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Monday 19 August 2019

Colonised: the making of Meath's Gaeltacht

In 1935, native Irish speakers were transplanted by the state in a bid to revive the language and culture. Emer Martin describes a contentious, though ultimately successful, colonisation

Plantation: Emer Martin outside Ráth Chairn, Co Meath. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Plantation: Emer Martin outside Ráth Chairn, Co Meath. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Members of the new Galetacht colony being welcomed by the Gaelic League.
The Cruelty Men by Emer Martin

My father's family grew up in Kilbride, Co Meath at the edge of what they called "The Colony." People in this colony were granted land that locals had worked on for centuries. These new arrivals had different ways and they did not speak English. The locals fired shots into their new houses, they even broke in and stole items, and painted warning signs on the doors with hostile slogans such as: "No more migrants wanted here".

The Meath Chronicle on April 27, 1935 reports that a local Meath resident was arrested for threatening the life of a Land Commission employee for giving the migrants land instead of him. The newly arrived migrant women were harassed by 'gangs' and told "to quit talking that gibberish here". In light of today's tensions all across Europe with the increasing migration of humans, this might all sound sadly familiar yet one of the slogans painted on the doors shows the dissimilarity. "This land is not for Connemara people - it is for Meath men".

The people who were planted were arguably more connected to Ireland than the locals and their presence was meant to deepen the culture.

This so-called colony was a social experiment and ironically an attempt to redress the 17th-century ethnic cleansing of Ireland by Oliver Cromwell. These colonists were not Vikings or Normans or English invaders but poor farmers largely from Connemara and Kerry, who were planted by the government in order to save the Irish language and traditions.

The idea of rural farmers and Irish speakers being referred to as colonists in Co Meath while politicians and idealists played chess with people's lives was fascinating to me and I decided it would be an interesting setting for my novel The Cruelty Men which traces a family through many great displacements from Cromwell, to famines, to the industrial schools and laundries of Dublin.

Language revival

It seemed simple enough in newly independent Ireland that if we wanted to revive the Irish language, and at the same time relieve the congested districts in the West, then resettlement of native populations was only logical. Inevitably, the landless people of Meath, who had worked on the big estates for generations, now found themselves unemployed in a worldwide depression and the land granted to outsiders.

For the migrants, moving into a tight-knit rural community was always going to be tricky. From the outset, the hostility was apparent.

My father, Eamonn Martin, said: "I remember the Irish speakers trying to come into the local pub for a drink and being run out of the place as soon as they spoke. Sadly, instead of embracing them for what they could teach us, they were looked down on. My mother was a schoolteacher in the small national school in Kilbride. Some of these new settlers wanted to put their children in the school in Kilbride to learn English rather than keep them stigmatised in their brand new Gaeltacht."

The transition of the newly settled people's lives from the rocky fields of the West into the flat fertile lands of Meath was not easy. The land was good but plantations always come with a price and local resentment was shocking to them. Farming in Meath was very different from the farming in the West.

Historian Barry Sheppard wrote an excellent article on the subject, 'Ráthcairn: Land & Language Reform In The Irish Free State' stating that the government promised a donkey but sent them only the harness. The shared communal equipment didn't always work or wasn't available in time and they missed the crucial first harvest and nearly starved.

Údarás na Gaeltachta now gives the plain facts that the Meath Gaeltacht represents 1.7pc of the total Gaeltacht population and at an area of 44km2, it is merely 1pc of the total Gaeltacht land area in Ireland. However, the size of the place belies its difficult beginnings, a mere 70km from the city centre of Dublin. Resources were scarce and tempers flared. In postcolonial Ireland, many did not find tolerance in their hearts for those who were supposedly the guardians of the culture.

The Drogheda Independent, in 1946, compared the people from the West to Corsican bandits and red Indians.

Their alarmist headline on August 31, 1946 read: 'Reign of terror in part of Meath' claiming that the people were 'poor advertisements' for Gaelic culture.

According to Sheppard, Fine Gael supporters claimed it was an attempt by Fianna Fáil to change the voting demographics of the area. Patrick Belton, TD and property developer, perhaps embittered that he could not use this land for profit, called the plantation a "shocking waste of public money" and that Fine Fáil "was simply trying to find homes for imbeciles on the land". He suggested that the migrants slept late, were lazy, and spent their few waking hours in the production of poitín.

The repercussions have lasted till today and many other families from the West were relocated in parts of Meath. When I was living in Kilcloon, there was a farmer around the corner from us who had his cows in the front garden of his rather ramshackle bungalow.

A comment was once made to me that he was from the West and had got the land through the commission decades ago. The inference being that the well-kept gardens of Meath were not a thing in the West, where the necessities of survival meant that land was only for practical purposes and the ubiquitous flower baskets of Meath were nowhere to be seen.

One day I walked around the graveyard by Kilbride with my dad and my uncle for my daughter's school project.

In the graveyard, some of the headstones were in Irish, yet the ones next to them were in English, perhaps illustrating that even in death, there was a separation. Ultimately, despite its rocky start, it did work as intended, proving that sometimes government plantations can work when the intentions are benign.

The land commission was not Cromwell in reverse and the "colony" had its supporters. The Meath Chronicle was always enthusiastic about the project. Currently, the descendants have established a thriving Gaeltacht that has a cultural impact today.

I raised my own daughters in Meath and they attended the tiny national school of Culmullen.

Many of their fellow students attended the Gaeltacht in Meath as an alternative to going all the way to Kerry or Connemara. In the end, that's a message to remember, migrants will enrich you.

Emer Martin is an author whose new novel, The Cruelty Men, was partly inspired by the Meath resettlement

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