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The Gaelic Hit Factory

Michael Cronin

Scéal Ghael-Linn, by Mairéad Ni Chinnéide, Cló Iar-Chonnacht, €20, ISBN: 978-1909367722

In the cartoon history of Irish modernity, the setting is a familiar one. The people of Ireland are sunk in the deep sleep of protectionism, lulled into in a trance of self-abnegation by the Gaelic sermonising of their priestly betters. Along come Whitaker and Lemass, the Titans of Progress. The country is saved in the nick of time from disappearing down the plughole of national self-righteousness and the course is firmly set for redemption through free trade. In these endlessly rehearsed versions of how we went from preventing the future to promoting it, the Irish language is corralled in with land and religion as a shibboleth of the anti-modern, a form of totem worship for recalcitrant hobgoblins wedded to a vision of frugal autarky on the Western seaboard. Missing from these accounts is what might be termed the strain of “Gaelic modernity” in Irish life, economy and society. This is a form of modernity that calls into question the pat oppositions that even to this day structure debates around language and identity in Ireland.

In 1961 The Sunday Review published a cartoon showing a man berating his pub cronies with the caption “If Gael-Linn can’t put a man on the moon, then nobody can!” Mairéad Ní Chinnéide, in her new history of the Irish-language organisation, tries to offer clues as to why the city tippler should be convinced of the extraterrestrial reach of an organisation that was then barely eight years old. Gael-Linn was founded on May 3rd, 1953 with a working capital of £100. The three founding members, Dónall Ó Mórain, Séamus Mac Crosáin and Riobard Mac Góráin, had very different backgrounds, in law (Ó Móráin), philosophy (Mac Góráin) and business (Mac Crosáin) but they were agreed that something different had to be done if Irish was to survive as a living language. They were inspired by the appetite for postwar change that was particularly prevalent in the Comhchaidreamh, an association of third-level Irish language clubs and graduates established in 1935. The journal Comhar, set up by members of the Comhchaidreamh in 1942, was to become the debating chamber of this emergent Gaelic modernity as contributor after contributor bemoaned the paralysis that had beset Irish society. The failure of the revivalist project was indicative of wider failures in the society that preferred the running wound of emigration to a deeper engagement with viable forms of identity renewal.

The founders of Gael-Linn quickly realised that a culture of complaint was of limited usefulness. Petulance would never amount to a politics. Since independence, a great deal of the energies of Irish language organisations had been directed towards heaping scorn on successive governments for their failure to deliver on commitments to the language. Ó Móráin and his co-founders believed that rather than plead with the authorities for funding they should raise their own funds. The idea they hit upon to do this was to copy the English football pools. The difference would be that in Ireland the pools would be based on the results of Gaelic Games. Gael-Linn, drawing on the formidable organisational and entrepreneurial skills of Mac Crosáin and Mac Góráin, set up a network of reps around the country so that by 1958 the organisation had a turnover of £250,000 and by 1961, there were over three thousand reps in the field, with a third of the income coming from Northern Ireland. Using the veteran Gaelic Games journalist Seán Óg Ó Ceallacháin to get accurate scores from all the fixtures, an efficient system was put in place to collect monies and announce results and prizes on a weekly basis. Powersams punch cards, precursors of modern computers, were used to analyse the pools codes and match results. The success of the pools initiative was greatly facilitated by the Gael-Linn sponsored weekly programme on Raidió Éireann, which began in August 1953. Access to the most powerful medium of broadcasting in one-channel-land not only gave the pools winners instant notoriety but it allowed Gael-Linn to showcase its various initiatives. What emerges from the pools story is a very different image from the shambolic monochrome that passes too often for 1950s Ireland. As Riobard Mac Góráin noted subsequently:

Níorbh fhéidir dul sa tseans ar aon teip sna blianta tosaigh, nó ar aon bhotún a tharraingeodh aon droch-phoiblíocht orainn, a lagódh an teacht isteach seachtainiúil nó a chosnódh mór-airgead cúitimh orainn [...] Chaithfeadh clú na pointeáilteachta agus na hiontaofachta a bheith orainn ar gach uile bhealach – in obair na linnte agus i ngach gné eile den obair. [It was not possible to take a chance on failure in the early years, or to make any mistake that would draw any bad publicity, that would reduce the weekly income or expose us to expensive compensation claims [...] We had to maintain a reputation for punctuality and reliability in everything we did, the pools or anything else.]

