My Country, My Culture: Ireland


Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh is a scholar from Northern Ireland trying to keep the Irish culture alive and well.

What I didn’t realize about my Irish culture?

By Matthew Brennan

In 1981 when I was delivering the Lowell Sun newspaper door to door throughout my neighborhood I was a naive 11-year-old Irish-American boy.  I was proud of my Irish culture, the Irish traditions and St. Patrick’s Day parades.  I felt a sort of allegiance with the Irish prisoners in the British jail called the Maze after I read what was happening.  I followed the events as I delivered the papers.  As days turned to a week and weeks to months and then the first deaths from the hunger strike occurred, I was sad inside.  Even if I didn’t clearly understand the imperialist politics of English and Irish relations and why prisoners were in British prisons or hunger striking, I definitely had a cultural camaraderie with the underdog. My grandmother told me of the Irish in Lowell and of our Irish cultural roots including my family roots of Brennan, Broderick, Cooney and Whelan from the West coast of Ireland.  My grandparents made trips to Ireland to kiss the Blarney stone and see the homeland.  My grandmother related stories of my great grandmother Whelan, a home builder and pub owner, who was one of the first Irish female entrepreneurs in Lowell.  She started Majors in downtown Lowell which closed its doors just recently.  Mrs. Whelan also built homes in Belvidere off Andover Street on Adam Terrace. That’s something.  More importantly, I began to really form a picture of the prisoners in Ireland who were willing to give their lives for their country.  The British wouldn’t give concessions to these men.  It wasn’t until I began to read Language, Resistance and Revival by Feargal  Mac Ionnrachtaigh ( that I clearly understood how the English had attempted to expunge Ireland of the Irish language and culture.

Feargal recently gave a talk at University of Massachusetts Lowell about his interviews with the remaining prisoners and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland.  It’s an eye-opener to listen to his personal story.  And I better understood my family story as a result.

One day it occurred to me why may ancestors spoke English.  Well I know my great grandmother Broderick used to speak Irish and smoke a pipe.  But I really wanted to know more of her motivations for coming to the United States.  Was she directly discriminated against by English imperialist policies?  After Feargal’s talk, I also better understood the debt of gratitude I owed Bobby Sands for his commitment to a hunger strike of which I understood little at the time.  And while we may not agree with violence as a solution to political differences.  We Irish do owe the prisoners of the Maze for what they accomplished in their resistance by learning and passing on the Gaelic language.  Gaelic was a way they could resist the English by not giving in to their system.  In essence, they would not give up their cultural identity.  What?  How did they pass on the Gaelic language you ask?  Well that’s what you can read in Feargal’s book.  In the process the same Irish Republican prisoners exposed the motives of the English and in so doing sparked a cultural revival in Northern Ireland and in the Republic.  That’s something.  It gets one thinking about how you got to America.  It makes me wonder why my ancestors left Ireland.  Why?  And what have I missed by the fact that I speak English and not Gaelic?  At such a young age I didn’t realize that the British made a conscious effort to stop the Irish from participating in their native language and cultural traditions.  Some of the Irish-American adults didn’t realize it either.  In particular, language education was consciously prohibited by British policies.

Are you Irish or part Irish?  Did you know about the impact of British colonialism on your ancestral culture?  I recommend reading Feargal’s book if you would like to learn more about the heroes of Gaelic and Irish culture.