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The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media spacer The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media
Good News in Gaelic
by Gordon McCoy
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There is a thriving Irish language cultural scene in Belfast, but the Irish language mediascape is difficult to locate. It's also different from the mainstream media. The Gaelic media arises from community activism and Irish language journalists rarely appear to be objective they are keen to demonstrate their emotional investment in the language and their obligation to the language community.
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Print Media
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First the print media, which consists of Lá, the Belfast-based daily newspaper which is the only daily newspaper available in a Celtic language. Lá appeared for a long time as a weekly, but since April 2003 it has gone daily. Gone are the days when it reproduced solely the West Belfast vision of the world. Times are changing and in these days of diversity Shinners, Stoops and Southerners crowd the pages. Even a unionist, Ian Malcolm, writes for Lá, subverting Gaelic sprache to describe the Orange Order as a 'national treasure' a lone voice indeed, an incorporated 'Other'.
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Lá manages the balance between covering news items in the Gaelic world while living in the wider one. Like all Northern newspapers, Lá suffers from a lack of in-depth analysis, especially since going daily. Foinse, the weekly Galway-centred-trying-to-be-national paper has more time to collect its thoughts, and Póilín Ní Chiaráin writes very well about the North. But does even the broad-minded Belfast reader want front-page headlines about the opening of a Halal butcher's shop in Galway?
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Resources in Lá are obviously tight, and the paper needs more contributors. However, Lá is resisting the lazy sink into columnism, the plague of Irish papers, and the emphasis is still on news rather than you-know-what-they're-going-to-write columnists. Lá is celebratory in terms of the language scene, and campaigning in relation to outsiders, such as government departments. As such, Lá operates as a platform for language activists, which gives the paper a 'we must' feel to the paper.
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The recent pluralist approach of Lá is to broaden the appeal of the paper, especially in theSouth. But the pluralism is uneven. Gerry Adams would have little to quibble about in terms of Lá's coverage of Northern politics, though this trend is less obvious than in previous years. For the most part, constitutional nationalists who write for the paper focus on non-political issues or topics of agreement with republicans. Dissenting political voices appear in the letters page or are presented as personal opinions.
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This hierarchy of values dissolves in internet discussion lists of Lá articles particularly Clár Plé Beo (www.beo.ie/ple/) a Lá journalist has published articles on the site to engender greater debate. Slugger O'Toole (www.sluggerotoole.com) also publishes Lá articles and responses. There is a greater variety of views, each opinion having equal weight because of the nature of the medium. The responses are livelier many contributors can't be bothered writing letters to Lá, and the blogger can hide behind a pseudonym, avoiding personal condemnation by the Irish language movement.
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Pól Ó Muirí, a native of Belfast, writes the weekly column Tuarascáil in the Irish Times. He feels free to criticise anyone and anything, including West Belfast, the Republic's Minister for Irish and the cross-border body for the Irish language, Foras na Gaeilge. Perhaps this is because Pól is the only Irish language journalist whose paper is not in receipt of funding from Foras na Gaeilge. Pól's column is a good read, even if you disagree with him, because he dissects Irish language policies and will give the bad news.
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In balance, Lá is the best source of what's going on in the Irish language scene in Belfast and is the single most important medium in Irish in the city. Without it, the reader would miss a lot. Lá is aimed at Irish speakers. Learners and readers without Irish who want to know what's going on in the Irish scene will find that the Andersonstown News is the best bet, as well as the Irish News on Monday.
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Broadcasting
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Broadcasting in Irish is dominated by Southern output, though the British government will soon establish a £12m broadcasting fund for Irish, which will lead to an exponential growth in the sector. Raidió na Gaeltachta (102.7 FM) is at home in traditional Irish-speaking areas, and unashamedly so. It is a rich source of Gaeltacht Irish for the Belfast learner, but also bothers little with the Black North. You can tune in on the internet and on a stereo with a digital tuner, but may have to play around with an FM aerial and reception may vary in different rooms in your house.
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The Connemara-based Irish television channel TG4 (Channel 68) is less traditional and has popular high-quality magazine-style programmes covering leisure and human-interest issues. The problem with TG4 is that the Mourne Mountains block the signal for many in Belfast or it appears with various degrees of snowiness. TG4 is not on cable or satellite television and many viewers with either can't be bothered getting boosters. I have 5 years of a TG4 soap opera on videotape, posted by a friend from Dublin.
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Furthermore, Belfast viewers find there is little representation of them on TG4. A DCAL-funded project in Belfast helped produce some local programmes for TG4, including a first-rate one on the Shaw's Road Gaeltacht, an Irish-speaking community in West Belfast. Thirteen more programmes are in the pipeline and another training course is beginning soon.
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Some Irish speakers think TG4 is not enough, and want a separate television station in Belfast to reflect their views and lives. This was part of Sinn Féin's manifesto in the last election. DCAL aren't playing ball, saying there's no point in reinventing the TG4 wheel, but there is some scope for a compromise. The Northern Visions community television project (NVTV) is now broadcasting in the city (Channel 62). Only one Irish language programme has been broadcast on the channel so far.
