Fionola Meredith: Can what has been divided by language also be brought together by it?

This week (May 20-26) is Community Relations Week, with over 180 events across Northern Ireland. Below, Fionola Meredith provides her thoughts as part of her involvement in the Community Relations Council Policy Conference which she was contributing to.

One of the most singular ironies of living in Northern Ireland is that language – the most fundamental human tool of communication, the shared medium through which we all encounter the world – becomes, in itself, a source of division, suspicion and alienation.

In the prevailing system of oppositional cultural apartheid, now effectively enshrined in the political accommodation at Stormont, the Irish language ‘belongs’ to nationalists and republicans, while unionists and loyalists must be content with ‘their’ language, Ulster Scots. Of course, this is a false dichotomy, distorted by competing ideological agendas. Nobody ‘owns’ language; by its very nature, nobody can plant a flag in it and claim exclusive rights to it.

It is my belief that the vast majority of the loyalist and unionist population, in rejecting Irish – viewing it as an inherently alien, hostile and dangerous counter-cultural force – are depriving themselves of a rich part of their own heritage. More pragmatically, they are also depriving themselves of the opportunity, at a stroke, to neutralise the republican appropriation of Irish; if everyone recognized their own history in the timbre of the tongue, any attempts at politicisation would be rendered inert.

Many Protestants are surprised to learn that their forebears spoke fluent Irish. Indeed, most unionists did not have any difficulty in identifying with the language until the dramatic politicisation of the Gaelic League by militant nationalism; Douglas Hyde, who resigned the presidency of the movement in 1915, later said that it “put an end to my dream of using the language as a unifying bond to join all Irishmen together”.

Perhaps Hyde’s dream is not entirely dead. As seasoned observers know, one of the most curious aspects of Northern Ireland – despite its polarised nature – is its enduring capacity to subvert the dominant narratives which define it. For instance, it is remarkable to consider that, right at the very epicentre of the recent protests and riots over the restrictions on flying the union flag, a Protestant Irish-language revival has been taking place in East Belfast.

Linda Ervine – a sister-in-law of the late loyalist leader David Ervine – who is based at the East Belfast Mission on the Newtownards Road, started learning Irish two years ago as part of a cross-community project with women from the nearby nationalist Short Strand. Now she is running five classes a week, delivered by three specialist teachers. 

“What I’m trying to do is to give people in my own community the opportunity to engage with the lost part of their heritage,” Ervine told me. “I want to return that to them.”

Of course, a small-scale Irish language revival, even one in the very heart of loyalist East Belfast, can hardly be said to represent a wider shift in Protestant attitudes to their lost Gaelic inheritance. But it does provide an inspirational basis for a new way of approaching, and indeed challenging, the bitterly engrained codes of Orange and Green. Part of its attraction is in its affectionate enthusiasm for the process; there is a genuine eagerness to learn the language for its own sake, and to reach out to other Irish speakers, regardless of perceived political orientation.

The experience of Linda Ervine and her students shows that depoliticised language and a rediscovered shared history provide an excellent basis for ordinary people to get together and find common ground. It may even suggest other potential kinds of beneficial connection. After all, there are many more languages spoken in Northern Ireland than two or three, many other cultures than those dominated by orange and green. Whether it’s Portuguese or Mandarin, Gaelic or Ulster Scots, learning a new language – even if it is just a few conversational words – is a satisfying yet meaningful way to connect with an experience and a world-view beyond our own.

The real challenge is to see language not as yet another contested space, a crude tool in the cultural carve-up, but as a rich, complex, endlessly proliferating entity which is open to everyone. That will require a degree of courage, confidence, generosity and imagination which is often lacking in Northern Ireland. The very name of this place is riddled with contention: the 6 counties, Ulster, the Province, or even just ‘Here’ (as opposed to ‘There’ which, depending on your political persuasion, may refer to Britain or the Republic.) But the Irish revival in East Belfast demonstrates that separating language from politics is possible, and it may even be the starting-point for all kinds of new and surprising conversations.

This is a subject we hope to come back to more intensively over the next few weeks or so…

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  • Ní Dhuibhir

    Spelling Fionola’s name right would be a start! Interested to see more on Slugger about this topic.

  • Barnshee

    Doomed— the every word a bullet brigade coupled with the adoption by SF killed it

  • Mick Fealty

    [blush]…

  • Brian Walker

    All good stuff.. but a couple of contingent arguments are needed. The vulgar politics can’t be entirely ignored, then and now.

    As you know better than I do , Mick, Douglas Hyde was an idealistic cultural figure who dreamt of “ de Anglicanisation” and Catholic –Protestant reconciliation through the Irish language. Unrealistic as it seems today, de-Anglicanisation had its own logic:

    “Why should we wish to make Ireland more Celtic than it is — why should we de-Anglicise it at all? I answer because the Irish race is at present in a most anomalous position, imitating England and yet apparently hating it.”

    But the language movement and much of the whole Revival was quickly adopted as reinforcement for the revolutionary cause. Hyde stood apart from – above perhaps? -the revolutionary politics of his time. As far as I know he had little or no engagement with northern Protestantism/ unionism.

    Despite his eminence, Hyde the son of a CoI rector sometimes fell victim to nationalist bigotry, in common with many of his co-religionists, as when the Catholic Truth Society accused him wrongly of favouring divorce when the stood for the senate and he consequently lost.

    Even as the totemic first President he was not invulnerable to attack. For attending a soccer international against Poland the new President was expelled from the GAA for breaching their ( then) ban on “ foreign games.”

    De –anglicanisation was impossible then and impossible today – and of course unsought. But the taint of Irish- Irish triumphalism still hangs over it today. The contemporary Sinn Fein has had some success in grabbling the language agenda in the north to help differentiate it from the SDLP. Belatedly perhaps the southern parties woke up to this and now counterattack as a matter of course

    Hyde’s experience is of its own time and is not a cautionary tale for today. But you can see why it can excite rather bogus displays of unionist paranoia.

    Irish language supporters would do well to look outside Ireland to Scotland and Wales, where the Celtic languages are supported by government and the community is at ease with the element of nationalist politics involved. That, surely, is the ideal for today.


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  • BarneyT

    If the language is to emerge on this island it not only needs to be depoliticised but de-weaponised. I also find that accepting Ulster-Scots as a language in itself attracts nothing but ridicule to those organisations and folks supporting and promoting it a) as a language and b) as alternative to English and Irish. It’s and English dialect, like much of the English spoken in Scotland or the North East of England. Mere colloquialism and use of umlauts here and there is not going to change that.

    I don’t want to derail this but it is unhelpful introducing Ulster Scots into the equation when talking about the establishment or the re-emergence of a genuine language in East Belfast.

    It would be helpful to the East Belfast Irish Language cause if they examined the variant spoken in parts of Scotland. Granted many from plantation extract have little to do with a Gallic speaking Scotland, I believe the modern day bond that Ulster folks have with Scotland and the reinforcement of the use of Gallic in that region would allow Gaelic\Gallic to continue to be less demonised and as as a consequence tethered to an Irish Republican cause.

  • crockaleen

    I would argue that the broad unionist opinion of the Irish language is much more of indifference, rather than hostility. Indeed, it is perhaps not dissimilar to the indifference that many in Free State have towards Irish.

    The introduction of Ulster-Scots to the linguistic ‘war’ turns off many unionists just as much as it makes nationalists laugh. Whilst it may (or may not) have tick enough boxes to make it a language, I don’t believe it would be worthwhile to start teaching it – not that it would be an easy task, in the absence of an authoritative dictionary and grammar manual. That said, I don’t think anyone would disagree that it’s an aspect of culture that ought to be preserved, although not in the form of costly and pointless translations of official documents, or indeed street signs.

    The Catalan language provides an interesting example of a language experiencing a revival in the face of Castilian Spanish dominance. In many cases, the children of those who moved to Catalonia in the 60s from other parts of Spain have more than embraced Catalan, regardless of its nationalistic ties. This was achieved through bilingual education and a sense of regional pride, pushed forward by the Generalitat. The key difference is of course that Catalan was widely (but quietly) spoken throughout the Franco era.
    Even still, the ROI Government ought to be ashamed when they see how much has been achieved with regard to language revival in Catalonia since 1975, compared to what they have achieved since 1922.

    But while SF claim ownership of Gaelic up here, I’d say it’ll be a while before we see ‘Bóthar Seanchill’ on the front of the 11a.

  • Droch_Bhuachaill

    “It would be helpful to the East Belfast Irish Language cause if they examined the variant spoken in parts of Scotland. Granted many from plantation extract have little to do with a Gallic speaking Scotland, I believe the modern day bond that Ulster folks have with Scotland and the reinforcement of the use of Gallic in that region would allow Gaelic\Gallic to continue to be less demonised and as as a consequence tethered to an Irish Republican cause.”

    Indeed, athough they could look closer to home. In the 1911 census 7614 people in Antrim said they spoke only Irish (another 8982 said they spoke both). The last native speak on Rathlin died sometime in the 1960s i think, and even now Antrim Irish has some fairly distinct features.

  • Barnshee

    The introduction of Ulster-Scots to the linguistic ‘war’ turns off many unionists just as much as it makes nationalists laugh. Whilst it may (or may not) have tick enough boxes to make it a language, I don’t believe it would be worthwhile to start teaching it – not that it would be an easy task,

    Au contraire –a few study weekends in Armoy with outings to Dervock and er “Bushmall ” with occasional forays into Ballymoney on Saturday nights would help. Assisted by suitable grants for accommodation, teachers etc we could create a whole industry