How the "Connemaras" almost perished on the prairies amid the alien wheat

 

AFTER its pyrotechnid launch, Teilifis na Gaeilge is settling down to substantial fare, judging by its weekend programming.

The main offering on Saturday night was Graceville, a harrowing documentary about Irish emigrants who were brought to Minnesota in 1880 as part of a Catholic "colonisation" scheme.

Researched and narrated by Seosamh O Cuaig and directed by Bob Quinn for Gaelmedia, the programme was hard to grasp at times because 59 much detail was thrown at the viewer.

But it will last as a powerful and moving testament to the tragedy of the "Connemaras", who found themselves abandoned and starving on the prairie as the blizzards raged and temperatures dropped to minus 35 Celsius.

In 1880, John Ireland, a bishop from Wicklow, sent a group of 309 native Irish speakers from Connemara and Mayo to settle on some of the 400,000 acres of rich mid west farming land he had contracted to sell on behalf of the railroad companies. Just 18 years before, the Sioux had risen in a last attempt to save their lands and were mercilessly repressed. Now, the dispossessed of Ireland were being sent, via the Catholic Colonisation Bureau, to take over their land.

Bishop Ireland's grand plan was to settle the prairies with good Irish Catholics. He preferred poor Irish from the cities of the eastern seaboard, who were already used to life in the United States, but was persuaded to take on the Connemaras and dispatched them on a three day train journey as soon as they arrived in Boston.

Disaster resulted. Impoverished and speaking little or no English, the settlers had no experience of farming wheat on good soil and little idea about how to do it. Worse, they arrived three months too late to plant in the first year.

Winter arrived early in Minnesota in 1880, and when it came it was the worst in living memory. Huddled in wood cabins and miles from the nearest town, the Connemaras froze and starved.

When news of the tragedy began to leak, Bishop Ireland was eager to avoid blame. His reaction was to slander the settlers as a people "born and trained as paupers ... indolent, lazy and shiftless". The calumny persists to this day in Minnesota, where the word Connemara is still used as a term of abuse. Ironically, it was the freemasons of the nearest town, Morris, who came to the rescue.

The documentary was a fine piece of television and if TnaG can keep to this standard it will soon raise a few blushes in Montrose. The first few days of broadcasts have thrown up a few other surprises, notably the strength of the news presentation and the amount of advertising attracted.

It is strange at first to listen to the familiar Lyon's tea commercial as Gaeilge, or hear the ould Dub with the gravelly voice announce Brennan's Bread as "an t-aran is fearr". The strangeness will no doubt fade as the weeks go by the wonder is that the station managed to get any initial advertising at all. S4C, the Welsh channel, is only now (after more than 10 years in business) beginning to woo advertisers.

All food for thought for the delegates who gathered in Spiddal, Co Galway, at the weekend for a conference on languages organised under the auspices of the Irish Presidency of the European Union. It included the first ever formal meeting between language agencies in the Republic, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as contributions from Basque, Gallician and Breton delegates.

One item discussed was the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, agreed by the Council of Europe in 1992 but still not formally ratified by enough states to bring it into force. Ireland has not yet signed the charter because of reservations that it might affect the constitutional status of Irish as the first official language. The European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages has been pushing vigorously for ratification, and says the status of Irish is safeguarded in the charter.

A UCG law lecturer, Tomas O Mille, spoke of fears of a "general constitutional crisis" over the ratification of a new EU treaty, given the difficulties over Maastricht, if the Union is not seen as more relevant to the concerns of European citizens.

One way of doing this, he suggested, would be to give greater recognition to the linguistic rights of some 50 million Europeans who speak a language other than the official language of the country they reside in.

"Right now, the concept of European citizenship exists largely at an abstract level. Granted, many citizens of member states, including Ireland, have experienced the benefits of European integration. This has been particularly true in the fields of employment and social welfare law," he said.

"True citizenship, however, involves more than abstract legal concepts of rights and duties. It must also include a sense of attachment, as exemplified by the way in which people feel Irish, British, French or whatever. This experiential element of citizenship is constantly expressed and recreated by tradition, ritual and practice.

"One of the biggest challenges facing the European Union is to devise a framework within which this feeling of attachment among its citizens can be generated and strengthened. The recognition of linguistic rights is an important element of the necessary measures.

"Unless all citizens of the Union can be assured that they are free to communicate with organs of the Commission in their own language and that they have reasonable access to European documentation in that language, they are unlikely to feel genuinely a part of the Union."

Policies to reduce the social exclusion of different groups, for example people with disabilities, had developed as part of a general understanding that the way to enhance democracy is to make society as inclusive as possible.

"The same trend is evident in the political solutions most favoured for the problems of divided societies, whether the division is based on race, religion, political allegiance or other factors. The recognition, the accommodation and, indeed, the celebration of diversity are seen as providing the key to peaceful and fruitful co existence among those formerly divided by different cultural or political allegiances.