Irish Language Literature

A strong tradition in Belfast

‘I am blinded with tears…’ - Fearflatha Ó Gnímh c.1638

‘I see myself in the back of a hackney cab
beside a silent brute of a man.
His black leather jacket reeks of beer,
And he’s got a hand gun stashed in his oxter.’  - Gearóid Mac Lochlainn 2002

As a colonial settlement within the most gaelicised part of Ireland, Belfast has always had a strong tradition of Irish language literature. Whilst not part of the corporate fabric of the city in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Irish language was, through the exchange of people with Belfast’s rural hinterland, a living and breathing entity.

The O’Neills of Clandyboye, rulers of the city until the arrival of Sir Arthur Chichester employed Gaelic bards, one of whom, Fearflatha Ó Gnímh composed a long epic on the death of Gaelic in the local region and lamented the falling away of the local Gaelic families: ‘I am blinded with tears and a midst of grief at how few are still alive of the professors, prophets and seer-poets.’

Belfast was a settler community whose inhabitants for the most part spoke English as their native language, but, as the city grew, there began a thread of Irish language activity. James Blow, the printer, produced the first bilingual catechism in 1722, although it should be noted that this publication was produced to convert the islanders of Rathlin to Protestantism and for them to learn English through reading Gaelic.

Gleann AirbhOne of the most important events in the Irish language history of the city was the 1792 Harpers Festival, which saw the Linen Hall Library host a collection of harpers from across Ireland who allowed their airs to be written down, many for the first time.

This event is emblematic of the interest that the enlightened citizens of the 18th century city took in the Irish language. One of the key figures in this movement was Dr James McDonnell, one of the town’s most prominent men, who raised his children as Irish speakers in Belfast.

Political change after 1800 saw Belfast’s cultural identity shift but the Irish language remained, with Sir Samuel Ferguson being one of those who benefited from the teachings of Irish scholar Patrick Lynch.

Hugh McDonnell was a poet who wrote exclusively in Gaelic, and his verses are, as Aodán MacPóilin has pointed out, a glimpse of the industrial city through the eyes of someone with a ‘ragged defiant pride in his heritage’. His most interesting poem concerns the arrival of a country friend at the Soho Foundry in the city:

‘There were otherworld hosts there worshipping demons
Their skins like coal and complexions black as the sloe
A druidic priest was sacrificing to Baal
There were cauldrons on embers as in Babylon…
When I saw that awesome, horrifying, alien sight
I lost the strength of my limbs and all interest in women.’

Early 20th century was a barren time for writing in Irish, with very little published before the 1950s. Two particular books show that for all the hundred years between them and Hugh McDonnell, men from the country still found Belfast something of a culture shock.

I mBéal Feirste Domh (My Time in Belfast), was published in 1942 by Sean MacMaoláin and later followed by Ó Ghleann Airbh go Glas Naíon (From Glenariff to Glasnevin) in 1969. These two novels delineate the difficulties of settling in a city like Belfast and coming to terms with the sectarian ‘rules and regulations’.

An Da ThraTerence Hood or Tarlach Ó hUid wrote three novels whilst in Belfast, some whilst at His and Her Majesty’s Pleasure. In An Dá Thrá (Both Sides of the Divide), Ó hUid writes about Belfast in a style which prefigures Brian Moore’s dull rain leaden streets:

‘The silence of the Belfast Sabbath surprised Liam after the noise and excitement of the previous night. He hardly met two people between Eglinton Street and Royal Avenue … The only comparison for Belfast on the Sabbath morn, thought Liam, was London during the Great Plague.’

Ó hUid also wrote short stories. A contemporary of his, Séamus Ó Néill wrote an interesting novel in 1959, Máire NicArtáin (Mary McCartan) set in Belfast. After Ó hUid and Ó Néill came an outpouring of Irish language writers, Art de Greag, Deirdre NicGrianna, Máirtín Ó Muilleor, Pól Ó Muiri and Gearóid Mac Lochlainn to name a selection.

Mac Lochlainn has little time for the niceties of form, mixing fresh idioms and phraseology to harness what Aodán MacPóilin describes as ‘Belfast creolized Irish’. This fascinating phrase gives hope that the Irish language and its literature will thrive in the city, and contribute new voices to the tumult of Belfast speech.