Growing up as a Protestant in Belfast, I didn't speak a work of Irish. Now, I run a language centre—and know that the language doesn't "threaten Britishness" at allby Linda Ervine / February 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
There were no Irish language lessons in my school when I was young. I grew up totally unaware that 95 per cent of the place names in Northern Ireland come from the Irish language, that many of our surnames are Irish and that words and constructions that we use in our everyday speech also come the language.
The reason that I did not know any of these facts was because I am a Protestant and part of the unionist community. Until six years ago, when I started attending an Irish language class in a nationalist part of my home city Belfast, I had not one word of the language. Now, I run an Irish language centre in the heart of Loyalist east Belfast, a working class area in the inner city.
Over the last few years my ability in Irish has increased and I am now studying A-level Irish and hoping to go on to university. I have made numerous friends among the Irish language community and despite being of a different religious and political persuasion, I have been welcomed and encouraged by all.
I have brought many others with me on this language learning journey and now in east Belfast we have 14 language classes every week with over 200 people studying the language. They come from both sides of the community, from all walks of life and are of all ages—from young children who attend the family class with their parents to the many retired learners who are looking for a new challenge. They all share the same passion for this wonderful ancient language which is such a part of our shared history and heritage.
We call our centre Turas, which is the Irish word for journey. And for us, it is a journey: not just a journey into a language which the majority of people from the unionist community have never before had the opportunity to engage with, but a journey of healing and reconciliation.
Sadly, our language has become embroiled in a bitter dispute between the two largest parties in Northern Ireland, the DUP and Sinn Féin. Disagreement over a proposed Irish Language Act has created a stalemate, with Sinn Féin refusing to go back into government without an act and the DUP stating that they will never agree to a stand-alone act.
Part of the difficulty arises over the fact the Irish language is often associated with the Catholic or Nationalist community, with opposition to it seen as Protestant or Unionist. But an Irish Language Act would not detract from anyone’s Britishness.
Turas strongly believes that the Irish language community in Northern Ireland should be given the same respect as Gaelic speakers in Scotland and Welsh speakers in Wales. We too are British citizens, not second-class citizens. A language act was promised by the UK government as part of the St. Andrews Agreement over 10 years ago. That promise has still not been fulfilled and the Irish language community continue to wait.
However we are a cross-community section of learners, with differing political viewpoints, and we are also aware that not all of our learners feel the same. We had hoped that an act would stop the language being used as a political football and would encourage greater cross-community engagement, but the debate seems to have done the opposite.
The recent controversy surrounding an Irish language puts us in a vulnerable position. We are based in an area where most of the residents would be hostile to a language act without having any knowledge of what an act would contain or how it would impact them.
We try to be a reasonable voice and to assuage fears, to provide factual information around the topic and to challenge the myth, half-truths and lies. However, this can make us unpopular with those whose agenda is to spread rumours and encourage fear.
Recently a unionist politician claimed that the implementation of an Irish language act would “hollow out our Britishness.” We would challenge him to show how an act to protect a language that links us to other Gaelic-speaking parts of these islands, such as Scotland and the Isle of Man, could do anything except strengthen our Britishness—and the familial ties that exist between us.
Find out more about the Turas centre here