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Forget about your politics, Irish language belongs to us all

By Julian de Spainn

Published 04/08/2015

Fluent: Former UVF chief Gusty Spence spoke the Irish language
Fluent: Former UVF chief Gusty Spence spoke the Irish language

The Gaelic League - or Conradh na Gaeilge as it is now known - was founded as a language revivalist organisation in 1893 by Douglas Hyde, an academic scholar and the son of a Church of Ireland rector.

Around this time, 100 years ago, at the organisation's 1915 ard fheis in Dundalk a motion was passed which some would have seen as changing the apolitical nature of the organisation.

Conradh na Gaeilge has long been working to represent Irish speakers of all political persuasions and none. However, a motion ratified at our 2008 ard fheis reaffirmed our original commitment to the exclusive pursuit of Irish-language protection and development.

The modern-day Conradh na Gaeilge is actively working to ensure anyone with an interest in the language feels welcome to join the vibrant and multicultural Irish-speaking community in Ireland, and we have been extremely keen to raise awareness among communities that may have had little or no contact with the language thus far.

Representatives from Conradh na Gaeilge have met with the Orange Order, we have liaised with different ethnic and national groups now living in Ireland, and we have been working closely with the newly established super councils to ensure a better provision of services for the Irish language community across each of the new 11 boundaries.

The Irish Language Act that Conradh na Gaeilge is currently campaigning for would protect the rights of all Irish speakers and bring us in line with the rest of the UK and Ireland in terms of language protection and legislation.

We have worked to support the establishment of secondary provision through the medium of Irish in south Derry and continue to work closely with other stakeholders to increase access to the Irish language for children in the English-medium sector, regardless of background.

Trojan work is also being done by the likes of the East Belfast Mission to promote the Irish language among unionists, loyalists and Protestants alike. The Skainos Centre registers its Irish language events with Seachtain na Gaeilge, Conradh na Gaeilge's annual international celebration of the Irish language every March, and members of the Conradh have long been involved in promoting Irish within communities of every religion and none.

It would surprise many to discover that famous Irish speakers from the unionist/loyalist community include Ian Adamson, William 'Plum' Smith and former UVF leader Gusty Spence.

Speaking Irish simply means that you speak Irish. It does not assume that you are of one political leaning or another.

Insinuations that speaking Irish equates to republicanism is what hinders progress towards reconciling the public perception of what being an Irish speaker actually signifies and also provides "justification" for the continued denial of rights for Irish speakers.

In reality, there is widespread support for the language, as highlighted in a survey carried out by Millward Brown earlier this year. It showed that the majority in both jurisdictions believes services should be available through Irish for those who seek them, while one in two also believes that bilingual signs should be erected in areas in the north where there is demand.

Therefore, let us not focus on how we were divided as a community in the past, but rather let us look to the future. Let us work towards an atmosphere of inclusiveness that equally welcomes unionists, republicans and all others to engage with the language that informs our place-names, our surnames, and our common cultural landscape - from Shankill's old graveyard, Sean Chill, to Knocknagoney's hill of the rabbits, Cnoc na gCoinini.

Irish is our shared heritage and it belongs to everyone. The onus is on our generation to ensure that the Irish language unites us, not divides us, in 2015 and beyond.

  • Julian de Spainn is general secretary of Conradh na Gaeilge, the democratic forum for the Irish-speaking community

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