In this fascinating article, DERMOT KELLY - a leading light in the Irish language movement in Derry in the 1950s - recalls Taoiseach Eamonn de Valera’s historic visit to the city sixty years ago this week to officially launch “Gaelic Week”. Dermot’s colourful and lively memoir also gives us an insight into some of the personalities who played their part in shaping what was a remarkable era in the city.
In 1951, two years after its establishment in Celtic Park, Craob Sean Dolan was invited to organise an activity to celebrate the silver jubilee of Comhaltas Uladh of the Gaelic League.
After much discussion and debate we decided to hold a Gaelic Week from July 8. Planning started immediately and special weekly meetings were held to organise a series of Gaelic activities which we felt were appropriate and which would promote the language and culture in the city.
This meant involving as many people as possible - dramatic societies, choirs and dancers, schools etc., which was very difficult, especially since, in many quarters, we were still regarded as ‘Them auld ones in the Gaelic League’.
Our hopes and aspirations were realised but almost ruined in one fell swoop by the unexpected appearance at a meeting of Brendan Glenn, or Brendan de Glin as he liked to call himself. We had been discussing the possibility of inviting a member of the clergy or some local politician to open the festivities when Brendan dropped his bombshell. He proposed that we invite De Valera to make the opening address.
The republicans were stunned and threatened resignation and boycott and other unspecified actions. Those in favour were ecstatic and felt that success was now guaranteed. Their jubilaton was further increased a few weeks later when a letter on Dail Eireann paper was received stating that Mr. De Valera had accepted our invitation.
The republicans who were the most enthusiastic and energetic promoters of the Gaelic Week resigned from the committee en masse and took no further part in organising the events. Despite this setback, we continued with our preparations and co-opted others to help.
News of the visit spread over the city and the gap left by the recent resignations was soon filled by volunteers and helpers. There were stealthy approaches from some unexpected sources; for example, we became aware that the bishop wouldn’t refuse an invitation to attend. Eddie McAteer and Paddy Maxwell made approaches to the committee. Members of the ‘Old I.R.A.’ asked if they could form a guard of honour which they didn’t need to do because it was intended to invite them to do just that.
People were enthused by the legend of De Valera and by the lore of his first two visits to Derry. His first visit was during the War of Independence when he addressed a meeting in St. Columb’s Hall. The forthcoming visit was seen as his triumphant return to the city after his abortive attempt to address a meeting in the same hall in 1924. Tradition had it that he had been arrested by the RUC at the side entrance to the hall and taken to Victoria Barracks only to be followed by the crowd who had been waiting in the hall and on the streets to welcome him. It was said that the RUC, in fear of the horde, gathered outside the barracks, sneaked him out the back and released him at the border on the Buncrana Road. In fact, he was taken to Belfast and spent a month in Crumlin Road Jail.
Whatever the story, the enthusiasm and atmosphere on the city streets in 1951 was almost palpable and showed itself in the efforts of the street decorators. Large areas such as the Bogside, the Brandywell, William Street and many other districts were festooned with Irish Tricolours, papal flags and bunting. Eucharistic arches were resurrected, altered and erected along the route that the Chief would travel.
On these structures the Pope’s picture was allowed to remain on one end while the saint on the other end was obliterated by a picture of De Valera. The welcome on one of the arches had to be hastily changed late in the day before the visit because it read, ‘Failte riom an Gale Mor’.
The great day arrived and the Taoiseach was greeted at the city boundary on the Letterkenny Road by a guard of honour of ‘Old IRA Men’ led by John Fox who had been quarter-master of the Northern Division during the War of Independence. Paddy Doherty, who, in 1921 in the Mansion House, Dublin, proposed the election of De Valera as President of Sinn Féin, was also a member of the ‘Guard’. Other members were Adjutant James Gallagher, Captain Joseph Mahon and Lieutenant Dominick Doherty. The Owen Roe O’Neill Fife and Drum Band under Mickey McGinley played ‘The Legion of the Rearguard’.
Jim O’Sullivan and myself, as we prepared to sell ice cream in Celtic Park, could hear the prolonged cheering as the ‘Long Fella’s’ motorcade passed along the route to the Northern Counties Hotel. We could follow the progress of the procession by the eruptions of cheering from the crowds that thronged the streets which probably had never seen a congregation of such magnitude or enthusiasm. The atmosphere was charged with emotion as elderly women were seen to ‘break down in tears’ and, with others, thanked God that they had lived to see the day.
On arrival at the park, there was pandemonium as people struggled to get in to hear the speeches. The Craob became rich beyond its wildest dreams with the money collected at the gate and Jim O’Sullivan and I sold thirty one pounds, two and sixpence worth of ice cream.
After the ‘Opening’ and the mass hand shaking that followed, Dev spent a short time in Paddy Maxwell’s house before returning to Dublin. With the spectacular success of the ‘Opening’, the activities of the week would only be a success. The art exhibition and competitions in the Clarendon Hall attracted many viewers and competitors. Gaeltach scholarships were awarded to school children and adults. In Celtic Park, seven-a-side football and hurling competitions attracted many entries and produced some surprises. The most surprising of which was the defeat of the Burt hurling team by the Craob. Other events, like the Guildhall Ceili, were an outstanding success which filled the hall to capacity. On Sunday night, the celebrations were brought to a close with a concert in Saint Columb’s Hall. Bringing the Gaelic Week to an end, Larry Boyle announced that the proceeds from the concert were being donated to the Derry Catholic Building Fund.
See next Friday’s edition for more of Dermot Kelly’s memories of the Irish language movement in Derry in the early 1950s.