A Protestant view of the benefits of learning the Irish language

Linda Ervine
Linda Ervine

‘Say Focal!’ The Droichead Project in Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin in partnership with Linda Ervine ran a series of events at the end of May, exploring the Irish Language.

Linda Ervine has the unlikely responsibility of being the first Irish Language Development Officer at Turas (Irish for ‘Journey,’) which she founded and directs.

It is based in the East Belfast Mission in the heart of Loyalist East Belfast. When Turas officially opened it was called a miracle, at the time, no-one could have conceived of the idea that people would be learning Irish on the Newtownards Road, yet today over 250 people of all ages attend classes every week. 

Linda Ervine said: “Unfortunately for many people today the Irish language seems irrelevant.  As a people we have lost touch with the language of our homeland. We go about our daily lives oblivious to a language which is all around us, in our place names, Belfast- mouth of the sandbank,  Finaghy – the white field,  Lisnasharragh – the fort of the foals; in our surnames, McCullough - son of the hound of Ulster,  in many of the words we use every day and also in the syntax of our speech. Expressions such as, ‘He be’s here’, She’s after doing that’, ‘I’ve the cold on me’. It is a language which we mistakenly associate with one community and one political viewpoint.  Few people realise that the largest Gaelic speaking region is in Scotland where 80 per cent of speakers are from the Protestant tradition or that at one time all Presbyterian ministers had to have a knowledge of the language because many of their rural congregations couldn’t speak English.

“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 Protestant heritage and made me more aware of the links between Ulster and Scotland”.

Turas has made a breakthrough in what could be considered a less than promising environment, by stressing that the Irish language belongs to everyone. An ethos which is now being embraced by the most unlikely of candidates, from ex-RUC men to loyalist paramilitaries. 

Linda has become a very public advocate for the language and despite the challenges, the Turas project has changed mind-sets and softened hearts, eroding long held negative attitudes and providing a new context for the Irish language as a language of healing and reconciliation. 

For many years Linda Ervine has worked in partnership with The Droichead Project, based in Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin, and together they programmed a recent series of events in a variety of venues across the Waterside, culminating in a film screening and panel discussion in First Derry Presbyterian Church.

Lisa Anderson from the Droichead Project said the organisers wanted “to make information about the language accessible to everyone so we have both daytime and evening events, in rural and urban locations and in welcoming venues”.

The Droichead Project which is funded from various sources including CRC and the SEUPB PEACE IV Programme, grew out of an engagement that began during Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2013 in which An Gaeláras was the lead partner and saw a ground-breaking partnership between Cultúrlann and the Londonderry Bands Forum.

Catherine Pollock from the Droichead Project said: “Coming from a Unionist community I never had the chance to learn Irish. My introduction to it came through a chance encounter with a group of eight-year-olds at a local Gaelscoil. I feel a real, tangible connection to the language and it has had a profound impact on my work and life, including the decision to choose an Irish medium education for my children.

“The language belongs to all of us who are connected to this place, regardless of religious or political persuasion. I want anyone who is interested to feel that they have permission to engage with it.”