Given all the activities that go on there, space is tight at 6 Harcourt Street, says Julian de Spáinn, general secretary of Conradh na Gaeilge.
Currently, the Georgian Building with the blue door at Uimhir 6 Harcourt Street hosts the Siopa Leabhar on the ground floor, and the offices and classrooms of the Conradh na Gaeilge sit above it on three higher floors. In the basement is the bar and the nightclub Club Conradh.
The lack of space means that language classes have to be held in the evenings, as during the day the upstairs rooms are offices for Conradh na Gaeilge’s lobbying and fundraising work.
In October 2020, Conradh na Gaeilge was granted planning permission to revamp and grow the complex of buildings , which would allow it to run more activities, and create a place for people to use Irish to buy coffee or chat with friends.
The organisation’s ambitions stretch further still, though. De Spáinn says he hopes it could be the first step in making a bigger Irish-language quarter in this part of the city.
“A lot of people would like to use Irish more, they just don’t know how or where they can use it,” he says. “So you need the opportunity to use the language more.”
Uimhir 6 Harcourt Street
Plans for the building show a glass-ceilinged extension stretching out to the backyard boundaries, up to Montague Lane.
That’s where the Conradh offices and classrooms would go, says de Spáinn, so that the original Georgian building can be open to the public.
“You’d have tours that people could go on all day long,” he says. “We’re trying to do as much as we can that restores this building, and people can access it and see what the history is.”
Number 6 Harcourt Street is where John Henry Newman began plans for what would become University College Dublin, says de Spáinn. It was also the headquarters of Sinn Féin, where they planned their 1918 election campaign, he says.
The planned extension would have a large open atrium, and a café, from which people will be able to see the Conradh’s Raidió Rí-Rá broadcasting from a transparent station, says de Spáinn.
“People could come in, sit down, have a cup of coffee, and have a chat in Irish,” he says, like they can in Café Glic in Ballyfermot.
The Siopa Leabhar would lead into the café, looking up to the skylights of the atrium. Built into the basement, connecting to the Club Conradh, would be a 108-seat theatre.
Spáinn says the organisation wants to move beyond only offering Irish classes, he says, and also offer classes in other subjects through Irish.
“A variety of different people will be able to use the building to use Irish then. You could have yoga or drama downstairs and they may go for coffee afterwards, you know?” he says.
Spáinn says he expects work to start in three years.
But there’s a larger vision too. The hope is that the building itself will spark changes beyond its walls, on the streets all around, he says.
A City Gaeltacht?
At a recent council meeting, Deirdre Heney, a Fianna Fáil councillor, put a motion forward that the next city development plan, for 2022–28 – which councillors are working on at the moment – should include an Irish Language Quarter.
“Include an objective that supports the establishment of an Irish language quarter in the city where citizens can use the language in work, leisure and hospitality settings,” it reads.
Her motion passed, meaning that it is proposed for the city’s “planning rulebook,” and will be up for public consultation as part of that soon.
Conradh na Gaeilge imagines the language quarter to be in a square around the block of Harcourt Street, Wexford Street, Camden Street and Cuffe Street, says De Spáinn.
“You sell the concept, and you probably increase the services around,” he says. They’d like to make a map of what you can do through Irish in the area.
Pubs, cafés and restaurants in the area could offer bilingual menus, he says. “That’s just a simple thing, we could help them with that.”
They haven’t approached locals about it yet because it’s still early stages, he says. But “if there were people who were especially interested you’d obviously ask them to maybe get involved more”.
Peter Kavanagh, who founded Pop-Up Gaeltacht, says that if there were business and street names in Irish, and people on the street speaking Irish together, it would signal to people that it was an Irish-language quarter.
“That’s what’s missing. That’s what’s needed in the city,” says, Kavanagh, an independent councillor from Lucan, who is mayor of South Dublin County Council.
De Spáinn says pop-up Gaeltachts are popular, and often fill out entire pubs. That shows the economic viability of the Irish-language quarter idea, he says.
There could be traditional music and dance, outreach to kids living locally, and festivals around Seachtain na Gaeilge, Irish week, for kids and families, he says.
“It’s about trying to create something that people would buy into and show interest in the language,” he says.
“It’s a multicultural city, and language is very important to that. So we should give more visibility in the language,” he says.
De Spáinn says they don’t want to force anyone to use the language. “It’s just about encouraging people to use it more.”
What the Neighbours Say
On Monday, behind an old desk in Decor, an antique furniture shop on Camden Street, Nicola O’Dwyer ponders the idea of the street outside becoming part of an Irish-language quarter.
“I’m not really sure. It’s quite a unique area,” she says.
“I suppose you could if there were some people in the community that spoke the language. But it’s quite international, and quite varied people from lots of different parts of society,” says O’Dwyer.
Tourists might find it quaint if they hear of it, she says. “But I don’t know if they would relate to it.”
Around the corner, Shauna Harris is making two Americanos in Frame, a combination picture-framing shop and cafe.
It’s a lovely idea, she says, but some people might be too embarrassed that they don’t have a good grasp of the language from school. “People would rather not try at all then get it wrong.”
That said, it’s worth looking into, she says. “I would love an attitude change towards speaking Irish.”
Down a couple doors from Uimhir 6 Harcourt Street, at Universal Art Supplies, manager Ciara Kennedy says she doesn’t think her current staff members are fluent enough in Irish to do their job in the language.
“But I love the idea of it,” she says.
It would help give people a reason to learn Irish, knowing they could use it a bit, she says – and make it more accessible. “It’ll seem like much more of a relaxed thing instead of just something you have to study in school.”
Close by, browsing the art books, Matthew Edwards, a tourist visiting from Wales, said he’d love to visit an Irish-language quarter in the city,
“As long as there were opportunities for people not to feel like they were being judged or they wouldn’t know enough Irish,” he says, as people trying to learn should be embraced just as much as fluent speakers.
Back on the steps of Uimhir 6, de Spáinn says the aim is for it not just to be for people doing Irish-language education. “But in general for the city, somewhere there for people to come in.”
Kavanagh says he speaks Irish at home, and his kids would like somewhere to go in and speak outside home too.
“You’ve got people from the Gaeltacht living in Dublin. You’ve got a huge amount of people who speak Irish at home in Dublin as well,” he says.