Irish language skills of first World War soldiers from east Belfast revealed

Researchers cross-referenced census data with military records of men from east Belfast who fought in the First World War.
Irish language skills of first World War soldiers from east Belfast revealed

By David Young, PA

Researchers studying the backgrounds of first World War soldiers from a part of Belfast traditionally associated with unionism have discovered that 74 of them were Irish speakers.

Many of the gaeilgeoiri from inner east Belfast who fought in the first World War were Protestant, the historical project found.

The 18-month trawl of military records and census data was undertaken by Turas, an organisation that promotes the Irish language within the Protestant community.

Project leader Carmel Duggan said the findings challenge many perceptions about parts of east Belfast, suggesting a more positive attitude to Irish than might have been anticipated in working-class areas synonymous with the unionist tradition.

“There wasn’t the antagonism towards Irish at that point,” she said.

“Political developments from about 1912 onwards began to change that and so, by the end of the war, Irish was then sort of marginalised to being the language of one community.

Richard Guthrie and Carmel Duggan worked on the project researching the backgrounds of Great War soldiers from east Belfast. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA

“And ironically, at the same time, the war became the property of another section of the community.

“And I suppose that’s one of the interesting things about our project – it just sort of locates itself within that turning point in the history of the island, but also in the history of east Belfast.”

The project, which was supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, cross-referenced responses to the censuses of 1901 and 1911 with information contained in military records of Belfast soldiers compiled by local historian Jason Burke.

Householders who completed census forms in the early 20th century were asked to state their proficiency in English and Irish.

Ms Duggan said intriguingly many responses from Protestants who said they could speak Irish had subsequently been crossed out by officials.

Suppression

She said the reason for these alterations remains a mystery, but one theory is that it was a political attempt to conceal the prevalence of Irish within the Protestant community.

“It could have been deliberately suppressed in terms of the numbers, it could have been that it didn’t suit the politics of the day that there would be so many Irish speakers,” she said.

Richard Guthrie, who learned Irish through classes run by Turas in east Belfast, was one of the 15 researchers on the project. He also played a key role in developing a website.

Richard Guthrie and Carmel Duggan. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA

He said discovering the personal stories of the soldiers who fought and, in many instances, died in the war had been an emotional experience.

“When you hear about the huge numbers who died it’s almost overwhelming, but it’s when you drill down to the individual and you hear the personal story that I certainly found that very moving, when it becomes personal,” he said.

“It was just the sadness, the sadness of loss of a lot of young lives. That was the deepest feeling I had, was the loss of these young lives. By focusing on the individual, it just hit home how much was lost on all sides in that terrible war.”

The research was completed in 2020 but the coronavirus pandemic disrupted plans to promote the findings more widely.

Turas was finally able to host a small in-person launch ahead of Remembrance Day last month and now has ambitions to take its physical display to libraries across the area.

Ms Duggan said she hopes the project will lead to a greater awareness of how “varied and diverse” east Belfast was a century ago.

She said the censuses showed people from every county in pre-partition Ireland lived in the area before the outbreak of war.

“Maybe this will provide an opportunity for people to embrace more of that past,” she said.

For more information visit greatwargaeilgeoiri.org.uk

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