Aodán grew up on the Norfolk Road in west Belfast with his two sisters, his mother who was an Irish speaker and his father who worked as a civil servant.
His parents were avid followers of hurling and Gaelic football. As a result much of Aodán’s time was spent in the Falls Park with the hope that he would follow in his mother’s footsteps, an All Ireland champion three times over. “There were three of us and unfortunately none of us were any good at it. I spent a lot of time in the Falls Park.”
Aodán remembers that in the 1950s and 1960s, politics and social issues “were in the air, you recognised that politics was around. Before I understood anything about politics, I remember that my father would shout at the television or the radio, because he didn’t agree with what someone was saying.”
“Sectarianism was in the air, but it wasn’t in our immediate surroundings because we didn’t know a lot of Protestants. My father also had non-sectarian principles. He believed sectarianism was a terrible thing.”
Aodán remembers that as he grew older he began to socialise with Protestants through education and in public spaces during the 1960s. “Most of the people I met hated the politics of Northern Ireland, no one wanted to tackle it, they just ignored it. There was great opportunity for Northern Ireland to be a civil place if the Troubles hadn’t happened.”
In his mid twenties, Aodan became involved with the Irish speaking community on the Shaws Road. He helped to build a house, something, he feels was a defining moment for him. “In 1977, I missed a meeting and in my absence they decided I would be responsible for writing letters to the Department of Education who were refusing to fund the school. I began writing letters and it took control of my life.”
As the school expanded, so to did the need for more staff and facilities. “The biggest difficulty was raising enough money to keep it all going. Surprisingly, there was never a problem with the standard of education, even though the rain was coming through the roof… the doors were falling off the walls. There was a great spirit in the school.”
Aodán feels the Troubles inadvertently played a significant role in the success of the Irish medium school on the Shaws Road. “In 1971, when the school was founded, the Shaws Road was a no-go area and even when it wasn’t the authorities had enough trouble to deal with and they weren’t going to worry about an illegal school on the Shaws Road. So, the Troubles let the school develop and grow without any interference.”
The principle ethos of the school was to encourage the speaking of the Irish language in the community, but Aodán believes it had many other positive effects on a disheartened community.
“Despite the disadvantages in the area, high unemployment, trouble everywhere, murders and explosions everywhere, people were able to do something creative which was community based.”
Aodán talks about his time at the Ultach Trust, a cross-community Irish language charity set up in 1990, based in Belfast city centre. “Ultach Trust was set up with the same money as the Community Relations Council and it also had the same ethos. That ethos was that Irish language belongs to everyone, it’s not limited to nationalists and Catholics but is for anyone on the island.”
Aodán remembers the scepticism and mistrust. “Unionists feared that Nationalists were using Irish to sugar coat their agenda. If they buy into the language, they buy into ‘Irishness’. Their identity will be Irish and nationalist. Republicans doubted the Trust. They felt they deserved the money. Some republicans felt they were the leaders of the Irish language movement.”
One of the key community initiatives that the Trust endorsed was research into why it was difficult for those from a unionist background to learn Irish. “If you don’t analyse something you can’t come up with a solution. We have written pieces about Irish medium education in the Irish medium sector, English medium sector. We also had a big interest in broadcasting from the beginning. We campaigned for television in several ways. Personally I did it because I remember as a child when the television was on and everything was in English, that inevitably influences you.”
“We managed to make a case that was different from other cases. The most common cases in Irish history are about rights or politics. I think we managed to develop the language in a way that was much more open than that. We always kept an independent voice. We never surrendered to any political pressure. I think the most dramatic thing we did was our work for Irish language television.”
‘There’s a long road ahead with regards to community development. Poverty and social problems still exist but we should be aiming for a close community who are proud of themselves and who can stand on their own two feet.”