Note: the interviewee speaks Gaelic a language I do not speak, my collaborator for this project Dr Francis Stewart however does speak Gaelic, I provided her with the interview questions and she interviewed this interviewee and interviewee 7 on my behalf and translated the interview into English
Thank you for agreeing to take part in this project, as you know I need to make a few things clear at the start. This is being recorded, and I will undertake transcription of the Irish language we are using as this will be for an English language dissertation. If you want to check through the transcriptions, please just let me know and I will email them to you. You can refuse to answer any question you do not wish to engage with, you can ask for the interview to end at any point, and you can ask for the recording to be stopped or paused for any reason at any stage within this.
Do you give permission for this to be recorded?

Interviewee 8: Yes, that’s fine, I understand.

The project is focused on demarcation imagery and understanding. You grew up in Maghera, one of the few predominantly Gaeltacht areas (predominately Irish speaking), in Northern Ireland. What influence did being Gaeltacht have on your childhood, outlook or experiences?

Interviewee 8: I’m not sure about other Gaeltachtaí (Irish language speakers) but here it is definitely the dominant language, obviously everyone or almost everyone can also speak English, but Irish is our first language in general and often our preferred one. I think there were a few older people who could only, or maybe would only, speak Irish. English was always around us but felt somewhat alien specially in public. It shaped the way we spoke English; it was evident in the place names and frequently it would be heard in song. So, while it was always there in some shape or form it was hidden, we didn’t have full ownership of it and in many ways were ashamed, I suppose reflecting on it, it also shaped how we spoke Irish too although I didn’t realise that then.

English was officialdom, it was road signs, songs on the radio, the army spoke it (shouted it, barked it at you) and it was the forms you had to complete for school. It was abrasive and formal. It lacked the lyrical quality of Irish. As a child I came to realise that it was a way people showed authority over you. As a teenager I became more aware that it was there because of our history and conflict with England, it was forced upon us and that’s why I encountered it where I did.

Because I had to go outside of my local area for A levels, I had to consider very carefully how language formed your identity. For a while I became a bit embarrassed at my family speaking Irish, no-one in my class spoke it as a dominant language, and some were tripping over themselves to learn French or German. It became a bit of a barrier for acceptance with friends and identity with family. A line in the sand as it were. I think I was a bit naïve and didn’t realise then that actually that was the purpose of forcing English on us, to change our identity or mark us as different, as less than. It was its own form of demarcation, but you don’t understand that as a child.
When did that change for you, what lead to you embracing your identity as Gaeltachtaí?

Interviewee 8: At university. I went to Queens and hated it. I couldn’t fit in, I didn’t sound like them, I didn’t think like them, I hadn’t read the books they had and I didn’t want to either. I dropped out towards the end of my first year and went back home. My grandmother, the last of my grandparents, had died about a year or so earlier. I finally had time to go through some of her stuff that my mum had stored in my room. Old letters, diaries, the usual stuff. I was really struck by how familiar they felt, not just because they were hers but because the language felt comfortable, familiar and like a skin that just fit. I decided to go back to university, but this time I wanted to go somewhere I would fit in, somewhere I could study my own world, my own language, my history. I went to UU in Coleraine and did my degree in Irish studies. Doing that not only did I feel like I had found my people, but I had a better sense of who we are as a nation, historically, culturally, politically and linguistically. I came to understand that taking on, or embracing as you described it, my identity as Gaeltachtaí was an important part of becoming who I was, wanted to be. It was not just I was born this, it was who I choose to be, who I felt I was. I knew at the time it was also a political statement, an anti-British statement, and a religious statement and I accepted that.

Do you think those differences are still attached to that identity or has the demarcation that language indicates softened in N Ireland?

Interviewee 8: I think the main thing that stands out for me as a marker of change is that they, younger generations, post Good Friday agreement, understand that you can have more than one language and having two enriches their cultural life and connection with place and each other. It is not now assumed that if you are an Irish speaker you are Catholic or Republican or anti-British. I often wonder if there will come a time, when those connections are not even a thought.
There is of course, those, often older generations, who do make those assumptions and clearly that had a significant role in the dispute over the Irish language act that shut down Stormont for so long. English language being dominant because another country determined it should be, and banned Irish language three times has drawn those boundaries and made them hold meaning for their own purposes.

Do you think Brexit will impact on that?

Interviewee 8: That’s the big question isn’t it. Honestly, I don’t know. I hope not, I hope that people will actually have scales taken {removed / fall} from their eyes and see how much we have had stripped from us and that language is something precious, to be held onto as unique {special} rather than a form of resistance or any other way of thinking about it. I worry that won’t be the case, I worry that people will make it either a way of demarcating, to use your term, between past and future, or between British and Irish that returns us to the ugly violent times of before.

Language can unite but it can also be a divisive tool.

Interviewee 8: Yes, exactly, especially when other identity markers that have specific meanings come with it.
Shifting focus slightly to think about demarcation and borders in a slightly different way through language and Celtic mythology, how do you think or feel about things like faery rings / circles, dolmens, troll bridges and what not?

Interviewee 8: Irish is quite a local language with lots of regional varieties and a strong connection to the geography and history of the area in which it inhabits. It seems to give a much stronger tie to an area, if we read and understand those stories and mythologies in the language they were created in, or as close as we can get to it, nobody really speaks that version. It’s gone, lost to time and English brutality. Those stories remain and the closest we get to them is in the Irish language.

Seanchaí were traditional Irish storytellers and the custodians of history for centuries in Ireland. They could recite ancient lore and tales of wisdom whenever it was needed. I became a storyteller and see my work as part of that heritage. Selkies, the fae and the Fianna are all interweaved in my tales, they are a part of the reality of that world, they breath it as much as the humans do. There were lots of faery rings near where I grew up, I loved the tales that surrounded them, they were fascinating, comforting and beguiling. Some of my favourite memories are being told them as bedtime tales knowing as I listened to every word that they would be in my dreams. Now I love telling them as bedtime tales to my children, I hope they are in their dreams.

We are an oral people, we are storytellers at heart and that matters for who we are as a people, culture, nation. Stories are the means by which we handed down laws and values, religions and taboos, knowledge and wisdom. They bought people together and reinforced their sense of community. Story telling connects people, it lets us share fears, beliefs, joy and faith. These stories that we pass down about the fae connect us, they show us what we have in common and that it takes all of us to work together to fulfil the rituals or solve the problem. There is so much power in that, it can literally cross borders and differences.

I remember learning in university that for a lot of Irish history, in communities up and down the island, doors to houses would be open to a neighbour or stranger and if they arrived at mealtime food was shared regardless of poverty and want. At night, people were not at home on their own. They would gather around the fire in ‘rambling houses’ and entertain each other with stories and gossip while the young would dance to tunes. The English used to wonder why the Irish were so happy despite their poverty and it was because we had this rich sociability in our lives.
The division, hatred and violence of the troubles stripped some of that sociability from us, or at least forced us to only seek it and accept it from our own, from those we knew where the same as us, from those we could trust. I very much hope that the growing trend of reaching back to the tradition of Seanchaí, and the increased interest in stories of the fae will help us reach across those barriers, those means of keeping us divided and conquered.

They are powerful, but hopeful words to end this interview on. I’d like to thank you for your time and for sharing your knowledge and experiences. This project is being undertaken with a photography student – Joshua – and so there will be an exhibit in Aberdeen in June based on his photographs taken and created in response to the interview material. It will be open to the public, and free to attend if you happen to be in the area. You have my contact details, so reach out if you do want details of it.  ​​​​​​​
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