East Belfast figured prominently in efforts to revive the Irish language in Ulster at the turn of the 20th century. It was in east Belfast that the first branch of Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) was established in 1895 just two years after it was founded in Dublin by Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector.
The meeting to set up the first Belfast Branch of the Gaelic League was held in August 1895, in 32 (now 377) Upper Beersbridge Rd. Dr John St Clair Boyd was elected president of the Belfast League, and PT McGinley, who lived in the house on the Beersbridge Rd, was elected vice-president. One month later, in September 1895, the League held its first public meeting in Belfast. Over twenty people attended and applied to join including several from east Belfast.
Dr John St Clair Boyd, a member of the Church of Ireland, was born in Holywood, Co Down in 1858 and studied medicine at Queen’s College, Belfast. He worked in Birmingham for a number of years, but returned to Belfast in 1888 to work at the Hospital for Sick Children, Queen Street, as assistant surgeon. He later became gynaecologist at the Ulster Hospital for Children and Women. He was president of the Belfast Gaelic League for many years, was also keenly interested in music and adjudicated at musical festivals.
PT McGinley used the Irish form of his name (Peadar Toner Mac Fhionnlaoich) and was also known as Cú Uladh (The Hound of Ulster). He was an Irish language writer and produced stories based on Irish folklore including some of the first Irish language plays. He regularly contributed articles to Irish language newspapers including An Claidheamh Soluis (The Burning Sword), the journal of the League. PT McGinley was a strong supporter of Ulster Irish while other members of the League supported Kerry Irish. When an Irish language training college was set up, McGinley responded by establishing Ardscoil Ultach to teach Ulster Irish. Ultimately Donegal or Ulster Irish became the only dialect to be taught in Belfast.
Over the following years membership continued to grow and eventually there were 5 branches of the League in east Belfast including one in Ballymacarrett, which met in St Matthew’s School in the Short Strand. It organised Irish classes and other events and campaigned for Irish to be taught in schools. Other Gaelic League Branches were formed in Bloomfield and Knock.
Conradh na Gaeilge was non-political and non-sectarian. The Belfast Branch advertised its classes in the Irish News and the Belfast Evening Telegraph. Many prominent people joined the League including army officers, Protestant and Catholic bishops and the Grand Master of the Orange Lodge. One year after the first meeting, in September 1896, the Secretary of the Belfast League noted that among the now 120 members, there were represented gach creidimh agus aicme – every class and creed.
John Baptist Crozier (An Canónach Crúisér) was a Church of Ireland clergyman who served as Lord Bishop of Ossory, Ferns and Leighlin (1897–1907); Lord Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore (1907–1911); and Lord Primate of All Ireland and Lord Archbishop of Armagh (1911–1920). During the 1890s, he lived on the Holywood Rd for a number of years and became an active and prominent member of the Belfast Branch of the League when it was founded in 1895. He also became a Patron of the Belfast Branch and remained actively involved until 1899 when he left Belfast to take up the position of Bishop of Ossory.
Many prominent unionist families were represented in the League at this time. St Clair Boyd himself was a unionist. Another, Alice Milligan, was also born into a unionist background. She trained as a teacher in Dublin before returning to Belfast and becoming an energetic member of the Gaelic League. In 1904 she took up a full-time role with the League and was involved in organising Irish language schools and classes. On one occasion James Connolly took Nellie Gordon, the Trade Union organiser, to Connswater St to hear Alice speaking on the Gaelic Revival movement.
In 1906 another language revival organisation was founded in Queens College (now Queens University). The Gaelic Society was formed by William MacArthur, a young medical student who had been teaching Irish informally in the College. It aimed to restore Irish as the common language of Ireland. Like the Gaelic League, it was non-sectarian and in the early years attracted members from all denominations. Fifty people attended its first meeting and its membership continued to grow over the following years.
William Porter MacArthur was born in Belfast and for a time his family lived on the Belmont Rd. Both his parents had Scottish ancestry and this led to his interest in the Irish language. He learnt Irish on family holidays in Donegal and became fluent from a young age. Shortly after graduating in Medicine in 1908 he was commissioned into the Royal Army Medical Corps and in 1910 he was promoted to Captain. During the War he served with the Expeditionary Force in France. He was wounded in the stomach at the Somme and invalided home in 1916. He maintained his interest in the Irish language throughout his life and raised his children with Irish as their first language.