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10 Oct 2016

Armagh’s award winning cultural enterprise, CAIRDE Teo, is celebrating another successful year of community development and Irish language promotion with a trip for staff and volunteers to the Belgian towns of Leuven, Ghent and Brussels.

During a well-deserved mid-term break, the CAIRDE representatives will explore social, political and cultural connections between Armagh and the historic towns of Leuven and Ghent before visiting the Irish language and trade union headquarters at the European Commission in Brussels.

First stop and subsequent base for the four day trip will be the picture-postcard town of Leuven. Lively Leuven (Louvain in French) is an ancient capital, a prominent brewing centre (home to Stella Artois, Leffe and Heverlee breweries) and Flanders’ oldest university town. In term time, and even during holidays, some 25,000 students give the city an upbeat, creative air. The picturesque core is small enough that you could easily see the sights in a short day trip, but characterful pubs and good-value dining could keep you here for weeks.

The connections between Armagh, Ulster and Leuven are legendary and go back centuries to at least the C16th. At the beginning of November 1607, in an event which became known as the ‘Flight of the Earls’, a group of almost one hundred Irish people, most of them from Ulster, arrived in Leuven and remained there until the end of February of the following year. The group contained representatives of some of the most prominent families in Ulster. Among them were three chieftains, namely, Cúchonnacht Mag Uidhir, lord of Fermanagh, Rory Ó Domhnailll, Earl of Tyrconnell and chief of the Ó Domhnaill clan, and Hugh Ó Néill, Earl of Tyrone and chief of the Ó Néills, the leading family in Ulster. The last-named was, certainly up to that time, the most powerful man in Ireland, and he would become one of the outstanding figures of Irish history – famous locally for his victory at The Yellow Ford. This year marks the 400th anniversary of his death in Rome.

During the English conquest of Ireland, the Irish College in Leuven became the primary centre of Irish learning, a rallying ground of Irish patriotism and a power-house of counter-reformation activities. The College’s contribution has sometimes been referred to as the grand project, and it focussed on three main areas – history, religion and the Irish language. A list of Irishmen who were students at Leuven between 1548 and 1797 has recently been compiled by a Belgian scholar. The list contains 1171 names. Five of them later became archbishops of Armagh.

A programme of historical research was initiated in Leuven with the purpose of showing that the kingdom of Ireland was of equal status with other nations and not sunk in barbarism and ignorance as contemporary English language chronicles tried to make out. In 1626, Mícheál Ó Cleirigh, a lay brother and member of a learned Irish family, was sent home to Ireland to collect manuscript material and to check dates and sources with living Irish scholars. He had the assistance of three lay scholars. Another Franciscan scholar gave the name ‘Four Masters’ to this group, and the work which resulted from their endeavours – officially known as ‘Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland’ – came to be known popularly as ‘Annals of the Four Masters’. When all the relevant material had been collected Ó Cleirigh brought it back to Leuven where the work of editing took place.

Another post-graduate student of Leuven University, Tomás Ó Fiaich was born on 3rd November near the small town of Crossmaglen in south County Armagh. He was appointed archbishop of Armagh in September 1977 and was ordained cardinal on 2nd October. Ó Fiaich was fluent in Irish from an early age. His love of Irish was shown later in his lectures on Gaelic topics and in his visits to the Gaeltacht. He was active in Irish-speaking organisations and in contributing to Irish language journals. Many of his books were written in Irish. He was chairman of the government commission on the restoration of the language (1959-1963) and of the advisory council appointed to carry out its recommendations. In 1953 he helped to found Cumann Seanchais Ard Mhacha, the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society, and was editor of its journal from 1954 to 1977.

His time in Leuven gave him a taste for travel, a European outlook, and an interest in Irish links with mainland Europe, leading to television programmes, historical trips, articles, lectures, and books, all focusing on Irish-European links. While in Leuven. he wrote regularly to his father, these letters have been preserved and were published in book form, ‘Tomás Ó Fiaich’s Letters from Louvain’.

In addition to soaking up the cultural, historical and other delights of Louvain, CAIRDE Teo will also be organising trips for their representatives to Ghent and Brussels.

It’s surprising how Belgium has managed to stay so quiet about Ghent for so long. Once medieval Europe’s second largest city, over the past century this unsung treasure of a town has developed a strong artistic bent, and is now one of the best places in Europe for culture – there are many fantastic museums and galleries here, and more listed buildings than any other Belgian city.

Known in the 1870s as “the citadel of socialism”, Ghent’s architecture is elegant and imposing, particularly along the scenic old Graslei harbour. Grand medieval cathedrals and the Gravensteen castle congregate nicely around the central public squares while there are many welcoming bars and cafes along the banks of the canal.

Ghent is a University City and a major industrial centre. It was here that St. Oliver Plunkett was ordained archbishop of Armagh on 1st December 1669. As it was during the Penal Era in Ireland, the ceremony took place quietly in the private chapel of the residence of the Bishop of Ghent.

Recommended sight:
Ghent’s Design Museum displays furnishings from the Renaissance to today in a striking modern space behind an 18th-century façade. Art Deco, Art Nouveau and retro (including some lurid ’70s sofas) are all represented, and there are regular temporary exhibits. Ghent is a University City and a major industrial centre.

Finally, the group will group will visit the offices of the ETUC and the Irish Language Department of the European Commission in Brussels. This fascinating trip will conclude with a guided tour of the many sights and attractions of Brussels itself.

Brussels city is quickly becoming a trendy spot for weekend getaways and holidays. Apart from its famous chocolates and beers there are many attractions that most visitors cannot begin to imagine. It is a centre of European culture, officially nicknamed ‘the European Village’, with almost 90 museums, beautiful parks, fascinating walks, trendy restaurants and bars.

Brussels is the perfect city for holidays with family and friends, or even with colleagues as a team-building event. There is a lot to learn about the history of the city, the architecture, the Belgian obsession with comic strips, and the art of chocolate and beer.