Although I am a Protestant I didn’t grow up in a traditional unionist family. My family were socialist, trade unionists; they stood against the tide of religious paranoia and hatred which swept through Northern Ireland in the late 60s and early 70s. They taught me to reject and to challenge sectarianism and racism and to be proud of my working class background. I thank God for their influence on my life as it equipped me for the job that I do today. My role is Irish language development officer, working in the heart of loyalist East Belfast.
When I tell people what I do they often ask how on earth we came to be teaching Irish on the Newtownards Road. Well, the project began through a six-week introduction to Gaelic and Ulster Scots with East Belfast Mission and Short Strand cross community women’s group. After the taster course myself and a friend enrolled on a beginners class in An Droichead, an Irish cultural centre on the Ormeau Road. At the first class we must have made it obvious that we were two Prods as during the break the teacher, a lovely girl called Áine Máire, to put us at ease, told us that all sorts of people attended the classes and in fact they had a learner who was from East Belfast, “And you’ll never believe it but he’s a member of the PUP.”
“Oh Áine Máire,” I replied, “My husband is the leader of the PUP.”
And really that was the start. We continued to go along to a weekly class until a local journalist got the hold of the story and it ended up in a couple of newspapers. In an interview I mentioned East Belfast Mission and they were approached by local people who wanted to join the Irish class. Well of course no class existed at that time because it had only been a six week taster but because of the interest expressed East Belfast Mission decided with the help of An Droichead to start a beginners class and they asked me to facilitate it. On the first night of the class back in November 2011, over 20 people turned up. That one class has now developed into Turas, an Irish language centre which provides weekly classes for all ages and abilities as well as dance and music lessons. The word Turas means journey in Gaelic and for me it is not only a journey into a language but also a journey of healing and reconciliation.
Our existence and growth has certainly raised a few eyebrows and unfortunately sometimes worse – but the reality is that when we discover the many, many links between Gaelic culture and the Protestant tradition really we should be more shocked that so few people are aware of the facts. For example in 1833 the Presbyterian General Assembly termed the Irish language ‘our sweet and memorable mother tongue’. Ten years later they made it a requirement for all of their trainee ministers to have a knowledge of the language because so many of their congregations couldn’t speak English.
If we’re looking for the largest Gaelic speaking region in the British Isles we don’t find it in Ireland but in Scotland where 80% of speakers are from the Protestant tradition. I met some of them on a recent trip to Scotland where I attended Gaelic services in the local churches and heard the Psalms sung in Gaelic by the Presbyterian congregations. I even visited the local Rangers club and was presented with a Rangers pendant and an official Rangers club t-shirt, with the motto of Rangers written in Gaelic – ‘Sinne na daoine’ ‘We are the people’.
If we look at the murals in loyalist areas we see written on the walls ‘lámh dearg abú’ victory to the red hand – the motto of the Red Hand Commando.
If we look at the flags we see ‘Faugh a ballagh’ an anglisation of the Gaelic ‘Fág an bealach’ – which means clear the way and is the motto of the Royal Irish Regiment. I could go and on, yet because of what I call the ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá’ syndrome many people from within the unionist community dimiss the language as Republican.
Recently we had an open day and of course there I was with my stall of information about the Irish language and our new classes starting the following week. Now, there was a mixed reaction, I got some funny looks and a few people had to walk past twice to make sure that what they were seeing was real but there was also a healthy level of interest from people who inquired about times of classes etc. However one man (and I suppose you always get one), a man in his late 60s or early 70s who after pacing past a few times decided to come over for a closer look. After flicking through some of the information he proceeded to tell me ‘That’s a fenian language isn’t it?’
‘I’m sorry,’ I replied.
‘It’ a fenian language’.
I smiled and said, ‘We’re a church, we don’t use the word fenians’ .
‘Aye well it’s a Catholic language.’
‘Well no actually it isn’t’ and I pointed out some of the information about our shared linguistic heritage.
‘I don’t want to hear that. I’m not here to talk, I’ve got a sore leg.’ and off he went.
I personally believe that the majority of people are rational and reasonable and open to debate, unfortunately some people when you confront them with the facts are unable or unwilling to accept the truth. They are unable to move beyond their long held belief that the other community is the enemy and I suppose it’s hardly surprising that this type of attitude prevails in many parts of Northern Ireland when our schools, our housing and our system of government compounds the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.
I believe that the people of Northern Ireland have a rich cultural identity, a mixture of native Irish and of the many peoples such as the English and Scots, the Manx Gael and the French Huguenot who made Ireland their home. This rich ancestry influenced our surnames, our place names and our everyday language.
Our vernacular of hiberno English reflects this mixed identity. We are native English speakers whose English is littered with beautiful Scots and Gaelic words. The syntax of our speech reflects that of Gaelic- only in this part of the world can you be sitting in the middle of your dinner or be after going out.
As a people we are culturally rich yet instead of embracing that wonderful cultural mix, we separate it into narrow divisive boxes and deny ourselves access to very things that make us who we are.
For me it is not the Ulster Scot or Gael, I believe that we can draw on both. For thousands of years Gaelic speakers crossed back and forth between Scotland and the north of Ireland; the kingdom of Dalraida which came about in the 5th century symbolises the unity between the two countries – that is our heritage.
During the plantation in Ireland both lowland Scot and highland Gael settled in Ireland – that is our heritage.
For those who wish to use the identity of the Gael as a political symbol of division and separatism I would challenge that by saying being a Gael transcends religion and politics. For those who wish to use Ulster Scots as an identity which excludes Gaelic culture – well Ulster Scots is full of Gaelic words and if we look at the symbolism used to represent Ulster Scots, the tartan, the kilt, the highland dancing, etc well of course it is all Gaelic.
My role is about promoting our shared heritage and creating reconciliation within communities. We have been very successful in what we do and have captured the imagination of both the public and the media yet we get very little support or acknowledgement from unionist politicians. For me unionism appears to be more about a denial of a shared identity.
Protestantism which by its very nature is rich and diverse has become linked with a brand of unionism which is narrow and inward looking.
My brother-in-law David once said, ‘I can never forgive the unionist leaders because the way they behaved was not for the good of this community but for themselves’. I wonder if anything has changed.
Millions of pounds have been poured into shared projects within the community yet Stormont is segregated. It is like a school playground where people are threatening to take their ball home when the games not going their way, who rather than making decisions for the greater good of all, are seen to play up to their own side of the community. No wonder the electorate is disillusioned with politics.
The recent but short lived rise of NI21 I believe showed a desire for an alternative. People want their politicians to be discussing education, employment and welfare; we are tired of the time and money wasted on parades and protests.
Politicians need to start demonstrating some integrity by having the courage to work with those it was elected to share a mandate with despite their political differences for the good of all the people of Northern Ireland.
To find out more about Irish Language classes, or different services offered, contact;
East Belfast Mission
239 Newtownards Road Belfast BT4 1AF
T:028 9045 8560 W:www.ebm.org.uk