Accuracy, reliability and efficiency in dealing with hundreds of thousands of codes was paramount and there was no room, or more to the point forgiveness, for error. Though the pools continued to flourish in the 1960s, increasingly the income stream came from another source, bingo. The arrival of television in Ireland had led to a dramatic drop in cinema-going audiences. The cavernous motion picture palaces of the Dublin suburbs emptied out into a thousand sitting rooms with rabbits’ ears. Gael-Linn moved to acquired leases on the Cabra Grand, the Strand and the Whitehall Grand and later bought them outright along with the Theatre de Luxe in Camden Street and then, in 1993, the Super Bowl in Crumlin (renamed An Réalta). One of the technical innovations was a telephone link-up that allowed the same game of bingo to be played simultaneously in six different halls. These giant auditoriums would become a central part of the social lives of a generation of working class Dubliners before the smoking ban in 1996 and alternative forms of entertainment sidelined bingo as a popular pastime.

The whole point of Gael-Linn was not, however, to make money but language speakers. In two important areas, education and the economy, they broke with prevailing wisdom. Máirtín Ó Cadhain, writer and political activist, was one of the early patrons of the organisation, before breaking with Gael-Linn in 1959. It was Ó Cadhain who argued strenuously for the immersion approach to language learning when Gael-Linn considered introducing a scholarship scheme in 1955. In effect, he claimed that no benefit was to be gained from sending a young Anglophone for three weeks to a residential college in an Irish-speaking area. Three months was the minimum period for any significant language learning to take place and the pupils and students should reside with Irish-speaking families and attend the local Irish-speaking schools. The scholarship scheme which ran until 2002 allowed for extended stays in Gaeltacht areas and schooling in local schools and the success of the immersion philosophy as demonstrated by the scheme would later motivate activists who campaigned for Irish-language medium instruction at first and second level.

Another of Ó Cadhain’s concerns was, of course, the economic plight of the Gaeltacht. He was withering on the urban gaeilgeoirí who rhapsodised on the virtues of the Gaelic way of life while condemning the surviving speakers of the language to a life of unrelenting poverty at home or permanent exile abroad. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Gael-Linn financed a series of initiatives in fishing, metalwork, market gardening and animal husbandry with the express aim of providing livelihoods for people living in Gaeltacht areas. Not all of these projects met with success. One particularly unhappy scheme involved raising rabbits for export to markets on the continent. In 1961, Hurricane Debbie swept through Connemara taking in its wake the roof of the large shed in which they were kept. The rabbits were not slow in seizing the opportunity to head for the hills and it was eventually decided that lapin would remain off the Gael-Linn menu. Underlying these initiatives, however, was a welcome realism about the link between language and livelihood which would eventually lead to the establishment of Gaeltearra Éireann and Údarás na Gaeltachta as development authorities in Gaeltacht areas.

More broadly, in terms of the concept of Gaelic modernity, what the Gaeltacht projects pointed to was a desire to incorporate modernity in a framework of local sustainability. The intellectual impetus for this came in part from the members of the Comhchaidreamh who worked in semi-state bodies like Aer Lingus, CIE, Comhlacht Siúcra Éireann (the sugar company) and the ESB and who envisaged a fruitful alliance between science, technology, business and indigenous development. The establishment of Inisfree Handknits, the furniture brand Crannac, the trading company Irlandia and the investment fund Cara-Chumann, as well as other initiatives, were part of a philosophy of economic development that would draw on place and cultural specificity to create employment that was local, innovative and attuned to shifts in global demand. The perennial difficulty for these proto-ecological projects was scale. While jobs were created and income was generated, the qauntity or amount, were scarcely sufficient to meet the demands of an expanding population.

