The healing tongue: Irish learners in Belfast finding common heritage and common ground
By Barton CREETH for Northern Ireland Foundation
19 November 2012
There is an Irish-language revival movement underway in loyalist East Belfast. At its epicentre is East Belfast Mission’s (EBM) urban regeneration project, Skainos, which opened in October along the Lower Newtownards Road.
Linda Ervine, EBM’s newly-appointed Irish Language Officer, is the public face of the revival. She hopes to reawaken a love and curiosity for the language that many Protestants and unionists once regarded with affection as their country’s native tongue.
With 40 students already taking classes, and another class beginning soon, she is overseeing the biggest revival of Irish in East Belfast ever. Recognising the potential in the project, Foras na Gaeilge, the cross-boarder Irish-language body which developed out of the Good Friday Agreement, has provided funding for the post.
At the heart of the project is a reconciliatory mission to bridge divisions between Belfast’s unionist and nationalist communities. The project naturally promotes movement across all areas of Belfast, especially the East and West.
Through Ervine’s encouragement, many of the East Belfast students have headed west to visit Cultúrlann, an Irish-language cultural centre, bookshop and café along the Falls Road where business is conducted through Irish. At Skainos, the classes are lead by teachers from An Droichead Cultural Centre on the Ormeau Road and Cumann Chluain Árd off the Falls.
For Ervine, Irish provides authentic opportunities for building relationships between people from different backgrounds:
“A lot of the reconciliation work that has taken place here in Northern Ireland at times can be very contrived and artificial because two groups are brought together because one group is Protestant and one group is Catholic. And sometimes, it focuses on the difference. Yet when people get together because of the Irish language they’re not interested in religion, they’re not interested in politics, they’re interested in something bigger, and that is the language.”
The current revival
The Irish language project that Ervine now oversees grew out of a joint women’s group cofounded by EBM and the Short Strand Community Group. The women’s group—the only cross-community women’s group in Belfast, according to Ervine—participated in a six-week Irish-language sample course.
“Strangely enough,” Ervine said, “the members of the group who were Protestant had more interest than the members of the group from the Short Strand.”
Ervine took keenly to the language and began attending Irish-language courses in other parts of the city, including a weekend intensive course at An Droichead. A journalist from the Belfast Telegraph caught wind that a prominent loyalist was learning the language and wrote up a short piece that appeared in the paper in September of last year.
“We had a little interview that went into the newspapers. And obviously the only interest was because I was married to Brian Ervine, brother of David Ervine. Had I been just an ordinary wee Protestant woman learning Irish, no one would have wanted to know.”
Following the publication of the article in the Telegraph, Ervine was inundated with calls from people in the local area wanting to know when the classes at EBM were held. She decided she better look into getting regular classes started, to fill the need.
Protestants and the Irish language during the Troubles
During the Troubles, the Irish-language was, for the most part, seen as a republican language. This fuelled the suspicion that learning Irish would lead Protestants to betray their community. It also led to unionist hostility towards the language in public spaces.
Gordon McCoy, from the cross-community Irish language organisation, Ultach Trust,
has been promoting Irish in Protestant communities for twenty years:
“I taught a class in 1993 at the Glencairn Community Centre near the Shankill. They struggled with the Republican image of the Irish language. And then the class came to an end with the Shankill bomb, because I was too afraid to go up after that, and thought it needed time to cool down a bit. After that, they decided they didn’t want to learn Irish, the Republican image had overcome the class. There was the problem of resentment from other working-class Protestants as well.”
McCoy believes that the prevalence of Irish in the city, and the access people have to it through the media and on the internet, has depoliticised the language to some extent.
“And as well as that,” he added, “Republican Irish speakers are doing outreach work, as well as constitutional nationalists. Beforehand they had this idea that ‘we’re not sectarian and our doors are open and if anyone doesn’t come it’s their problem.’ But now they’re going out trying to work with them [Protestants], and the Líofa project would be an example of that, with Carál Ní Chuilín setting up a cross-community project. It’s slightly surreal for me as someone who has lived through the Troubles.”
The hidden history of Protestants and the Irish language
Many academics have shown that throughout history there have been significant pockets of Protestant and unionist Irish speakers in Ulster. But this knowledge is not known by the majority of the population. That is changing, however, as more people across the city are learning Irish and becoming curious about the history of the language in the city.
Last year the Belfast Telegraph published an article claiming that the 1911 census suggests that at that time there were more Irish speakers along the Protestant Shankill than the Catholic Falls.
Combing through the same census herself, Ervine discovered that the grandparents of her husband, Brian Ervine, and brother-in-law, David Ervine, had been fluent Irish speakers from Rathlin Island. They also signed the Ulster Covenant in 1912.
Ervine was astounded to learn about her own community’s history with the language. “It’s almost like a slice of history has been removed. This shared knowledge and shared use of Irish is recent history, yet no one knows that. It’s almost as if someone came over and gave people some sort of drug that removed it from their memories.”
“And I just wonder,” she said to me, “is that a deliberate policy? Because I think our communities have been so divided. And it’s been people at the top, in their interest, to keep people apart, and I believe that, I very much feel that. And now people realise that actually this language belongs to both communities, both communities have a stake in this.”
To cure this sectarian form of amnesia, Ervine leads tours in the local area and gives presentations as part of her “Hidden History of Protestants and the Irish Language” project. She delivered this presentation at the recent convention of the UVF-aligned Progressive Unionist Party–to which Linda belongs and both Brian and David Ervine at one time led.
In the presentation—which is available online, thanks to Slugger O’Toole blogger, Alan in Belfast—Ervine reminded the delegates in the room that David, along with UVF commander, Gusty Spence, studied Irish while in prison. She provided examples of the ways loyalists have celebrated their own heritage and politics through the medium of Irish. She also recited Douglas Hyde’s famous words: “The Irish language, thank God, is neither Protestant nor Catholic, it is neither a Unionist nor a Separatist.”
Soon after the convention, a PUP delegate from New Mossley Estate in Newtownabbey rang Ervine. He said to her, “If somebody had told me a fortnight ago that I’d be interested in the Irish language, I would have flattened them. But now we need to know, our community needs to know, and you need to come out and talk to our residents group, because our community is missing out.”
The future of the Irish Language in East Belfast
What then does the future hold for the Irish language in East Belfast? “The sky’s the limit,” an enthusiastic Ervine told me. “At the minute, the next step we want to do is introduce something with children. We’re just not sure which way that will go. A wee Saturday morning thing, an after schools, where will that lead, we don’t know. Could it be a naíscoil [Irish-language preschool], could it be a bunscoil [primary school], we don’t know.
“But I mean wouldn’t that be fantastic if people felt safe enough, if people felt interested enough that they actually wanted to do that. I know there’s a lot of people here who are very passionate about the language and you know, would they want their children to get involved? That’s how it started in nationalist areas, why wouldn’t that start here? It could do. We’re open for it.”