'The Forgotten Gaeltacht' - Meath's "colonists" feature in new film
Ronan Carley was teaching in Gibbstown in 2017 when he was asked to film the celebrations for the 80th anniversary of people moving up to county Meath from the west of Ireland, with the Land Commission. Since then, he has put together a feature-length documentary on the initial move back up in 1937. The documentary film is being shown in the Solstice this Friday and Saturday night. Here, he writes about the project.
Eighty two years ago this month a number of families from the western seaboard left their humble abodes to head to county Meath under a resettlement scheme being undertaken by the Irish Land Commission. They arrived to Rath Chairn, Allenstown, Kilbride and the largest number came to Gibbstown, county Meath. In 2017 Gibbstown, or Baile Ghib as it’s called in the Gaeltacht, celebrated eighty years since the initial move with a celebratory weekend. I was on hand to film some of the events taking place. Since that celebration I became more interested in the story of the original move and began gathering additional footage. This included everything from interviews and shots from around the area to heading to the original places that the settlers hailed from in Mayo, Kerry, Donegal and Cork. I was joined on these trips by Mairín Shiels in Donegal and Kerry and by Paul Heneghan and John Marry in Mayo. There are less than twenty survivors remaining from those who first made this historic move. My film documentary attempts to tell their story. While all who currently reside in Meath have long settled into their adopted county we would do well to remember that the initial move was not without its difficulties.
We’re well used to hearing, with the recent refugee crises, about the hostility towards those coming into our country. It’s clear that the red carpet was not out either, back in the day, when the “colonists” as they were called came to the Royal County. Back then a number of the huge estates of departing English landlords were being carved up. In Gibbstown, the large Gerrard Estate was being divided. However, many locals were deeply unhappy that large portions of this land would be allocated to farmers from outside the area. “No Gaels wanted” ran just one of the headlines in a March 1938 newspaper article.
Another concern for those moving was the small plots of land allocated. They were given 22 acres and a house. Most deemed this insufficient to make a living and some migrant children and indeed parents ended up emigrating, despite moving to Meath to avoid just such a scenario. All who moved were native Irish speakers. While those who came to Rath Chairn all derived from Connemara, those who resettled in Gibbstown were from different counties. As such all had different “canúintí” or dialects when they arrived. Many struggled to understand each other. It wasn’t so hard for the children going to school together who quickly got used to each other. However, for the adults and especially the grandparents this must have been a nightmare.
It’s worth remembering too that there were different dialects within the different areas of the counties. For instance, those who came from Donegal came from the Fanad Peninsula and from Gweedore and as such spoke differently. Similarly, in Mayo, there were different dialects in Belmullet and Toormakeady. This was before the advent of TG4 and Radio na Gaeltachta. Most had never heard any Irish spoken other than that from their own local area.
The Kerry immigrants on their way to Meath in 1937.
Furthermore, they were surrounded on all sides in Meath by English speakers and learning the language became essential for doing business with locals. Maggie Lynskey, from Belmullet in Mayo, sound found out that her monolingualism wasn’t fully appreciated by the local parish priest, in Oristown, at the time. When she began her confession in Irish, Fr Daly told her to “stop talking that gibberish!!”
Another obstacle to be overcome was loneliness. Most came from tight knit communities in their native counties where the Atlantic ocean (apart from Toormakeady!) was never further than a couple of kilometres away. Many struggled with the move to completely new surroundings and quite a number of families returned home, unable to cope. When the migrants first made the move they attended the English speaking Oristown school. As the vice principal of St Patrick's Classical secondary school, Harry McGarry informs us, at that stage there were 180 children crammed into two small classrooms there! It was imperative that a new school be built for those who had moved up.
Fortunately, a family from the Basque country, the Gallistigis, stepped in and offered the Gaeltacht children two rooms in Gibbstown castle, which was still standing tall at that point. This generous offer was accepted. Finally, when Scoil Ultain Naofa, was opened in 1941 it felt as if the migrants had firmly put down roots in Meath.
There are mixed views among those I interviewed on the role of the Government. Some such as Mary Gallagher, from Donegal, felt that the De Valera government were very generous. Others such as Mick Moriarty felt that the plots of land allocated were too small. Most agree that the move was a success from the point of relieving congestion in their native counties and, for the most part, keeping families together. However, there was general consensus that the Irish language aspect of the plan has struggled for numerous reasons.
Gibbstown or Baile Ghib continues to survive as a Gaeltacht area. Under a new Gaeltacht areas policy, it is to be twinned with Rath Chairn in the future. A new language officer has been appointed and one of the goals, for the Meath Gaeltacht, for the next seven years is that there will be a 10 per cent increase in the number of Gaelic speakers. With the influence of English all pervasive across social media, music and so on, this will be no easy task. However, as Harry McGarry says regarding the language- “níl muid ag tabhairt suas uirthi go fóill!” While Baile Ghib is often referred to as 'The Forgotten Gaeltacht' I’m hopeful that this production will help viewers to gain an understanding of this unique place and an awareness of the background to the original move.
'An Bealach go Baile Ghib' screens in the Solstice, Navan, this Friday and Saturday at 7.30pm. There are still tickets available for the Saturday showing of the film. Running time: Two hours. Includes subtitles.