My friend Tony Birtill, who has died aged 67 of cancer, was a fluent Irish speaker and teacher based in Liverpool. He was a regular contributor to Irish-language publications including Foinse, Lá, Beo and Tuairisc, and broadcasted frequently on Radio Merseyside, RTÉ News, Raidió na Gaeltachta and Radio Ulster.
In 1990 he re-established the now thriving Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaelige) branch in Liverpool. On Tony’s initiative the Frongoch memorial was established in 2002, marking the site in north Wales where participants in the Easter Rising had been interned. In 2018 Tony advised on translating the phrase “You’ll never walk alone” into Irish for use on a Spirit of Shankly banner at Anfield football ground.
Tony’s book A Hidden History: The Irish Language in Liverpool (2020) brought to light the considerable numbers of Irish speakers in the city in the 19th century, the contribution Irish speakers from Merseyside made to the language revival movement, and the prevalence of words and expressions of Irish origin still found in the Liverpool dialect.
Born in Liverpool, Tony was the son of Julia (nee Daly), a nurse from Garlow Cross, Co Meath, and Joe Birtil, a chemistry teacher. He developed a keen interest in Irish from an early age after having heard it spoken by his mother and among the Christian Brothers at his school, Cardinal Godfrey, in Liverpool.
After graduating in economics and economic history at University of East Anglia in 1975, Tony did his teacher training at the Institute of Education, University of London. He taught economics initially at Harlow college, Essex, then at Skelmersdale college, Lancashire.
It was in the early 1980s that he took up study of the Irish language in earnest, and it was at these evening classes in Liverpool that I met him. After gaining A-level and teaching qualifications, Tony began teaching Irish at the Liverpool Irish Centre, Liverpool University Continuing Education and other venues. He also wrote regularly for the Irish Post during this time.
A qualified mountain leader, Tony guided walks – conducted mainly in Irish – at the Oideas Gael school in Donegal each summer, and they became a significant attraction in the school’s programme. According to one participant, “Tony’s walks in Gleann were legendary because of his deep interest in and knowledge of local flora and fauna, archaeology, the rugged landscape, the remote setting, the language and culture.”
Tony was a socialist, republican, trade unionist and environmentalist. He was on the committees for the Great Hunger commemoration, the Liverpool 1916 commemoration and the Liverpool Irish festival. Always good company, he was renowned for his sense of humour and loud laugh. He remained dedicated to his local area, campaigning to maintain rights of way and cycle routes, and continued teaching Irish classes in Liverpool until shortly before he died.
Tony is survived by his wife, Grace, a special needs teacher, and his son, Liam, from a former relationship with Liz Hanson.