Belfast Telegraph

How Protestants have flown the flag for Irish, even if some of us can only name pieces of household furniture

By Lindy McDowell

Last week, down in Portugal, I opened my door to a couple of grey-haired ladies clad in their Sunday best. We exchanged the usual pleasantries; the main spokeswoman fluent, me in my pigeon Portuguese.

When I explained that I only spoke a little Portuguese, the other lady began to fissle importantly through leaflets in a bag she was carrying.

Meanwhile, "Ingles?" the spokeswoman asked. No, I replied. "Irlanda".

At this, the fissling stopped dead. The two ladies looked at each other. Consternation.

"We are Jehovah's Witnesses," one explained (I'd guessed). "But I'm sorry, we don't have any leaflets in Irish."

At this point, I had neither the heart nor indeed the Portuguese language skills to reply that even if they'd had a leaflet in Irish, it wouldn't be much use to me. I'd still have had to get someone to translate it.

Arlene Foster, maybe...

I did once try to learn a bit of Irish. My excuse for not sticking with it was that my sons were very young back then, I was working full-time and so, fitting in evening classes as the dark winter evenings drew in just became too much of a bind.

Like Arlene, though, I can say thank you. I can greet people and manage a few other starter-level things along the lines of "There is the window", "There is the table".

If you ever need anyone to show you where the door is in Irish, I'm your woman.

My reason for trying to learn Irish was that I've always been fascinated by language generally. I love the idea that these different sounds we make allow us to communicate with each other not just on a primal, practical level, but to express the most profound and complex thoughts and emotions.

Although Irish is promoted by some as the exclusive property of one side of the community, that's a nonsense. A few examples. It's believed that several of the original apprentice boys who shut the gates of Derry spoke Irish. Edward Carson, the father of Unionism, was fluent. The Ulster Gaelic Society, which was the first of its kind in Ireland, was founded by the Presbyterian industrialist Robert Shipboy McAdam.

You could go on and on and on.

Any of us, in fact, who can trace our presence in this part of the world back a few generations will doubtless have ancestors who spoke Gaelic.

Which is why Sinn Fein's attempts, in more recent history, to use the language as a form of sectarian tribal branding are contemptible.

And the unionist parties' response, that Gaelic has nothing to do with their culture, equally so.

Gerry Adams uses it as a stick with which to poke unionist politicians. More fool them if they let him.

I would hazard a guess that many of those people who claim on census forms that they speak Irish are, like myself, still only at the stage of being able to point out various pieces of household furniture.

As for the fluent, several of those I know are unionists. Linda Ervine and Chris McGimspey are far from anomalies.

And many Protestant kids (especially at integrated schools) choose to learn the language, and excel at it.

All in all, then, I think Arlene's current outreach re Irish is to be commended. But do we need an Irish Language Act? And what should be in it?

It goes without saying that we can all think of more pressing priorities for funding. Schools, the health service.

Our problem is that, here, we obsess, on all sides, over symbolism at the expense of practicality. And so, these questions must be tackled.

But sad, I think, that we're more consumed with the debate about whether we should have bilingual road signs than we are about doing something to sort out, say, the potholes.

A metaphor there, I think, for all that's currently wrong with local politics.

Bumbling Abbott's number should be up

As someone who isn’t that great at sums either, I do feel some sympathy for Diane Abbott who suggested in a radio interview that Labour plans to recruit 10,000 more police officers at a cost of £300,000. i.e. £30 per head. Obviously no comradely concerns about minimum wage, there.

In the catastrophic interview, as she stumbled very slowly through figures (obviously being handed to her) she sounded like Dawn French. Hilarious, yes, when you’re the Vicar of Dibley.

Not so funny, though, when you’re the Shadow Home Secretary.

Mike's mystery melee left us all floored

Everybody seems to agree that we should keep our prurient noses out of politicians’ private lives. But come on, be honest...

The moment you read the line that, “Pictures have emerged of Mike Nesbitt face down on a hotel floor as a woman sits on him”, you did hit the link, didn’t you?

The story turns out to be less, well, exotic, than the intro suggests. There was a dispute between two women and Mike after he’d entered the bar with some friends.

“Things happened,” he says. 

Is it intrusive to want to ask what?

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