As the Summer Schools intern for 2018, Summer School, field trips aren't necessarily part of the job description for local student Hannah Griffiths. However, of the few she grabbed her camera for and got stuck in, one stood out among the rest..
One (uncharacteristically) sunny day in July, I was given the opportunity to accompany our Irish Studies Literature and Culture students to the fulcrum of the Irish language here in Belfast; Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich. Although I lived in Belfast for five years (and Northern Ireland for all of my life) I had never been to Belfast’s Irish language centre, so I jumped at the chance. Fortunately, I was not disappointed.
As we took the short trip from Queens University to the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) Quarter on the Falls Road, we spotted the Cultúrlann on our approach. It is an impressive building; red-brick and church-like, with a large arc-shaped addition on its left. A strange addition you could say, but it is actually, as we soon learned, a fitting metaphor for the merging traditional and modern Irish culture here in Northern Ireland.
Passing under the multi-coloured flags of the building front, we step inside the Cultúrlann. Personally, I was rather surprised at how lively the centre was. It was, to use a Northern Irish term, buzzing. The foyer and café were filled of people of all ages: from tots to teens to veterans, many of them conversing in fluent Irish. We make a brief stop in the gift shop, which to the delight of the Literature and Culture students had a very impressive library of Irish literature; folklore, biographies, even comics and puzzles. I was particularly impressed with the Irish language scrabble board game on display (as was one of our students who considered buying it, but didn’t in the end seeing as she didn’t speak a word of Irish).
After prying the students away from the gift shop, we embark on a tour of the Cultúrlann building. We stroll through art galleries, performance halls, passing classrooms of every description; from the Irish language labs to pottery barns, all of which are used daily in the Cultúrlann. Our tour is casual and unscripted, our tour guide more than happy to answer any questions we have. He tells us that before it was a cultural arts centre, this building was home to Coláiste Feirste, Northern Ireland's first Irish-medium secondary school, which began with just nine pupils in 1991. Impressively, the school has since relocated to a site five minutes down the road and now boasts over 600 pupils.
Next, we accompany Dr Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh (former pupil of Coláiste Feirste) on a walking tour of the Gaeltacht Quarter of the Falls Road. He talks openly, offering fascinating insights to past and present life in the community where he grew up. As we stroll, it becomes clear that Feargal is an integral part of the community, with multiple people stopping him in the street to say hello (at least I think that’s what they said - the conversations were in Irish). The passion for Irish culture is palpable as we pass the numerous murals in the area. My inner feminist was particularly pleased to see a large mural dedicated solely to Irish women entitled “Ni saoirse go saoirse na mban” (“There is no freedom until the freedom of women.")
Upon our return, we sit down for lunch in the Cultúrlann and are presented with a surprisingly gourmet menu. Salmon fishcakes anyone? A glass of wine perhaps? (One of our students did indulge in a glass of sauvignon). In the afternoon, we meet Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin, one of Belfast’s leading Irish language activists. In an hour-long talk, Ciaran takes us on a journey through the complex history of the Irish language in Northern Ireland, right up to the current issue of an Irish Language Act which has polarised the Northern Irish government. For myself and the summer school students, it was truly fascinating to hear about this current political issue from someone at the very heart of it. Next, we hear from Dr Dónal McAnallen, expert in Irish (Gaelic) sport. While I’m no athlete, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the rich history of Gaelic sport here in Northern Ireland, as did the other students. We even got to hold hurling sticks and pretend we knew what we were doing.
As the trip drew to a close, we found ourselves sad to be leaving. Our trip to the Cultúrlann allowed us to be immersed in the vibrant growing Irish culture here in Northern Ireland. It was a truly enriching experience that we may not have enjoyed had it not been for our involvement in the Irish Studies Literature and Culture summer school. It’s no wonder that many of the students declared it their favourite trip of the Summer School. I would whole-heartedly agree.
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