here is the answer about the origins of the phrase and if anyone wants to check it out, the little Sinn Fein booklet is long out of print but there are still copies of it in various libraries and collections.
There has been a lot of comment on the Irish language in the media in recent times, some of it well-informed and some of it ill informed.  This is just the first of a number of posts on various aspects of the Irish language and I hope that readers will find them to be informative.


  1. The Irish language has been a tool of nationalist and republicans longer than the above. You need only to look to the The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland by Douglas Hyde in 1892 and the literary deliveries of Sinn Feins Terence McSwinney around the turn of the century.

  2. Nelson - have you a copy of the booklet? It would be great to have it online.