The healing tongue

Shelley Marsden finds out more about the Irish revival happening in the heart of loyalist East Belfast – and why it’s about more than picking up a new language

“THE things that have been used to divide us are the things that we should use to unite us”, says East Belfast’s Linda Ervine, a member of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and sister-in-law of the party’s late leader David Ervine – a former UVF prisoner and a key voice at the peace talks leading up to the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

A former English teacher at Ashfield girls’ school, Linda now spends a lot of her time giving Irish classes to Protestants and helping them overcome fears about approaching the language, which has historically been considered as exclusive to the Catholic community.

It has just been revealed that a new Irish language centre is to open in order to cope with the popularity of these classes. The Turas centre, based in the Skaois building on the Newtownards Road, East Belfast, houses offices, is to be opened by local man Sam Evans, a founder member of the PUP.

It all began three years ago, when Linda was a member of the cross-community women’s group in the congregation at the East Belfast Mission, a Methodist Church on the Newtownards Road. They were involved in several projects with women from the nationalist Short Strand, one being a six-week course in Irish Gaelic/Scots-Gaelic/Ulster Scots.

Linda explains: “That mix was, I think, to ‘soften the blow’. We all rejected the Scots-Gaelic; it was too much to take on. And a lot of us spoke Ulster Scots already, so the interest was in the Irish. Ironically enough, the women in the national community were more interested in the upcoming Royal wedding at the time, and what Kate Middleton’s dress was going to be like!”

The woman facilitating this short course was a Protestant from the Cregagh Rd, again in East Belfast, who was a fluent Irish speaker. She told Linda about a d course at an Irish centre on the Catholic part of the Ormeau Rd, but she’d never heard of it. Linda took her friend over; the pair were made very welcome and continued to attend every Monday night.

Says Linda: “The media picked up on this because of my connection with David, and people started calling asking if they could start our Irish classes. They didn’t exist – we’d only done a taster. I was asked to facilitate a class – which wasn’t publicised as there was worry about how it would be received, and twenty people turned up on the first night! It was meant to be a 15-week thing but carried on.”

Her own interest peaked, Linda then did some research and discovered that the grandparents of her husband Brian and brother-in-law David were down in the census as ‘having Irish’: “I realised a lot of people in East Belfast that were Protestant also had Irish, read around it more and was amazed at the links I discovered between Irish and my own community.”

Linda approached Foras Na Gaelige, received funding for classes and was given the post of Irish Development officer at the EBM. One class became two and she now takes eight classes a week, with more planned for other areas of East Belfast.

“I also give a presentation called The Hidden History of Protestants and the Irish Language and have taken it out to about 1,700 people now. There’s massive interest in Irish. It’s wonderful and I just didn’t realise that it existed”.

Linda says she and her colleagues wanted to avoid creating a “Protestant utopia” with their classes, however, and they regularly take attendees to events in West Belfast. Some speakers, she says, would never have set foot on the Falls Rd and are now off to classes and events there all the time. “We’ve opened the door; it’s about normalising society.

There has been negativity, with a few isolated protests outside the centre, but they are “low key” and, as Linda says “those who don’t like it grumble, but they’re letting us get on with it.”

In her current classes, there are people who took part in last year’s flag protests at City Hall; one of the families that attend the family Irish class with their kids confessed that they had considered protesting against the Irish classes when they first started.

“Some of the people we engage with will never learn the language, but we are helping them understand that there’s nothing threatening about Irish”, says Linda. “It’s about saying; I’m Protestant and this can belong to me; it doesn’t belong to one community.

“Irish has been politicised and we are disarming those who would use it as a tool of conflict. Once it’s accepted by everybody its power is diluted. ”



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