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Sinn Fein linguists fired 'bullet' into language of our politics


Nelson McCausland

Nelson McCausland

Nelson McCausland

I have a particular interest in minority, or lesser-used, languages and regard them as part of the cultural wealth of people. However, in Ulster, the republican movement has, for more than a century, used the Irish language as a cultural weapon.

In 1982, in the wake of the IRA hunger strikes, Sinn Fein formed a cultural department to promote the use of the Irish language. In the years that followed, it was very active in promoting the language for political ends and it became part of the Sinn Fein strategy of "broadening the battlefield".

This was a strategy which regards republican activity in the political, cultural and social fields as complementing the "armed struggle" of the IRA. As part of its programme, Sinn Fein organised a "public seminar for people learning, or planning to learn, the Irish language", at Conway Mill on the Falls Road in May 1982.

The first speaker was Padraig O Maolchraoibhe, a Sinn Fein cultural officer and a teacher in Belfast. He told those present: "I don't think we can exist as a separate people without our language. Now every phrase you learn is a bullet in the freedom struggle."

Padraig O Maolchraoibhe also said the restoration of the Irish language was part of the process of the "decolonisation of Ireland".

Linking learning Irish to the campaign to "drive out the Brits", he said: "The process of decolonisation will have stopped half-way if, the day we succeed in driving the English from our shores, what is left behind is an Irish people possessed of the language, culture and values of the English."

These speeches were followed by four workshops and at one: "Everyone was agreed that there was a definite link between the national struggle and the cultural revival." Indeed, the chairperson, Sinn Fein activist Tarlach Mac Ionnrachtaigh, joined together IRA terrorism and the Irish language when he said that: "The armed struggle is the highest point of the cultural revival."

Afterwards, Sinn Fein produced a bilingual booklet, entitled Learning Irish. It had an introduction by another SF cultural officer, Mairtin O Muilleoir, the speech by Padraig O Maolchraoibhe and reports on the workshops. Mairtin O Muilleoir has gone on to greater things. He was a Belfast councillor, went off to head up the Belfast Media Group and Andersonstown News and has now returned to the council, currently as Lord Mayor.

The author Camille O'Reilly makes reference to a variant of the notorious "bullet" statement in her book, The Irish Language in Northern Ireland, published by the Ultach Trust in 1997.

In it, she reports a prominent member of Sinn Fein, who was also an Irish-language activist, saying that: "Every word of Irish spoken is like another bullet being fired in the struggle for Irish freedom." The inclusion of the "bullet" phrase in the booklet – and the reference in O'Reilly's book – suggests that the phrase was fairly widely used at that time by republican Irish speakers.

Last week, I heard a presenter on Radio Ulster question a unionist politician who had quoted the phrase about "a bullet in the freedom struggle". He asked the politician who had said it.

Well, here is the answer about the origins of the phrase and, if anyone wants to check it out, the little Sinn Fein booklet is long out-of-print, but there are still copies of it in various libraries and collections.

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