You Told Me To Wash and Clean My Ears

October 11, 2015


A quote attributed to James Joyce, “With language comes culture”, is a maxim the deaf community are hoping to impress on the public during ISL (Irish Sign Language) Awareness Week, which runs September 20-28.

Despite the impetus put on the Irish Government by the Good Friday Agreement, it has yet to recognise ISL as an official language, leaving members of the deaf community to view themselves as an oppressed minority at the hands of a hearing elite.

“The lives of deaf people are at risk,” says Lianne Quigley, a campaigner for ISL recognition. “What happens if they are really sick and there is no one to interpret for them at the hospital? They’ll have no access to vital information.”

Government websites relevant to issues as pertinent as social welfare offer translations of pages into Irish and Polish, but not ISL, and it is not in the job description of teachers in deaf schools to be able to sign. With few exceptions, most are not fluent, thanks to the Department of Education advocating an oral system, where teachers teach through spoken English and the children wear group hearing aids.

An old picture of some of the protestors on the march to the British embassy. The march was considered a watershed in galvanising deaf people into standing up for their rights.

“If you send your child to a Gaelscoil, would you not expect the teacher to speak Irish fluently?” asks Alvean Jones, a presenter of RTÉ’s Hands On program for the deaf and hard of hearing communities. “It’s the same with ISL.

“We want to get away from the medicalised view of deafness. We are not a disabled minority. It’s a fully formed culture and we want rights. The attitude we come across, even from the School for the Deaf is, ‘Oh, if you must’. Learning ISL is seen as the last option for a deaf child.”

One man familiar with such archaic attitudes is David Breslin, who organised a historic march in 1971 to protest the shooting dead of a deaf schoolmate, Eamon McDevitt, by the British army.

“He was a little younger than me,” says Breslin, “but we were all boarders and it was a small enough school, I would have known him very well. He was a lovely fella, a good laugh.”

McDevitt’s murder — and the effect it had on the deaf community, is the focus of a collaboration between visual artist Amanda Coogan and the Dublin Theatre for the Deaf, entitled You Told Me To Wash My Ears, which runs at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin from September 16.

“Everyone who was deaf at that time was usually sent to St Joseph’s or St Mary’s in Cabra where they lived for most of the year,” says Coogan. “The regime was authoritarian; both were named in the Ryan Report. So their co-pupils became their families. McDevitt’s death galvanised the whole community.”

McDevitt was shot dead by a British soldier following an anti-internment March in Strabane, Co Tyrone. British soldiers claimed he was brandishing a gun, but no evidence of this was ever produced, and numerous eye-witnesses refuted the claim.

Some of the soldiers had been shouting at him; he was deaf and couldn’t hear. One bullet was shot, through the jaw and out through the back of his skull. “Deaf people don’t hear bullets,” says Coogan.

Every Friday, past pupils of both schools would gather to socialise. That Friday drew a particularly large crowd. Everyone was talking about Eamon. In their horror and shock, they wanted to do something.

“I stood up and proposed we have a peaceful protest, about the killing of our brother,” says Coogan. “A lot of people were afraid. They thought that the ‘hearing’ people wouldn’t let us do it. The nuns from school wouldn’t let us. And Fr Cleary certainly would not let us.”

Fr John Cleary was the chaplin for the deaf community at the time and, according to David, he involved himself in every aspect of deaf people’s lives.

“I was relieved that a substantial number of people put their hand up and voted for action,” says Breslin. “They felt now was the time to be brave, that we could do it if we did it together.”

Leaders were elected — Breslin, Tony McElhatton and Christy Foran, while permission was sought and received from the gardaí to march. A letter was drafted to hand into the British embassy, placards were drawn up and the media was alerted.

Despite the group consciously not telling the National Association for the Deaf (NAD), the organisation got wind of what was going on and turned up at Breslin’s work place to summon him before the committee.

“I thought they wanted to help us,” Breslin says, “so I hopped on my bike and cycled over. When they discovered we had attained permission to march, had written the letter and had informed the press — all without their help, they were not very happy and appealed to me to stop the process.

“They thought we would make a show of ourselves; that signing was to be discouraged at all cost. But this was about deaf people protesting by ourselves. I told them ‘We don’t want to be controlled by the hearing anymore’.”

And so, on August 18, 1971, they marched, in silence, black bands on their arms — 40 deaf people with an escort of gardaí. As they walked down Grafton Street on their way to the British embassy on Merrion Square, shoppers applauded. But after a disconcertingly quiet march down a deserted Nassau Street, they came face-to-face with a large force of gardaí.

“We were told we weren’t allowed approach the embassy. Most of our marchers were pushed off towards Hollow Street and only the leaders were allowed to deliver the letter. We tried to stage a minute’s silence in memory of Eamon, but the gardaí didn’t understand sign and they started pushing us away.”

“The news led with the march that evening. The NAD never made any mention of it. It was ignored and the news out of Northern Ireland was consistently bad, so eventually the energy dissipated.”

Still, their actions became a thing of legend; the seed of dissent was sewn. “Hearing people had so much control prior to this,” says Alvean Jones. This led to a feeling of inferiority among deaf people, believing that hearing people were all-powerful. The march was hugely influential in the setting up of the Irish Deaf Society in 1981, the first activist organisation run by deaf people themselves, and its spirit is felt in our fight for recognition.”

You Told Me To Wash and Clean My Ears will feature 40 deaf people, aged 18-80, including many who marched on the day, telling McDevitt’s story exclusively through ISL, with a beautiful soundscape.

“The underlying message of our show is to visualise deaf people, put sign on stage and create further awareness of deaf community and culture,” says Jones. “It’s important to see the different types of sign language — the different vernacular. We have lots of lovely accents.”

You Told Me To Wash and Clean My Ears runs at the Project Arts Centre — Space Upstairs, until tomorrow.


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