Celtic Junction Arts Review

Oireachtas na Gaeilge – an essential guide.

Réamonn Ó Ciaráin

Homeward bound from Oireachtas na Samhna 2023 held in Killarney on the shore of Lough Leane wistful social media posts were already craving the arrival of next year’s event.

By Christophe Meneboeuf – Personal work. CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3261067

The Irish language possesses an array of words and placenames conveying the idea of assembly such as; dáil, tionól, slógadh, aonach, feis, ardfheis, féile, tóstal, fleadh and of course Oireachtas. Oireachtas na Samhna, the Halloween Festival, is now the premier Irish language event each year. Lasting five days it offers academic presentations, award ceremonies, comedy, dance, debate, information and launch events, literature, music, running, sketches, singing, radio and TV. The glue that holds it all together and happily so is the Irish language. Native speakers from the Gaeltacht mix with learners, those who are fluent and those who are in-between – those who love the language. The grammar police have been stepped down for many years but the Irish language is still paramount. There are over 60 Irish language competitions attracting 900 competitors and around 10k attendees to about 150 events. It is the ultimate pop-up. It first took place in 1897 in Dublin’s Rotunda and its growth has been exponential especially in the past 20 years. The INEC (Ireland’s National Event Centre) in Killarney is one of the few venues big enough to host the Oireachtas in recent years.

All the business is conducted in Irish. Many Irish language organisations and state bodies hold events, meetings and launches at the Oireachtas each year but never fully manage to spoil the fun with work. On the first night, a Wednesday, the much-anticipated Irish language media awards are held with razzle and dazzle in equal portions. Recognition for excellence in film, radio, presentation and journalism as well as a life-time achievement award is presented. This year the eminently worthy recipient was Belfast Journalist, Eoghan Ó Néill. His unscripted acceptance speech was profound and stirring. To be recognised by your peers for excellence is very important and particularly so when it comes to working in a minoritised language.

Oireachtas na Gaeilge

Each year Tg4, the Irish language TV station established on Halloween Night 1996, chooses an upcoming programme to launch. This year they chose an hourlong artistic portrayal of Gael Linn in its 70th year. 300 guests watched the premiere with some of the best musicians in the country from the Gael Linn label recorded performing live off-stage while others told the remarkable story of the organisation’s innovative approach to promoting the Irish language and heritage using fundraising, music, film, radio, bingo, schools’ events and drama. All this they somehow managed to fit comfortably into a one hour show. Admittedly I am not necessarily unbiased here but the tears of joy welling up in the eyes of those watching Gael Linn ag 70 provided convincing testimony of the show’s potent and artistic portrayal. You can catch it on the Tg4 player and it’s available across the globe here. Why not make your own mind up!

Later on the Friday each year a special Halloween Fancy Dress is organised for university students, and they arrive in scores of buses to take part adorned in their long premeditated costumes; some simple, some sophisticated, some the product of sheer wizardry. Well-on into the night they will find themselves at the obligatory Club na Féile, for live music. Club na Féile, the festival club that is, takes place on Thursday, Friday and Saturday each night. For many years now Kerry group, Polca 4, have owned this stage with their trademark version of Oh Neilí Neilí mesmerising the crowd anew every time its played. Check out a mild version here.  

Oireachtas na Gaeilge

On Saturday at 3.00 p.m. this year about 350 mainly third level students roused themselves admirably to take their perches to observe peers from four universities debate in favour and against a motion asserting that the increased population of Ireland is for the better. After heated but measured discussion guest-speaker Eoin Ó Catháin, formerly of Raidió na Gaeltachta but now Director of the Irish Whiskey Association, IBEC, explained how Irish helped him in his career. This gave the adjudicators the opportunity to finalise Aaron Ó Conaill and Gráinne Ní Ailín from Trinity College Dublin’s Cumann Gaelach as this year’s winners of the Gael Linn, third-level Irish language debates.

