In anyone’s language, the fact that a nursery school should be forced to relocate due to a “social media hate campaign” is outrageous. The very idea that toddlers at Naiscoil na Seolta, learning to count and drawing pictures of mummy, could pose a threat to anybody’s culture is absurd.
Yet the proposed opening of the first Irish language pre-school on the site of Braniel Primary School in east Belfast prompted such vile and libellous online abuse that the PSNI are investigating.
News the nursery had decided to move elsewhere was met with anger, despair and dismay.
But this being modern-day Northern Ireland, where anything can be a sectarian flashpoint, it also resulted in another slew of abusive comments on social media, this time with some painting every single Protestant as a knuckle-dragging bigot.
Which is a sweeping generalisation given that Braniel PS has 400 pupils yet its principal Diane Dawson said she received just three complaints about the nursery. She also stressed that only a few mounted the online campaign.
Still, it’s a free-for-all on social media, where even so-called voices of moderation can indulge themselves in lazy stereotypes, carefully avoiding caveats to subscribe to the accepted narrative.
Braniel PS is fortunate to have Mrs Dawson, a straight-talking woman with conviction and courage. Her words nailed it: “I am a unionist, I will be first, foremost, and last a unionist and not one word of the Irish language spoken undermines or weakens my unionism. And certainly not two-year-olds learning how to say colours on the Braniel school site.”
She was also spot-on when she told Nolan that “too many politicians have used the Irish language in an appalling manner, therefore it’s now coming back to bite them”.
While she didn’t specify who she meant, it’s fair to say elected representatives on all sides have politicised the language, from the republican centrality of an “Ireland United Gaelic and Free” to the crude jibe of “curry my yoghurt”.
Of course, it’s unfortunate the language should prove contentious because it does have the potential to belong to everyone.
There wasn’t always Protestant antagonism towards it. Indeed, it’s an irony of history that it was in some senses saved by northern Protestants in many revival movements during the 18th and 19th centuries when it was at risk of being lost.
Protestants were prominent in the Gaelic League, dedicated to the preservation of the language, before it was absorbed into a larger nationalist movement. And many Scottish planters who settled here in the 17th century spoke Irish or Scots Gaelic.
Today, it’s all about us in place names. We use it in everyday language without realising.
The Royal Irish Regiment has the battle cry “Faugh a Ballagh”. The Queen memorably spoke in Irish during her 2011 visit to the Republic of Ireland.
But, put bluntly, the three words most Protestants know now are Tiocfaidh ar La (“Our day will come”), an implicit threat used to intimidate them for decades when they were being targeted and murdered by the IRA — aka “Oglaigh na hEireann”.
Another familiar phrase is Sinn Fein (“Ourselves Alone”), that implied sorting between the true Irish and the rest of us.
So it’s not mysterious why some Protestants bristle at the idea of an Irish language nursery in loyalist east Belfast. Extremists have seized on it as a tool to pursue their own sectarian agendas, because they need very little to feed on.
But even with recent unionist paranoia, no one should confuse online bullies with broad Protestant or even unionist opinion, which is much more relaxed about these issues than the extremists would have us believe.
Many Protestants may be baffled by the commitment to the language of Linda Ervine, with her impeccable unionist credentials, but she’s demonstrated an appetite among Protestants for learning it. A language is neither republican nor unionist — it will say eloquently whatever its speaker wishes.
The problem is that simply condemning aggressive actions doesn’t get us far. What’s needed is less eye-rolling and more engagement.
The best way to remove fear is to acknowledge its origins openly and tackle misperceptions at root. It’s about accepting that “curry my yoghurt” is as much a weapon of exclusion as is or was “tiocfaidh ar la”.
Peace has to be founded on mutual understanding, talking and listening to each other.
People here are more open-minded than they’re given credit for. A generation which survived the Troubles is now at heart very much about “live and let live”.
There’s also been much cross-community work among our schools, learning about the other’s culture through exchange visits, joint trips away and on sports’ pitches. Lambeg drummers and bodhran players perform in classrooms they’d never have been in a few years back.
Catholic schools visit the House of Orange. Some routinely do the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, with participants enjoying camping in the Mournes without returning ardent royalists.
That’s the point really — you can find out and experience other cultures without being subsumed by them and losing your own identity. Being young should be about being curious, discovering what you like and becoming who you want to be.
The worst thing about being born in Northern Ireland is being lobbed at birth a bag of cultural identity, assumptions and politics — and that’s all you need to know for the rest of your life.
As a child holidaying in the south I loved seeing the translations for names like Belfast, Beal Feirste, or Dublin, Baile Atha Cliath, or Bray, Bre. But 40 years on here, Irish signs still feel more territorial than organic.
In my teens, I’d speech and drama classes with two sisters “from the other end of the town” as it was neatly put back then.
We relished meeting up, clumsily investigating taboo subjects from “the other side”. They were envious I didn’t study Irish at school and bemused I wanted them to teach me how to count to 10. That’s as far as I got.
So much could be solved here by openly confronting sectarianism right across society. And that includes the many people who don‘t think they’re sectarian at all — those who have rightful arguments about why the other lot should stay right where they are, or, better, just leave Ireland.
It would be a good start to let toddlers read, write and talk whatever way they wish — and timetable lessons in anti-sectarianism for the rest of us grown-ups.