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TV Film Unearths Hidden History of Belfast Irish Speakers

University of Ulster lecturer Dr Fionntán de Brún tells the long forgotten story of “the fadgies” – an Irish speaking community of fish and fruit sellers from Omeath, Co Louth who settled in the Smithfield district of Belfast after The Famine – in a documentary film, entitled ‘Scéal na Fadgies’, on TG4 at 9.30 p.m tonight.

In the 1850s and 1860s almost 90,000 people flocked from impoverished rural areas into industrial Belfast to take jobs in the rapidly expanding textile factories, engineering works and shipyards.

“Fadgies” was the colloquial name given to a large group of migrants that formed a distinctive community – people who bought herring in Ardglass and apples from Armagh and sold them door-to-door in baskets or from barrows around the streets that are now dominated by Royal Avenue, which was known then as Hercules Street.

Dr de Brún, who lectures in Irish and is a member of the Irish and Celtic Studies Research Institute at Coleraine campus, has made a special study of their migration from Omeath, their life and legacy in Belfast and the eventual disappearance of their Irish speaking community that thrived then in the heart of Belfast.

“They all lived in the same streets, in a particular cluster centred around Charlemont Street. Nearly everybody who lived in those streets was from Omeath and to all intents and purposes it was a very much like a ‘Gaeltacht’ pocket’ of Irish speakers. They all worked at the same business buying and selling their wares and the very fact that they got the nickname ‘Fadgies’ shows that they were a distinctive group.”

The name is a local corruption of Phádai / Phádraig (Paddy/Patrick). In Irish, ph has an f sound. Slum clearance in the 1890s and demolition for the widening of Royal Avenue sounded the death knell for the ‘Gaeltacht’ community as it dispersed to other parts of the city.

Dr De Brún, who has written and presents the history, said: “Making ‘Scéal na Fadgies’ was a chance to tell a story that has been overlooked for years. In the utilitarian industrial boom town of Belfast, there was no space to record the story of the individuals and communities that created the new city. Yet the fish and fruit sellers of Omeath were the bearers of a rich literary and folk tradition which is a key to the history of Ulster itself.”

Executive producer Sheila Friel says: “This film will connect the vibrant Irish-speaking community in contemporary Belfast with a hidden history of their city and language. The Fadgies’ experience of displacement and the challenge to cultural identity and historical continuity which followed, will also be familiar to emigrants the world over.”

Scéal na Fadgies
is an Imagine Media production for TG4, supported by the Northern Ireland Screen Irish Language Broadcast Fund.