Omeath and its townlands at the northern tip of County Louth was home to the last of the Irish speakers in Leinster. Beginning with the Great Hunger and later the decline in herring fishing, people migrated from Omeath to Belfast.
Here they sold fish and fruit in the city centre and were assigned the nickname Fadgies.
Until recently, their history was relatively unknown. This article brings together a wide range of relevant literature to chart this history.
In memory of John Gabriel Hopkins (1905-1965).
For more details, email Brian Hopkins via email@example.com
The origins of the distinctive community of Belfast Fadgies are to be found in the small village of Omeath, nestling in foothills of the Cooley mountains and overlooking Carlingford Lough in County Louth (Figure 1). It consists of ten townlands that all told have a rich history and culture. When the railway line was completed between Dublin and Belfast in 1876, the area became a destination for tourists attracted by its hilly landscape and sheltered location. Despite the closure of Omeath railway station in 1952, it has continued to draw visitors until the present day.
The geology of the region is a continuation of the granite-based Armagh mountains covered with heath and coarse grasses. Thus, it has never been suitable for arable farming, but rather functions as grazing land. As for Omeath village itself, it relied economically on fishing, in particular herring. A salient feature on the Omeath townlands was that they formed the last Gaeltacht stronghold in Leinster up to the middle of the 20th century, long after the fishing industry had all but disappeared.
HERRING FISHING IN THE 19th CENTURY
According to a government report in 1836, 232 people in Omeath were engaged in fishing. The herring is oily fish and consequently needs to be cured within 24 hours in order to prevent it rotting. Moreover, the industry was based on a strict division of labour: men did the fishing and the women were responsible for gutting, curing in brine and packing each catch. The women would work at least twelve-hour days with the gutters gutting the fish with one stroke of the knife. In order to protect themselves from cuts, the gutters would wrap their fingers in a flannel-like fabric (Figure 2).
Women (and young girls) undertook another onerous and physically demanding task: transporting herring over the Cooleys mainly during the summer months (July to the end of October) to the market in Dundalk. They did so by loading 13kg of herring wrapped in seaweed into creels strapped to their backs. Walking barefoot in columns, they traversed a well-worn path or pad for a distance of about 10 miles.
Starting in Omeath village, the sinuous pad, following the shortest route across the mountain, climbs up the southern flank of the Tullagh Glen to summit at Ionmaire Fada, meandering down to Ravensdale and beyond to Dundalk.
The term ‘cadger’ is derived from the middle English word for pedlar or hawker.
From the 1880s onwards, the herring started to migrate from Carlingford Lough to the Isle of Man. The last known cadger was the herring girl whose image was captured in 1888 at the Ravensdale end of the trail (Figure 3).
Before the end of the century, the Omeath herring fishing industry had become defunct, but the Cadger’s Pad continued to have economic relevance well into the 20th century for the purpose of cattle driving to the fairs and market in Dundalk (mainly done by women).
To this day, the names of places on the Cooleys are referred to in Irish by the local farmers.
The loss of the herring fishing industry and the prolonged aftermath of the Great Hunger led to an ever-growing exodus of Omeath people seeking a better life in the burgeoning industrial city of Belfast.
The imprint of these Irish speakers has only been acknowledged and identified recently by the collective nickname ‘Fadgies’.
THE SMITHFIELD FADGIES
In 1849, Queen Victoria made a five-hour visit to Belfast during which time she was greeted the mayor William Gillian Johnson and fellow Conservative supporters shouting ‘Céad míle fáilte’ (a hundred thousand welcomes) (Figure 4). Also, a medal was struck to commemorate the fleeting visit (Figure 5).
Many Protestants in Belfast continued to speak in both English and Irish in the second half of the 19th century. Moreover, public buildings in the city displayed inscriptions in Irish. Thus, the initial influx of monoglot Irish speakers from Omeath should have felt at home to some degree. However, these Gaeilgeoirí spoke an Oriel Irish dialect with the consequence other Irish speakers had difficulty understanding the Fadgies, particularly when they resorted to the slang of their dialect. It was probably for this reason that the term Fadgies arose. The predominance of the name Pádraig in the area that has an aspirated (ph sound) when pronounced led to the local corruption Phaidís, and thus to Fadgies.
The Fadgies occupied the area of Smithfield in the centre of Belfast and set themselves up as fish and fruit sellers in the market there (Figure 6). The alleyways of Smithfield were described as ‘labyrinths of horror’ giving rise to the same malnutrition and disease that the Fadgies had tried to escape from in moving from Omeath during the era of the Great Hunger (1845-1852). Their Smithfield houses were multi-occupied, very old and breeding grounds for diseases such as cholera and typhus.
When slum clearances commenced in the 1890s, the Fadgies moved to other parts of Belfast, in particular to the Falls Road. This dispersion heralded the demise of the city’s first Gaeltacht quarter and marked a decline in the use of the Irish language. All that survives of this vibrant community is a recently installed plaque in the Cathedral Quarter reminding us that they ever existed (Figure 7).
Back in Omeath, spoken Irish suffered the same fate, especially outside the mountainous townlands, the last native speaker being Anne O’Hanlon who died in 1960 aged 89 (Figure 8). The reasons for its diminishment in both locations, and in fact across the country, are numerous and varied. Foremost in this regard was the Catholic clergy’s fear that the language could become a vehicle for Protestant proselytisers and revolutionary organisations such as the United Irishmen and later the Fenians, which would serve to undermine the influence of the Church. This attitude led to priests with little or no knowledge of the language being dispatched to Irish speaking parishes (the same fate was experienced by Irish-speaking communities in Liverpool from the middle of the 19th century). Then there was the national primary school system dating from 1831 that only taught in English as well as parents actively discouraging their children from speaking in Irish in favour of English, the language of commerce and advancement in the British Empire. Speaking Irish endured as a stigma long after Ireland gained independence.
Omeath, however, became a significant meeting place for the first Gaelic revival at the end of the 19th century. The Dublin to Belfast railway played a crucial role as Omeath became readily accessible for Irish scholars associated with the Gaelic League founded in 1893. The epicentre for such gatherings was the Strand Hotel in Omeath built in 1840 (Figure 9).
As for Belfast, it is truly remarkable that the Irish language survived there at all, given the endemic sectarianism and reductive politics that debased the communal life of the city. The fact that it did so was in no small part due to the Fadgies. Nowadays, Belfast is undergoing a thriving second Gaelic revival, one that crosses the sectarian divide. Once again, its citizens can voice a collective ‘Céad míle fáilte’.
Fred H.A. Aalen, Transition and history in Omeath, County Louth. Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society, 15 (1962), 121-124.
- Tony Birtill, A hidden history: the Irish language in Liverpool (Liverpool, 2020).
- Sean J. Connolly, Like an old cathedral city: Belfast welcomes Queen Victoria, August 1849. Urban History, 39 (2021), 571-589.
- Fionntán de Brun (Ed.), Belfast and the Irish language (Belfast, 2006).
- Colm Ó Baoill, The Gaelic continuum. Éigse:A Journal of Irish Studies, 32 (2000), 121–134.
- Cathal O’Byrne, As I roved out (Belfast, 1946).