Hanging up the headphones
Máirtín Mac Donnchadha talks to Anton McNulty about his quarter century with Raidió na Gaeltachta and his life as a Jehovah’s Witness
If any linguists needs a case study on the ability to pick up and lose languages in a short period of time they should look no further than Máirtín Mac Donnchadha. The former Raidió na Gaeltachta (RnaG) broadcaster recently retired after 25 years at the station, ten years of which were spent as its Mayo correspondent.
A Galway man who now lives in Westport, Máirtín was born in An Ceathrú Rua in the heart of the Conamara Gaeltacht, where for the first three years of his life he spoke only Irish. In 1959, his family moved to Derbyshire in England, where his father Stephen got a job on the open-cast coal mine. By the time Mairtín was old enough to go to school, he spoke only English.
“My parents spoke Irish all the time in England,” Mairtín told The Mayo News, “but when we came [to Conamara] five years later I couldn’t pick the word ‘agus’ out in conversation, and if I did I did not know what it meant.
“I went into school here after five years in England without a word of Irish. That was 1962, and only one other person in the class could speak English. So in 18 months we’d switched from English being the dominant language to Irish being the dominant language again. It was a case of sink or swim.”
Mairtín was born into a family of ten children, in the middle, and all but the oldest returned home to Conamara. Pat, who was 12 years old when the family first went to England, decided to emigrate to Australia, where the use of Irish was not as prominent as in An Ceathrú Rua.
“It is hard to imagine a 12 year old losing his Irish but to this day Pat cannot speak Irish. He can understand everything that is said in Irish, he can follow a conversation no problem, but he doesn’t have the resources in himself to respond in Irish.”
On the airwaves
Mairtín’s life in broadcasting started off in 1986, but before that he worked in many different places, including various factories in An Ceathrú Rua. During the recession of the 1980s, when he desperately needed extra work, he got the opportunity to work part-time as an announcer on RnaG – a chance he grasped with both hands.
“I have no formal qualifications whatsoever, and I got the chance to make a few programmes and documentaries. I gradually worked my way into the daily programming in RnaG,” Mairtín explained. By 1989 he was working regularly for RTÉ, and he loved it. “I thoroughly enjoyed the work – it was not like work itself in the normal sense. There was great deal of satisfaction in it.”
However after 25 years working with the Irish language station, Mairtín is worried about the current road it is taking due to the enforced cutbacks placed on it by RTÉ.
“I think it [RnaG] is a nuisance and a thorn in the side of the powers-that-be [RTÉ] because they don’t understand what it has accomplished and what it is accomplishing. If you have no reason to listen to the station it is totally irrelevant to you, but there are thousands of people worldwide who listen to it and for whom it is a significantly important link to their homeland.
“The budget for RnaG is only €7 million, a drop in the ocean compared to what is spent on broadcasting in this country. RnaG has only ever had a skeleton staff compared to the rest of RTE, so when they cut it back by 30 per cent they haven’t a hope of providing the kind of service they had.”
END OF AN ERA Máirtín Mac Donnchadha (right) with former Mayo correspondent Séan Ó Ealaí and Gabrielle Uí Bhreisleáin, sectretary at the Castlebar station.?Pic: Joy Heverin
Now that Mairtín has retired, it will provide more time for him to partake in preaching the bible through his missionary work as a Jehovah’s Witness. Before his conversion, Mairtín said he was ‘an ordinary Catholic who went to Mass on a Sunday’, but his views on the bible and religion changed when his brother, Pat, gave him a publication ‘Is The Bible Really The Word of God?’.
After getting involved in bible studies, he was baptised a Jehovah’s Witness in 1976, a decision he described as ‘extraordinary’ for the time and one that was not received well in his family.
“The country was a different country then, and in those times there was one religion and the influence of the church and priests was very powerful. But once I studied the Bible I had the conviction there was nothing I could do but become a Jehovah’s Witness and start preaching the Bible. That caused real upset to the rest of my family and my parents. It took quite a while, especially for my mother, to accept the situation, but in later years our relationship improved. Life goes on.
“Society has become more secularised … it is a different environment compared to the ’70s, when you went out [preaching]. In some ways it was more enjoyable because people would challenge you and tell you what was wrong with your belief. When you are challenged like that it is engaging.”
Mairtín made the move to Mayo ten years ago when he replaced Seán Ó hÉalaí as the Mayo correspondent in the Castlebar studio. However, after a decade of service in that role he decided to apply for voluntary redundancy. However, RnaG decided not to replace him, a decision he believes is a backward step for the station and for Mayo.
“It is sad because the people in Mayo had to fight very hard to get this studio. When they were considering establishing studios in Donegal and Kerry, Mayo was not even considered.”
Mairtín believes the sheer size of Mayo means that a studio in the county is warranted. “It is difficult to cover Mayo from Castlebar, because if you want to go to Blacksod, you are talking about a 120 mile round trip. What are the chances of doing that from Casla [RnaG’s Connemara studio] when you are doing another 100 miles? It is impossible for a broadcaster to stay in touch with the people if they are not in the midst of the people. It was difficult for one person to do it from the centre of the county – they haven’t a hope when doing it from another 100 miles away.”
Mairtín is also sceptical about the future of the Irish language, he feels the language has become ‘diluted’. He does not believe there are many people under 50 who would consider Irish as their mother tongue. Nevertheless, one of the most enjoyable aspects of his work was going to the different Gaeltacht regions in Mayo and recording the stories before they are lost forever.
“Meeting the characters with fluent Irish was the most enjoyable part of the job. There is great humanity about them, and for people with no formal education, they are scholars when it comes to the language itself and their capacity to use it. Spending time with them and listening to their stories was like going on a University course. Going to their homes over the last ten years has resulted in a huge archive being built up. It will be there for years to come which will be important for people studying the language in the future.”