Charlez ar Gall: Pioneering broadcaster in the Breton language

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The Independent Online

Because the Breton national movement had been compromised by the collaboration of a few individuals who went over to the Germans during the Second World War, it took a special kind of courage to support any manifestation of the regional identity in the years immediately after the conflict.

Taking up the cause of the language and its culture was most dangerous of all. Merely to have belonged to a folk-dancing group or taught Breton in evening classes was enough to invite vicious hostility from representatives of the French state. Charlez ar Gall was one of those who strove to rekindle the flame of Breton patriotism in such difficult circumstances.

A teacher of mathematics, he was educated at the École Normale d'Instituteurs in Quimper where, in 1959, I first heard his name mentioned along with that of Per-Jakez Hélias, author of the best-selling memoir Le cheval d'orgueil (The Horse of Pride), with whom he worked closely. He married Jeanne-Marie Guillamet (known as "Chanig") in 1942 and joined Ar Falz ("The sickle"), an organization for socialist members of his profession, immediately after the end of hostilities in 1945. His first teaching post was in his native commune of L'Hôpital-Camfrout in the extreme west of Finistère and then in Brest, and he soon became involved in teaching Breton to adults. His command of the language, in which he had been brought up by farming parents, was widely admired because he spoke it with precision and a high regard for its euphony and rich vocabulary.

It was as a broadcaster that he came into his own. In 1959 he succeeded Hélias on Radio Quimerc'h, the only station broadcasting in Breton at that time. Over the next 17 years, on a part-time basis, he made more than 800 broadcasts from his office (there was no studio as such), pioneering the use of the language on the airwaves and promoting its status as a medium fit for civilised discourse in defiance of its detractors, who were legion.

In 1964 he became the first speaker on Breton regional television,

responsible for introducing the infamous one and a half minutes of daily news in the language. His fortnightly magazine programme Breiz o Veva ("Living Brittany"), beginning in 1971, was of 20 minutes' duration. The situation has improved somewhat since then but it is generally agreed that Ar Gall, ably assisted by his wife Chanig, paved the way for whatever progress has been made.

His career as "the voice of Brittany"' was interrupted by two events which affected him deeply. In 1962 he was suspended for a month by the Minister of Information for having broadcast a ballad, "Emgann Montroulez" ('The battle of Morlaix'), which was thought "seditious" because it challenged the authority of the French state. It celebrated the occupation of the Sous-Préfecture by farmers demonstrating against rising prices in agriculture. Again, in 1974, he was prevented from including in a news bulletin an item about the setting up of a committeefor the defence of prisoners jailed for their part in the campaigns of the Front for the Liberation of Brittany (FLB). He resigned from his post as a matter of principle. A few days later there was an explosion at a television mast near Roc-Trédudon that was said to be the work of the FLB.

Outside broadcasting Ar Gall had literary interests of a high order. His booklet Breizh hor bro ("Brittany our country"), written with Job Jaffré in 1955, introduced many Bretons to the cultural traditions of a country about which they had been brought up in ignorance; it was translated as Toutes les Cultures de Bretagne in 2005. Thoroughly immersed in the history and literature of Brittany, he also wrote verse, short stories and essays for the magazine Brud Nevez and was one of the co-founders of the influential cultural federation Emgleo Breiz which, in 1967, collected 150,000 signatures on a petition calling for the teaching of Breton in schools, to no avail. The failure of this major initiative served the purpose of demonstrating to Breton activists what to expect from an unsympathetic state and how steep was the hill they would have to climb.

Revered for his broadcasting skills and the tenacity with which he furthered the cause of Breton, Ar Gall was appointed Commandeur des Palmes Académiques and he and his wife received the Ordre de l'Hermine, Brittany's highest honour, in 1990. At his death the celebrated singer Alan Stivell, whose records he had often played on air, described him as "un homme vraiment bien, vraiment bon".

Charles Le Gall (Charlez ar Gall), broadcaster and writer: born L'Hôpital-Camfrout, Finistère 5 March 1921; married 1942 Jeanne-Marie (Chanig) Guillamet (two daughters); died Brest 3 November 2010.