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1950-1959

Founding of Gael Linn

Dónall Ó Móráin: Founder

In the early 1950s, a dynamic group of graduates and undergraduates was searching for a way to raise and invest funds so as to pressurise the Irish government to take a more pro-active role in promoting the Irish language and associated culture.

Noting the success of Football pools in the UK, they speculated that a similar scheme, based on Gaelic games scores, might well catch on in Ireland. The laws governing the control of lotteries were complied with by the creation of a private members lottery, at first called 'Gael Linn', and which soon gave birth to an organisation of the same name. Thus, in 1953, began one of the most influential organisations in the project to restore and renew the Irish language.

Gael Linn and its gaelic games pools gained instant and widespread acceptance in a society devastated by poverty, emigration and a kind of generalised cultural hopelessness, in which the Irish language had lamentably fallen into general disuse and, moreover, become associated more with want than with wealth.

The idea of marketing an Irish Pools project, not for profit but for the benefit of the language and the communities of the Gaeltacht, appealed to the idealism of many young Irish men and women, who soon became enthusiastic promoters of the new idea.

In conjunction with the pools project, Gael Linn produced a sponsored weekly radio programme for broadcast on Radió Éireann, as the national radio station was then called.

It was an inspired move that brought Gael Linn into practically every household in the land. In the media-saturated context of nearly five decades later, it is perhaps difficult to comprehend the impact achieved by this weekly sponsored programme, which broadcast a mix of Irish traditional music, news of Irish language events and, of course, the eagerly awaited pools results.

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Rationale
To understand why Gael Linn was formed, it is necessary to comprehend first the state of the Irish language and public attitudes to it in the years following Irish Independence. The objective of restoring Irish as the major language of the people had become one of the primary objectives of the new State. This was a daunting project, and it was greatly hindered by the fact that many of the key members of the Gaelic League had either been killed in action during the Rising of 1916 or executed in its wake. The Civil War of 1921-22 created further difficulties, fatally dividing the movement for national realisation at a time when their energies most required to be focussed on cultural goals.

There was, too, a deal of naivety concerning the prospects for immediatley restoring Irish as a spoken language. For one thing, there was an assumption that simply reinstating Irish in the school curriculum would result in its rapid revivification in the homes and workplaces of Ireland. But the damage done had been too great. The people still speaking Irish were in the main the poorest in the land, and there remained a strong connection in the popular mind between poverty and the language. In a series of moves designed to reverse the effects of generations of discrimination against Irish speakers, preference was given to Irish speakers in filling public service positions, and steps were taken to improve the economic status of Irish-speaking districts. But progress was slow and the new measures created considerable resentment among non-Irish speakers. Frustration set in among the leadership of the language movement, which became more and more insular and narrow-minded, greatly to the detriment of the battle to save the language.

It was this frustration which led to the establishment in the mid-1930s of An Comhchaidreamh, a confederation of Irish Societies of The National University of Ireland, Trinity College Dublin and Queen's University Belfast. In the early 1940s, An Comhchaidreamh established Comhar, a monthly journal in Irish which, unlike many such publications of the time, did not limit its contents to narrow debates about the language, but provided a general-interest review of arts and current affairs and was not afraid to offend the censor.

In 1943, the government established a new national organisation, Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge, to spearhead the language revival, but the beginnings of this body were not auspicious as many of the younger supporters of the language believed it little better than the moribund Gaelic League. Within a few years, however, An Comhchaidreamh, together with another young organisation, Glún na Bua, had gained effective control of the national body. Under their influence, Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge began to formulate a new approach to the restoration of Irish. A document was produced outlining how the language revival might be promoted on three fronts: publishing, cinema and the economic life of the Gaeltacht. This was submitted to the then Fianna Fáil government, and although it immediately resulted in a subsidy for Comhar and a small investment in tomato growing in the Gaeltacht, it did not immediately receive the kind of official support necessary to make any real impact. Successive governments failed to meet the challenge, turning down numerous proposals for State-funded films in Irish.

