Tá beagán Gaeilge agam. Tá me ag foghlaim. Is teanga an-deachair í ach tá rún daingean agam leanúint ar aghaidh. I have been learning Irish for two and a half years, and finding it tough going at my relatively advanced age, but I am discovering a new appreciation of its beauty and expressiveness (“elegant and copious”, the 17th century Church of Ireland Primate and scholar Archbishop Ussher, called it).
Inevitably, because I am a Northern Protestant by background, it makes me think about the role of the language in our centuries-old political, religious and cultural conflicts. And I have been listening to and reading Northerners from different traditions – Linda Ervine, Aodán Mac Póilin, Roger Blaney and Jim Stothers – who have wrestled with this conundrum: how can something that is so central to the identity of Irish-Irish people be made attractive to those of the British-Irish tradition, many (perhaps most) of whom see it as just another weapon in the arsenal of an Irish republicanism intent on their absorption into an alien nation and culture?
Linda Ervine, sister-in-law of the Progressive Unionist Party leader, the late David Ervine, is a remarkable woman. In the past seven years she has brought the teaching of the language into the heart of loyalist Belfast, the Methodist East Belfast Mission (the Skainos Centre) on the Newtownards Road. An early school-leaver and thus a late starter in education, she began learning Irish after curiosity had impelled her to try a six week ‘taster’ course. She found her reaction was: “I want to have that, I want to say it’s mine. I felt I’d been denied the language because of the tradition I come from.”
When she started to organise classes, she was surprised at the level of interest. People would approach her and and say: “I’m a Protestant, I’m a unionist. The Orange Order says I can’t learn Irish. What time does your class begin?” Some loyalist paramilitary members were attracted because they saw it as “Ulster Gaelic.” The Turas group she founded proclaims its belief that “the language belongs to everyone and can be a mechanism of reconciliation,” and its website has as its first aim “promoting the languages, culture and heritage of Ulster” (ag cur Gaeilige, cultúr agus oidhreacht Chúige Uladh chun tosaigh). Turas now runs Irish classes for over 200 people.
Ervine believes strongly that the Irish language can build bridges between the divided communities, emphasising that it is part of the shared history and heritage of both unionists and nationalists. Personally she doesn’t go out of her way to identify as a political unionist (her father was a communist), but goes on:”I wouldn’t lose sleep over a united Ireland, but I would lose sleep over losing links with the rest of the UK – that would be an issue for me.”
She believes the key to attracting Northern unionists to the language is to emphasise that it is part of a family of languages throughout the British Isles, along with Scots Gaelic, Manx (both of which emerged out of Old Irish) and Welsh. She tells of the Scottish Labour MP – a unionist, Presbyterian, Gaelic speaker and Rangers supporter – who pointed out to her that the British passport featured wording in Welsh and Scots Gaelic. Many speakers of Gaelic are Presbyterians from the Hebrides, and many of the mainly Presbyterian Scots who came to settle in Ulster in the 17th century spoke Gaelic.
“There is an onus on the Irish language community in Northern Ireland to talk more to unionists,” she says, “to show them that this is not about politics. It’s bigger than Sinn Fein and nationalism; it’s about ordinary people who love their language and are passionate about protecting and developing this minority language surrounded, as it is, by the tsunami of English.”
Linda Ervine is an idealist. She wants to see an Irish medium integrated primary and secondary school in east Belfast. She would like to see the day when the children going to those schools would not be identifiable by their families’ politics or religion. She is also an idealist politically, with a vision for Ireland and Britain which is based on reconciliation: “If I had a magic wand, I would create a federation of the islands, with London no longer in charge (because the union is no longer working for Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland). Thus we would be both separating a little from the UK – whether as Northern Ireland or a united Ireland – but also bringing the rest of Ireland into a relationship of closer ties with Britain. That’s what I’d like to see: some mutually respectful integration of these islands.”
Aodán Mac Póilin was a passionate Irish language activist and one of the wisest and most generous people I met in my years in Belfast. He became one of the leaders of a remarkable group of people who set up Ireland’s first successful urban Gaeltacht, Pobal Feirste, in the Shaw’s Road in west Belfast in the 1960s and 1970s (followed by Northern Ireland’s first Irish medium primary school). As Director of the ULTACH Trust he laid much of the groundwork for cross-community engagement with Irish in the 1990s. His early death in 2016 was a tragic loss to the causes of both the Irish language and inter-community reconciliation.
Mac Póilin represented that open-minded section of the language movement who never gave up on the idea – however unlikely – of Irish becoming a healing element between the North’s divided communities. He was thus at the opposite end of the spectrum from Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, then head of Sinn Fein’s Cultural Department, who in 1984 said: “We see the armed struggle as the highest point of the cultural revival…I see no difference between fighting imperialist political control with guns on the street, and fighting imperialist cultural control through this department.” In fairness, I imagine the Máirtín Ó Muilleoir who became Lord Mayor of Belfast and Stormont Finance Minister in a power-sharing government, would probably now regret that youthful statement.
