I was thrilled to be present for a significant moment in the history of the Irish speaking culture last week, and was very happy to witness the importance of music in that moment. Belfast City Council along with several Irish culture organizations hosted a formal welcoming of the Irish speaking culture into the Belfast City Hall with the event “A Celebration of Irish Language, Heritage and Culture.” This was a massive step forward in Northern Irish political and cultural history, because very little formal recognition of the Irish speaking communities had taken place within the walls of City Hall. There are numerous representations of British and Unionist history and culture throughout the City Hall building, but representations of the Irish language have only recently begun to appear. This event marks an important step towards bringing all communities in the North of Ireland together in an effort to ensure a brighter future.
Gráinne Holland and Band. From left to right: Rohan Young on bodhran, Gráinne Holland, Feilimi O’Connor on guitar, and Brendan Mulholland on flute.
The Lord Mayor of Belfast, Niall O’ Donnaghaile, opened the event with a speech on the importance of welcoming the rich culture and stated that “It is great to see City Hall open its doors to the Irish community.” Later in the evening I spoke with the Lord Mayor and asked what the motivation for hosting this event was and he said that “Irish is the indigenous language of the city and is a living and growing part of its culture.” He stated also that one of the city council’s goals is to “support cultural diversity, and enhance all cultures in the city of Belfast.” Lord Mayor O’ Donnaghaile is the youngest ever Lord Mayor, age 26, and a fluent Irish speaker. He seemed very pleased with the event and even briefly joined in the dancing at the end.
The evening was a mix of educational and entertaining segments, and most of them included Irish music and song. Some of the performers included Tura Artura, a young man from Africa who made it his mission to learn the “sean nos” Irish dancing form. He incorporates this dance style into pop dancing along with Irish language rap and is a modern example of how an ancient language can come to life. Singer JJ O’ Dochartaigh has made a big splash on Youtube with versions of popular music translated into Irish, such as his hit translation of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” which he performed during the event to much applause from the younger attendees. Gráinne Holland and her group astounded the audience with her brilliant performance of traditional Irish tunes. It was powerful to think that this was the first time the walls of this old City Hall absorbed the beauty that the songs of this language have to offer.
The evening also included many educational presentations led by professionals in their fields who explained the many roles of Irish language in society today including local place-names, BBC Irish Language stations on television, radio, and online, and the history of all these integrations of the Irish language into society. All speeches were given in Irish and most were also given in English.
It was an insightful evening, but also a reminder of the importance of keeping this part of culture alive for future generations. This ancient language has gone through periods of lack of use and has come close to extinction on several occasions, but has persevered in the hearts of its people. It is little known around the globe, but has grown strong in recent years within Ireland and the North. Entwining the Irish language, culture and heritage into the building of an inspiring future is a powerful step towards maintaining it for the future.