Reclaim our cultural territory
BY GERRY McGEOUGH
A number of years ago, I had the distinct privilege of meeting one of the last Tyrone native-Irish speakers. An elderly gentleman, he lived in a remote farmhouse in the Sperrin mountains and was delighted to converse with us in a dialect of Gaelic that has since died with him.
It was an inspiring experience fo me, yet I can't help but be saddened at the fact that here was a man living out his remaining years in the county and country of his birth while being denied the civil and human right to converse with his neighbours in his mother language. This is all the more galling when one considers that as recently as 1911, there were 5,000 native-speakers in the same area, yet by the early 1950s Proinsias Ó Conluain and an RTE linguistics research team could only locate a remnant of a few dozen for recording purposes.
How did we manage to squander such a substantial element of precious Gaelic culture in the space of a few decades? Economic and political circumstances certainly played a role in the form of heavy emigration and undoubted hostile neglect from the post-partition Stormont unionist set-up. Yet these factors alone do not explain the rapid disintegration of the Irish language, which had withstood similar onslaughts for centuries. Furthermore, these pressures made little or no significant dent on the strong nationalist spirit of the general region. In the final analysis, therefore, we must recognise the existence of a certain indifference towards the fate of the language from within the very communities that spoke it. Over the space of a generation or so it was allowed to slip into increasing disuse and, in its continuous form, disappeared irretrievably.
All Irish republicans naturally share my dismay at the loss of this and similar legacies of our culture throughout the country. Yet I fear that we are making similar avoidable mistakes in our own generation. In the Six-County area, for example, a form of de facto cultural genocide has now reached an advanced stage. I refer of course to the British postal system decree from the 1970s which overnight eliminated the existence of countless townlands in rural areas of the north. In my own region of South Tyrone, for example, where once there existed the evocative and informative Glas Tromian, Mullach Bán, Lios gCalan, Coilte Maoile and Coilte Madaidh, the entire district has been reduced to `number something' Cullenrammer Road.
The centuries of history and habitation associated with these other townlands were callously obliterated. Inevitably, when the local place names are no longer used by the communities to which they belong, they end up being forgotten. Shall we again fall prey to indifference.
As republicans, we have a duty to take the lead in securing the preservation and promotion of our traditional townland and district place names. In the first instance, we can insist upon the right to use these in our addresses, as opposed to the insensitive (and frankly ludicrous) number sequencing system. We can actively encourage others to do likewise and Sinn Féin Assembly members at Stormont are ideally place to bring the issue to the fore at legislative level.
Unless sustained, co-ordinated, corrective action is taken soon, we are in danger of losing this integral aspect of our ancient Gaelic culture - forgotten place names and their historical significance cannot be passed on to future generations of our nation.
Ultimately, it is up to us to ensure that the well-being of our cultural legacy lies in the hands of the Irish people, and not at the expedient whim of British bureaucrats.