Therefore in the second edition articles that Mac Arthur, Mac Airt and the writer Séamus Ó Searcaigh wrote are republished, with these three men having a very important role regarding the history of the Irish language in Queen’s University. An insight to the history of the society is provided in this book, so as well as an insight to life in the society in 1956, there is also an account of the history of the society from then written by different former members that are active in the Irish language community today. As well as this, there is a description by some of today’s students on the Irish-language movement in Queen’s University and in Belfast City. The book of great importance with regards the heritage of An Cumann Gaelach and the history of Irish in Belfast.
The University’s Irish Language Society was founded in early 1906, and it was on 30 January 1906 that the first meeting was held. This was the first society in the University that had anything to do with the Irish language, although the founders had been running Irish classes before this. The Irish Language Society was also the very first language society at the University; there were only a few athletic societies, the Literary and Scientific society and the Christian Union. The Irish Language Society is therefore among the oldest societies at this university.
Many changes have happened in society and to the University since the Irish Language Society was founded. In 1906 there was only four hundred students registered at the University, and among this number there was only twenty-five Catholic students – today there are roughly 20,000 students altogether attending the University and Catholics make up over half of the attendees. The founders of the Irish Language Society were all Protestants; at this period in time the Irish language was not linked with politics and sectarianism in the minds of the public, and to this day it remains a paramount aim of the Society to promote a non-sectarian perception of the language.
William Mac Arthur (1884-1964), a student of medicine, was the first president when the Society was founded, who learned Irish in Cloch Cheannfhaolaidh in west Donegal. After that, however, he went to become a solider in the British army, and earned the title Lt-Gen. William MacArthur, KCB, DSO, OBE, FRCP, FRCPI for himself. It’s hard to imagine we'd have the same kind of society president again!
Since the time of founding until 1920, political matters had no influence on the Society. The troubles in the country during the 1920s greatly affected the Irish language movement throughout the North however, and people’s opinions of the language became tainted with sectarianism. Unfortunately the University’s Protestant community were not as involved in the Society since. Between 1925 and 1929 the Society was quite nearly dead, until an Irish language revival movement in the University around 1930.
In 1936 the Comhchaidreamh (interrelationship) was formed, an organisation that sought to create links among all university Irish societies. Queen’s University’s Irish Language Society had close ties with other Irish language societies around Ireland until the 1970s; there were once debates and plays organised from time to time that the university students were part of, but unfortunately these links have weakened, and we intend to strengthen them again.
The Society went from strength to strength between 1950 and 1970 due to a significant increase in the student population and a very strong cultural revival of the Irish language in Belfast at this time. The Society’s magazine, An Scáthán (The Mirror), was formed in 1950 and was published three or four times a year. During the 1960s and 1970s the society members went to the Gaeltacht of Ballinamore in County Donegal regularly, and did a lot of work for the community, for example, by helping the locals to build a community centre. During the 1970s the Society enjoyed a membership of over three hundred people, a number which neither had been seen before nor since, but we hope to see such a restoration again soon!
Today we regularly visit the Rannafast Gaeltacht in Donegal, with students of Irish also attending summer courses there as part of their degrees. Once a year we also go to Spiddle in County Galway to give members the experience of other dialects of Irish, beyond knowledge solely of the northern dialect. It is clear that there is a new era for the Irish language at the University, thanks to the progress of Irish-medium schools in the city and throughout Ireland. There is a great number of people at the University who speak Irish, both learners and native speakers, and it is these people whom the Irish Language Society are always serving.