This film is subtitled.

Labhraíonn Séamus Mac Seáin, Seán Mac Seáin, Bríghid Mhic Sheáin agus Máire Mhic Sheáin faoina dtaithí ag fás aníos i mBéal Feirste, ag dul isteach i ngluaiseacht na Gaeilge, ag bunú Ghaeltacht uirbeach Bóthar Seoighe, agus a ról sna chéad Ghaelscoileanna.

Séamus Mac Seáin, Seán Mac Seáin, Bríghid Mhic Sheáin and Máire Mhic Sheáin talk about their experiences growing up in Belfast, becoming involved in the Irish language movement, founding the Shaws Road urban Gaeltacht, and their role in the first Irish-medium schools.

“The Irish Language movement has a very long history here in Belfast going as far back as the founding of the Gaelic League in the town in 1895.” Séamus Mac Seáin

“If we didn’t have the language, we would have to make it up.   We need it to express ourselves, to express who we are and what we are about.” Máire Mhic Sheáin

“When you talk about the growth of the Irish language in Belfast, it doesn’t begin with just one person.   It begins with lots of people going back lots of years, it’s like putting one brick on top of another.” Seán Mac Seáin

The Mac Seáin family were raised on the Falls Road.  Séamus was the third youngest.   “This meant that the clothes of the children before you were passed down to you, it was very rare that I ever got new clothes.”

After passing the 11+,  Séamus was able to attend St Malachy’s College were he spent three years studying Greek and Latin, he left St Malachy’s College at the age of 15 and started attending Irish classes at night in the old Ardscoil, which was run by the Gaelic League in Belfast in Divis Street.

Attending these classes and places such as Cumann Chluain Ard was a chance to meet other young people who were learning Irish.   Mixing with other people helped improved Séamus’s fluency in the language.   He was to meet his future wife Bríghid at one of these classes, they married in 1960.

Seán was the youngest of the Mac Seáin family. By the time he was fourteen he was being encouraged by Séamus to learn the Irish language.   They said, “It’s our native language,  but honest, that meant nothing to me.” Eventually, Seán started attending evening classes at Cumann Chluain Ard.   He to would meet his future wife Máire at these classes, they married in 1967.

“There was a group of young people who all got married around the same time, they were all getting mortgages and buying houses in different areas around Belfast. We decided that the simplest solution would be to buy our houses together.” explains Bríghid Mhic Sheáin

After many years of planning, a piece of land was found on Belfast’s Shaws Road.   “We bought a piece of land and started building the houses, we got mortgages, built five houses and moved into them and that was the start of the Shaws Road Gaeltacht as we called it at the time.” Séamus Mac Seáin

By February 1969 the houses were finished.

“By August 69, though there were incidents since 1968 because of the Civil Rights campaign, the Troubles broke out badly in Belfast, a lot of houses were burnt out and many people were chased from their homes.”

One of the worst atrocities to occur was in Bombay Street, where a whole community was burnt out of their homes.   “As it happenend our houses were ready and finished and we had acquired a lot of skills while building our houses so when Bombay Street was destroyed, we felt we could do something worthwhile.” Seán Mac Seáin

A total of 31 houses were built using the same plan used to build the Shaws Road Gaeltacht houses, and within a few months families had returned to their homes.   “It made a big difference you know, and Bombay Street is now a sort of symbol of that spirit.   So with Bombay Street it spread out.   We showed people what could be achieved.” Bríghid Mhic Sheáin

Having a family of their own made Séamus and Bríghid want to bring up their children speaking the Irish Language but they realised it was quite difficult to do. They were surrounded by English speaking schools.   “After a few years the children were coming of school age and so we had a decision to make – would we send them to the nearest English language school as had always happened with Irish-speaking families that were raised in Belfast, or were we going to continue and bring Irish into education?” 

They decided they would set up their own primary school.   “We kept saying, Something has to be done, but we weren’t sure what exactly”.

The Bunscoil, Scoil Ghaeilge Bhéal Feirste, was opened in September 1971.   The first school building consisted of a mobile hut bought cheaply.   The Troubles were in full force at this time and in the first week of the schools opening there was shooting.   “Shooting started and bullets were flying everywhere hitting the walls and everything, and the poor teacher was from  Dublin, I don’t think she had ever been in Belfast, she had to lie on the floor, and all the children with her as well, we couldn’t even go out to help them because the bullets were flying everywhere, so that was a good start.” Bríghid Mhic Sheáin

“The way we worked, we were always under pressure, wanting to take the next step forward, we never had the time to sit back and think about it.” Séamus Mac Seáin

After seeing the success of the Primary School it was decided that a Secondary School could be developed.   “The biggest difficulty was that everyone was tired by this time, everyone was exhausted by the efforts they had all made.”  Bríghid Mhic Sheáin

The Troubles made it hard to find teachers. Bríghid and Máire taught at the school.   “We had to put our own money forward to pay for a teacher and for the school.   What happened was that I was asked to go in and do a few days, and Bríghid was as well, I taught Geography and Religion, Bríghid taught History and English.” Máire Mhic Sheáin

Other people started volunteering.   “That’s the spirit that existed back then.   And that’s needed to keep anything going, you need that spirit of good will.” Máire Mhic Sheáin

The Hunger Strikes in 1981 were to have an influence on the Primary School getting regognition from the government.   “The government determined then that they might have to do something in relation to the Irish Language so that the Republican movement wouldn’t get control of Irish-medium education.   They determined that they would give something.   So what they did was they gave recognition to Bunscoil Phobal Feirste and Lagan College on the same day in 1984.” Séamus Mac Seáin

This gave Séamus the confidence to make another attempt at creating a Secondary school, using the Presbyterian Church at Broadway on the Falls Road.   “That was the beginning of Cultúrlann MacAdam Ó Fiach.   It succeeded in the end in achieving recognition, and getting money and the school today has around 600 pupils.” Séamus Mac Seáin

Reflecting on how far they’ve come Séamus and Bríghid had this to say.   “I look at us as a continuous part of a process that started in 1893, and maybe earlier with Robert MacAdam and others who saw that the old civilisation and language of this country were dying and that it was essential to do something about it for the revival of the language.   Therefore, my family and I are only a continuing part of that process.   I must admit, looking back, that we didn’t expect growth that fast.”

“We stirred in ourselves and in others the “do it yourself” attitude.   If something isn’t available go out and get it, even if it means annoying everyone around you and spending your life with grey hair.   At least it gives you self respect.   The authorities aren’t going to do anything for you.”

On the future of the Irish language. “Generally the language is moving forward, in every part of Belfast, east, west, north and south, and there are a lot of young people who are involved in the language, that’s the biggest thing.” Séamus Mac Seáin

“We all came from a certain background.   Most of the people involved were of the working class, we had a popular mantra then, and I still use it today “Don’t say it, do it.” Seán Mac Seáin