East Belfast Irish language development officer Linda Ervine MBE has said Irish is the “perfect medium of reconciliation” in Northern Ireland, where the number of Protestants learning the language “continues to grow”.
Addressing Seanad Éireann, Ms Ervine said Irish is “a bridge which unites our communities” and is a language that “reminds us of our shared history.”
Ms Ervine is manager of Irish language centre Turas which was established in East Belfast in 2012. She was invited to address the Seanad to mark Seachtain na Gaeilge.
Until she was first introduced to the language in 2011, Irish was a “non-entity” for her, but since then, the language has changed her life, she told the Seanad.
What followed she said, “was a roller-coaster of new information as I discovered place names, surnames, the words that we use in our everyday speech.”
“It is not an exaggeration to say that meeting with the language changed the whole direction of my life. It enhanced it. And I realised that I had found this treasure. I just wanted to share it other people in my community who, like me because of the tradition that they come from, had never had the opportunity to learn Irish.”
The reaction to media coverage of her interest in Irish “was two-fold”, she said. There was some from the Protestant community who approached her because “they too wanted to learn Irish” but there were others who criticised her and who said she was “a traitor and a Lundy”.
“And that’s the pattern I observed over the last ten years since I set up the Turas Project in Oirthear Bhéal Feirste,” she said.
She said that the success of her work has presented “a threat” to those who view Irish as “a language of the enemy”.
She has been the focus of online abuse as the result of her work. “These keyboard warriors are not interested in the wonderful cross-community work that takes place day and daily within the organisation that I run.”
Ms Ervine said she “totally” rejected claims that “learning Irish is divisive”.
“Because, for me it is the perfect medium of reconciliation. It brings together people from our divided community. It’s a bridge which unites our communities, reminds us of our shared history.
“And for me it’s a bridge between countries in the British Isles – a language that went from Ireland over to Scotland and to the Isle of Man – part of the family of Celtic languages spoken throughout the British Isles at one time.”
She said she has watched interest in Irish grow “at a phenomenal rate” in East Belfast in recent years. “What started as a small fledgling project in 2012 with support of funding from Foras na Gaeilge is now one of the largest Irish language centres in Belfast with the majority of learners are from the PUL community,” she said.
She said that previously many learners “were frightened” of people knowing they were learning Irish. “They feared criticism or worse, intimidation.
That situation has changed and today, she said “they are proud” to be learning Irish. Learners are are enjoying their first experience of learning the language and want to challenge those who tell them “that prods don’t speak Irish”. “They’re proving that wrong,” she said.
Ms Ervine said a lot of negativity still surrounds the language with “many unionists regarding it as purely political.” She told Senators how an Irish-medium naíscoil (a pre-school called Naíscoil na Seolta) was forced to scrap plans last year to open in a temporary premises on the grounds of a primary school in East Belfast where some Irish classes were already being taught.
“We spoke to the board of governors, one of whom was our recently departed DUP MLA Christopher Stalford, and they gave it the thumbs up. As almost all the children were learning Irish already without any issue from the parents we as a committee believed there wouldn’t be a problem to house temporarily 16 three year-olds.
“Sadly we were very wrong. As soon as the news of the naíscoil broke, an online hate campaign began.” Despite pleas from parents and school staff it was decided to move the school. Ms Ervine said another premises was found after much difficulty but was withdrawn “due to fear of intimidation and attack”.
Another organisation, the Christian Fellowship Church in East Belfast, stepped in at the last minute and offered the naíscoil a temporary home.
“Renewed online attempts to stir up trouble and organise protests fell on deaf ears. And, after what had been a very difficult few months we opened on the fourth of October last year with a reduced number of children but we are still there,” she said.
“So where can we say the Irish language is within Protestant communities today,” she asked.
“I believe it is in various places,” she said.
“It’s in the negativity and hostility created by (the slogan) ‘Tiocfaidh ar lá’. It’s in the dismissive and condescending attitudes that come from some within unionism. But, it is also in the Protestant students who are now studying Irish with us at university. It is in Naíscoil na Seolta where parents, despite the threats and protests and intimidation, are bringing their children. And, it’s in the classrooms of Turas where every year hundreds of students take their first faltering steps along their own language journey.
Ms Ervine also told of a phone call she received the previous day from a Protestant woman living in a loyalist estate who wishes to send her child to an Irish-medium nursery school.
“She is worried about what her neighbours will say. Her ex-partner has taken her to court because of it and she wanted our support, which we are obviously going to give her.
Ms Ervine said the woman “is standing up, she is making a change.”
“One day it won’t be an issue for Protestant parents in big loyalist estates to send their child to an Irish medium school.
“But, it takes time. Change is coming, it doesn’t come easily, but it does come.”