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Column: 'The legal recognition of ISL is the key to equality for deaf people in Irish society'

Irish Sign Language (ISL) is not yet legally or officially recognised in Ireland.

Alvean Jones

AUGUST 28, 1971 marked the first time the Irish Deaf community put their bodies on the street in protest.

In so doing, they unveiled themselves as a community taking charge.

‘You told me to wash and clean my ears’ being put on as part of Tiger Dublin Fringe aims to promote and celebrate Irish Sign Language (ISL) and ISL Awareness Week. 

The Dublin Theatre of the Deaf, in conjunction with performance artist Amanda Coogan, is putting on a show to re-enact a protest which took place in 1971 and reveal how it sparked the beginnings of the political activism that the Irish Deaf community now engages in today, which includes fighting for the recognition of ISL and equal rights for Deaf people.

Looking at this through the lens of performance, it is a highly potent act.

Civil disobedience

Richard Schechner, performance theorist, draws civil disobedience and public demonstration as performances which purposefully set out to effect change. Our production is a re- performance of that purposefully transformative act. We are walking in the footsteps of those marchers.

These marchers took to the streets to protest the murder of one of their own. The shooting dead by the British army of Irish deaf man Eamon McDevitt in 1971 was the event that sparked the political awakening of the Irish Deaf community.

On August 18, 1971, Eamon McDevitt, 28, was among marchers in Strabane, Co Tyrone, protesting at the British Army’s recently introduced policy of internment without trial in Northern Ireland, dubbed “Operation Demetrius”.

When riots broke out, McDevitt ran over to Fountain Street, where he was shot in the jaw by a soldier in the Royal Marines. The British Army claimed he was waving a gun, but several witnesses came forward to testify that he was unarmed, and waving his arms as his way of getting attention. What the British Army didn’t know was that McDevitt, who was educated at a boarding school for the deaf in Dublin, was a Deaf man and a sign language user.

Irish Deaf Education

When members of the Irish Deaf community read of the shooting the following day and  recognised McDevitt, they were moved to organise a protest, which took place 10 days later, on 28 August 1971, when a 75-strong crowd marched to the door of the British Embassy to hand in a letter addressed to the British Home Secretary.

The deaf protest at the killing of Eamonn McDevitt was a formal affair. The rules of the march were laid out by the leaders: dress well, no talking or making noise and walk two abreast. The march demonstrated a steely and quiet defiance. A defiance at society’s assumption that deaf people could not act for themselves.

Irish Sign Language (ISL) is not yet legally or officially recognised in Ireland.

Signed Languages are recognised in many other countries around the world, such as New Zealand, Finland, Hungary, Austria. In Northern Ireland, both British Sign Language and Irish Sign Language have been verbally recognised via a minister’s statement.

There has been some mentions in Irish legislation of ISL, such as the Education Act, but some form of constitutional or legal recognition has yet to become a reality. The Irish Deaf Society has been campaigning for over 30 years for the recognition of Irish Sign Language. The organisation see legal recognition as the key to equality for Deaf people in Irish Society.

Legal recognition 

The legal recognition of ISL would allow Deaf people to fully participate as citizens of this country by legally guaranteeing their rights to access information in what is their first and, for many, only language.

Alvean Jones is very heavily involved in the Irish Deaf community. She is a keen historian and loves sharing her findings on Irish Deaf History with other people, particularly in ISL, and is an actor in the play.

To find out more how you can support their campaign, please visti the Irish Sign Language Recognition Campaign.

‘You told me to wash and clean my ears’ will run from Sept 16-20 at Project Arts Centre as part of Tiger Dublin Fringe.

Read: This little boy is on a mission to get RTÉ using sign language on the Toy Show>

About the author:

Alvean Jones

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