Belfast Telegraph

Revival of native tongue among Protestants speaks volumes

The Irish language generates strong opinions in both communities as the 'curry my yoghurt' row shows. But there's no reason why it should be a cold house for unionists, writes Ian Malcolm

Linda Ervine in east Belfast, helping to bring Irish to the community
Linda Ervine in east Belfast, helping to bring Irish to the community
Mark Ervine, bringing Irish to the community

On Remembrance Sunday I wore my poppy and my fainne side by side. And I wore them both with equal pride. One demonstrates my love of Irish and the other the importance of remembering those who died in conflicts so that I could have the right to speak my language.

I'm Protestant, unionist and British and proud of all those things. But I'm also very proud to be an Irish speaker, and have been for 20 years. Speaking Irish has not turned me into a Catholic, nationalist or republican.

I'm not someone whose recently taken an interest in Irish, because it's becoming "trendy", or "fashionable". In a way, I've been a speaker all my life, but started to learn "for real" at a time when it was still seen as a slightly dodgy thing to do.

And I have to say I took some abuse back in those days. I was once told "go and live in Dublin if you want to speak that oul' foreign language" by a work colleague who couldn't comprehend that a fellow unionist would want to speak a tongue he found repulsive.

Strangely, about a week later he took me to one side, apologised and told me his own grandfather had been an Irish speaker.

The Irish language is full of contradictions, but then sure isn't everything in Northern Ireland?

There is no cultural, historical, or other reason why Protestants and unionists should not speak Irish. Indeed, for centuries they did.

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The surge of interest among Protestants in the language is only surprising in that it's taken so long to happen, for history shows that many Scottish Planters who settled here in the 17th century spoke Gaelic. Even as English was displacing Irish as the language of the people all over Ireland, many Protestants held on dearly to something they cherished.

Conversely, leading Catholics and the Church were often to blame for accelerating the decline and Daniel O'Connell (the champion of Catholic emancipation) urged his followers to abandon Irish.

Protestants are frequently credited with "saving" Irish and it is true that they were to the fore in many revival movements during the 19th century when the language was effectively in intensive care.

Protestants were prominent in the Gaelic League, a group dedicated to the preservation and expansion of the living language. But nationalism was on the march and elements sympathetic to the Irish Republican Brotherhood succeeded in linking the League to the republican cause at its annual meeting in 1915.

By explicitly tying Irish to nationalism the language movement became the proverbial "cold house" for Protestants and unionists, who gradually withdrew from any dalliance with such a seditious tongue.

Some say Ulster Protestants surrendered Irish, but I believe that the association was merely put on hold, although it certainly wasn't helped by the republican who notoriously said that "every word of Irish is another bullet in the cause of Irish freedom".

Irish generates strong opinions on both sides, as so painfully evidenced by the "curry my yoghurt" row. There is, however, an underlying and unsettling refrain which suggests that unionists and Protestants are possibly disloyal or even untrustworthy if they speak Irish.

Not true - I have never voted for a party without a "U" somewhere in its title. And why should I? Being an Irish speaker should not change one's beliefs or core values.

The Irish language is a beautiful thing, which sets us in Northern Ireland apart as a people. Our surnames, our placenames and even the way in which we use English in our own special way differentiate us from our neighbours on these islands without diminishing anyone's Britishness.

Yet the distrust works both ways: at an event in Donegal some years ago one of the assemblage bought me a pint. We spoke in Irish, of course, and he was the epitome of good-natured company - until he discovered that I was a Protestant.

He changed immediately, accused me of being an MI5 spy and refused to talk to me after that. So the perceptions about Protestant Irish speakers are shared by the closed minds on both sides.

But things are changing. There's less of that negativity and Protestants no longer have to "sneak off" to a Catholic area to learn Irish. The vibrant Skainos centre in east Belfast - where I have spoken often - shows that we are moving forward.

I myself run the Hidden Ulster course at Stranmillis, where people from both communities are learning about the language.

I explain our shared Gaelic heritage, tracing the history from the Celts (who were neither Protestant nor Catholic) to the present day.

When Irish was first spoken on these islands there were no nationalists and republicans, or unionists and loyalists.

What really interests my students is what I call "living Irish" - that's the language that's around us all in our everyday lives. My own favourite word is "skitter", an epithet often applied to me when I was a wean.

It literally translates as "s****". You'll also encounter it in the context "I've a quare dose of the skitters", something one might endure after an ill-advised feed of curry and yoghurt.

It's unusual for me to trouble the page in English now. I became a journalist on leaving school, but after many years of hacking decided to do a degree in Irish at Queen's, before going on to do a PhD in sociolinguistics.

And I'd have done none of that had it not been for Irish, the language I love. No one in my working-class family had even dreamt of university until I went to QUB, after tutoring myself for two A-Levels in the space of six weeks.

Now, virtually everything I do involves Irish in some way. I still write, but most of what I write is in Irish - even cheques. The language is something that has changed my life in many ways, but it has not changed those core values.

Irish, like any language, is a linguistic Meccano set, with all the grammatical nuts and bolts. You have your verbs, nouns, adjectives and so on, but how you put them together is entirely up to you.

One of the most offensive things a republican could say to a unionist used to be "Tiocfaidh Ar La" ("Our Day will Come"). I remember an occasion, waiting for a flight at Dublin Airport (I know, disloyal me: I should have been at Aldergrove), when one indeed did say this to me after he learned I spoke Irish.

Calmly, I turned round and replied: "Ni Thiocfaidh Bhur La." ("Your day will not come.") Yer man kept grinning, mind, and I suspect that his grasp of an Ghaeilge was limited to that single expression. Protestants are now reclaiming a lost heritage. I predicted 10 years ago that increasing belief that the peace process is for real would inspire such a revival. Speaking Irish is not an act of rebellion or treachery.

As a Protestant - and unionist - I see no contradiction in also being an Irish speaker. After all, I've "worn the T-shirt" and, literally, written the book.

Our wonderful language will live on, shared by all, long after we've gorged ourselves silly on curry and yoghurt.

  • Dr Ian Malcolm is an Irish language journalist and lecturer. He is the author of Towards Inclusion: Protestants And The Irish Language (Blackstaff Press). His Hidden Ulster and Beginner's Irish courses at Stranmillis will begin in February. Contact Zoe McMaster on 028 9038 4345 for further information.

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