Dedicated Gael Seeks Irish Cultural Centre In Newry

AN appeal for support from members of Newry and Mourne district council for an Irish cultural centre in the city, had been made by that dedicated Gael, Peter Mallon.

Known as “Mr Bunscoil,” due to his heroic fund-raising efforts on the behalf of the local Irish-speaking schools, this community activist has canvassed councillors from all parties. The aim is to provide a focal-point, where young people could pursue their interest in Irish language, music, drama, history and heritage.

Known as `Culturlann,` the locations at present include Derrybeg House, the Pavilion at the swimming-pool; Carnegat House; the Meadow and Armagh Road Community Centre and Fathom Park House, with Mourne View and Three Ways on the agenda.

Not only would young people get an opportunity to come together, relax and learn about Irish culture and history in a non-sectarian setting, but they could take part in music and dramatic classes, later competing at inter-county and All–Ireland level.

Testimony to Peter Mallon’s contribution towards the creation and success of Bunscoil an Iuir came when he officiated, along with President Mary McAleese, at the official opening of the new purpose-built school at Kilmorey Street in November 1998. What an uphill battle it had been from those embryonic days in 1987, when the Irish language nursery school, Naoiscoil, was launched at Barley Lane, with one teacher and ten pupils. Later came the Buncoil.

Peter explained: “My daughter, Jacqueline had the opportunity to send her children to an Irish-speaking school. They needed somebody to raise funds, just to pay the rent. I appealed to G.A.A clubs, and to everyone else. However, the Minister for Education refused to give any financial aid, stating that the Bunscoil did not have sufficient pupils, though 16 non Irish speaking schools in the Southern board area had less pupils than we had.”

Since it was costing £70,000 per year to keep the school open, Peter Mallon sent Information Packs to U.S. politicians like Senator Edward Kennedy, M.P’s and T.D.’s as well as local businessmen and societies. Nobel Prize-winning poet, Seamus Heaney, and the late Senator Gordon Wilson became patrons; and a U.S. charity, `Doors of Hope,` donated £18,000. Meanwhile, Peter Mallon acquired a little Sawmill, cutting up wood and selling it, the profit going to the school fund.

But there were compensations. He reported: “My grand-children had two languages, while kids at other schools only had one. It was great to hear them talking away in Irish. And it was like a little community at the school, you didn’t just leave the children at the gate and go. Everybody knew everybody else. If someone needed help, there were plenty to give it. We all mucked in.

“I spent all my time, and gave all my energies to the Bunscoil, - but I was delighted to do it. We wanted to give the children of the town the opportunity to have an Irish school, if they wanted it. At first, there seemed to be no way forward. Pupils dropped out and went elsewhere. But by 1996 there were 40 children at the Bunscoil, and 22 at the Naoiscoil. We had three teachers, two temporary staff, a pre-school assistant and a secretary,” stated Peter Mallon.

Newry and Mourne district council laid on an official reception in 1997, after official recognition had been granted. A plaque was presented by council chairman Isaac Hanna. He commented: “It is refreshing to find a group of people, who are determined at their own expense to provide their children’s education, which they feel is best suited to serve them in adult life.

“After long, hard years of constant campaigning, and repeated rejection at official level, Bunscoil an Iuir has received official status, and will operate on an equal basis with other primary schools in Newry and Mourne district.”

And the council chairman added: “The growth of this project is testament to the courage, endeavour and supreme self-confidence, not only of management, staff, parents and pupils of Bunscoil an Iuir, but also the community which conceived and nurtured the project. We are confident that the Bunscoil will play an important role in all aspects of our cultural life.”

Finally came the long-awaited day in December, 1997, when the teachers and pupils moved into their purpose-built school, constructed on the old Gasworks site by Clanrye Abbey Development for Newry and Mourne district council. There were six spacious classrooms, a nursery, assembly hall and facilities for children with special needs.

Principal Maria Caraher stated: “It is absolutely fantastic. We were crying with disbelief when we saw the new building. Teachers and parents had developed the original building with their own hands. They had to be top-class teachers, - that was why parents, even from non Irish speaking families, sent their children to this school.”

Support for the project had come from the council, which had the distinction of appointing the first Irish Language Development Officer in the North. Indeed, `Cuisle na Gael,` organ of the Croabh Ui Fiaich branch of the Gaelic League, described how “the Irish language began to take root in the Newry area in 1993.

“Newry and Mourne district council had a energetic and highly-motivated Irish Language Officer in Malcolm Scott. And councillors were showing 100 per cent support for ventures, proposed by the Gaelic League. Irish language cheques were accepted in the larger stores around Newry; adults were showing an interest in Irish language classes, while scores of children went to the Gaelteacht each summer.

“When Newry and Mourne council appointed an Irish Language Development Officer, it had been a flagship for the whole of Ireland. Even by 1999 there was still only one local authority in the North, which had an Irish Language Committee or an Irish Language Officer. The Irish Language Committee funded a range of groups covering night-classes, local summer colleges, drama, play-groups and festivals, - all operating through the medium of Irish.”

And the journal recalled: “The Council embarked on a number of imaginative projects, including support for the Bunscoil; the visibility of the Irish language on `Failte` signs, leading to towns and villages, while bi-lingual signs are displayed on council vehicles, property and even notepaper.”

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008