Our Tangled Speech book launch: A tribute to Aodán Mac Póilin
by Justine GREGG
3 December 2018
In the evening of 3rd December 2018, the Ulster Historical Foundation, together with the Ultach Trust, held a launch event for Our Tangled Speech: Essays on Language and Culture in the BBC’s Belfast city centre studio. This was the last book written by Aodán Mac Póilin before his passing in December 2016.
Two years after his death, Aodán’s (pronounced Aidan) memory is thriving in his family and in a community of friends and former colleagues, who clearly love, adore, respect and miss him.
The dark BBC studio is huge; it seats 300 people. In the front centre of the room was a large screen picturing Aodán’s kind and knowing face, lighting the darkness around us. The room quickly filled to capacity and I later found out that registration had to be closed as the event was oversubscribed. It quickly became apparent that the evening was much more than a book launch; it was an evening dedicated to the memory and legacy of a man — a peaceful man, a well-read master of prose — an honourable legend.
The head of corporate and community affairs for the BBC, Mark Adair, welcomed guests to celebrate Aodán’s life, his work, and also his contributions to the BBC. The men had met doing cross-community work with the Cultural Traditions Group. Adair reflected on how he got to know a generous, big spiriting, inquisitive man named Aodán, and that his world became enriched and enlarged as a result. He said Aodán had a gift with language as a phrase maker and as a change maker; he said Aodán would name shortcomings and then name ways in which they may be overcome: “He was one of life’s enhances, a hero and a friend, missed still today,” said Adair. He added that this latest book is only a small tribute to some of what Aodán had achieved in his lifetime.
The rest of the evening was held in Irish and repeated in English. Róise Ní Bhaoill, from the Ultach Trust, who was a friend of many years to Aodán and his wife Áine (pronounced on-yah) and the book editor of Our Tangled Speech began. She said Aodán was great craic and great company. Her words were met with laughter while telling the audience that Aodán’s ideal wake was one with great craic. She continued, saying Aodán was always the heart and the fun, with a keen and incise intellect, acute observation and that he shared the riches of the Irish language with everyone.
From 1990-2011, Aodán wrote the series of essays that comprise the chapters of this latest book, and had begun editing before he passed away two years ago. The essays look at issues surrounding cultural identity, language revival, the Irish language in Belfast, and Irish language broadcasting in Northern Ireland. It is clear that Aodán was one of the drivers in the founding of Irish language broadcast for BBC Northern Ireland.
Commissioning Executive for BBC Irish, Karen Kirby, said that even in Aodan’s absence, we are still aware of his presence. She told of Aodán’s generosity with his time and knowledge. Kirby recalled a time when Aodán and another now deceased local hero, Brian Mullen, were on either side of a table, chatting about Celtic music, formulating how simply seeing and hearing the Irish language used in an everyday way — in conversation, normalised the Irish language via BBC2 NI. To one shrill “yeo!” and loud applause from the audience, Kirby informed of Aodán’s methodology — that if the BBC would style their broadcast in this way, then the Irish language would be seen as a normal part of our culture.
The audience was shown video footage produced by the BBC in 2012 of documentary style highlights from Aodán’s life’s work. Aodán and his wife, Áine Andrews, are shown talking on film, from their younger days, drawing gasps of wonder from the keen audience. In one part of the five minute clip, Aodán states: “Irish language revival was started by Belfast Protestants. They were the first to try to restore Irish as an everyday language. Both Unionists and Nationalists were involved but most language enthusiasts in 19th century Belfast were Unionists.” Given the current politicalisation of the Irish language in Belfast, some may be surprised to learn that.
Frank Costello from the Ulster Historical Foundation spoke next. He made a point to highlight that the audience were represented across generations and across communities — made up of the people of Ulster. He mentioned that Aodán was interested in all forms of singing and that Aodán, together with his friend from university, Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, had shared a passion for songs since those early days. Pádraigín (phonetically pronounced Pád-rai-gín) is an Irish music scholar, writer and performer who was recently awarded the Outstanding Contribution to Traditional Music Award at the 2018 TG4 Gradam Ceoil Awards. Costello welcomed Pádraigín to the stage.
