How tables were turned on cultural snobbery

Joe Steve Ó Neachtain who opened the Oireachtas in 1974, with Máire Denvir, Donncha Ó hEallaithe and Brian Ó Cuív; all are members of this year’s committee. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy.
Joe Steve Ó Neachtain who opened the Oireachtas in 1974, with Máire Denvir, Donncha Ó hEallaithe and Brian Ó Cuív; all are members of this year’s committee. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy.

Lifestyle –  Judy Murphy talks to the people behind the 1974 feat of bringing the Oireachtas to Connemara

”It was the first traffic jam we ever had in Connemara,” says actor, author and activist Joe Steve Ó Neachtain as he recalls the historic moment in September 1974 when the country’s biggest Irish-language cultural festival, Oireachtas na Gaeilge, came to the Gaeltacht for the first time.

Oireachtas na Gaeilge was founded in Dublin in the 1890s, as part of the Celtic Revival, which also saw the establishment of the Abbey Theatre. It promoted the Irish language via music, singing and drama competitions. After declining in the early years of the Free State it was re-established in 1939.

Ironically, while it was all about celebrating and promoting culture through Irish, the Oireachtas had not once been held in the Gaeltacht until 1974, says Joe Steve, who as a young man was one of the responsible for changing that situation, as well as a great deal more in Ireland’s Gaeltacht areas.

Joe Steve, now 72, was a member of a group called Coiste Cearta Síbialta na Gaeilge, set up in the late 1960s to highlight the decline of the Irish language and campaign for greater rights for Irish-speaking areas. Their campaigns – often militant – led to the establishment of Raidió na Gaeltachta and Údarás na Gaeltachta, and also saw the Oireachtas come home to the Gaeltacht.

“There was a time when you had to take a stand,” says Joe Steve, who was on the committee that brought that first Oireachtas to Connemara in 1974.

This weekend, he will be one of those marking that milestone, when Oireachtas Chois Fharraige takes place in South Connemara. Oireachtas Chois Fharraige, celebrating the first ever Oireachtas to take place outside Dublin, will include concerts, films, debates and fun, but no competitions. Those will be left for the annual Oireachtas na Gaeilge, taking place in Killarney at the end of October.

After the 1974 Connemara Oireachtas broke the mould, a tradition was established to move the cultural gathering to different towns and cities. Oireachtas na Gaeilge is so big these days that many Gaeltacht areas don’t have the facilities to accommodate it and Killarney is a popular venue.

Breaking the mould was what Coiste Cearta Síbialta na Gaeilge was all about – and with good reason, says Joe Steve.

“Everyone else in my class at school emigrated, and that was from primary school; we didn’t go to secondary.”

He, too, would have taken that path except his father died when Joe Steve was nine and the youngster became responsible for the family farm. “It was an 18-acre stone farm, but my parents had knocked a living out of it,” he says.

Having made the decision to stay, it became vital to take a stand. The Cois Fharraige area was in dire need of second-level education facilities, families had no running water, no work, no sports facilities, and no radio station, he says. And despite a lot of lip service to Irish, there seemed to be little respect for the people who were keeping the language alive.

“When we had any kind of an examination at school, it was always someone from outside coming to see if we could speak Irish properly and not to see if we could speak English at all,” Joe Steve recalls.

“Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael owned the place and it was unusual for young people to take a stand. We were unruly alright!”

For more, read this week’s Galway City Tribune.