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Coláiste Speirín – The Cultural Revival in Action


Coláiste Speirín in County Tyrone has been an inspiring example of the Irish language movement’s determination to make progress against the odds in the Six Counties. Here, Coláiste director Cathal Ó Donnghaile provides an insight into the school’s origins and the obstacles it continues to face. Read on:

Staff and pupils at Coláiste Speirín

“I write the following account in English on behalf of this paper’s readership who, while they may not yet be fluent in the Irish of their land, have a great grá for the language and view it as a thriving and vibrant tongue, an integral part of the Irish psyche and culture and something of which we can all be very proud.

The story I want to tell is that of Coláiste Speirín, the small Irish language college in Cookstown, Co Tyrone, which began in September 2007 with a mere 6 pupils. This school was founded by a small visionary group of parents who want the best for their children and future generations and feel this can best be realised through the Gaelic medium in a total immersion setting i.e. having maximum exposure to hearing, as well as opportunities for using, spoken Irish.

I understood from the outset that this project, although very challenging, would bring great hope and fulfilment and so considered it a privilege for me also to become personally involved at the very beginning. Some years ago, in Belfast, I had the pleasure and experience of helping establish Meánscoil Feirste, with only 2 teachers and 9 pupils – this school, now Coláiste Feirste, has almost 550 pupils and over 50 teaching staff. Establishing and funding Meánscoil Feirste had not been easy, there were a lot of begrudgers along the way, and it took us almost 6 years before a breakthrough was made.

I believed however and had hoped that support from the many friends, associates and acquaintances in positions of power – new power, in terms of the political and educational structures here– would have been more forthcoming for Coláiste Speirín. I was of the view that we were pushing open doors now and that our colleagues had a good understanding of our plight and would seek to help us achieve our goals. Was this the case?

In order to make great achievements, great sacrifices must be made. The sacrifices made over the past two years by the pupils, parents, staff and governors of Coláiste Speirín have been very considerable and may never be properly appreciated, documented or known. Our journey to date, in search of funding and recognition for our work and our children’s education, has been thwarted by policy makers and decision makers at the highest levels, who have never actually done anything on the ground themselves. It has been a journey of stepping further and further into the unknown and walking on water, as did our Lord, a journey of blind faith and hope.

I was well accustomed to stone-walling, as we made our case for Gaelic education, under the old regime of the DENI hardliners and, while our experiences over the past two years have been different, the result is the same – no-can-do. There was still the traditional smile and handshake at meetings, but this time it was from friends whom we had believed to be genuine and who we thought would do the business. The whole wider Irish medium fraternity, as well as the general nationalist community, were disillusioned and found it difficult to accept that Coláiste Speirín had not been given the opportunity to come in out of the cold, as it were. Possibly, we were too naive in thinking, because the decision makers were mostly people from a similar background to ourselves, that all would be well.

Unfortunately, those at the top were ill-advised and had no real understanding of what was happening and made negative decisions accordingly. We had proposed, twice, that our new school be funded and maintained as an outreach centre of Coláiste Feirste. Twice, under different ministers, our proposals were rejected, in favour of creating more Irish-medium streams in English language schools. These decisions have now come back to haunt those involved in Irish-medium education.

The story has gone full circle and, now, all the interested bodies: the educationalists, the language organisations and the political parties realise that this strategy of partial provision within the English-medium system is flawed and, as such, does not meet the expectations that parents and pupils hold, nor does it provide the opportunities they deserve.

A ‘new’ proposal is now in the offing which will clearly place Coláiste Feirste at the core of the development of all new post-primary Irish-medium education provision in the north. This has been agreed on the ground and we are hopeful that the various bodies and individuals involved in bringing this scheme forward at the highest levels will all sign off on it soon.

Possibly for the first time in history, young, confident and carefree teenagers walk the streets of Cookstown, and other villages where they live, happily chatting away in Irish, laughing and calling to each other, without the slightest inhibitions, as they shop or make their way to and from school. Because of the aftermath the Plantation had on the Gaelic order, the subsequent linguistic genocide of the colonial powers here, the negative associations of the Great Hunger and the strength of the Murder Machine, the ancestors of these children were too ashamed to speak their mother tongue. These, however, in 2009, proudly do so because they can and they want to.

As Coláiste Speirín approaches the end of its second year, we want to celebrate all our successes. Our pupils are having an excellent learning opportunity and we are very grateful to all those individuals and organisations who have stepped up and helped us in this, our endeavour. If I may mention, in particular, the Cookstown Branch of the AOH, individual parents who paid for salaries, the Ireland Funds, the Tyrone Association in Dublin, an Foras Patrúnachta and Gaelscoileanna in Dublin, Iontaobhas na Gaelscolaíochta and Cumann Mhic Reachtain in Belfast, as well as some other small schools and organisations in the south. Without these, and the tenacity and steadfastness of our Board of Governors, we would not have been able to survive thus far.

We are so close to achieving our goals and, still, they seem so elusive and far away. The financial situation in the school has always been very precarious but never so much as it is at present, and I send a fervent prayer with this little synopsis that some kind reader who ponders these words can actually read between the lines, feel and see what has not been said and stand up to be counted. Realistically, we have to survive for possibly another 4 to 6 months with no prospect of funding before the much-awaited breakthrough comes.

Unless we are supported now by a philanthropic benefactor, Coláiste Speirín will most likely cease to exist and the pupils will be split up and sent in their different directions. This would have a devastating knock-on effect on all current and future Irish-medium projects.

Coláiste Speirín is a watershed project in the revival of the Gaelic order, as was Gaelscoil Uí Néill, in Coalisland. We have proven, as documented in a school inspection conducted by the Education and Training Inspectorate on June 2008 in Colaiste Speirín, that 18 subjects can be taught effectively through Irish in a small rural setting with the prospect of catering for a further 500 + pupils already in the system.

As Coláiste Speirín continues to grow in success, many other fruits of our labour will be forthcoming, as is now the case in Belfast. All we need is for those in positions of influence to come and smell the roses and help us ‘get the thing sorted’!

Gabhaimid buíochas ó chroí lenár gcairde uilig as a ndea-ghuí agus a dtacaíocht. Bail ó Dhia oraibh féin, ar bhur gcuid oibre agus ar bhur gcúram.”

If you wish further information, please feel free to contact Coláiste Speirín on (0044 28) 8676 0010 or by email at


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