Marching for Irish in the Sixties

An Irishman’s Diary on language protests

A prominent Gaeilgeoir declared that the recent Dearg le Fearg marches in Dublin and Connemara in support of the Irish language filled him with hope. I myself had a feeling of déjà vu as the media reports of the marches brought me back 50 years to the last big outpouring of support for the Irish language.

In the summer of 1964 I went around the workplaces of Dublin city asking people to put their names to a petition in support of Irish. It was felt that going to people’s workplaces was an easier and more effective way of meeting large numbers of people than going door-to-door.

“Let the Language Live” was the campaign slogan, a response to the government white paper on the future of the Irish language.

The nationwide campaign aimed to spur the government into practical and positive action. I’ll leave it to you to judge the success or otherwise of the campaign.


The leaders of the campaign were a formidable Who's Who of well-known language activists. Among them, almost all men: Tomás (later Cardinal) Ó Fiaich, Donncadh Ó Laoire, Tarlach Ó hUid, Roibeárd Mac Góráin, Dónal Ó Móráin, Tomás Mac Gabhann, Donncadh Ó Súilleabháin, Breandán Ó Dúill, Briain Ó Baoill, Íte Nic Lochlainn, Liam Ó Lonargáin, Nollaig Ó Gadhra, Colmán Ó hUallacháin OFM, Máirín Ní Chonghaile, Dónal Ó Riagáin, Ciarán Ó Nualláin, Proinsias Mac an Bheatha and Liam Ó Luanaigh. Reading over that list of colourful characters, I think today's leaders are not nearly as well known or as authoritative as the leaders of 1964.

The campaign was notable for the inclusion, perhaps for the first time, of people from prestigious Conradh na Gaeilge, who had hitherto been inclined to stay aloof from the “ordinary” language groups. But now almost all worked together under the title Comhchoiste na Gaeilge.

The split being the first thing on the agenda, a small number of activists thought that the Comhchoiste was timid and not nearly radical enough. People such as Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Fiachra Ó Dubhthaigh, Séamus Ó Tuathail formed the group Misneach, who certainly livened things up by their speeches and direct action.

And then the Language Freedom Movement sprang up with its own agenda and ideas – inflammatory and seriously negative, according to Gaeilgeoirí and Comhchoiste na Gaeilge.

But at least the question of Irish was now a real, live, hot issue. Nobody could wish it away or pretend it didn’t exist.

People’s memories of those few years are fading and growing hazy. A mere handful of those intimately involved are still alive. The story of those important years should be published before it is too late. The protesters and activists of today – who may not even be aware of the events of 50 years ago – deserve that much.

In 1964 Dublin was a drab and homely city. Now the north quays have a huge music venue, a hotel, a glittering convention centre, striking bridges, upmarket apartments, the sparkling Grand Canal basin, the Red Line rapid rail system. Then the north quays had tenements and a very busy shipping trade. And that, as far as I can remember, was that.

In those days before the advent of health and safety regulations it was no problem at all to go down into the holds of ships to get the signatures of the dockers. They might have been covered with coal dust, but they were welcoming and supportive.

There were also offices and shops of all sorts to be canvassed and after I banished the first bashful blushes there were ladieswear shops to be visited. More manly were the visits to the street that had two (or was it three?) distilleries.

St Stephen’s Green and nearby Grafton Street have always been trendy.Where South King Street meets Stephen’s Green there was a popular pub, Rice’s. Further along where Cuffe Street meets the Green there was another pub, the Wintergarden.

Between these two long-gone pubs there was a bottle factory where a glitzy hotel now stands. I forget what exactly they did there – it was certainly a busy and noisy place but again the workers were friendly and supportive.

Each evening myself and Tomás Mac Gabhann, my “boss”, met in Sinnott’s homely pub in South King St to review the day’s work. We invariably spoke of the very obvious goodwill people had for Irish. Why did we not build on that?