My friend Tony Birtill, who died of cancer aged 67, was fluent in Irish and a teacher in Liverpool. He has regularly contributed to Irish-language publications including Foinse, Lá, Beo and Tuairisc, and has broadcast frequently on Radio Merseyside, RTÉ News, Raidió na Gaeltachta and Radio Ulster.
In 1990 he re-established the now thriving branch of the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaelige) 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 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) shed light on the considerable number of Irish speakers in the city in the 19th century, the contribution of Irish speakers from Merseyside to the language revival movement and the prevalence words and phrases of Irish origin that are still found in the Liverpool dialect.
Born in Liverpool, Tony was the son of Julia (née 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 hearing it spoken by his mother and among the Christian brothers at his school, Cardinal Godfrey, in Liverpool.
After graduating in economics and economic history from the University of East Anglia in 1975, Tony trained as a teacher at the Institute of Education, University of London. He first taught economics at Harlow College, Essex, then at Skelmersdale College, Lancashire.
It was in the early 1980s that he got serious about studying the Irish language, and it was during those evening classes in Liverpool that I met him. After achieving 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 period.
A qualified mountain guide, Tony led walks – conducted mainly in Irish – at Oideas Gael School in Donegal every summer, and they became a major attraction in the school’s curriculum. According to one participant, “Tony’s walks at Gleann were legendary because of his deep interest in and knowledge of the local flora and fauna, archaeology, rugged landscape, remoteness, language and of the culture “.
Tony was a socialist, republican, trade unionist and environmentalist. He served 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 humor and his boisterous laugh. He remained dedicated to his area, campaigning to maintain rights of way and cycle lanes, and continued to teach Irish in Liverpool until shortly before his death.
Tony is survived by his wife, Grace, a special education teacher, and his son, Liam, from a former relationship with Liz Hanson.