Preserving Irish identity through art

Located in the very famous neighborhood of Belfast’s Shaws Road,  the Irish community spends hours and hours on different activities in Culturlann Mcadam ó Fiaich centre, being their main purpose to keep alive the Irish Gaelic language and Irish identity.

Once you get off the bus or arrive by walking to West Belfast, everything changes. Street signs are in Irish (which you cannot find in the city center). There are protest calls on the walls every step you take… This seems more like the political city everyone has heard of.

Loud Celtic music can be heard 50 meters away from the building, making you feel as if you’ve entered a new area or even another country. The 19th century was when the bricked orange building was erected. A huge Dom is now the first thing you see (which originally was part of a Protestant church), now, surrounded by a metal structure. This shows the name of An Chultúrlann where the minority Irish language and art are promoted for everyone at every age.

Automatic doors and a bunch of posters in this language (one on top of the other), welcome you to a small cozy café. Not one bit of English is heard there. Surprisingly the young smiling guy at the reception desk can speak Basque. Another minority language, spoken in the Basque Country, officially, northern Spain. With a black t-shirt that has a Gaelic saying on it, protesting against the surrender of the Irish language. He seems to be showing that he is part of this community too with his t-shirt. That he is a part of the people that are fighting for their own language.

Naoise Ó Cairealláin, is his name and states: “1991 was when 2 activist men first opened this place.”

Naoise on the rooftop of An Chultúrlann – Ainara Ruiz

It started out as a school after the Protestants left the church. It was the time when young people in Belfast started being aware of the minority situation of their language. In the 1970s young fighters were taken to jail for political reasons. A movement started in Belfast where young people encouraged others to learn Irish and give importance to the community. Some of them, including Gerry Adams (known in Irish as Gearóid Mac Ádhaimh), president of the Sinn Féin political party, actually learned the tongue at the jail.

As a result, there was a need for schools, which is how An Chultúrlann started. It was the first pure Irish speaking medium school in Belfast, opened with two full-time teachers and nine pupils. Today, the school is a separate organization called Coláiste Feirste, which has a large number of teachers and around 600 pupils on its register, making it the largest Irish speaking school in Ireland (including the Republic). An immense growth for a small community, which everyone is very proud of.

“Today, An Chultúrlann on its three floors, has space for artistic and theatrical expression with a youth amateur and professional company, a café, information office, NOS the community radio and the north’s largest dedicated Irish Language and media book shop,” states Naoise.

A man reads his book at the bookshop – Ainara Ruiz

“Irish culture is everything here,” and very proud of his answer he shows me the space that proves it. Every corner of the building is flooded with some colorful statements in Gaelic that I am not able to understand. When someone starts speaking about their issue with the language, the passion that they show about it, makes you realize that it is not an idea that came from nothing. It is actually the fight for an identity, engagement for their own culture.

Fighting for the language was the purpose of Pádraig Mac Piarais too. I read his name for the first time at the culture centre, when I saw it in a book. The Irish activist and nationalist from the 19th century once stated what this community still wants to achieve in the future:

“Consider the Irish speaking child. He is the fairest thing that springs up from the soil of Ireland- more beautiful than any flower, more graceful than any wild creature of the fields or the woods, purer than any monk or nun, wiser that any seer … and he has within him the wondrous power to hand down this glowing tradition to countless future generations.”

A young man suddenly comes to me saying that “the situation was not like this two years ago” when he left Belfast, “I couldn´t see people my age speaking in Irish in everyday life.”  It has been the youth organization´s work, which has taken the language out of schools and made it a part of socialization. It has been done though art, classes, music, and dance.

Two years ago, when he left Belfast, I couldn´t see people my age speaking in Irish in everyday life

Exploring the old church, we enter a white echoing room, full of paintings made by local people. Naoise follows the explanation while I am unconsciously immersed in some of the painting’s colors: “We encourage young people from Belfast to bring their art works here to sell them, if they need to.”  There are many spaces on the three floors which every Irish organization can use for free.

Art Gallery at An Chultúrlann – Ainara Ruiz

Walking back to the ground floor there is a library where there are just couple of books in English. An old man sat on a couch (reading) looks without moving a single finger. An aged lady answers at the counter. Apart from offering cultural activities, it is important for the community to create jobs. “In our community, there is the need of creating different ways of employment that require speaking in Irish,” explains the young guide, Naoise. There is the need that the language takes part in everyday life situations.

Finishing the tour, children’s´ paintings grab my attention at the entrance, where a colorful banner hangs which reads “family corner”. People of every age are welcomed to the cultural center. Everyone tries to keep the community alive.

“We are constantly changing the way to improve and trying to adapt our project to the new environment. Keeping the tradition alive and making it work for the current situation is the most important thing,” states Naoise. “Yes, that is the main purpose”. He smiles and takes the mic off as he ends his thought, proud with his final statement.