Fraught as language debates are, there are bigger, more difficult subjects that need tackling. We musn't let a solvable problem become a roadblock to progressby Sarah Creighton / February 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
When I was in University I volunteered with a youth group working on a mural project in West Belfast. In one of the rooms we worked in there was a banner on the wall saying, ‘Free Róisín.’ At some point I repeated the phrase out loud, mispronounced the name and said ‘Free Rose-in.’ When somebody pointed this out I cringed—but we made a joke about it later on.
Mispronouncing an Irish name in Northern Ireland is embarrassing, but it’s pretty trivial. While it does happen to people from a nationalist or Catholic background it’s a really good way of letting people know that you’re a Protestant or unionist.
I grew up in East Belfast. I grew up with very little experience of Irish culture and the Irish language. In school, none of my classmates had Irish names. My life was full of people who were like me and my gaze was directed towards Britain. Only Sinn Féin and people in the Republic spoke Irish. I was never bothered or threatened by the language. I just had no connection to it.
It isn’t breaking news that some Protestants and unionists in Northern Ireland find the Irish language controversial. The issue was brought into sharp focus this week when DUP’s Arlene Foster withdrew from talks to restore the Assembly over proposals to introduce an Irish Language Act.
The history of the Irish language is long and tumultuous. Irish was the native tongue of the island and its usage declined when Ireland was colonised. After partition it didn’t fare well in Northern Ireland—a state built for people with a British, unionist identity.