Tag Archives: Gaelic

A New Protestant Beginning for the Irish Language in Belfast

[Guest post from Aaron Schrank]

The Irish language used to be a symbol of Catholic nationalism. But it’s gradually becoming de-politicized, morphing into just another minority language in need of saving.

Lower Newtownards Road in East Belfast is solid Protestant territory. It was a hot spot for sectarian violence at the height of the troubles. Today, British flags flutter from fences. Murals of masked gunmen adorn the sides of buildings. It’s pretty much the last place you’d expect to find people learning Irish. But inside a community center, about a dozen people from the neighborhood are doing just that.

An Irish class in session in a Protestant section of Belfast (Photo: Sarah Parvini)

You wouldn’t have seen this a few decades ago. Just ask Sandra Irvine.

“When I was at school, I was brought up in East Belfast, yes, in a very Protestant area and for me to learn Irish would have been considered very strange,” Irvine said.

But she had always been curious about the language.

“I did actually attempt to learn Irish, but couldn’t find anywhere that I could go to, so it was in my mind for a very long time, but it wasn’t an option.”

Now, Irish is an option for people like Irvine. East Belfast Mission hosts classes five times a week.

This push for Protestant Irish learners is largely the work of one woman: Linda Ervine, the center’s Irish language development officer. It’s her job to convince people who, at best, see the language as irrelevant and, at worst, as an enemy tongue to care about it. She tells them to look a century into history, to when plenty of Protestants here spoke Irish.

“What the language does is, it allows people to explore the idea of Irishness in a non-threatening way,” said Ervine. “We are Irish. I feel I’m Irish.”

This means a lot coming from Linda Ervine. Her brother-in-law, David Ervine, was a well-known member of the Ulster Volunteer Force—a protestant paramilitary group. He did six years in prison before leading Northern Ireland’s Progressive Unionist Party.

“It was almost like we give people permission from the protestant community,” said Ervine. “Like, if we could do it, it was alright, sort of took the sting out of it or something.”

Linda Ervine’s efforts coincide with a push across Northern Ireland, backed by the government, for Irish language learning called Liofa, meaning “fluent.”

The culture minister whose pet project this is, Carál Ní Chuilín, is a Catholic and a former Provisional IRA militant.

But the campaign does have some cross-community support.

Basil McCrea is one the leading protestant politicians backing Liofa. He says that for Protestants to embrace Irish, it needs to be freed from its divisive past. And he has a little dig at some Catholic politicians – he says they still use the language as a political prop, especially during heated debates in parliament.

“You know when they’re annoyed because they respond in a huge amount of Irish,” said McCrea. “It’s like flying a flag. Fair enough. But it’s got nothing to do about language and everything to do about politics.”

Irish Teacher Cuthbert Arutura (Photo: Sarah Parvini)

There’s a well-known saying in Belfast, attributed to a Catholic Sinn Fein politician: “Every word of Irish spoken is like another bullet being fired in the struggle for Irish freedom.” It shows just how political the recent history of this language has been.

But not everyone here remembers that history. At an integrated Catholic and Protestant school south of Belfast, Cuthbert Arutura, or “Tura” for short, is speaking Irish with a room full of 10 and 11-year olds. These kids were born after the 1998 peace agreement.

Tura’s here to show them the language doesn’t have to be about politics. He’s a Zimbabwean immigrant, who moved to East Belfast 20 years ago.

“I’m a protestant. So I don’t buy the stories that politicians use to justify pursuing certain narratives,” Tura said. “The language isn’t owned by a political entity. It’s something that is living.”

For Tura, Irish has been a way to connect with his new home. Before moving here, he didn’t know how little it was spoken. Now, he works to save it.

“Tír gan teanga tír gan anam,” Tura said. “A country with no language is a country without a soul.” These words form the lyrics of a song he sings to the students.

Tura is among a wave of immigrants coming to Northern Ireland who don’t view Irish with decades of discord in mind. They see it as just another minority language, one that might be on its way out. Whether or not they’re learning Irish, and few are, they are at least helping normalize attitudes to language. Maybe that will mean even a few more locals, on either side of the Protestant-Catholic divide, will consider picking it up.


Patrick Cox adds:

Below is the podcast that includes the interview with my dad. He grew up learning Irish in newly independent Ireland. And after more than a decade of studying it at school, he promptly forgot nearly all of it.



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Swearing in Irish, storytelling in Scots, and rapping in Khmer

There may be many reasons why attempts at reviving the Irish language have not fared as well as those for Welsh, or even Scottish Gaelic.  You might think that Ireland, as a new-ish nation, would have embraced its ancient language — a language suppressed by the British colonialists. And certainly, Ireland ‘s first few governments tried that in the 1920s and 30s. Irish was mandatory in schools, and mastery of it was required to enter the civil service. Despite that,  it never really took off. Perhaps the British had done too good a job in near-wiping it out. (And did less well in Wales, where people persisted in speaking Welsh, even before its current government-sponsored revival). Or perhaps, people aren’t comfortable learning a language as a political act, as part of a nationalist agenda.

We hear from two speakers of the language: first, my Dad, who remembers hardly any Irish these days but studied it at school for many years. Today, many decades later, he wishes he’d paid more attention.  Then, a conversation with Manchán Magan, who made a documentary series for Irish TV about his attempt to travel around Ireland speaking only Irish. (That’s him in the picture, praying that he’ll meet someone who speaks Irish.) He was verbally abused in Dublin — a reaction Magan thinks has to do with the past, and feelings of guilt and shame. In Killarney, he asked people, in Irish, to help him rob a bank. In Galway, he sang filthy songs in public and was applauded by uncomprehending old ladies.  He also tried — and failed — to buy food and clothes, and to hire a mechanic. Middle-aged Irish people like him, Magan says, never really were interested in keeping up their Irish skills. But the young are different: for them, learning Irish doesn’t have an agenda attached to it. So there may be hope yet for this language.
Then, it’s Alexander McCall Smith. His latest offering in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is a children’s book in the Scots language. McSmith and other participants in a BBC round-table program (also featured  in the podcast) discuss books in translation. English is now so dominant and so widely understood, that many books written in English simply aren’t translated into the likes of Dutch, Danish or Swedish, let alone Scots. So, publication of this book in its translation a full year before it is published in the original English is a quite a statement from McCall Smith.

Finally, we profile hip-hop artist Boomer Da Sharpshooter. Boomer, who is ethnic Cambodian, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and raised in California. He grew up speaking English but now raps in Cambodia’s main language, Khmer. It’s not out of choice: in his late teens he was gang-banger, and was sent to prison on weapons offenses. On his release, the US deported him to Cambodia. That was seven years ago. Today, he’s a reformed character, and his  Khmer raps are considerably softer in tone and content than his English ones used to be.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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