GAA Football

Laochra Loch Lao. Don't bet against those words being on the tongues of gaels across the land in the years ahead

Padraig O Meiscill

FEARGAL Mac Ionnrachtaigh goes on the hunt for cups in the cluttered kitchen of Gael Ionad MacGioll.

The Gael Ionad is home to Irish medium youth groups every night of the week, so the cups may now be improvised paintbrush holders or plant pots.

Eventually, not that long after the kettle has boiled, he finds a couple hidden at the back of a cupboard.

In the Gael Ionad, the Irish language centre for the Upper Springfield area of west Belfast, not much tea gets drunk.

If there isn’t a group of young Gaeligoirí playing table football or practising their dance moves, there is public meeting on the go or a film being shown, nearly all of the participants being young enough to take to the GAA pitch.

“We can’t even fit any Irish language classes in here at the minute,” says Feargal as he begins the search for a spoon.

"We've kids in here every night of the week, so the classes have to stay where they are until we get a bigger building," whereon I’m shown the plot where they’re thinking of a new extension. The 'old' building was only completed two years ago.

Outside, on the Whiterock Road underneath Belfast’s Black Mountain, it is freezing – snow obscures any trace of greenery, ice makes death traps of the footpaths and the carpark to the Gael Ionad is inaccessible.

Training for Belfast’s newest GAA club isn’t winding down for Christmas though. It’s only gearing up.

Laochra Loch Lao CLG caters for the city’s Irish language community and they have been inundated with interest since their decision to go it alone in September this year.

Early in the new year, the Antrim county board are to decide whether the club’s men’s senior team can enter the league and become a fully-fledged part of the county’s GAA structures.

In the Gael Ionad, in the shadow of the Whiterock Leisure Centre which is scheduled for closure next year, Feargal, formerly a senior footballer with Gort na Mona, explains the thinking behind the Laochra project.

“First and foremost, this is a language project and we’ve said that to the GAA and the other GAA clubs,” the club secretary admits.

“Now, we want to be doing all the other things GAA clubs do, but the added value here is that it’s an Irish speaking GAA club. No one wants to form another GAA club for the sake of it.

"The only difference here is that everything this club does will be done through the medium of Irish.”

While the decision to form a standalone GAA club is a new departure, the Laochra lads have been playing their football through the medium of Irish on and off for more than a decade now.

“The original idea came about in 2006 to form an amalgamated team, there were no big plans for a standalone GAA club,” Feargal adds.

“The basic idea back at that stage was to try to apply to get into Comórtas Peile na Gaeltachta. When we went into the competition in 2007, we were accepted unanimously.

"It was the first time a club outside the Gaeltacht had ever got into the competition, so it was a big deal, there was a huge spotlight on us when we got there from all the different Gaeltachtaí.

“People who’d never been to Belfast ever were seeing this collection of Irish speakers on the pitch.

“A lot of the other teams were from Gaeltachtaí where the language was struggling, it was going into decline, they were beginning to allow English speakers on the team, so we, all of a sudden, raised the bar and you had the chair of the organisation saying what we did the first year was revolutionise the competition.

“You had people saying ‘these northerners are showing us up, they’re speaking more Irish than us, we should be ashamed of ourselves, we should be speaking Irish’.

“In 2011, we got to the final of the Comórtas and we were live on the TG4 on the Monday when we got beat by Naomh Muire from Annagry.

“We were able to draw down people like Paddy Cunningham, Decky Lynch… county players who came along. So we had a big push in those early years.

“But we found, between 2015 and '17, the project had reached its zenith and it was on the way down with clubs struggling to release players and, in and around that period, a number of Irish language activists had came to us to start a juvenile team.

“They were saying to us that was what the priority was, it wasn’t a senior team, it was juvenile.”

At present, there are 12 Irish language primary schools in Belfast and one secondary school.

Irish medium education is the fastest growing school sector in the North, with a 79 per cent growth rate according to Comhairle na Gaelscoilaíochta, while there is an ongoing discussion on opening a second post-primary school to cater for north Belfast in the near future.

While the school sector is thriving, however, those involved in the Laochra have spotted gaps in out-of-school provision which they are convinced need to be filled.

“We have youth clubs, we’ve naoiscoileanna, we’ve bunscoileanna, we’ve our secondary school but, after that, there’s very little projects for young people to live their lives through the medium of Irish,” Feargal contends.

“Now, some of the GAA clubs would have a lot of Irish speakers in and around them and people would speak Irish every now and again on certain days or for certain projects but, in a real sense, in all the GAA clubs in Belfast, the Irish language is on the margins.

“There’s a lot of kids from bunscoileanna who play, but they’re always going to be in the minority.

“There was a public meeting held in February 2016 and the idea was you could form a juvenile team – U8 down – and the senior structure would stay as an amalgamated team and take part in Comórtas Peile na Gaeltachta once a year.

“But it was getting more and more difficult to get the players to go, there tended to be fixtures in Antrim in and around that weekend and it was becoming harder to pull it together.

“So we came together, we had a meeting and the decision was taken to form our own GAA club and do everything that went along with it, which was have a senior team and a juvenile structure and a ladies’ team.

“We went to the Antrim county board in March and people like Paul Molloy have been very, very helpful in terms of advice."

Earlier this year, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Laochra's conception as an amalgamated side, former GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail was the guest of honour at a celebratory dinner in Andersonstown.

Ó Fearghail has been a constant supporter of the Laochra Loch Lao project, assisting with the Oliver Kelly tournament, organised as a tribute to the Belfast Gael.

Ó Fearghail has fully backed the decision to form a standalone club, insisting it will only increase participation in Gaelic games while putting the Irish language front and centre of the association in Antrim.

“He was talking about how great it’d be to host Comórtas Peile na Gaeltachta in Belfast, you’d have thousands of people coming from all over for a festival," Feargal says.

"You couldn’t bring that to Belfast if you were amalgamated, you need to be a standalone GAA club, an affiliated club with grounds. That was kinda another accelerator for us."

Those behind the Laochra idea, those who have done the hard lifting and put in the hours in meetings and on the training ground know it won't be all plain sailing.

As with any new departure, there is no guarantee of success, but at this early stage they have certainly tapped into a want in the city.

“The first event, 50 kids weighed in, so it shows there was the appetite there for it," Fearghal adds.

"In around that time, the ladies had a session, they were inundated with interest from girls, some of them fluent in Irish, others learning Irish, some of them in the universities.

“Others had fallen away, they weren’t using the Irish language anymore and they saw this an entry point.

“As regards the men, we decided to organise six sessions until we get affiliation and we’ve had upwards of 40 at sessions.

“What’s interesting about it is, the great majority of them are people who are 23-28 who played the GAA, but fell away around the age of 18.

“They were coming to the first meeting and saying, ‘I can’t speak any Irish, my Irish is rusty, I haven’t spoken Irish in years and I’m nervous when I’m speaking it.’

“And I’m saying ‘Don’t worry about it, sure it’ll come’. Within a couple of sessions, it’s unbelievable, the fluency is flying out of them.

“If you were to go down to Coláiste Feirste on a Wednesday, you’ll have 25 women down one end of the pitch and 25 men down the other end and all you’ll hear is Irish,”

“If you were flown in from Mars or somewhere, as far as they’re concerned Irish the spoken language of the place."

Laochra Loch Lao.

In the years to come, don't bet against those words being on the tongues of Gaels across the land.

 

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