From Socialist Voice, June 2011

Films

Scéal na Laoch

Scéal na Laoch, 1970–1973, directed by Deirdre Walsh

Scéal na Laoch (“the heroes’ story”) is certainly a heroic one. It tells how a group of parents in Ballymun, Dublin, set up an Irish-medium school so that the children of their community could learn through the medium of the national language.

     The naming of the school, Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch (Seven Heroes’ School), reflected the built environment of Ballymun, in that the seven highly visible towers (fifteen storeys high!) were each named after one of the seven signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, 1916.
     This documentary was made by Deirdre Walsh, who is a past pupil of the school, and was screened for the first time in the Axis Theatre in Ballymun on 24 May before an enthusiastic audience largely composed of friends, families, teachers and former pupils of Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch.
     Sadly, some of the founders of the school have recently passed away, and tribute was paid to Peggy Walsh, Brendan Pringle and Antóin Mac Giolla Rua as well as the original school principal, Pádraig Ó hEarcáin.
     The film was introduced by the director of the Axis Centre, Ray Yeates, who praised the director for her dedication and hard work in getting the film off the ground and credited Oliver McGlinchey for first suggesting that a film be made about the campaign to set up the first Irish-medium school in a working-class community.
     Dónal Ó Loinsigh, the present principal of Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch, also had high praise for the film’s director for showing such an interest in the project, and for the parents and community that have sustained the school not just at its inception but consistently through the thirty-eight years of its existence.
     Among those present was Mick Morgan, secretary of the local GAA club, Setanta, who had this to say: “I thought it was brilliant. It explained the reasons for Ballymun existing in the first place and the courage and determination of ordinary working-class people to overcome the power and hypocrisy of church and state.”
     Forty-one years after the idea of an Irish-medium school was first discussed among a group of people in Ballymun, the school they set up is still flourishing, with 195 pupils on the roll; and in fact another Irish-medium primary school was set up because of the long waiting-list for Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch.
     The film opens with scenes from present-day Ballymun, reflecting the social and environmental changes that have taken place in recent times. These images contrast sharply with archive footage of the then ultra-modern satellite town sited among the green fields of north Dublin farmland, with poor infrastructure and facilities inadequate for a population that equalled that of Limerick.
     Present-day interviews with parents and past pupils are intercut with interviews done by current affairs programmes of the 1970s, and the story that emerges is one of a few “extraordinary ordinary” people whose quest was frustrated by the opposition of the powers that be.
     Nowadays we are used to jargon such as “capacity-building,” “local consultation,” and “empowering communities,” but as Walsh’s film makes clear, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the Department of Education had no interest in empowering these parents. Public representatives were equally unsupportive of their campaign.
     Some of the parents’ meetings were filmed by current affairs programmes such as “Féach” at the time, and through clips from these programmes we can see that their vision for an Irish-medium school in Ballymun was clearly articulated.
     With a disused school in the area there was certainly an opportunity to try out this visionary project. Incredibly, the Irish-speaking parish priest refused to let the school be used for this purpose.
     However, the people persevered in the face of all adversity, and their vision came to fruition in July 1973, when the school opened with forty pupils and four teachers.
     Another facet of this remarkable project was the cultural and religious diversity of the campaigners, reflected in the fact that the formal opening of the school was an ecumenical one, with representatives of both the Catholic and Protestant churches officiating. One of the four teachers (a member of the Church of Ireland) recalls that the newspapers of the day ignored this and instead tried to make less flattering insinuations against the school.
     This is a documentary that needs to be seen by anyone interested in community development, in politics, or in the Irish language. It will be screened by Dublin Community Television, and a preview can be seen on its web site, www.dctv.ie.
[MNM]

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