MACDARA Ó Conaola is a man with a vision. Recently appointed Language Planning Officer for Ennis he believes the county capital has the potential to become a bilingual town within the next decade.
He feels Ennis and Clare has the capacity to become a “beacon” to the rest of the country in changing how people view Irish, a language which, he laments, is currently “hanging by a thread”.
Speaking to The Clare Champion recently MacDara talks about, amongst other topics, his work in Ennis, infectious passion for the Irish language, involvement with the hit movie The Banshees of Inisherin and love of music.
Growing up on Inis Oírr completely bilingually MacDara says he was “very fortunate” in his upbringing. However he acknowledges, that for others, there can be a “negative attitude” towards Irish.
This is something he wants to counteract, urging people to embrace the language in whatever little way they can and encouraging younger generations to engage.
He tells us, “The big question is often, why should I speak Irish? What’s the point? Well, here it is. The way the Irish are, our great personalities, stem from hundreds and thousands of years of craic, good fun and the bardic tradition, of telling stories both fiction and truthful. The language is our essence, it is the soul of the Irish people and it belongs to everyone.
“The Irish language is one of the things people have an issue with, and it’s not the language’s fault. Irish is a beautiful thing. My aim here is for Ennis and County Clare to almost be a beacon, an example for the rest of the country in how they perceive the Irish language as a positive, beautiful thing.”
As a long time advocate for Irish, Macdara has long felt that Ennis would be an ideal location to help strengthen the language.
Last July his appointment was announced under the Ennis – Irish Language Network Town initiative, in which Ennis town is part of the ‘Gaelphobal’ (Irish language community) national campaign.
In 2016, An Clár as Gaeilge, the lead organisation with responsibility for the promotion of Irish at community level in the county, compiled a submission to the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, to have Ennis recognised as an Irish Language Network Town.
MacDara and his family, wife Anne, son Seán and daughter Michelle, have now moved to the town and they have been delighted with the welcome they have received.
“There are Irish language officer posts popping up around the country now which is great because it shows that the government at least are showing that they are interested in keeping the language alive.
“Ennis was always the town for me. It’s not a huge metropolis but it’s not a small town either by any means. It’s a big, substantial town. I always thought a town like Ennis, and County Clare in general, with its strong culture in Gaelic games and the music, it seemed like the third part of that entity missing is the Irish language.
“Clare is so into sport and music, and I always found that so uplifting. And Clare over probably any other country in Ireland that I have travelled to has the best attitude towards the Irish language.
“You talk to people in other counties or towns, and if you say something in Irish they almost go red in the face with embarrassment, they’d feel shame.
“And there are different reasons for that shame, a stigma carried through for centuries, a colonial hangover. But Clare didn’t seem to have that as much, people would either smile or answer back in Irish.
“There is just a very positive attitude towards Irish. And I’ve seen that going back over two decades in my relationship with Clare coming here myself, and because Inis Oírr is the closest living Gaeltacht to Clare we get a lot of people visiting from Clare.”
He continues, “There are towns and communities around Ireland that are looking to Ennis as an example of how to do things because of all the decades of work the Ennis community have spearheaded.
“People like Domhnall Ó Loingsigh and Seán Ó Ceallaigh who put Ennis on the map as an Irish language friendly town, proactive towards making the language more heard and visible.”
Since his arrival in Ennis MacDara has been busily working telling me, “We have done a lot, myself and Tomás de Buitléir. We have started implementing the ideas An Clár as Gaeilge have had and my own ideas.
“This is coming from both myself and An Clár as Gaeilge, making sure pre-existing things continue but also bringing in new ideas. We have already had two pop-up Gaeltachts which will be a monthly event at a different venue each month. And the Irish language classes have never had as many participants.
“I continue to meet business people in the town and community leaders. There is a lot done, and a lot more to do but I’m enjoying it thoroughly and it’s all very positive. Ennis has not disappointed me, in fact, it has surpassed my expectations with the positivity from everybody I have met, be they Irish speakers themselves or not.”
He stressed the importance of working with schools in encouraging young people with the language.
“I have formed a very strong relationship with the Gaelscoil and I’m looking forward to creating a relationship with all the schools in town, both secondary and primary.
“The most important thing is for young people to be engaged, because they are the future. What’s the point in talking Irish if in the next generation we won’t have younger people to talk to and share.”
As a proud Aran Islands man, MacDara was delighted to have been involved in some small way with the Martin McDonagh film ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ starring Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell.
While he didn’t get to meet the stars themselves, MacDara helped guide the film makers in what an Aran Islander’s accent would sound like in the 1920s.
“I was approached by a friend of mine in TG4 who recommended me to the film’s dialect coach. It was just me talking to him on Zoom and they would have some questions.
“They didn’t to the accents 100% like I said, because they told me they had to think of the American and other markets. I can hear them saying things like I said, but a lot of it is very mild, , which is fair enough and I have nothing against that.”
He adds, “It’s great to see the Aran Islands on the big screen, and it’s great for the area, Clare as well.”
As well as being known as a staunch supporter of the Irish language, MacDara is also an acclaimed sean nós singer. “Growing up my family had strong singing traditions and poetry, the more telling a story type of poetry, so it was never strange to me to take part in feiseanna in the Aran Islands.”
He has sung for visiting dignitaries to the island, including President Mary Robinson and President Mary MacAleese. “I shared a stage with Michael D, but anyone who is in the arts in Galway has shared a stage with Michael D,” he smiles.
In 2006 he released the album ‘The Love Token’. “It was a weird time because everything was changing to digital in a big way and making albums suddenly seemed futile in a way, even though it’s a wonderful way to express yourself artistically, it seemed like will anyone listen to more than one song. I have material in my head for three or four albums.”
He continues to work in music, including doingprojects with schools and recently he has worked with “the queen of sean nós” Sarah Ghriallais on a traditional duet ‘Peigín is Peadar’ raising funds for the Alzheimer Society of Ireland.
Last year Fanore’s John Breslin, who released the popular Old Ireland in Colour book asked MacDara to get involved in putting together a soundtrack for an exhibition of old photographs of the Aran Islands.
“That was wonderful because it was different because I did a few tracks as a performer, and others I didn’t appear on them, getting a musician or actor to read poetry. Producing is something I enjoy a lot, I just use myself as another instrument.”
With plenty of songs at his disposal he has not ruled out another album or working with other musicians
And speaking of the future, he is looking ahead with positivity to a bi-lingual Ennis, suggesting inspiration be taken from the likes of Wales and Canada.
“Somewhere like Ennis with a large population and a positive attitude to the language, even in one generation we can have a thriving bi-lingual community.
“Bi-lingual is the key word here, I’m not saying 100% Irish. Everything should be as bi-lingual as possible like in Wales or Quebec where the languages are equal to English and it’s normal to them.
“It’s not like English is large on signs and French or Welsh is small, it’s completely bi-lingual. I would like to see if somebody asks, ‘Can we do this in Irish?’ that there are people saying yes.
“You don’t have to learn Irish, you can if you want, but the only thing I would ask is that you have a positive attitude towards our language so that kids that look up to them as role models and leaders will have a positive and normal relationship with the language.
“Clare is great at team sports and this is just another team to be a part of. You, me, everybody in Clare. With the goal of becoming a bi-lingual town within 10 years. From the moment I arrived in Ennis I haven’t had a pessimistic day about the Irish language, only positives and that’s great.”