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Gael Linn
Eventually, a number of the young membership of An Comhchaidreamh decided that, in an effort to shame the government into supporting the project, they would try to raise funds to make the films themselves. In March 1953, one of these individuals, Dónall Ó Móráin, recommended at a meeting in the Imperial Hotel in Cork that an organisation to be known as Gael Linn be formed under the patronage of Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge.

A Deed of Trust was signed between An Comhchaidreamh and a group of six people acting as Trustees; this in effect, became the first Board of Gael Linn. The headquarters of the new organisation was a tiny room on the top floor of 38 Westmoreland Street, Dublin, from where Comhar, the literary and current affairs magazine, was produced. The football pools were launched and began to bring in a little money.

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The Early Years
The first decade of Gael Linn was immensely successful and varied, the early enthusiasm of the organisation enabling the revival project to strike out in various directions. In its first phase, Gael Linn concentrated on fundraising and measures to promote the language among native speakers. These included film-making, musical recordings, general cultural activities and projects of a socio-economic nature designed to develop Gaeltacht areas where the language was at its strongest.

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Film
A former government misister, Ernest Blythe, then chairman of Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge, was persuaded to lend £100 to fund a short film for the cinema. He was sceptical about the proposal, but, as Dónall Ó Móráin recalled afterwards, "felt that the worst that could happen was that the £100 would be wasted". Thus, Gael Linn began producing short documentary films in Irish, which were distributed through the chain of cinemas run by the Rank Organisation, initially at the rate of a film per month, increasing to two per month in 1958. Later still, the fortnightly short documentaries would be replaced by weekly newsreels of events in Ireland, with an Irish language commentary, under the title Amharc Éireann. These continued for five years, amounting to more than 260 editions.

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Cultural Activities
Gradually, Gael Linn began to expand its remit. In 1955, the organisation established a three-month Gaeltacht scholarship scheme for primary school children. That same year, a semi-professional/amateur Irish language theatre was established in The Damer Hall, on Dublin's St. Stephen's Green. In 1957, a series of Irish language drama festivals was instigated, leading to the establishment of An Comhlachas Náisiúnta Drámaíochta, an organisation dedicated to the promotion of Irish language drama.

One of the most enduring elements of Gael Linn's operation, the Gael Linn record label, was established in 1956 to provide an outlet for recordings of sean-nós singing and traditional music. That same year, Oícheanta Seanchais, entertainment sessions of traditional storytelling and sean-nós singing, were established in Dublin as part of An Tóstal festival.

In 1958, an Irish language-teaching institute, Foras na Gaeilge, was established to organise Irish courses for adults and young people. The following year, Cabaret Gael Linn, a well-presented entertainment programme of traditional music, song and dance was set up to perform in hotels and tourist venues throughout the country.

In 1959 also, Gael Linn started an Irish language debating competition for post-primary schools.

In 1965, a summer college for recipients of Gael Linn three-month Gaeltacht scholarships, Coláiste Mac Dara, was established in An Cheathrú Rua in the Galway Gaeltacht, later transferring to Machaire Rabhartaigh in the Donegal Gaeltacht.

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Gaeltacht Projects
Gael Linn was founded on a strict principle of non-profit making, and for the most part this did not present any major ethical difficulties. Many of the early projects survived for a time before either tranmuting into something else or outliving their usefulness. Those enterprises which made money were used to subsidise less profitable ventures. Later on, many of these Gael Linn initiated enterprises were taken on by State-sponsored bodies such as Gaeltarra Éireann and Údarás na Gaeltachta which were set up to develop the Gaeltacht and some were sold on to local co-operatives or private enterprises.

In 1957, for example, it was decided to establish a fish and vegetable processing plant in Carna, in the Galway Gaeltacht. Five boats suitable for in-shore fishing were procured and given to local Carna fishermen on a purchase-lease basis. Oyster beds in nearby Bá Chill Chiaráin, were later purchased to support the fish processing.

In 1958, a 135 acre estate at Teelin in south Donegal, which included a sheep/pig farm and fishing rights to local rivers, lakes and Teelin Bay, was purchased in an effort to protect the livelihood of the local salmon fishermen. The fishermen were allowed to net salmon under licence from Gael Linn and a local family ran the farm on behalf of the organisation.