Northern Ireland

NI state papers: Use of Irish in Maze caused headache for NIO

Aerial view of former Maze prison site
Image caption The Maze prison held some of NI's most notorious killers from 1971 to 2000

The use of the Irish language in the Maze Prison caused a major headache for the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) in the early 1980s, according to previously confidential files released in Belfast.

On June 15, 1982, Brendan O Cathaoir, an Irish Times journalist, wrote to the minister for prisons at the NIO, Lord Gowrie, to protest against the decision of prison staff to terminate a meeting between him and a prisoner that was being conducted in Irish.

Mr O Cathaoir told the minister that he had visited Hugh Rooney, a prisoner in the Maze, a few days earlier.

"A few minutes after the visit had started," he went on, "a warder intervened and asked: 'Are you speaking a foreign language?' (We had been conversing in Irish because of Mr Rooney's interest in the language). I answered 'No'."

The reporter was asked to sign a form after which the visit was terminated.

He told Lord Gowrie: "The reason given was that we had spoken in Irish. At no stage were we told explicitly that English must be used."


The warder could produce no written evidence for such a restriction.

In conclusion Mr O Cathaoir told Lord Gowrie: "Please don't tell me that it has anything to do with security. This gratuitous insult to the Irish identity of these prisoners serves no other purpose than the perpetration of hatred and violence in Ireland. Those who govern the Northern Ireland prison population feed a cycle of fanaticism."

The matter was also raised by John Hume, MEP and SDLP leader, in a letter to Lord Gowrie questioning the legal basis for such a policy.

In a note on the file, John Mitchell from 'prison regimes' branch noted that governors were instructed under prison standing orders to ensure that all visits took place in English unless either party was incapable of conversing in English.

"Such a restriction is necessary on security grounds to enable officers supervising visits to effectively monitor conversations," he wrote.

Image caption It was alleged that the violin was "classed as a sectarian instrument"

While they could not depart from this rule, he had asked the prison governor to brief the officer on duty so that a visitor speaking Irish would be warned to continue in English or have the visit terminated.

In his reply to Mr Hume, Lord Gowrie said he was sorry that Mr O Cathaoir had had his visit terminated, but the instructions to governors were quite explicit that visits to prisoners should be "in sight and hearing of the prison staff".

"This is rendered ineffective if staff are unable to understand the language used. You will understand that we have difficulty, to put it no higher, in finding staff who are fluent in Irish," wrote the minister.

In a note for Lord Gowrie, dated 28 July, 1982, an official, S C Jackson, stated that government "must take account, as far as we can, of the fact of the two identities" under the 1982 White Paper on devolution in Northern Ireland."

However, in the particular matter of the use of the Irish language, the government was "in a real difficulty".

'Sectarian instrument'

The issue continued to rankle and in January 1984, an Irish language enthusiast, Mr P Mac Thiarnian, chairman of the Lecale Gaelic Society in Downpatrick, wrote to the secretary of state expressing concern at reports of action taken by the prison authorities against prisoners possessing books in Irish, musical instruments and playing certain games, "on the grounds that they were sectarian".

He asked, in particular, if it was true that the violin was "classed as a sectarian instrument, but the guitar is not".

Replying to Mr Mac Thiarnian on 27 January 1984, J McCarley of the NIO assured him that any restrictions on these activities were "purely for security and not designed to suppress any expression of national identity", nor were they "intended to discriminate against any individual prisoner".

He hoped the complainant would understand that few prison staff were fluent in Irish.

However, he stated, the 124 Maze prisoners taking a formal course in Irish were permitted approved texts in the language as well as a Gaelic Bible and a small Irish-English dictionary.

Such censorship restrictions were not confined to the Irish language but applied equally to other languages.

Turning to musical instruments, he acknowledged that restrictions on these were "necessary for security reasons", though guitars were permitted.

Over the next few weeks, articles about Irish in Northern Ireland prisons appeared in the press.

Image caption Fr Denis Faul described such restrictions as "basically sectarian, part of the whole anti-Catholic, anti-nationalist set-up"

These alleged that letters sent to prisoners using their Irish names were being intercepted and that Mass in Irish was banned at the Maze.


On 21 March 1984, the Irish News carried an editorial alleging that Irish classes and Gaelic games had been banned from the prison.

This prompted the human rights priest, Fr Denis Faul to declare that such restrictions were "basically sectarian, part of the whole anti-Catholic, anti-nationalist set-up".

In a reply to the paper, the NIO minister Nicholas Scott claimed that Irish classes had been disrupted by industrial action and that he was "anxious" to have them resumed.

The controversy led to a visit to the Maze on 21 August 1984 by Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich.

According to a note in the file by A R Brown of the prison regimes division, the cardinal raised several issues, including the need to give life-sentenced prisoners a release date and allowing prisoners access to Irish texts.

The official felt that there were "presentational advantages" in considering the cardinal's views on the matter of Irish in the prisons.

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