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The BBC's Irish language output consists of half an hour every night on Radio Ulster (usually 7.30 pm) and the occasional series on television (on BBC 2). The BBC used to produce some safe and 'worthy' stuff I can remember a nature programme with children frolicking and gambolling through the fields but thankfully these days it has gone in the TG4 direction. Srl (which means 'etcetera') is BBC Northern Ireland's current flagship, a magazine-style programme which is successful, because if you are not interested in one topic you can wait for the next one.
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While Srl covers Irish language events, the English title is Something Else the programme is keen to demonstrate that Irish speakers are not demented Gaelocentrics. Young Irish speakers are shown to be interested in sports such as horse-riding, Capoeira, and bog-snorkelling. Moreover, 'unexpected' Irish speakers turn up, such as a pair from Barcelona who correct each other's Irish, and a Connemara-based black actor who was raised as an Irish speaker.
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Learners are validated throughout the programme, and there is no 'Cut! Let's do that again' if someone slips up or utters a word in the Saxon tongue. The subtitled and cosmopolitan non-political content suggests that Srl aims to project a positive image of Irish to the majority I believe it succeeds in doing so. The high-quality website based upon the programme includes streamed video clips.
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The two presenters of Srl wear black 'club' clothing and are projected onto a stark white background. The overall effect seems over-stylised they seem to have slipped into something more uncomfortable and is hard on the eye. They would look more relaxed in their jeans and T-shirts on the obligatory sofa, de rigueur for all 'youf' programmes.
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The BBC Irish language radio unit is staffed by women the men have moved on to greater or lesser things. Some of the presenters cut their teeth on Dublin's Irish language station, Raidió na Life, which has given them greater professionalism. Furthermore, they are happy to venture south of the border for interesting stories, especially when things are quiet up here. Yet sometimes I used to wonder when I heard about a book launch in Dublin whether it was worth the £30 train fare and the £50 bed and breakfast.
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The BBC unit is the only Irish medium to attempt to be impartial in terms of Northern politics. There are few unionist speakers of Irish to respond to nationalist ones, so guest journalists with strong political views struggle to see both sides of the story. In this they succeed rather well, given their previous views in print! BBC radio programmes often include some bilingualism to include learners audience research reveals that learners' programmes are the most popular.
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Raidió Fáilte (107 FM) is a community radio station based in West Belfast. The station has yet to receive a broadcasting licence, has no paid staff and is manned by volunteers. It suffers from the usual accusation of amateurism, but the raw spontaneity can be entertaining, and it's fun to listen to presenters complaining about not having a stand for the mike, grumbling about not having enough hands, or expressing surprise as to who's just walked in.
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The station started off as a mixture of chat and music in Irish, but the music has increased and the talk has been cut back. Unlike Raidió na Gaeltachta, English lyrics are not verboten. It's impossible to find a programme guide, so you can't be sure when to tune in or what you're missing bizarrely, Lá only carries the schedule for the Dublin station.
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I had a profound sense of déja vu and experienced seasonal displacement disorder while listening to the station on the first weekend in April. I heard the same music programme again and again I distinctly remember Tina Turner being praised at least four times using the same words 'Is doiligh í fhéin a bhualadh amach lá ar bith' ('She's hard to beat any day') and when the ads came on I wondered why the Herc and Goodfellows were encouraging their listeners to make their Christmas bookings now.
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I personally find the Irish media in Belfast good in parts, woeful to the point of being unintentionally surreal in others. Irish speakers have successfully adapted the language to represent their lives in an urban environment. There is also more cultural fusion and engagement with the non-Gaelic world, though this varies with the medium. Television is aimed at maximising the audience, with products in print representing dialogue within the Irish language scene.
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In terms of broadcasting, the light entertainment is very good and projects a positive image of the language. The downside is a lack of depth to the material and a rose-tinted view of the Irish language world. In all Belfast-based Irish language media, there's an absence of debate and disagreement, of weighing the pros and cons of an issue. With the exception of Pól Ó Muirí, there's no devil's advocate, no ghost at any Gaelic feast.
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There are many reasons for this. The Irish language scene is small, and people are wary of criticising each other publicly, as they often have to work and/or socialise together. There's also a fear of washing dirty laundry in public, of revealing weaknesses to enemies. The Irish language is a secular religion for many and excommunication from the urban Irish village is a distinct possibility.
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The disadvantage to this cosy conviviality is a lack of interesting debate, a sometimes unsettling equanimity. The democratic nature of internet discussion lists offers alternative voices, but you have to plough through a lot of dross to read anything worthwhile.
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In Belfast you have to look for the Irish language media. I can receive more programmes on Sky in Scottish Gaelic than Irish ones. I can't receive Irish language radio stations on my stereo in Belfast city centre. You can't find Lá in most shops, but the website (www.nuacht.com) will tell you where to buy it. Overall, the Irish language media in Belfast is patchy in terms of quality, and there isn't enough of it, given the large numbers of Irish speakers in the city.
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