Corn Uí Riada is for many the zenith of Oireachtas na Samhna. It is a sean nós singing competition attended by over 1000 in the audience and is also broadcast live on Radió na Gaeltachta and on the Tg4 app’. It is named after composer and arranger Seán Ó Riada (1931 – 1971) and lasts about four hours.  As a prerequisite for this competition entrants must have previously been placed first or second in the men’s or women’s competition. Colm Jimmy Ó Curraoin from Conamra emerged victorious this year. Since 1972 competitors have been singing a fast and a slow song vying to be listed with the greats of this authentic and ancient singing artform. This year there were 22 competitors. A recall may well also feature to test further the composure and calibre of contestants. You can watch our champion from this year here.

Corn Uí Riada – trophy

A special area of the main venue each year is dedicated to stalls from organisations from the voluntary, the public and the private sector who are revitalising the language. Tote bags are much in demand so patrons can maximise the acquisition of freebies. Over the course of the festival attendees will be on the move from event to event. The venues are a hive of activity and business overflows into nearby shops, restaurants and pubs. Hotels and venues do very well at an otherwise lean time for them. This is why Killarney is so suitable being a key tourist destination in summer, spring into autumn and ordinarily offering ample accommodation in off-peak winter.  At the main venues it can take a long time to negotiate the corridors with all the essential catching up that occurs in transit. 400 yards have been known to take four hours. Some attend only events, others only business meetings, others the competitions, others mix and match and some have even been known to find themselves happily missing in bars for days. As happened in the wonder tales of our forebears days can pass at the speed of minutes. Friends are made and even matches are known to have been sparked. Seldom is a cross word heard.

It is a family festival with events and activities for all age groups. Intergenerational transmission and regeneration of the language certainly moves into turbo boost at Oireachtas na Samhna. Each year it seems that the Oireachtas is becoming increasingly youthful as more and more and younger and younger catch the bug. Like the Aonach hostings of our ancients when affairs of the tribe were deliberated on, at the Oireachtas debates and live broadcasts tackle many of the issues affecting Irish language communities such as the lack of housing in the Gaeltacht, lack of governmental funding ambition for language promotion and retrograde steps in education such as the increase in exemptions from learning Irish for reasons not yet fully explained.

Oireachtas na Gaeilge

If interested in putting your prowess to the test or even securing acclaim among your peers there is a great variety of competitions and awards up for grabs; literature, media, dialogue, storytelling, violin, recitation, tin whistle, humorous song duets, musical duets, sketches, speaking, sean-nós singing and dancing, newly composed song, debating. Some competitions have considerable monetary awards. This year a total of €30k was won by those recipients of the various literary awards. Previous literary winners at Oireachtas na Gaeilge have been; Padhraic Ó Conaire, Daniel Corkery, Seán Ó Ríordáin, Máire Mhac an tSaoi, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Doirín Ní Ghríofa, Caitríona Ní Chléircín, Áine Durkin and so many more.

Oireachtas na Samhna is certainly one of the foremost cultural festivals in Ireland. It is a celebration of the very essence of Irish culture and heritage distilled through the first language of the nation. Participating in competitions and, aspiring to be your very best in the various art forms or by just being present at an event of such magnitude offers a status to the Irish language. The five days represents a bright spot in the calendar of Irish speakers. There is no shortage of laughter, plenty of spontaneous singing and dancing and also a time to reflect and recall those who have passed on to their eternal reward since the previous year’s Oireachtas. The first page of the official programme lists deceased friends of the Oireachtas. 46 were listed this year. November is after all the month of the dead, Mí na Marbh. Though departed their spirits watch over it all and smile for this festival is surely what it has all been about. Occasionally they give our strings a tug and unconsciously we adjust what we’ve been doing or thinking and the Oireachtas continues only better.

Post-Oireachtas Blues can only be alleviated by one action; booking your room for the following year and thus begins the psychic journey to Oireachtas na Gaeilge the following year – to Mecca na nGael.