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'They were creating their vision of a new Ireland': Bringing up your family as Gaeilge in the 1950s

A new documentary looks at how some families did this from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Source: Ríonach Ní Néill/YouTube

WHY WOULD YOU decide to bring your family up as Irish speakers in English-speaking Ireland – before gaelscoileanna were even around?

That’s what’s explored in a short film by Irish director Ríonach Ní Néill, who herself was brought up as an Irish speaker in 1980s Dublin. She even relocated as an adult from Germany to the Connemara Gaeltacht so she could bring her children up speaking the language.

In the film, she talks to women who brought up their family as Irish speakers between the decades of the 1950s to the 1980s. And in testament to how difficult it could be, the film is called I Modh Rúin, which translates to “in secret”.

Because she is also a dancer, Ní Néill has brought dance and music into her work. The film will be shown at the Light Moves festival in Limerick this month.

The film also explores the role of women during these decades, with the participants - Dubliner Áine Ní Shúilleabháin, Emma Verling from Waterford, Proinsias Uí Fhógartaigh, a Dubliner in Galway, Maynooth-based Máire Uí Fhlathartaigh with her daughter and granddaughter, and musician Máire Uí Fhinn with her daughter, the sean-nós dancer Sibéal Davitt, as well as contemporary dancer Emma Fitzgerald – reflecting on their achievements and challenges.

The film was commissioned by Oireachtas na Gaeilge, with support from the Community Foundation of Ireland.

“It was really selfish because it’s a way for me to look at my own biography,” says Ní Néill about making the documentary.

“I grew up in northside Dublin with Irish as my first language in an Irish-speaking household, going to an Irish school, and speaking English out on the street. I’ve never been able to shake Irish off – it would have been much more convenient for me to decide that it didn’t matter and I could just follow everyone else. Even as a teen I discovered I didn’t feel whole unless I was speaking Irish. It was so bound up with my identity.”

She wanted to look further at her own motivation for her dedication to the language, so thought the “best thing to do is ask people who are ahead of me in the game”, and interview people of her parents’ generation.

“I think it’s really interesting that these women, women who chose to bring up their families as Irish speakers, that they still had this vision – and that in their own really highly personal ways they were creating their vision of a new Ireland,” she says.

“Everyone needs to have their story heard, that’s really important: to let people know there are people like this,” adds Ní Néill.

Switching language

Sibéal Davitt & Máire Uí Fhinn i I MODH RÚIN le Ríonach Ní Néill. image Luca Trufarelli Source: Luca Trufarelli

With the exception of one of the women who was brought up speaking Irish, the others featured in the film were brought up as English speakers, so they chose as adults to switch language.

Ní Néill’s parents came to Dublin in the 1960s, and soon joined Irish-speaking clubs and groups. They chose to speak Irish to each other and bring their children up as Irish speakers.

Ní Néill says she has experienced both pressure and negativity being an Irish speaker in non-Gaeltacht Ireland.

“We had a lot of obstacles – when we were growing up I was called an ‘Irish pig’ by Irish children,” she says. “You can only say they were confused about their identity.”

She is critical of people who ask about the “economic viability” of the language. “It makes you think: why is it important? And I think one of the things is [the language] tells me there is more to being a human being than your employment’s worth,” she says.

There’s no financial worth to being an Irish speaker, it can’t be valued like that.

But some of her reasons for loving the language come down to how it sounds. “It’s such a wonderful pretty language, it sounds lovely,” she says. “Even when you’re having a big mad shouty argument with someone. To me, English sounds like a bag of bricks being dropped on your foot. Irish is all birdy-sounding.”

She says that the women she interviewed “kept using the word ‘love’, and ‘beauty’” when talking about the Irish language. One woman’s voice “would soften” when she talked about it.

Another woman told her how she and her husband started off talking to each other in Irish for 10 minutes a day while they were dating. Gradually that kept increasing, until they began to speak the language constantly.

“[The women] were so strong-willed as well, because they all said they didn’t have the supports we have now – there wasn’t the gaelscoileanna system at that time,” she says. In 1972 there were 11 primary gaeilscoileanna – by 2016 there were 171 nationwide.

Most of the women said they were supported in their quest.

One of the ladies did come up against those kinds of obstacles, her daughter being bullied by other people to the extent that they gave up. Others, I’ve a feeling they refuse to hear or see any obstacles and it was that strength of will.

Sibéal Davitt i I MODH RÚIN le Ríonach Ní Néill. íomha Luca Trufarelli image credit Source: Luca Trufarelli

Ní Néill isn’t dogmatic about the language. “I’m not for switching the language, I think we need to be bilingual and trilingual and as diverse as possible,” she says.

In her work, she also wanted to address what she says is the misrepresentation of older women in film, and how they are “represented in a very thin way – in a stereotypical, cartoonish way”.

She wanted to show “their strength in overcoming diversity”. The women were of the generation that lived through the marriage ban, and this is explored too.

Ní Néill says that “these are a whole generation of women since the foundation of the Irish state [who] were not allowed reach their potential”.

What would this country have been like if these women had been allowed to become the doctors, engineers, lawyers, politicians, leaders they could have been. What horrors would we possibly have avoided if women had more of a say in public life?

In the 10 years since she returned to Ireland, she’s noticed another form of Irish revival – similar to what her parents experienced in the 1960s. Even within the dance community, she says the number of Irish-speaking contemporary dancers has risen.

Despite this, Ní Néill says that Irish as “a community language” is “on her death’s door”.

Her documentary is a way of her inspiring others to embrace the language in whatever way they can.

“I think the film is an invitation to anybody to be free in their relationship with the language. You do not need permission to speak Irish, and it does not matter what what Irish you have,” she says.

I Modh Ruin plays at the Light Moves Festival, which takes place in Limerick from 2 – 5 November. It will be shown as part of the short films programme 2 – Culture and Place: Identity experienced through movement, on Friday, November 3, 2017 from 4.05pm – 5.05pm, at Dance Limerick. Light Moves will involve a range of events taking place across Limerick City. Artists include Cindy Sherman, Aernout Mik, and Boris Charmatz. For more information, visit www.lightmoves.ie

Read: ‘It’s especially relevant to Irish women at this time’: This 2,500-year-old play has startling links to the world of 2017>

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