One of the immediate difficulties Gael-Linn faced with its weekly sponsored programme was not so much what to say as what to play. Despite the activities of recording companies in the United States in the earlier part of the century, there was a dearth of recordings of traditional Irish music and song. Under the label Ceolta Éireann, over twenty recordings were issued with particular emphasis on Irish-language song. Contrary to modernist misconceptions about a land beholden to the theme music of the crossroads, for much of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, in Irish broadcasting circles and beyond, there was a widespread petit-bourgeois disdain for the music of the common people. This would change with the pioneering work of Gael-Linn and the visionary presence of Roibard Mac Góráin. It was Gael-Linn who would provide Seán Ó Riada and Ceoltóirí Chualann with both the financial support and the public exposure that would allow them to pursue their quiet revolution in music in the period, culminating in the legendary concert in the Gaiety Theatre in 1969. The recording from that concert, Ó Riada sa Gaeity, is still one of the bestselling records in the Gael-Linn catalogue. The involvement with a classically trained composer was indeed part of a broader attempt to bring the folk and classical traditions into a musical conversation that would go beyond the sniffiness and suspicion that had largely dogged the relationship between them up to this point. It was in the Gaiety Theatre, ten years earlier, on March 15th,  1959, that Gael-Linn brought together the RTE Light Orchestra, the classical pianist Charles Lynch, the Belfast fiddler Seán Maguire, the sean-nós singer Seán ’ac Dhonncha and others in an effort to end the performance apartheid that bedevilled the Irish musical scene. 1967 Gael-Linn issued a record, Ceol na nUasal (Music of the Nobility), which showcased the work of Turlough O’Carolan and others who had worked between the two traditions. As traditions are only as vital as their renewal, a decision was made to start the Slógadh competition in 1970, a talent competition for young people working with Irish music or song, inspired by a similar competition at the Welsh Eisteddford yr Urdd. At the first competition, the audience was mesmerised by a group of musicians from Donegal playing “Lisa”. Clannad would be the first in a long list of groups and performers that would achieve fame after first coming to prominence in the Gael-Linn competition. Others included Skara Brae, The Hothouse Flowers, Na Casaidigh, Stockton’s Wing, Sharon Shannon, Iarla Ó Lionaird, Declan Masterson and Kíla. Critical to the success of Slógadh was the disavowal of the volkisch trappings of the more established competitions and the celebration of forms of musical hybridity that proved deeply compelling for the younger musicians working the traditional idiom.

Hearing was one thing, seeing quite another. The Irish had quickly taken to the new medium of cinematography and for much of the twentieth century they had been among the most assiduous cinemagoing populations in Europe. They rarely, if ever, however, got a glimpse of themselves on screen. Their lives and history were largely invisible. In anticipation of the eventual arrival of television, Gael-Linn set about putting the nation in front of the camera. In May 1956 it began producing a series of short, three-minute newsreels which after an agreement with J Arthur Rank, the main film distributors in Ireland, were shown before the main feature films. The series Amharc Éireann proved to be successful and by 1958, twenty-five cinemas in Dublin were showing these films on a regular basis and one hundred and thirty-one in the Republic as a whole. Gael-Linn continued producing film shorts up until July 1964. The success of the series emboldened it to employ the film-maker Louis Marcus to make longer and more ambitious documentary films about aspects of Irish life and culture such as Fleá Ceoil (1967), Capallology (1968), Dubliners Sean agus Nua (1971) and Páistí ag Obair (1973) which won an Oscar nomination. The film about history which made history for Gael-Linn was, of course, Mise Éire (1959). In May 1958 George Morrison submitted a report to the patrons of Gael-Linn where he outlined the perilous state of much of the archival film relating to the founding events of the Irish state. It was decided to make a feature-length documentary film dealing with the period from 1878 to 1918 with a musical score by Seán Ó Riada. First shown at the Cork Film Festival in September 1959, it was then screened in Dublin at the Regal cinema on January 27th, 1960. The film critic of the Belfast Telegraph, though unhappy with what he sensed was an undercurrent of nationalist propaganda, went on to state that the film was “one of the finest documentaries ever made”. The Guardian critic, Lane Jones, was taken by the deftness of the editing and the overall aesthetic effect:

In spite of what must have been a chronic shortage of filmed material on the period, it succeeds not only in presenting a cohesive picture of the events as Gael-Linn interpreted them but also by skilful editing assumes an artistic significance which is by no means negligible.

