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Aodan Mac Poilin: Trailblazer promoted Irish language without politics


Respected: Aodan Mac Poilin

Respected: Aodan Mac Poilin

Respected: Aodan Mac Poilin

Aodan Mac Poilin, who died yesterday aged 69, was a champion of the Irish language.

He had a particular gift for calming dissension - and he needed it because there were many fights he could have become embroiled in.

He knew that he was perceived by Sinn Fein as a problem, a safe pair of hands for Irish language funding during the Troubles.

He also knew that some saw him as enabling the Government in those days to present itself as helping the language while at the same time keeping a distance from republicans.

As director of the Ultach Trust, Mr Mac Poilin sought to promote the language without its political connotations.

There were others who sought to use it as a tribal badge, even to rewrite the history of the IRA to view its campaign as a struggle for language rights. But Aodan did not want the language to be anyone's weapon, or shield.

He also knew that past government efforts in the South to revive the language through funding and legislation had failed.

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Mr Mac Poilin was a fluent speaker, part of a Gaeltacht community formed on the Shaw's Road in Belfast in 1969. He was a founder member of the Ultach Trust, which sought to reach across the communities in Northern Ireland, perhaps not least by the use of the Irish for Ulster (Ultach) in the title.

He was at the forefront of much Irish language promotion, through TG4, the Ultach Trust and the Cultural Traditions Group, and he was also a member of the board of the Seamus Heaney Centre.

His preference for the diplomatic management of conflict shone through in two recent quarrels.

When funding was cut to Ultach Trust education projects, he declined the opportunity to take a swipe at the then Culture Minister, Caral Ni Chuilin, claiming that she was more likely to have been asleep on the job than to be avenging herself on him. And when, on another occasion, language activists accused senior civil servants of a bias against the Irish language, he sought to deflect that charge to DUP ministers who had not done as much as they could have done.

This is the Aodan that I met at many committee meetings in the Cultural Traditions Group, or when I approached him as a journalist to try and tease a news angle out of him.

I was most often rebuffed with a soft chuckle and a deflection, an easy confidence that things would work out, or at least turn out for the better if he did not get rattled.

He was a cultural egalitarian, who wanted as much to preserve the Ulster-Scots tradition as the Gaelic one. He perhaps got little thanks for that.

Two years ago, the cross-border body Foras na Gaeilge, charged with supporting the language on an all-island basis, stopped funding the Ultach Trust and other Northern groups.

Aodan pledged then that Ultach would continue on a voluntary basis; no other group, in his view, having the reach into the Protestant community that Ultach had.

Yesterday, it lost its leader.

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