Pádraigín, Aodán and Áine were friends from the 1970s. As she gets older, she said, she appreciates friendship more. Aodán had been an introduction into cultural life, and he was responsible for her singing again. She said that a typical night out involved Aodan inviting her to sing, perhaps a South Armagh poem, and noted that he was always the last to leave. He was light hearted, so, for him tonight, she sang a light-hearted nonsense song that he had liked to hear. The room fell into complete silence. There wasn’t a cough or a sneeze to make way for Pádraigín’s soft yet powerful voice. The same shrill “yeo!” and loud applause followed the fun song and each of her songs after that.
The go-to Irish journalist and broadcaster, Póilín Ní Chiaráin (pronounced Po-eel-een), delivered the keynote address of the evening.
With regards to the Irish language, Póilín repeated the question she’d asked of herself, and that people had asked her over her years: “What’s the point?” This, usually followed by people telling her to speak in English. Her Irish spoken word has been met on occasion with suspicion and hostility. She pointed out how language discourse and cultural identity are naturally intertwined, and that the preservation of the Irish language is therefore critical.
Póilín noted that in Aodán’s capacity as the Director of the Ultach Trust, he had focused his efforts on language revival. Despite the politicalisation of language issues, he had attempted to maintain the Irish language separately from the politics and religions of Northern Ireland. He had ploughed a lonely covert, yet had persevered; with generosity and restraint, he had searched for a neutral space for the Irish language.
Póilín said that part of Aodán’s legacy is cross community, in the arts, to the Irish language, to the Ulster Scots. To prevent the death of a language is to prevent the death of a culture and the Irish language to survive, language rights must be legislated for, and the role of the family in passing on Irish intergenerationally requires a strong family commitment, Póilín argued. She also paid tribute to Aodán’s sense of fun, the irony of his eccentricities, his witty academic rigor contrasting with his happy and sociable personality.
Róise added that Aodán had a ‘homing device’ that led him directly to musicians. The renowned musician and friend, Paddy Davey, who plays, teaches and composes traditional Irish music on the tin whistle, wooden flute, and uilleann pipes, then took to the stage and treated the audience to a performance. A melody of jovial Irish tunes floated up — the warm notes wrapping around the audience, filling the room to the brim.
Aodán’s widow, Áine Andrews, concluded the evening. On behalf of her daughter, Aoife and herself, she thanked the organisers for the event. She praised the range of cultural backgrounds from which people had hailed to attend the event, and she said she was overwhelmed with the regard in which Aodán was held. She thanked the Ultacht Trust for funding and publishing the book. Áine also acknowledged the sometimes problematic cultural conditions into which the book is published and the desire to back away from the ‘otherness’ which currently looms around the Irish language.
Áine thanked Póilín, as a journalist respected and admired by Aodán, one with a deep understanding of the complexities which are being faced in Northern Ireland. Áine thanked Gerry Dawe, for writing the introduction to the book. She said that Gerry was from a different cultural background, had different cultural identity and belonging, and that Aodán and Gerry’s long friendship had been stimulating to Aodán’s life.
Áine thanked Róise for this magnificent book and for the role she played in Aodán’s life — as an important and respected colleague and friend. Róise and Aodán came from different cities, one caught up in conflict, the other from calmer Dublin. One was a native Irish speaker, the other a learner and activist in the language regeneration movement. Áine acknowledged the difficult challenge which Róise took on, going through Aodán’s essays and putting the book together.
Áine thanked musicians Pádraigín and Paddy, she said she was flattered by having such accomplished performers taking part in the event. Áine said Aodán liked singing himself; songs that fitted his voice and that were humorous or whimsical. His signature party piece, In Praise of the City of Mullingar, was then performed by Paddy Davey. The audience, holding a copy of the words, filled their pipes and sung loud and proud — a joyful send off to honour a man and his contributions to our society.
“…Of the gorgeous city of Mullingar…
…men of genius contemporaneous
They flock spontaneous to this favoured spot,
Where good society and a great variety
Of entertainment is still their lot…”
Our Tangled Speech: Essays on Language and Culture is available at Books Ireland.