Learning the (Irish) language of reconciliation in Protestant East Belfast

Learning the (Irish) language of reconciliation in Protestant East Belfast

David Mitchell

When I was six, my family moved from Protestant, suburban Belfast to Sligo on the west coast of Ireland. For years after, friends and relatives in the North would ask how we were getting on with the culture and lifestyle, and in particular, ‘the Irish’. ‘The Irish’ always came up, with a tone of sincere curiosity and complete ignorance, as if my brother and I were training unicorns or taking Martian Studies.

Of course, for those enquirers, the Irish language was alien, and compulsory Irish at school was one of the most tangible markers of difference between life ‘up north’ and ‘down south’. My as Gaelige trials were the result of the Irish state’s great post-partition effort to de-colonise its speech and preserve a national tongue through the education system, a language which was, in the words of the 1916 revolutionary, Patrick Pearse, the ‘chief depository and safeguard’ of Irish nationality.

Linguistic reverence was not just an Irish inclination. Ireland’s turn-of-the-century Gaelic Revival was part of the pan-European fashion of the day for romantic nationalist renaissance. As the historian of nationalism John Hutchison writes, for these movements, ‘language revival itself was but a means. The goal was resurrection of the Volksgeist that expressed the unique creative energies of the nation, the memories of which sophisticated society had lost’. Language was carrier of the spiritual essence of the collective, vessel of group memory, wisdom and imagination. Inevitably, resuscitating the near-lost vernacular was top of Irish state-builders’ priorities.

In the newly created Northern Ireland, however, the association of Irish with anti-state subversion nurtured unionists’ lingua-phobia. Clinging to an Anglo-centric empire, Northern Ireland prided itself on its disinterest in all things Gaelic. During the Troubles, republican prisoners embraced Irish in the same decolonising spirit as the Gaelic Revivalists, and the republican movement placed Irish cultural assertion at the centre of its combined military and political strategy. To this day, many Northern Protestants view Irish as the language of hunger strikers and leprechauns – obscure, useless, and potentially threatening.

All of these stereotypes, fears and aspirations are back in the spotlight again in the renewed push for an Irish Language Act at Stormont. Since the Good Friday Agreement – which called for ‘parity of esteem’ for identities – Irish has been drawn into the maelstrom of cultural conflict which survived the end of violence. In his resignation letter, Martin McGuinness accused the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of ‘the most crude and crass bigotry’ towards Irish speakers. The DUP has vowed repeatedly that Irish language legislation is one act of cultural ‘greening’ that will never happen.

Without doubt, Irish republicans believe in the destabilising political potential of promoting the language, but not all Protestants share the fear of ‘weaponised’ Irish. Some are embracing it. The short-lived attempt at a non-sectarian, pro-Union party, NI21, used Irish language posters, as has the Alliance Party. Most remarkably, since 2011, an Irish language-teaching project has been operating in the heart of loyalist East Belfast. 

Turas is based in a social outreach of the Methodist Church and led by Linda Ervine, sister-in law of the late David Ervine, loyalist paramilitary and politician. To get to class, you pass numerous British flags and a mural depicting masked gunmen with the slogan: ‘The Ulster conflict is about nationality. This we shall maintain’.

The initiative is explicitly re-casting Irish as a shared heritage of all the people of Ireland, and indeed Britain and Ireland, given the close links with Scots Gaelic. As well as language, Turas runs classes in Irish music, singing and dancing, and delivers talks around the North on the largely forgotten history of Protestants using and preserving Irish, and the Gaelic origins of Northern Irish surnames and place names.

Linda Ervine has been a persuasive front-person. Her passion for the language springs powerfully from a sense of grievance that the sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland denied her, and the whole of the Protestant community, access to a significant, and indeed beautiful, part of their heritage. In 2015, she received the Community Relations Council Civic Leadership Award.

This is not the first attempt at promoting Irish on a cross-community basis but the roots of Turas in working-class unionism are striking. That said, this is less of a conundrum than it may appear. The Ervine strand of progressive loyalism has long challenged the polarising myths of the elites and sought cultural and social common ground with the traditional enemy. Some Ulster Volunteer Force members learned Irish in the Maze prison.

Turas may have wider lessons too. From Ukraine to the Basque country to Sri Lanka, bitter conflicts over language recognition have, again and again, demonstrated the symbolic centrality of language to group identities. For this reason, language learning and cultural encounter may have a special capacity to transform inter-group relations, eliciting discussion regarding cultural identity, developing empathy for the other and critical reflection on the self. Through skilled leadership and planning, Turas has made language learning into an attractive peacebuilding vehicle rooted in a vibrant community. Amid political polarisation, it is a symbol of generosity and complexity.

Can Turas influence the current political impasse? In March, it hosted a public debate on the Language Act, an event which, as several speakers noted, would have been unthinkable in East Belfast even ten years ago. Rights were discussed. Respect was emphasised. Extra chairs were needed. Not everyone agreed but there was a consensus that public discussions around Irish needed to be detoxified so that the nature and implications of an Act could be properly examined and understood.

Right now, in the context of the ailing talks process to restore power-sharing, it is hard to imagine a change of heart within unionism on this issue. But one of the driving beliefs of pro-peace process unionism has been in the Union-securing benefit of making Northern Ireland more amenable to nationalists’ identity. It is unlikely, but possible, that the DUP will decide that passing some version of an Irish Language Act gives nationalists one less reason to desire a united Ireland. Unionists could present such a move as bringing Northern Ireland in line with language policy in the other devolved regions, rather than the Irish Republic.

Or maybe, the Democratic Unionists will sign up for an Irish class, fall i ngrá leis an Ghaelige, and discover a rich seam of their cultural heritage they never knew existed. In the world of Northern Ireland politics, stranger things have happened.

David Mitchell is Assistant Professor in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at Trinity College Dublin at Belfast.