“Failte roimh Theifigh”; “Bíodh Misneach agat Na géill is tú beo!” ; “MISNEACH”.
If you are like me, a non-Irish language speaker, these three phrases have just completely confused you. They are in fact examples of some Irish graffiti I came across on the outskirts of Galway City. Upon further research into their English translations, it turned out that these and all other Irish graffiti I saw had clear political messages. I found this particularly interesting because oddly enough, very few Irish people would be able to translate these statements...
Irish, or what most Americans call “Gaelic”, is the first official language of Ireland. Irish is the main language spoken only on a few TV and radio stations, but it’s on every street sign and informational plaque, though these signs always have the English translation directly underneath. Even with these manifestations of Irish being the country's first language, I barely ever heard a soul speaking Irish in everyday conversation—unless it was to cheers while yelling “SLÁINTE!” which translates to “Health!” just prior to downing a creamy pint of Guinness.
My best friend Seán from county Fermanagh explained this by saying that while there are still some small areas in Ireland where people regularly speak it, Irish is usually just a class kids must take in school for a few years before it is inevitably forgotten since there is no urgent need to speak it outside the classroom.
So it seems that while about a fourth of the Irish population claims they can understand the language to some extent, these Irish street signs, TV programs, and radio stations are mostly there for cultural conservation purposes as they only truly benefit the few resilient pockets of Ireland referred to as Gaeltachts which continue to use the language in daily life.
There are a few deeply rooted contributing factors that explain the great decline of the Irish language over the past few centuries, including the ever disruptive roots of English colonization, the Great Famine and its resulting pattern of Irish emigration to English-speaking nations, etc. etc… I’ll let you research that whole can of worms if you so choose. However, in a country where the majority of its inhabitants cannot understand the language, what could explain the Irish street art I saw throughout Galway city?
I first saw Irish graffiti while passing some buildings on my walk to the cinema. I snapped a picture of it and put it in good ole Google Translate when I got home; the graffiti read “Fáilte roimh Theifigh” which translated to “Welcome to Refugees”.
As someone who 1) does not speak Irish, and 2) was unaware of Ireland’s stance on taking in refugees, I was surprised and intrigued by this clear statement to Irish speakers that Ireland should be welcoming refugees. I gradually found more Irish graffiti and stickers, and interestingly enough many seemed to express similar political stances.
One bridge over Dyke Road in Galway made a tunnel which was chock full of these graffiti protests. “Saor Bilal Kayed, SUPPORT THE HUNGERSTRIKERS” was one such graffiti’d phrase which must have been written before Bilal Kayed was freed in December 2016, a Palestinian man jailed in Israeli prison for 15 years and who along with others protested his further unexplained detainment with a hunger strike. A similar one read “FREE PALESTINE, Stad an slad,” which roughly translates to “Stop the plunder”.
Clearly these types of expression were not supported by everyone in the community because when I came back to view the graffiti one last time in July 2017, I saw that these sayings were covered up with red and black paint. Additionally, on an exposed wall just a few feet from the Dyke Road bridge was another phrase “Bíodh Misneach agat Na géill is tú beo”. This either means “Have courage for what you live” or “ Be courageous, You are not living”.
I took this as a call to the Irish to live a courageous life by standing up for wrongs they see in the world, such as the detainment of Bilal Kayed. Anyway, underneath that was scrawled “Tá madra sa spéir!” which roughly translates to “There is a dog in the sky!”, so again it seems there is some rivalry between ideas, OR some Irish-speaking lad just had to scratch that classic Irish class clown itch.
The word Misneach (which means “Courage”) was prevalent in the graffiti as well as on many stickers I had seen, and this finally pointed me in the direction of WHO was behind these provocative Irish messages. It turns out Misneach is in fact a radical left wing Irish language group who believe it is not only of utmost importance to use Irish for ensuring the future of the language and culture, but also to combat the powers acting against minority languages and groups.
As Misneach member Ben O Ceallaigh put it in their explanatory video, “English is the language of the capitalist market and as a result, that language has massive power and it is very difficult for … a minoritized language like Irish to go against that power . We believe… that we have to tackle the economic system if we are to nurture and develop the Irish language.”
I talked via email with Kerron Ó Luain, an active member of Misneach to better understand the organization and confirmed that all of the graffiti in the Dyke Road Bridge as well as the stickers were created by Misneach. He made it clear that though they have no formal affiliation with any groups working with refugees, Misneach supports any groups trying to offer refuge from those fleeing wars as well as any fighting against Ireland’s system of direct provision. After all, Misneach wants to fight toward a better future not just for everyone in their country, but for everyone in the world through the medium of Irish.
So although not many Irish people can speak the language, Misneach’s bold street art is one way of bringing the Irish language back to do more than educate others. Through Irish, they are upholding an ancient language and an ancient need for all people to have basic human rights. As their sticker says, “Cearta Teanga, Cearta Daonna, MISNEACH”.
Banner image: On a building off of O’Donoghue’s Terrace in Galway city, blue spray paint spells out “Failte roimh Theifigh” which in English reads “Welcome to Refugees”.