Linda Ervine: 'I don't want to be part of the problem in Northern Ireland'
The outspoken Protestant Irish language advocate from east Belfast tells Joanne Sweeney how unionists and republicans have each tried to use her for their political ends - and how no one will stop her owning the language that she loves.
Q. Tell us a bit about your upbringing in east Belfast?
A. I'm from Thistle Street on the Newtownards Road and I was born in that house, my daddy was born there, my nanny was born there.
My mother is from the Crumlin Road but my daddy's family were communists and he was one of five sons.
One of my uncles also married a girl from the Short Strand so my cousins all grew up as Catholics in the Short Strand. My grandfather on my mother's side was an Englishman. His wife, my grandmother, was a Catholic who became a Presbyterian. Another member of the family was in the RUC, so it was a very mixed background.
Q. Life was often difficult for you, wasn't it?
A. The Troubles started in August 1969 and my daddy left home in August 1969. We went up to the top of the Crumlin Road to live with my mother's people so I lost my home as well. Nobody told us as children what had happened, that's just how it was in those days.
I fell pregnant at 16. All of a sudden the world was very different to me and I didn't meet my first husband until I was 18 and I married him when I was 22.
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My marriage started running into problems later and I've suffered a lot of mental illness, having suffered from agoraphobia for years. I was always known to be highly strung as they would call it in the family and took panic attacks. I also underwent psychotherapy for eight years and that had a great benefit for me.
Q. So how did a young, uneducated mother-of-three go on to become a qualified teacher?
A. I went back into education after my first grandchild was born, so in my early thirties. There was no real plan there, it was just something to do to get out of the house. I got hooked on education, hooked on learning. Before that I had a very insular life, I didn't go out much and didn't have many friends. I worked when I could and I reared my children, that was my life.
Q. You are a devout Christian. Tell us how you found your faith?
A. I was saved before I was 40. It wasn't one definitive moment. I must have been under conviction (ready to be saved by God) but it was a number of things. I started taking my granddaughter to Sunday school at McQuiston Memorial and I felt really at home there. I used to sit at the front and would just cry and cry. I would like listen to the choir sing and they must have thought I was a nutter.
I remember it was coming up to the millennium and one of the churches put out a St Mark's Gospel book. Normally I would have thrown it into the bin but I read it from cover to cover. I was just blown away by Christ and who he was. To me, he was the greatest socialist ever.
Q. How did you get to become an Irish language teacher leading the Turas (Journey) project in east Belfast?
A. It was here (East Belfast Mission in the Skainos centre, Newtownards Road) over four years ago. I was part of the women's group here in the church and we did a six-week taster course in Gaelic, Ulster-Scots, Scots Gaelic. I supposed I had always been interested in the Irish language, and I just took on to it.
Q. You have become - whether intended or not - a spokesperson for the Irish language and have been lauded by some Sinn Fein politicians. Do you feel uncomfortable in this role?
A. It's like walking on a tightrope in many ways and yes it is difficult. I know what my agenda is, what my work is about. I can't be responsible for other people's agendas are and yet I know that there are times that people use me for their agenda.
Q. What is your agenda?
A. That's to make the Irish language accessible to everybody, to dilute the power of those who would use it for political purposes. For those who try and make out that the Irish language is there for nobody unless you are republican, nationalist or Catholic, well that's just not true. To me it has the potential to unify people, not to divide them. There were people who wanted me to make Turas a very narrow, nasty part of the problem, in that we would have been the Protestant part of the Irish language. It would be Ulster Gaelic, along the lines of we don't use the term Irish language so that it would Ulster Gaelic and we are taking it back. That's never appealed to me, that's not what I'm about.
Q. Who tried to make you do that?
A. Well, it was a number of people and I just wouldn't like to say.
Q. Would they be from a unionist background?
A. Yes, very and that's not a game that I want to play.
Q. You were encouraged to rebrand Irish from a Protestant perspective?
A. Yes I was and I think there was enough of that in Northern Ireland. There was also this idea that Ulster-Scots was going to be a stick to beat us with. I had to sit down and think about it, and to be honest, I had never any interest in Ulster-Scots.
Q. Is if fair to say that both certain unionists and republicans/nationalists have tried to use you for their own ends?
A. There's no doubt about it.
Q. How do you handle this and the public criticism from certain Protestant leaders?
A. I just keep in mind what my aims are and keep going. I can't control what other people do, I can only control what I do and what I say and what I think. The most important thing to me is that I don't want to be part of the problem in Northern Ireland, there's too much division. If I see something wrong, or something that I don't agree with then I will speak out and to me it doesn't matter what that's a unionist or nationalist, or loyalist or republican. If I believe some thing's wrong, it's wrong.
Q. Have you and your family experienced any abuse?
A. Not really. But my husband always jokes, saying sometimes, 'we'll have no windows now'. There were eggs thrown at the house one night but I don't honestly know what it was for but as I just cleaned it up and went on and said no more about it. I have been trolled on social media and that's probably been the worst of it. I have people who don't speak to me now and have received dirty looks and such.