The film led to perhaps some of the most dramatic cinemagoing practices the capital had ever seen. On Monday of the second week, officers and soldiers from the Fifth Battalion marched in full military uniform from Collins Barracks to the Regal. On Thursday February 11th, over four hundred members of the Old IRA, Cumann na mBan and Na Fianna paraded from the GPO to the Regal accompanied by a Citizens’ Army marching band. In Belfast, Republican prisoners in Crumlin Road jail were allowed to watch the film and UTV broadcast extracts, the first time Irish was ever heard on the Northern station. Though the sequels to Mise Éire were less successful, the film demonstrated, as would Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins many years later, that there was an appetite among the Irish for seeing their own history on the big screen as opposed to endless replays of the histories of others. Gael-Linn was the only Irish company to apply for the licence to run the new television station promised by the Lemass government in 1957, the tender for the new station having been initially put out to private operators. Lemass in a growing realisation of the powerful propagandistic effect of the new medium eventually decided against leaving the national television service in private hands and the Gael-Linn application, backed by the Munster and Leinster and ICC Banks and by the US broadcaster NBC, came to naught.

By 1974, Gael-Linn had a full-time staff of one hundred and fifty employees and a part-time staff of two thousand five hundred. From Irish-language drama (An Damer and the first production of Brendan Behan’s An Giall (The Hostage)) to language learning (Linguaphone Teach Yourself Irish), to the print media (the weekly newspaper Anois) to second and third-level Irish language debating competitions (where the comedian Dara Ó Briain would first come to public attention) and Sunday night céilithe in the Mansion House, the fingerprints of Gael-Linn were everywhere on Irish life in the second half of the twentieth century. If Roibard Mac Góráin was the presiding sprit in the cultural activities of the organisation and Séamas Mac Crosáin and Tomás de Noiréis, the creative entrepreneurs, Dónal Ó Móráin was for decades the public face of Gael-Linn. His story was an all too familiar one, the gifted, charismatic founder who holds onto power for too long and in the end alienates even the most steadfast of the faithful. In this scrupulously researched history of Gael-Linn, which even receives a nihil obstat in the form of a congratulatory letter from the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, Mairéad Ní Chinnéide chooses her words carefully in describing the legacy of Ó Móráin.

There are particular economies of scale in Irish life that make writing about contemporary or near contemporary events problematic. Just as it is difficult to sustain class war as an abstraction when you have a sister in the Bank of Ireland and an uncle in the Guards, the relatively small number of high-profile individuals all known to each other in Irish-language circles makes writing with an edge tricky and personal. The usual Irish solution to this particular Irish problem ‑ not available to an official historian like Ní Chinnéide ‑ is satire. In Diarmuid Ó Donnchadha’s Ardfhear (1992) and Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s posthumously published Barbed Wire (2002) Ó Móráin is a repeated target of bitingly sardonic comment. As with Myles na gCopaleen’s An Béal Bocht (1941) and Dáibhí Ó Cróinín’s An Cúigiú Díochlaonadh (1994), satire becomes the preferred or seemingly only viable mode of articulating particular forms of criticism.

However, dwelling on the autumn of the patriarch is to miss the larger significance of the project of Gaelic modernity which Gael-Linn sought to articulate. In more recent times, economic and business theorists like Finbarr Bradley and James J Kennelly in Capitalising on Culture, Competing on Difference: Innovation, Learning and a Sense of Place in Globalising Ireland (2008) have argued that in a post-industrial economy of cognitive and aesthetic goods where comparative economic advantage is embedded in design and informational density, the prime sources of design and informational difference are in the specificities of culture and place. In a world of homogenised goods and services, difference makes a difference as they set out to demonstrate in a series of case studies in The Irish Edge: How Enterprises Compete on Authenticity and Place (2013). There is another dimension to the sense of culture and place which is as much rooted in the ecological and the economic. In this view, the resources of the local become a logical starting point for a response to global vulnerabilities. Tradition becomes an agent of, not an obstacle to, renewal. This is not place as the holy ground of blood and soil irredentism but place as a fractal opening up to a world of global interdependency. The cartoonists of Irish modernity in pitting Gaelic Reaction against Gallant Reform have prevented different versions of the Irish future from coming into being, versions that have their pedigrees in different, competing forms of Irish modernity. Scéal Ghael-Linn is the story of one such modernity.

Michael Cronin teaches in Dublin City University. His most recent work is Translation in the Digital Age (2013). He is a regular contributor to the TG4 arts programme Imeall.

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