I passed the dreaded 11-Plus examination in 1966 and was sent to St. Columb’s College ‘grammar school’ in Derry as a day-boy where students of the calibre of poet Seamus Heaney, singer Paul Brady, playwright Brian Friel and politician John Hume had lately preceded me.
Two ‘dead’ languages were obligatory at St. Columb’s College in those years, Latin and Irish. By ‘dead’ I mean that there was no country on earth where either of those was natively spoken by an entire population or by a majority of a population.
Latin was required as a hangover from the days when St. Columb’s provided many young seminarians for the Catholic priesthood, but it also gave a brilliant understanding of grammar applicable to learning other languages and was useful for students of English literature.
Irish was required for reasons unknown to me, but I loved Irish from the beginning.
‘Nipper’ McGonagle and ‘Awe-haw’ McGeown were the Irish teachers – if you didn’t provide the goods in Nipper’s class, he grabbed a piece of your cheek or sideburn between his practiced finger and thumb and lifted you from your desk to sharpen your abilities. This did not ever work for most students, but he applied it rigorously nevertheless.
Older students in ‘Awe-haw’s classes said, “Whatever you do, don’t sit in the front row”…
The obligatory Irish classes were based around two books, “Rotha Mór and tSaoil” – The Big Wheel of Life – a fascinating book about the Klondike mining years and “Sléibhte Mhaigh Eo” – Mayo Mountains, a book of short stories.
In a grammar school in those years you had to score well in The Junior Certificate Examinations (at 14 years of age) to qualify to continue toward The Ordinary or ‘O’ Level examinations (at 16 years of age) to qualify to continue toward The Advanced or ‘A’ Level examinations (at 18 years of age).
If you failed miserably at the earlier stages, it was suggested to you to leave St. Columb’s and attend instead the Christian Brothers’ Tech or else the State-run Strand Road Tech. Friends of mine were decamped to both of these institutions.
Irish was also obligatory in the Christian Brothers’ Tech, taught by a Mr. Johnson.
Every school friend known to me studied Irish and Latin for the full 5 years until ‘O’ level, after which only those who scored highly in those subjects – or were particularly interested in them – took them for ‘A’ level.
While I not only enjoyed Irish and loved it, and even won scholarships to the summer school courses in Rannafast (Rann na Feirsde) a few years in a row, most students hated both Irish and Latin and couldn’t wait to dump them not only because they were difficult subjects, but moreso because they were obligatory subjects, forced on them.
When I say I ‘won’ scholarships to Rannafast in the summers, I should explain that you could get a three-week paid for holiday in a summer school in a West Donegal Gaeltacht (Irish speaking area) with singing and dancing classes and the opportunity to meet girls if you bothered to turn up for an ‘Oral’ examination in Irish – your family would not have to pay the enormous sum then of £35 or £40 for the course, not including spending monies.
When I discovered that these Irish language bursaries were available – Derry Feis (Féis Doire Cholmcille) was one type, Gael Linn was another (for senior students) – I entered my name for them and attended the Oral examinations. Hardly anybody else ever turned up for them and I believe if I had answered the questions in Latin or French I would still have been awarded the scholarships.
Not everyone was ‘into’ Irish dancing lessons, Irish song singing and daily Irish classes during the summer months, but I thought the summer schools were great.
There were other opportunities to learn Irish in Derry outside of schools. A free Irish language group was available which met in a room in Forester’s Hall in Magazine Street for many years, An Cumann Gaelach, and while it contained well-known ‘republicans’, the majority of those attending were apolitical language lovers.
If you didn’t like that group, you might go to the Ancient Order of Hibernian’s Hall in Foyle Street, where you could also attend Ceilidh dances.
Seamus Bryce, who managed the very popular Gweedore Bar in Waterloo Street at that time, made the upstairs lounge available on Wednesday evenings to school teachers and senior students who might wish to speak Irish while having a drink.
I know about this one because he employed me, at age 15 and 16 with competent Irish language skill, to look after the (very quiet) bar where I had ample time to study and do my homework while earning some money. I don’t think the lounge ever contained more than a dozen Gaeilgeoirí (Irish speakers) on any such evening.
If you preferred to avoid such groupings, you could buy a popular tape-cassette course and associated booklets to learn Irish at home. There were a number of Irish language newspapers available to buy also at that time.
Alternatively, you could attend various evening classes or else pay a modest sum for a summer residential course for adult learners in one of a number of Gaeltacht areas in the Republic of Ireland.
For all of these Irish language offerings in Derry city, the obligatory nature of Irish in schools put more people off the language than did the obvious difficulty in acquiring it.
Irish was a subject, along with Latin, that the great majority of students in St. Columb’s College couldn’t wait to dump.
In the new age of rock and roll music, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Cream, Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, long hair, hippy clothes and attitudes, we priggish Irish learners and speakers stood out as incredibly conservative – see the photograph of the Gael Linn debating teams above, two of whom were, within months, in Maynooth seminary training for the priesthood.
One of the most famous songs we learned to sing and sang unaccompanied during those summers was the somewhat repetitive “Báidín Fheilimí” (Felim’s Little Boat) which was never going to compete with Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air” hit which we did listen to on a jukebox in a chip shop in Annagry on the evenings that we were allowed to walk there in a long crocodile of students, chaperoned by one or two teachers and possibly also by a catholic priest…
There is something horribly entertaining about awful versions of it on YouTube:
There was never any chance that this traditional song was going to stand up against the roar of The Beatles and other rock music bands who had so recently taken the world of music by storm…
This goes some way to explaining something of the unpopularity of the Irish language and culture movement with teenagers in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
A friend of mine from Rannafast all those years ago has spent the last 35 years teaching Irish in a school in Dublin. He said to me this evening as I was writing this piece:
“Is slí chumarsáide í teanga ní constaic chumarsáide” – language should be a means of communication, not an obstacle to communication.
None of us in the Gaeltacht areas as teenagers ever imagined that, after a 30 year campaign of unnecessary murder and bombing, the bloodied IRA movement would push itself forward to attempt to represent the Irish language by force, a movement that appointed a leader and deputy leader who haven’t a notion of Irish between them.
If the IRA movement had ever had any real love for the Irish language, it would have disassociated itself entirely from the language decades ago in order to aid its spread.
Watch the IRA movement’s two recently appointed Sinn Féin leaders, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill, looking dumb and uncomfortable as they are asked a question in Irish which neither of them can comprehend: