Belfast, Northern Ireland – Seomra ranga – “classroom”, in Ireland’s indigenous language – reads a cardboard sign tacked onto a door. A little further down the hall, a leabharlann is filled with books. It is a very Irish scene, but in a very unlikely place: East Belfast Mission on Newtownards Road.
Across the street, a mural commemorates the Protestant paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force. Union Jack flags fly from lampposts in the shadow of the shipyards that built the Titanic.
In Northern Ireland, the Irish Gaelic language has traditionally been a largely Catholic pursuit. The overwhelming majority of the 5,000 children in Irish-language education hail from nationalist areas.
But this might be about to change. The Turas Centre in the East Belfast Mission – turas means “journey” in Irish Gaelic – hosts 10 Irish-language classes a week. About 90 percent of those filing in and out of the seomra ranga and reading textbooks in the leabherlann are Protestant.
“The Irish language is part of our culture. It belongs to everyone,” said Linda Ervine, an Irish language development officer at the East Belfast Mission.
I would just call it a bullying session. There were three men and myself. They accused me of diluting ulster Protestantism. I said, 'Well it depends what your definition of Ulster Protestantism is.'
Ervine is the closest East Belfast comes to royalty: loyalist leader David Ervine was her brother-in-law; her husband, Brian, is like his late brother David, a former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party.
From the ancient Gaelic-speaking kingdom
Linda Ervine’s soft voice and gentle manner bely a formidable passion for the Irish language – and for why Northern Ireland’s Protestant community should take it up.
“There is every reason why Protestants should be learning Irish,” she said. “Ninety-five percent of our place names come from Gaelic… We are using words in our language every day that come from the Gaelic language. We are steeped in it.”
On a nearby wall hangs a map of Britain and Ireland turned on its side, showing the ancient Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Dalriada, which spread across the north coast of Ireland and the western isles of Scotland in the late sixth and early seventh centuries.
Most Gaelic speakers in Scotland are Protestant, and when they came to Ireland during the Plantations, they brought their language with them, Ervine explained.
Ervine’s own turas to Irish began three years ago, when the women’s group she was part of at the East Belfast Mission took a starter course in the language. She was bitten by the bug and soon enrolled in an intensive course at an Irish centre in a nearby nationalist area.
Since then, Ervine has been travelling across Northern Ireland giving presentations and talks about the history of Protestantism and the Irish language. “We discovered that in the 1901 and 1911 census, people listed themselves as having Irish here in East Belfast,” she said.
Ervine is not the first figure from a loyalist background to shine a light on the Irish aspect of Ulster Protestant identity.
In the early 1990s, not far from where the Turas Centre sits today, the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force – responsible for hundreds of killings during the 30-year-long “Troubles“ – painted a mural on Newtownards Road celebrating the Irish mythological hero Cuchulainn as a defender of Ulster. The Red Hand Commando, a splinter group of the Ulster Volunteer Force, had “Lamh Dearg Abu” (Victory to the Red Hand) as its motto.
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Mind your language
But many unionists have not been sympathetic to Ervine’s efforts to encourage Protestants to embrace Irish.
At a meeting of Down District Council in March, three Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) councillors walked out just minutes before she was due to give a presentation. UUP councillor Walter Lyons said the party “had to make a stand” because the Irish language was being “forced upon” unionists and “used against us”.
Earlier this year, George Chittick, Belfast County Grand Master of the Orange Order, an influential Protestant organisation, issued a “word of warning to Protestants who go learn Irish”. He later said his remarks were aimed at Protestants seeking funding for Irish-language projects – a thinly veiled attack on the Turas Centre.
The Orange Order’s criticism was “very sad”, said Ervine.
“I was invited to speak to the Orange Order shortly after that, and I would just call it a bullying session. There were three men and myself. They accused me of diluting Ulster Protestantism. I said, ‘Well, it depends what your definition of Ulster Protestantism is’.”
Irish has official recognition in Northern Ireland under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The peace deal also recognised Ulster Scots, a distinctive dialect spoken by some Protestants. But the Democratic Unionist Party, who share power in a devolved government at Stormont, in Belfast, have blocked subsequent attempts to enact an Irish-language act.
In January, the Council of Europe criticised what it called Stormont’s “hostile” attitude towards Irish. Earlier this month, Irish language speakers marched in Belfast in protest over what they described as Stormont’s “failure” to protect the language.
“The ongoing failure to protect and promote the language in the courts, in public signage and in the education sector continues to unravel the promises made in the Good Friday Agreement,” said Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) in a statement.
In spite of government policy, people all over Ireland are choosing Irish medium education. In Belfast, we are seeing a critical mass of kids coming out with Irish.
Despite government gridlock, Irish is thriving on the ground, said Eimear Ni Mhathuna, director of the Culturlann centre on the Falls Road in West Belfast.
“As we speak, a group from the Shankill [a nearby majority Protestant area] are doing an Irish-language course upstairs,” she told Al Jazeera.
Irish took off in West Belfast in the late 1960s, when a group of Irish-speaking families set up an urban Gaeltacht, the name given to an Irish-speaking area. In 1971, a school called Bunscoil Phobal Feirste began with nine children. Now there are 12 Irish-language primary schools in Belfast.
Colaiste Feirste, a nearby secondary school, has nearly 600 pupils, and St Mary’s College provides teacher training in Irish. Two of Belfast’s last three Lord Mayors – including the incumbent Mairtin O Muilleoir – have been associated with the West Belfast Gaeltacht.
“In spite of government policy, people all over Ireland are choosing Irish medium education,” said Ni Mhathuna. “In Belfast, we are seeing a critical mass of kids coming out with Irish.”
Back in East Belfast, Ervine argued that Northern Ireland’s rich linguistic diversity should be cherished as an opportunity to bring people together, not push them apart.
“As people in Northern Ireland, when we open our mouths we speak beautiful constructions of English, Scots, Scots Gaelic and Irish Gaelic. We are using all those words, all that syntax, because we as a people bring all that together,” Ervine said.
“I am trying to show people that you can’t divide people into these boxes. You can’t say just because someone is Catholic they should speak Gaelic, or because they are a Protestant they should speak Ulster Scots. It just doesn’t work like that.”