The exhibition tells the story of Irish-speaking soldiers in East Belfast during the Great War



An exhibit telling the story of Irish-speaking soldiers from East Belfast who fought in the First World War is on display at the Linen Hall Library.

It focuses on the lives of the 70 soldiers from the area who identified as Irish speakers before, during and after the war.

It takes place this month.

The research was undertaken by a team of volunteers from Cairde Turas, a sister organization to the East Belfast Irish language organization Turas.

It was supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Project volunteer Carmel Duggan explained: “Irish was then taught in Catholic primary schools.

“East Belfast in the decades before the war had attracted people from all over the country to come and live there because of the amount of jobs available.”

Many of the soldiers in the study would have worked together in the shipyard and local factories.

“Some of them would have come from areas where the language was still quite strong at this point,” she added.

Despite this, many Irish-speaking soldiers would have been Protestant.

“Conradh na Gaeilge, the Irish language league, was very active in east Belfast at this time,” she said.

“They were running classes and the classes were quite popular.”

At the time, the Irish language was not considered to “belong” to any particular community.

“The language was not politically entrenched as much as it later became,” Carmel added.

“Conradh na Gaeilge was in fact led by prominent Protestant clergymen and even a Grand Master of the Irish Lodge.”

At the time, East Belfast was “slightly more mixed. There were about 25% Catholics at the time. The Catholic population was fairly widely distributed.”

This suggests that the Catholic community in east Belfast was not based in clusters, but mixed with the rest of the area’s population.

The research was compiled primarily from the 1911 census and other historical databases.

“We didn’t speculate at all,” she said.

One of the stories she found “most telling of the complexity of the situation” was that of the soldier who survived the Great War and returned home in 1919.

In 1922 he was part of the new Irish army.

The Irish Army was formed after the split in the IRA following the treaty that ended the War of Independence against the British and led to the Irish Civil War.

“I guess it’s something that just gives a glimpse of the upheaval of the times,” Carmel said.

There were soldiers who signed the Ulster Covenant who identified themselves as Irish speakers.

There is, however, a mystery.

Carmel explained: “There is a bit of a conundrum with the census in that some of the people who said they were Irish speakers had their answers crossed out and no one knows why.

“As no one knows why, we had counted them in the overall figure, but focused on those that weren’t crossed out.”

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