Irish language not a ‘cultural stick’: Brian Ervine at Féile An Droichead Q&A
by Katy FIELD for Northern Ireland Foundation
22 August 2014
Last weekend, Belfast hosted its annual Féile An Droichead, a 4-day celebration of Irish language, culture and traditional music.
As part of the festival events, a Q&A session was held with Irish language advocate, Brian Ervine. Brian discussed his background and his motivation for becoming involved in the Irish language revival. Chairing the event was Kevin Magee, BBC Radio Ulster reporter and fellow Irish enthusiast.
The session was held in a rather unusual location: the champagne lounge of the Merchant Hotel, famed for being Belfast’s most prestigious 5-star hotel. As one audience member quipped, ‘I thought the Irish language had no funding!’ Given that the event centered upon the inclusivity of the language, hosting it in this opulent setting of gilt mirrors and velvet sofas seemed somewhat incongruous.
On the surface, Ervine appears an atypical champion of the Irish language. Born and raised in a working-class Protestant household on the Newtownards Road, Brian was the brother of the late David Ervine, the one-time UVF member, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), and peacemaker. Indeed, in 2010, Brian Ervine himself became leader of the PUP. For Ervine, it was only a religious conversion in Australia during his twenties that prevented him from becoming involved in paramilitary activities.
Growing up during the Troubles, Ervine described how a ‘siege mentality’ existed in many loyalist communities, in which there was a strong feeling of abandonment by the British state. For Ervine and his contemporaries, Irish was regarded as ‘the language of violent republicanism’ and, correspondingly, ‘the enemy’. Faced with such sentiments of abject dislike, opportunities to learn Irish in loyalist communities were few and far between.
Yet, as Ervine pointed out, this had not always been the case. According to the 1911 census, there were as many Irish speakers on the Shankill Road as there were on the Falls Road. Digging deeper into his own family history, and to his great surprise, Ervine found that his own grandfather and uncles had been fluent Irish speakers.
Today, post ceasefire and Good Friday Agreement, Ervine suggested that Irish can no longer be regarded as a ‘cultural stick’ with such overt connotations of nationalism. Since the language has now become largely depoliticised, there is no longer the sense of betraying one’s own community by exploring other cultures.
Was there any sense that Ervine, a prominent figure in the loyalist community, was a ‘special trophy’? Ervine discredited this theory, and stated that he had only encountered acceptance and encouragement from the Irish language community.
Asked by Magee what he hoped to see for the future of the language, Ervine suggested the creation of a little Gaeltacht on the Newtownards Road.
For Brian Ervine, there is nothing strange about adopting the duel identity of an Irishman and a British subject. His love of the Irish language is testament to that.