Q. Have you been openly accused of betraying your east Belfast loyalist background?
A. Never to my face. Something that makes me smile is when we first officially opened Turas a well-known loyalist put this thing on Facebook attacking us, although he didn't name me. He put at the end of it, 'We are a separate people' meaning Protestants but he's actually related to my cousin and she said his mother is a Catholic. So he's not 'a separate people'. My grandmother was a Catholic and so I'm not 'a separate people'. So then I question who are these separate people who came over here 400 years ago and lived in a bubble and there's never been any conversion or intermarriage. I attack and challenge that idea.
Q. So if we were to put labels on Linda Ervine, what would they be, a mother, grandmother, Presbyterian and loyalist?
A. I'm a Presbyterian, a Christian, a Protestant and very proud of that. I'm British. I couldn't define myself as a loyalist really. Let me explain. I see the term loyalist as a term to denigrate people as you won't call anyone up in Cherryvalley a loyalist, they're nice unionists. It's been used to separate the nasty working-class Protestants from the nice middle-class Protestants.
Q. Have you been more welcomed by your own community than criticised for your pro-Irish language stance?
A. It's been a mixture really. I have been given a lot of support from my community. I do what I do because I have that support. We all know what working-class communities are like and I've been allowed to do this, let's put it that way. There are people who have influenced who are very happy at what I do and very supportive of what I do.
Q. So who has been your biggest critic?
A. I think it has been George Chittick from the Orange Order actually. He's been at it again and he has been vocal about these Protestants who take money from the Irish language. He's been telling us not to use the language, although he uses it but quite badly actually.
Q. If you could teach Irish to anyone, who would it be?
A. George Chittick - then he could say things properly.
Q. What did you think about Gregory Campbell's 'curry my yoghurt' remarks in the Northern Ireland Assembly?
A. I thought that was deplorable. I know people made light of it but it really made me angry because the reality is that if anyone got up and made fun of any other language so disrespectfully to the Chinese or Polish language, we would all be absolutely horrified and rightfully so. So why is acceptable to do that with Irish? Why would he lower himself to do that? And he did it again at the party's conference.
I go to the PUP conference every year and people from all walks of life come and speak and take part and are treated respectfully. I could never imagine that happening at a PUP conference.
Q. With several of the new councils opting to use the Irish language prominently on logos, can you understand how some Protestants feel that too much prominence is being given to the language too soon?
A. I can but I come from a very different place as I love the language so I have knowledge that other people don't. We had a visitor over from the Isle of Man and he was showing that water vans there have the water in Gaelic - Uisce - and English and that's part of the UK. There's the same happens in parts of Scotland so it doesn't seem to be a big deal for me. But when you see the language as a symbol for something else, that's when the problems begin.
Here in Turas, we have the majority of people who define themselves as unionist, maybe even loyalist, and we have a minority of people who would define themselves as nationalist or republican or none of the above. People can be who they are. We are not trying to convert anyone. So if someone walked in here wearing a poppy or Easter lily, it's perfectly acceptable. That's what's wrong here.
Let flags fly, let bands play and just get over it. I don't see the Irish language as a symbol of anything divisive so it doesn't bother me to see it on a van or on a logo.
Q. What's the impact of political rows over the Irish language for you?
A. When these things happen, when I see the language being used in a way that some people see divisive, it makes my life more difficult.
But the language doesn't fly a flag, it doesn't have a political outlook, there are some people who use it for that. In my talk, my last slide is Tiocfaidh ár lá (Our Day Will Come) but the language can also be used to Ní ghéillfimid (No Surrender). A language is just a language and for me it's the innocent in all of this. Just because someone misuses the language that isn't going to stop me using the language that I believe is part of my heritage.
Q. Would you ever consider going into politics?
A. Absolutely not. I'm not quick or fly enough or clever enough.
Q. Alliance MP Naomi Long said in this feature several weeks ago that east Belfast was in the control of paramilitary racketing and drug dealing. How aware are you of this?
A. Everybody's aware of it and everyone knows what's going on.
Q. Do you think that the PSNI is doing enough to combat it?
A. No, no, they never have and everybody knows it. I shouldn't say too much but these people are parasites on their own communities.
Q. How accepting has the Irish language community been of you and your students?
A. I find the Irish language community is a very diverse community, very apolitical and very welcoming. Before I got involved I would have thought it was full of republicans but it's not, there's more to it. I would hear more criticism of Sinn Fein from the Irish language community that anywhere else.
Q. What are your hopes for the future?
A. For myself I hope one day to be líofa (fluent) and even if I never become líofa, by God I will have enjoyed the turas, the journey. Learning Irish has just created a whole new world for me. Regarding the job, judging by last two years, anything can happen.
We do have great support here for what we do. I feel that we are a very positive message for unionism as all of the sudden we are very prominent in the Irish language community.
Our students have been to the Gaeltacht with their poppies on and while some people maybe were a bit taken aback, not one word was said.
So people who want to put Protestants in a narrow, nasty box, well, they can't do that with us.