Martin McGuinness, an eminent icon of Irish political life, has died in his native Derry. From the terraced streets of the Bogside to the salubrious surroundings of Stormont, the once undisputed bastion of Ulster unionism, agendaNi reflects upon one man’s political odyssey. At the age of 21 Martin McGuinness had risen to second in command...
As the wife of former PUP leader Brian Ervine and sister-in-law of the late David Ervine, Linda Ervine’s roots amoung the loyalist working class community of east Belfast make her an unlikely campaigner for the Irish language with which her name is now synonymous. As the Irish language once again enters the political arena of Stormont, David Whelan talks to Ervine about the public perception of the language and her TURAS (journey).
In her own words, Linda Ervine “Thit i ngrá (fell in love)” with the Irish language while in her early 40s having previously viewed the language as something “alien”. The detached sentiment, she believes, is one that is shared by many within the unionist community and driven by a lack of understanding around the language’s origins and ownership.
“I had one learner of a Protestant background sum up very well the feelings that I myself had been through and had had to overcome. He said, ‘I know I am interested in learning about the language, but I can’t help but feel that I am doing something wrong or betraying something, but I don’t know what it is I am betraying’. I think that feeling is something that is defined by this stereotype that exists around what the Irish language is about and what the profile of an Irish speaker is. It’s nonsense of course, but it takes you to make that initial step before there is any realisation around the depth and diversity of the language.”
Breaking down such barriers for people who are interested in listening is something that Ervine has invested herself in for the best part of six years. Despite being raised in family who were politically left of centre and experiencing a number of family mixed marriages, which, she believes, exposed her to the other side and meant she didn’t carry the “sectarian baggage” held by others, the Irish language still presented a “hump” that she had to get over.
Tackling that obstacle came in the form of a six week taster course offered through the cross-community women’s group that Ervine was involved with. A group which she believes reinforced for her a sense that people want to extend their interests outside of those community stereotypes. “What was really striking was that it was the Protestant women in the group who looked forward to engaging with the Irish language and the nationalist women were interested in Kate’s dress for the royal wedding,” laughs Ervine. “It was that interest in something unknown to them.”
The TURAS programme at the East Belfast Mission has grown steadily and currently accommodates 150 people in 13 classes per week, 75 per cent of which from a unionist background. Its expansion has meant that there are now two exam classes with students seeking to gain qualifications and has also deepened to include the likes of tin whistle, set dancing and Irish dancing classes, as well as workshops and talks on the historic links between Protestants and the Irish language.
Addressing the growing interest in the project, Ervine states: “I think the narrative has very much changed from those early days when we had a handful of people wanting to come and explore more about Irish. One of the strengths of TURAS is that we were very open about what we were doing here and we didn’t do it quietly like you might assume we would in a unionist-dominated area. We made it clear that we weren’t doing anything wrong and I think that has dissolved some of the nervousness that previously existed. We’re also promoters of Ulster Scots but one of the questions that is often put to me is ‘why Irish?’ and my response is always the same, why not Irish? It is something that exists all around us in our place names, our surnames and our vocabulary. It’s part of our culture and once I discovered that it was like someone had taken a veil away.
“I disagree with those who describe the language as divisive. Instead, I view it as a bridge that unites people within these islands.”
“I also found that the amount of people who possess a cúpla focail (a few words) to be staggering, especially within the unionist community and their stories were always fascinating. I’ve had conversations with people who were orphans and educated in the Masonic school in Dublin, others who as Protestants were educated in convents because it was seen as a higher standard of education and clergy people, all of whom were exposed to the language to some degree.”
Ervine speaks with joy about being able to enlighten others about the history of the Irish language, especially to the Protestant community as she easily recalls the details of the Presbyterian General Assembly making it a requirement for all of their trainee ministers to study the language back in 1840s and acknowledges that the largest Gaeltacht exists not in Ireland but in Scotland, where the majority of speakers would be Protestant. Her favourite tool however, is helping people understand the origin of some of our most prominent place names, of which it is estimated that 95 per cent derive from the Irish language. “When you show people that places like Belfast (Béal Feirste – mouth of the sandy ford), Lisnasharragh (Lios na Searrach – the fort of the foals) and Finaghy (An Fionnachadh – the white field) all derive their names from Irish, very often you will see their interest lift.”
Despite Ervine’s best efforts to expand the knowledge of the language and show its value to both sides of the community, the language remains a political tool, highlighted not least by events at Stormont. Speaking about the recent removal and then reinstatement of Líofa funding by DUP Communities Minister Paul Givan, Ervine welcomed the U-turn but called for an end to the use of the language as a political weapon.
“I disagree with those who describe the language as divisive. Instead, I view it as a bridge that unites people within these islands when you consider links to Scottish Gaelic and Manx Gaelic for example.
“I also don’t believe that any move against the Irish language can be described as sectarian because of the range and diversity of those people involved. It’s not a language for one side of the community. Recently the Alliance Party have shown their support for the language and I would love to see a situation where all political parties embrace the language, meaning that it can’t be used as a political weapon from one side or the other. That’s the situation in Scotland.
“I don’t want to see the language being used by any group as their bargaining tool and it is sad that it does appear to be happening, but for us, the language is about culture, about bringing people together, about reconciliation and about healing.”
However, Ervine is clear that people must be willing to embrace the language and not have it forced upon them. Referencing proposals to introduce greater dual-language signage around Northern Ireland, she says: “I find dual language signs very useful and interesting because I am a language learner, but what I don’t want to see is the sign used to demarcate certain areas as is so often the case here with flags and signs.
“I’d be more interested in seeing historical townland names translated rather than modern street names. I believe that about Ulster Scots too. I think those are interesting to all and not offensive.”
Looking to the future Ervine believes that the mark of success of the TURAS project will be when it is eclipsed by one of the many feeder groups inspired to open on because of the east Belfast success.