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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