Northern Ireland news

Irish-speaking woman's east Belfast childhood uncovered

A young Áine Morton attended the Oireachtas at Dublin's Mansion House in the late 1940s with her mother Biddie Pheadar Mháire (left), who was the Ashbourne Shield Irish Language Competition examiner
Seamus McKinney

A BOOK by two Derry men as a Christmas present to their mother has uncovered her fascinating childhood as a native Irish speaker growing up in 1940s unionist east Belfast.

During that decade there was scant knowledge of the Irish language among Belfast's Protestant population.

That made the childhood of Dr Áine Downey (nee Morton) all the more remarkable as her’s was perhaps the only Gaelic speaking family living in the unionist heartland in the east of the city. In fact, so unusual was her family - living at 3 Clara Street - that Protestant/Unionist neighbours referred to them as “The Mickeys who speak Chinese”.

Born in Fintown, Co Donegal in 1942, the family moved to Belfast where Dr Downey's father was a teacher at St Malachy’s Christian Brothers’ primary school.

An Irish speaker, Richard Morton was also a founding member of Cumann Chluain Ard. Now a retired psychologist and university lecturer, she lives in Derry following a working life that took her around the world.

Now retired, Dr Áine Downey lives in Derry.

Last Christmas, her sons, Cormac and Garbhan used their mother’s letters and memories to self-publish a book, recalling her time growing up in east Belfast in the 1940s.

Garbhan Downey, a former Irish News journalist and a candidate in the recent Irish Seanad elections, said the name of their book came from the way the Morton family was regarded by their unionist neighbours.

“The Morton family were known in the area, quite fondly as ‘The Mickeys who speak Chinese’ – so the book was entitled ‘The Mortons who spoke Chinese’.

“The family are recognised in the brochure of the Gael Tour of east Belfast and on their Gael Map of east Belfast,” he said.

As a child, Áine lived at 3 Clara Street in East Belfast where the first language of the house was Gaelic.

In the book - which is dedicated to Dr Downey’s third son, Rónán who passed away some years ago - the retired lecturer innocently remembered thinking as a child that everyone spoke Irish and English in east Belfast.

“I probably assumed that every home had three bedrooms, one for the girls, a second for the boys and a mammy and daddy bedroom. I did not, a child doesn’t, distinguish between languages – so there was the family way of talking (Irish), spoken between and by us whether in the house or outdoors and normally spoken with the many visitors to 3 Clara Street. I didn’t realise that this was ‘Irish’ and was different from the way of communication at St Anthony’s primary school and outside playing in the street or in the park; seemingly that was called ‘English’,” she recalled.

Initially published on a 100-book run for family and friends, the book has been so well received that the family plans a second edition once lockdown ends.

“Linda Ervine and Gordon McCoy of the East Belfast Mission have got copies of the book, though it was great and have asked for more to sell on their tours. Other outlets have also said they’d like some,” Dr Downey’s son said.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

Northern Ireland news