Gaeilge in Oirthear Béal Feirste


Irish Speakers in East Belfast

Higher Certificate in Irish from Coláiste Comgaill
Due to the efforts of the language revival movement, the Irish language was included in mainstream education.  It was introduced to the curriculum of the Catholic teacher training colleges for women in 1902.  Around the same time, two colleges in Belfast were funded to provide Irish language training to working teachers.  In 1906 after a long struggle with the Commissioners for Irish Intermediate Education, and thanks to the efforts of Lord Aberdeen, Irish was put on the Intermediate curriculum.   In 1908, due to the work of McArthur and others, Irish was re-introduced to Queen’s College, for the first time since 1861.  The number of schools teaching and pupils learning Irish throughout Ulster also grew steadily over the years:  In 1899, the total number of pupils achieving a pass in Irish was 1317, compared to 371 in 1887.  The following year, the system of assessment changed, but the numbers continued to grow from 2256 in 1901 to 31741 in 1906.

The Census

In 1901 and again in 1911, the Census of Population included a question on ability to speak Irish.  Data from 1911 show large numbers of people living in east Belfast reported they could speak Irish.  As the population of East Belfast included people who had moved from all parts of the country, some of these may have been native Irish speakers or the families of such.  But many had probably learnt or were learning Irish in school, in classes organised by Conradh na Gaeilge or possibly like McArthur had been drawn to the language through their Scottish ancestry.

The District Electoral Divisions of Pottinger and Victoria (part of) comprise most of inner east Belfast.  In 1911, they had a combined population of 104814 of which 5,799 (5.5%) reported they could speak Irish.  The majority of these were Protestants.

The Census Enigma


Extract of a census form, showing the response scored out
An intriguing feature of the 1911 (and 1901) Census in Belfast is that on a large number of Census forms, the responses to the question on language proficiency has been crossed out.  So, many families and individuals who said they could speak Irish had their answers rejected – although they are accepted on the digitised Census.  Why this happened is unclear, as is who did it, or when.  In some cases it may have been a genuine attempt to correct an error.  The large number of instances though suggests this isn’t the full answer.  There may have been a political or sectarian motive: certainly some members of Conradh na Gaeilge felt that enumerators deliberately understated the prevalence of Irish speakers in previous censuses.  Whatever the reason was, at the moment it remains a mystery.


In this exploratory project, we have included soldiers whose Census responses as Irish speakers were crossed out, and on the digital map which complements this exhibition, who these are is made clear.