By Linda Ervine.
I always find it interesting when unionists who value the links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK reject the Irish language. As one of the family of Celtic languages, the Irish language connects us to Scotland, the Isle of Man (other Gaelic speaking regions) to Wales and Cornwall as well as other parts of England where a Celtic language was spoken at one time.
It fascinates me that the Gaelic word for river, abhain (pronounced ‘owen’) has links to the River Avon in England as avon is the celtic word for river or that the Gaelic word dobhair (pronounced ‘door’) which means water has links to Dover. The language is a linguistic link between the peoples of these islands.
As someone who grew up with no knowledge of the Gaelic language, I was shocked to discover that it was all around me in place names such as Belfast – ‘mouth of the sandbank ford, Finaghy – ‘the white field’, Lisnasharragh – ‘the fort of the foals’; in surnames, McCullough – ‘son of the hound of Ulster’, McCoy – ‘son of fire’, Campbell – ‘crooked mouth’.
It can be found in our local vocabulary: ‘brogue’, ‘poteen’, ‘dulse’, ‘whiskey’, and ‘banshee’; and also in the structure and syntax of our everyday speech, expressions such as ‘He be’s here’, ‘She’s after doing that’, and ‘I’ve the cold on me’.
I was unaware the that the largest Gaelic-speaking area is not in Ireland but in Scotland where the majority of speakers are Presbyterians, or that the people who came here from Scotland during various times in history were not only Scots speakers but also Gaelic speakers, or that the Scots language contains many Gaelic words.
I didn’t know that in the 1830s the Presbyterian General Assembly termed the language “our sweet and memorable mother tongue”, or that during the 1840s they made it a requirement for all of their trainee ministers to have a knowledge of the language, or that the Church of Ireland Church has its own Irish language group, Cumann Gaelach na Eaglaise.
I was not aware that leading members of the Orange Order, people like Richard Rutledge Kane, Grand Master of Belfast and Canon John Crozier who founded the Holywood Loyal Orange Lodge, were also members of the Gaelic League. Like many people from the Protestant faith, I believed that I had no link to the language and I had no realisation that it was a part of my own cultural heritage.
Over the past few years I have met many Protestant Gaelic speakers from Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. I even went to a Rangers Club in Stornoway and was given an official Rangers T-shirt with the Gaelic motto ‘Sinne na daoine’ – ‘We are the people’ emblazoned on it.
Not a ‘foreign language’
Unfortunately there are people within the unionist community who reject the language and regard it as a ‘foreign language’. I would encourage them to have a look at their British passport. They’ll see that it is written in three languages; English, Welsh and Gaelic. For me Gaelic is a language of the British Isles.
To those who fear that learning the language will somehow change a person’s political viewpoint I would state that it has given me a renewed pride in my Presbyterian heritage and made me more aware of the links between Ulster and Scotland.
I would also ask if I should be denied access to the language because of my religious background. Should I be discriminated against because I am a Protestant? Perhaps it would be better if I denied the existence of the Presbyterian Gaels of Scotland or the Methodist Gaels of the Isle of Man? Instead I have chosen to embrace the language and to share it with others in a way that does not compromise their religious or political viewpoint.
I manage a very successful cross-community Irish language project based in east Belfast by the name of Turas (pictured above), the Gaelic word for journey, and over the past six years in my role as Irish language development officer, I have provided opportunities for people from the Protestant/unionist/loyalist (PUL) community to learn Irish within their own area.
For the people who attend the classes it has turned out to be not just a journey into a language that the majority of people from the unionist community have never had the opportunity to engage with; it has also turned out to be a journey of healing and reconciliation as people sit down together and share the experience of learning a new skill.
The project, which began in 2012, has attracted hundreds of people from all walks of life who have attended classes with us. Of the 255 learners who have registered for classes this year, around 70 per cent are from PUL backgrounds. Five of the learners, all Protestants, have applied this year to do degrees in Irish at both Ulster University and Queen’s University and I have set up a scholarship scheme to help them to fund their journeys into third-level education.
Rather than discouraging people from learning Irish, I think it would be advantageous to both the language and to Northern Ireland to have a diversity of people mixing and working within the Irish language sector. I would like to see qualified Irish speakers from PUL backgrounds applying for and obtaining posts within Irish-language organisations.
My hope is to see integrated Irish-medium schools in neutral and unionist areas where people from all backgrounds can send their children so that they can benefit from a bilingual education. Don’t ask me to tell PUL parents that they should be denied such opportunities because of the tradition they come from. Don’t tell me that Protestants shouldn’t speak Irish because of a statement made by someone from Sinn Féin over 40 years ago.
Instead I would ask those with influence to help me to create as much diversity as possible within the Irish language community by encouraging more Protestants and unionists to learn Irish.
Let us make this our new mantra for the language – every word spoken in Gaelic is another brick in the bridge which unites us as peoples of these islands.
Linda Ervine is an Irish Language Development Officer at Turas, which she founded and directs, at the East Belfast Mission. Follow her on Twitter @ErvineLinda, and follow Cairde Turas @CairdeTuras.