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Protestants and the Irish Language – Webinar shares perspectives on the language North and South

Protestants and the Irish Language – Webinar shares perspectives on the language North and South
Linda Ervine and Gary Hastings.

The Church of Ireland Centre at Dublin City University hosted a fascinating event focused on Protestants and their engagement with the Irish language yesterday evening (Wednesday March 30). The event, which took place online with a small studio audience which included the Archbishop of Dublin, featured Canon Gary Hastings, Rector of Holy Trinity, Killiney, who hails from Belfast and Linda Ervine, manager of the Turas Irish language project in East Belfast. Both spoke of their experiences of learning Irish as adults.

There were four respondents to their presentations: Danny Kennedy, chair of the Ulster Unionist Party; former Irish rugby international Trevor Ringland who is involved in cross community organisations in Northern Ireland; Ida Milne, historian and co–editor of Protestant and Irish; and Deirdre Nuttall, author of Different and the Same.

The event was recorded and you can watch it on YouTube: https://youtu.be/pefZr_0v4AI

Linda Ervine told the gathering that her journey with Irish came about unexpectedly when she did a taster course 10 years ago and fell in love with the language. She didn’t think that a Protestant learning Irish was a big deal but it attracted interest as her husband, Brian, led the Progressive Unionist Party. She said there were a range of responses varying from interest to hostility. She was accused of leading Protestants down the green brick road into the bog.

Her learning about Irish led her to discover that there were links between the Irish language and her own community, even the name Belfast comes from the Irish: Béal Feirste. “As I started to learn Irish I started to realise that it was all around me – in our speech, our churches, in organisations that were Protestant and should not have a natural link to the Irish language, yet there was. In some ways it gave me permission to learn the language. It’s strange that I needed to justify it to myself,” she said.

She spoke of her initial dismissal of Ulster Scots but said she became intrigued with it and noticed an overlap between two distinct languages. “The people who polarise the languages have got it wrong. When you embrace one, you embrace the other […] I get despondent when I see the polarisation of communities, language and culture that exists in Northern Ireland and that you’re only allowed to fit into one box and the majority don’t fit into one box […] The journey I’m on, I don’t know if I’m going to be líofa (fluent) at the end of it. The destination is not the important part but the journey is. I’ve spent the last 10 years helping and encouraging other Protestants to do the same,” she explained.

Gary Hastings spoke of his background growing up in loyalist east Belfast. His father worked in the shipyard and his uncle was president of Glentoran. He never knowingly met a Catholic until he was 18. He went to Coleraine to study physics and became interested in traditional music. This was the first time he came across Catholics and met a few people who spoke Irish. He said he had never suspected this existed and described them as exotic.

Gary fell in with people who loved traditional music and Irish and their enthusiasm was infectious. He left his physics course and decided to pursue Irish studies. He recalled that his own people were bewildered by the choice but only because they wanted to know if he could get a job from it. Irish was something obscure to them and he might as well have been studying Serbo–Croat, he said. He and his wife Caitríona brought their children up through Irish as much as they could. While the language of the home was Irish he said both children were now passively fluent but rarely spoke it.

“For the last 40 years I’ve spoken Irish 40–50% of the time. I had time to step out of the narrow ghettoised society I was reared in without leaving the country. When I had the chance to throw my leg over the fence, it was the same but different […] I’ve worked in the Free State for 30 years. My experience here with Protestants is that in the main the Irish language is rarely an integral part of how they see themselves,” he stated.

In more recent years there had been a growing relationship between members of the Church of Ireland and the Irish language in the south, he noted. There were Irish language services and thanks to the work of Cumann Gaelach na hEaglaise, it was no longer as strange as it was. He said that tribal groups were becoming irrelevant in the South and people could be interested in Irish if they wanted. He said he understood the fears of Protestants in Northern Ireland who were afraid of not belonging or being cast out of their own world by learning the language but he had done both and hadn’t lost his own faith.

Responding to the presentations, Danny Kennedy said he grew up in south Armagh and didn’t have a lot of interest in the Ulster Scots language but was very committed to Ulster Scots culture, particularly through the Royal Orders and bands. He said his grandfather in the 1900s was fluent in Irish and was curious about how that tradition had disappeared. But on Newry and Mourne District Council, of which he was a member for 25 years, it was rammed down their throats. “Irish has been politicised and that is to the detriment of it. In a very divided society in Northern Ireland I worry that Irish continues to be used as a political weapon which is a great tragedy,” he said.

Ida Milne said she had been charmed to see how Linda Ervine was depoliticising the Irish language. Growing up in a Protestant family in Wexford, Ida said she was six–eighths Cromwellian so she shouldn’t like Irish. But she loved Irish in school and it was only when she moved outside the south east that she learned that some Protestants saw it as an imposition on their education and others felt they were not genetically disposed to speak it. But she said for some Protestants, particularly in more rural areas, speaking Irish had been a way of engaging with their communities because they wanted to fit in.

Trevor Ringland pointed out that cultural debate was important in building relationships. He said hatred needed to be removed from the debate. He suggested that the Irish language was thriving in Northern Ireland and asked how better communication around language and culture could be achieved and how it could be de–weaponised. “What people tend to forget is that we love this part of the island. We have to take it off people who use it to divide […] We have to find ways to work together,” he contended.

Outlining her background, Deirdre Nuttall said she went through the Catholic education system and didn’t consider herself part of the Protestant community. She suggested that in independent Ireland there were two ways of responding – some education institutions didn’t really engage with Irish while others engaged with Irish as a way to feel Irish without getting into political views. More importantly, she said, was that knowing Irish was a mode of becoming socially upwardly mobile. Lower income Irish Protestants would have left school at 14 to work on a farm or go into service. But if they had Irish they could get scholarships through Coláiste Mobhí and become teachers. They could also encourage others to become socially upwardly mobile through teaching in Church of Ireland schools.

Professor Pádraig Ó Duibhir, Deputy Dean of the Institute of Education at DCU, said the seminar had been really interesting with a range of perspectives and insights. He thanked Professor Anne Lodge, director of the Church of Ireland Centre for organising the webinar.

Watch the video of the evening below.


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