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Irish language taking centre stage for trailblazers Laochra

 

By Declan Bogue

As soon as Antrim's county board take care of their elections at Monday night's annual convention, the first point of business will be to consider the application for affiliation of a brand new club.

And it's a club with a difference, at least in Ulster.

Laochra Loch Lao, based out of Colaiste Feirste, aim to be the first exclusively Irish language club in Belfast, with all correspondence, meetings, coaching sessions and games played with members all speaking the Irish language.

The idea came out of discussions held on the 10th anniversary of the club's foundation to take part in competitions held among the Gaeltacht clubs, typically found on the west coast of Ireland.

Last year it was hosted by Toormakeady in Mayo, and on the way home, discouraged by the difficulties in sourcing players from various clubs around Belfast to take part in the annual competition, the club made the bold decision that they would strike out on their own as a fully-functioning club within the Antrim county board.

It's radical and it's bold. But it is also exciting for the likes of Sean McCorry. At 28 years of age, he is leaving Division One football with his club St Paul's to play at the lowest tier of Division Three in order to make it work.

"I work in an Irish medium school and I just think it's a natural step to normalise the language," he explained.

"I played on the first team in 2007. It had momentum in the first couple of years, but then the last three or four years we were just really struggling to get an amalgamation together because people were prioritising their clubs and clubs were not letting players go.

"So basically on the bus on the way home we just said, 'Damn it, we are going to go for this'."

They have had support from the highest office in the GAA. The guest of honour at their recent 10-year anniversary evening was GAA president Aogán O'Fearghaíl, who lauded their attempts. He said in his address: "The philosophy of Laochra Loch Lao is an inspiration to all and many clubs who take part in the national Gaeltacht competition have praised them for speaking more Irish than most of the Gaeltacht clubs.

"Therefore, it is fantastic to see that after 10 years of participation in the Comórtas that they are now taking the courageous step to establish a juvenile club and an independent GAA club. This will increase participation in our games and put the Irish language front and centre of the GAA community in Belfast, which is to be warmly welcomed."

He dangled a carrot in front of them when he added: "You have the full backing of the GAA and we can only wish you well in the future. It would also be great to see the National Gaeltacht competition come to Belfast in the years ahead."

The secretary of the club is Fergal Enright, who works for Glór Na Móna, an Irish language and cultural group based in Upper Springfield.

He believes they are taking their inspiration from a motto of the Shaw's Road Gaeltacht when it was set up in the 1960's: 'Na hAbair é, Déan é' - Don't say it, do it.

He believes the club is a natural extension of his day job.

"A big thing we have been working on over the last eight or nine years is youth provision," he said.

"Historically, if you have an Irish language school, once you get to three o'clock, that's the end of the language. People go home and converse in English, so the language becomes a very formal entity within the school, the classroom.

"One of the things research has shown about minority languages, whether that be Welsh, the Basque country or in Ireland, from the age of 16 to 30, the children that went to Irish medium schools become lost to the language.

"What that means is that they can understand Irish, but because they haven't been speaking it every day, they end up losing the capacity to speak the Irish language.

"Even in the six weeks or so that we have been going, a lot of the age group coming to play, between the ages of 21-30, are coming up to us afterwards saying that all their Irish is coming back to them."

They are cognisant of the fact there will be opposition, not least from the various clubs that players will transfer from. But they have made peace with that.

Unusually for a club starting up, they already have access to top-class facilities, using the new 4G pitch at Colaiste Feirste

Already, there is training for children on a Sunday morning and Tuesday evening.

They began seven weeks ago and were expecting around 10 children to attend. However low the numbers, they were going to persevere. Instead, 50 kids showed up.

They have ladies' training also. It's amazing how many are out there that want to pursue their lives through the medium of the Irish language.

The demand is most certainly there.

For the senior team, Enright is taking the training at present, but they will be looking for a permanent manager. The stipulation is that he or she has to be fluent in Irish, which somewhat cuts down their options.

However, this is not a club with playing ambitions as their mission statement. It runs a bit deeper than that.

In an era when the impasse over the Irish Language Act has gone some way in leading to the collapse of Stormont, they are in favour of an Act, but they are not waiting around either.

McCorry said: "We want to normalise the language and that's the ultimate aim of this GAA club, to normalise it and see that it is a breathing language and can be used in all walks of life.

"We want them to have a choice that if they want to go to school, college, play sport and live their lives, that they can do it through the medium of Irish."

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