In his brilliant posthumously-published book of essays, Our Tangled Speech,¹ Mac Póilin asked the question: “Now that the language movement appears set for a period of intense politicisation, where is the space for those of us engaged with the language and genuinely committed to making it available to the entire community?” There is no point, he stressed, “in engaging in denial, or playing the game that [Douglas] Hyde condemned – and of which he himself was to an extent guilty: ‘that obliquity of vision, amounting almost to a disease, a kink of the mind’, the tendency to claim that the language movement is non-political, while at the same time pursuing what is really a political agenda. This will not be believed. Nor is there any point in trying to use Irish culture, or arguments for adopting an Irish cultural identity, to sugar the pill of Irish nationalism. Political antennae in Northern Ireland are too acute. On the other hand, cries to ‘depoliticise’ the language are usually disguised (political) attacks on nationalism, and a nationalist perspective on the language is just as valid as a unionist one.”
Mac Póilin went on: “It would be foolish to underestimate the difficulties of creating a neutral space for the language in our ideology-ridden society, and it is unrealistic to expect that the entire Irish language movement will break the mould that has now been established for the best part of a century. The challenge facing the Irish-speaking community is whether or not enough people can be found within it with the generosity, the courage and the restraint to allow those of the unionist tradition to engage in the language on their own terms, as unionists. I believe, however, that there are enough Irish-speakers with the breadth of vision that would make such a development possible,and that there are enough unionists with a similar generosity of spirit to make it meaningful.”
Maybe what Mac Póilin says is the “surprisingly large minority” of unionists who today show an interest in the Irish language, is rooted in the crisis of identity which is now affecting that community in the aftermath of 30 years of violent ‘troubles’, the Good Friday Agreement, Brexit and Boris Johnson’s agreement with the EU to put a customs and regulatory barrier down the Irish Sea. Some of them, rather than denying their Irishness, are looking towards the 19th century “when it was both possible and fashionable for unionists to be interested in the language.”
There was no shortage of passionate unionist Irish speakers in Belfast in the mid-19th century (when, of course, the union was not under threat). Probably the best-known of them was Robert McAdam, iron foundry owner, who collected, compiled and translated songs, folktales and manuscripts throughout the north and west of Ireland; wrote an Irish grammar for use in the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (then, as now, one of the city’s leading Protestant schools); devised banners and slogans in Irish for Queen Victoria’s visit to Belfast in 1849; put together a 1400 page English-Irish dictionary; and was co-secretary or secretary of the Ulster Gaelic Society from its foundation in 1828 until not long before his death in 1895. In his dictionary’s foreword he wrote in Irish that his reason for undertaking it was ‘my great love for my native country and my passion for the language’.
There is a long list of distinguished Irish-speaking Presbyterians in Roger Blaney’s 1996 book Presbyterians and the Irish Language.² In the 20th century these included Sir William McArthur, a distinguished and much-decorated doctor, who founded the Queen’s University Gaelic Society in 1906 and went on to become Director-General of the British Army’s Medical Services; Charles Dickson, who became Chief Medical Officer to the Irish civil service in 1923; Rose Young (Róis Ní Ógáin), editor of a celebrated three-volume collection of Irish poetry, who came from a staunchly unionist family near Ballymena; Robert Lynd, the nationalist journalist and essayist; the Sinn Fein leader and Cumann na nGael government minister Ernest Blythe; the social justice activist and Trinity College Dublin academic Rev Terence McCaughey; and my favourite (because my mother was a Gaston), Hugh Walter Gaston MacMillan, who specialised in stories from Rathlin Island and wrote under the name Aoidhmín Mac Gréagóir.
Last Sunday I listened on RTE to a service in Irish and English from Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast’s university area, conducted by Rev. Jim Stothers, who as Deputy Clerk of the General Assembly is one of the leading figures in Presbyterianism on this island. The sermon in Irish was given by Rev. Patricia McBride of Scarva and Loughbrickland, a famously unionist area in County Down. Stothers recalled times in the 17th and 18th century when large numbers of Presbyterians spoke either Irish or Scots Gaelic and “people were at ease with the language.” He remembered Rev. William Neilson, who in 1808 published a celebrated Introduction to the Irish Language (based on the version spoken in his native County Down), and who, when he was appointed minister in Dundalk 20 years earlier, had to fulfil the essential requirement of being able to preach in Irish. He spoke of the 19th century when Presbyterian ministers learned Irish in order (often controversially) to ‘evangelise’ Irish-speaking areas (‘proselytise’ was the word used by the Catholic inhabitants of those areas). And he said: “Nationalists who claim the Irish language as their own property have no right to do so, and unionists who label Irish a foreign language don’t know their own history.”
Knowing the unionist community as I do, I am always a hard-headed realist when it comes to the possibility of any kind of political or cultural change in Northern Ireland. Reconciliation between the divided communities there must remain the priority for the foreseeable future. Could the unlikely proposition that the Irish language might play a part here be a surprising element in this? I hope and pray it may be so.
¹ Our Tangled Speech, Ulster Historical Foundation/ULTACH Trust, 2018
² Presbyterians and the Irish Language, Ulster Historical Foundatin/ULTACH Trust, 1996