Picasso made his point in oil paintings, Brecht in plays, Banksy in murals, and Guthrie in protest songs.
The arts provide platforms for political activism of many hues; Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich’s artistic canvas happens to consist of a field in West Kerry. Or indeed in Donegal, Waterford, the Isle of Skye, or Brittany. Wherever his tour of the Celtic language margins takes him.
In each place visited, Ó Beaglaoich sets to work on his visual installations, filling fields with white crosses to represent the number of former inhabitants of townlands such as his native Baile na bPoc, where the population in 1841 stood at 235. A meagre scattering of red crosses lost in their midst illustrates the current number of permanent residents – just 12.
Ó Beaglaoich’s accordion-playing provides the soundtrack for his installations, as he is joined by local musicians in each Gaeltacht, Scottish Gaelic, or Welsh-speaking area on his itinerary.
His mission will also take him, and the film crew recording his protests for an RTÉ One documentary, to the gates of both Dáil and European Parliament.
“This is an artistic approach,” he says. “If you get at the heart of people they’ll understand and things will change. Where there’s a will, a way will be found.”
The things he wants changed are planning laws. Those laws which he blames for the depopulation of Gaeltacht and other rural areas – and for his 15-year battle with Kerry County Council for planning permission to build a home on the farmland owned by his family for generations.
His personal planning war came to an end last October, when An Bord Pleanála overturned the council’s decision to refuse Ó Beaglaoich permission to build in West Kerry. That came after threats of jail and hefty fines if he did not remove the small wooden house he had wheeled onto his site in 2015, and which the council deemed unauthorised development.
“I have lands here that I got from my father and my grandfather. So I bought an artic truck and built a 730 sq ft passive house on it and I drove it onto my land. They told me if I wouldn’t take it off my land I was looking at a two-year prison sentence or else €12.6m of a fine, or both, and while I was in jail they were going to remove the house and send me the bill!”
Though his own fight for planning is over, albeit at a cost of €25,000, he is determined to continue campaigning against restrictive legislation on behalf of a younger generation which he sees leaving Gaeltacht areas, to the detriment of the Irish language and culture.
“What do I do now?” he asks. “The laws haven’t changed. I have four children – they are fluent Irish speakers, they’re accomplished musicians, and they’re not allowed to live in this village.
“The youngest [residents] in the village are in their middle 30s. In the village next door, the youngest person is just turned 60.”
The council’s reasons for refusing his own most recent application included that the house would be unduly obtrusive on the landscape and would set a precedent for undesirable ribbon development.
As Ó Beaglaoich sees it, the laws are stacked against local people seeking to build on Gaeltacht land.
His adult children range in age from 28 to 39, and he says “you can be sure none of them will seek planning permission when they see that it took me 15 years. If the person who’s 39 has to go through what I had to, he’ll get planning permission when he’s 54.
“I encouraged them to speak Irish; I encouraged them to play music, and now they can’t live beside me on the land where I was born and raised and my grandfather and my great grandfather and my great-great grandfather lived, on this land in this village. When did we lose that right?”
The problems he encountered trying to build in Corca Dhuibhne are mirrored in the other Gaeltacht areas on his campaign, including An Spidéal in Co Galway and Múscraí, Co Cork, he says.
“It was the same story all over. This Government is investing millions in the Irish language with the right hand, and with the left hand they’re strangling the Gaeltacht.
“The Gaeltacht is the most natural place where the language has flowed through the centuries. It’s there not because of any government. It’s there despite governments,” he adds.
“They’re killing it in the well. If they just let it alone and let tradition carry on, there’d be no fear of it in the Gaeltacht.”
Though Kerry County Council has defended its planning record, pointing to the granting of 70%, or 43 out of 58 applications made in Corca Dhuibhne between March 2015 and December 2019, Ó Beaglaoich cites urban housing estates and rural ‘clusters’ taking precedence over individual dwellings.
“I have to have a half an acre to build a house here, but I can go into Dingle and I can build 15 houses on an acre. Why? Because they say that’s an estate. But our villages are traditional estates,” he adds.
“They carry out percolation tests, environmental tests, but they don’t carry out tests on the psychological effects that this is having on the people, the sociological effects of displacing people, moving them out of their traditional villages and creating man-made estates that have absolutely nothing to do with them, no history.
"They’re created by people who’ve spent so many years in college and they build 40 houses all the same shape and they’re like prison cells – the only difference between them is the number on the front door.”
Having identified the problems, can he offer any solutions?
“I’m not talking about scrapping the laws,” he emphasises. “There’s a huge difference between unrestricted development of houses everywhere, and houses for people of the area.”
Somewhat controversially, he favours a stipulation for Irish language competency among those seeking to make the Gaeltacht their home. “I would definitely make it a real factor for coming into a cultural place like Corca Dhuibhne or Múscraí or any of the Gaeltacht areas,” he says.
“If you don’t, you can say goodbye to what’s there. There’s no other choice. You can learn the language. It’s quite possible. It’s only a personal hurdle that’s well worth crossing.”
He dismisses suggestions of placing planning decisions in the hands of Údarás na Gaeltachta as “only putting an Elastoplast on it” and believes a stay should be put on county development plans currently being drawn up.
“At this stage I’ve given up on any county council. We’re going to go to Dáil Éireann and we’re going to Brussels,” he vows.
“This is not just a Corca Dhuibhne problem. It’s a rural Ireland problem; not just a Gaeltacht problem – it’s a European problem, an international problem.”
The documentary, The Man with the Moving House, directed by Mark Mc Loughlin, is central to the campaign. Airing next year on RTÉ, its scope serves “to highlight that this is a broader issue faced by the minority language population across Europe and there is a great deal of similarity in experience,” according to BangBangTeo co-producer Ciara Barrett.
The film contrasts Ó Beaglaoich’s installation of crosses, a metaphor for the emptying of these rural areas and draining of their traditional culture, with his musical celebrations, culminating in an open-air concert and symbolising the cultural vibrancy that “continues to flourish when allowed to do so”, she says.
“This is not a film just for us Gaeltacht people, because we know all this already,” adds Ó Beaglaoich. “This is an artistic film to make 5m people in Ireland aware of what they’re about to lose. We are witnessing a fast-fading treasure.”