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‘Northern Protestants like me are embracing the Irish language’

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Linda Ervine began learning the language in 2011

Linda Ervine began learning the language in 2011

Linda Ervine began learning the language in 2011

In Northern Ireland we often see comments on social media saying that the Irish language is divisive, and that Protestants should not learn it. It is supposed to be the language of the enemy, the language of republicanism.

As a working-class Protestant from East Belfast that has not been my experience. There was no opportunity to learn Irish in my part of the city back in 2011. So, the course I attended was in a centre in a nationalist area in South Belfast.

There, I was made welcome by both the teachers and the other learners. My religion or politics were not a barrier or an issue.

I have to admit that before starting the classes, I had a preconceived idea of who was an Irish speaker and, I suppose, words like republican and ex-prisoner would have come to mind. And at the first class, although the majority of the people I met were Catholic I also met other Protestants and people from England and other parts of the world who were learning Irish. I received an education about the diversity of the Irish language community, and I had been ignorant of that.

Since 2012, Turas has been working to increase that diversity in a working- class loyalist area in East Belfast. From just one class in the first year, Turas now offers 14 classes a week, with almost 300 people registering each year to learn Irish. The majority are from the Protestant community.

Everyone who comes to a Turas class is treated fairly and equally, regardless of background, religion or politics and is supported to progress as far as they can on their journey to Irish.

The work of Turas shows that the Irish language is not divisive. It is is something that everyone can enjoy, and it can heal the results of decades of conflict and the legacy of division and fear.

Not everyone likes what we do and the journey has not always been easy. Turas, and myself personally, have experienced opposition, resistance and downright hostility, particularly on social media.

Anonymous keyboard warriors who make false allegations are not interested in the wonderful cross-community work that takes place daily within Turas — the long- term friendships that are created between participants in our programmes.

Turas has gone from strength to strength and every day we see the positive impact of our work. The language has proven the perfect medium for bringing together our divided community.

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It is a bridge which unites communities and reminds us of our shared history; it is also a bridge between the countries of these islands.

The ethos of Turas is that Irish is for everyone. If more Protestants achieve qualifications in Irish and obtain jobs within the Irish language sector, the perception of Irish speakers will change.

Turas fundraises to provide financial and other support for learners to enrol for third level Irish language courses.

Now, in a very exciting development, Turas is supporting the setting up of an integrated Irish language playgroup in East Belfast.

Naíscoil na Seolta will open next month, providing bilingual early education for 16 young children. Like Turas, Naíscoil na Seolta believes that we cannot wait for society in Northern Ireland to integrate itself.

We have to go out of our way to offer children a broader range of friendships and experiences. We have to build spaces where children can get to know each other and learn about their different identities together.

Doing all this through the Irish language will add another layer of cultural diversity, and enrich children’s lives with bilingualism. Just imagine if, on hearing a young person speaking Irish fluently in Belfast, there was not an immediate assumption about their religious or political background. That’s the future and it’s not far away.

Linda Ervine will speak about her Irish language journey at St Columb’s College, Derry as part of Culture Night on September 17


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