Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine literally means we live in each other’s shadow. In our shared Gaelic psyche this is how it is meant to be – offering each other fellowship, shelter and protection. We must ensure though that enough light is allowed through for the other to thrive for ar scáth a chéile, in each other’s shadow, to make sense.
Queen’s University Belfast has an excellent reputation as a centre of learning for the Irish language and Celtic Studies. The language has been offered at Queen’s since 1849. Each year many students emerge from that department on University Square with the highest calibre of linguistic knowledge and, more importantly, a life-long grá or love for the language. Outside this core of Irish language and Celtic scholarship, however, Queen’s has serious and systemic questions to consider about its approach to the language at the upper end of its decision-making faculty.
The issues relate to fairness, respect as well as provision for Irish language speakers. Along with determined allies, An Cumann Gaelach, a mainstay student society in Queen’s, have now presented the Queen’s governing body with a first class opportunity to ensure Irish-speaking students feel more at home on campus. Their proposal allows the university authorities themselves to redress apparent fundamental defects in their apprehension of the language and its speakers.
Language rights are human rights and must be embraced as such by all.
The recently launched proposal is for an Irish Language Residential Scheme along with other revitalising measures. It will help Queen’s future-proof itself as our society transforms year on year and as the Irish language in particular becomes more normalised by the many and less politicised by the few.
Extensive consultation has been carried out by An Cumann Gaelach and partners. The subsequent proposal, attracting broad support from students, potential students as well as staff and other Irish language organisations, represents an irrefutable case for an Irish Language Residential Scheme which will be cost-neutral and easily implemented.
An Cumann Gaelach’s proposal is modest and therefore practical. It is a scheme which chimes with Queen’s own Strategy 2030 commitment to, ‘Be among the leading universities for equality, diversity and inclusion,’ and likewise, with the Queen’s ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Policy’ (2020) which states,
The University recognises its responsibilities to promote awareness of and respect for a wide range of cultural communities and regional and minority languages, including, but not limited to, Irish and Ulster Scots.
Currently, according to the report, Queen’s is the only university on the Island, which does not provide dedicated residential space for Irish-speakers. Whilst Ulster University, does.
Irish-speaking students know that this is their Belfast, that this is their University and that Irish is their language. They are determined not to be diverted from their plans by any conjured up controversy or opposition from the past.
The message from An Cumann Gaelach and their supporters is clear. If not at university where else should the limited and limiting orthodoxies in relation to our indigenous languages be challenged? And if not now, then when?
An Cumann Gaelach’s proposal is cogent and comprehensive. It is an excellent way for students who have attained the highest levels of fluency to transfer to tertiary education without experiencing a culture shock. For it has been a culture shock to many arriving at a seat of learning bereft of any vestiges of the Irish language notwithstanding of course the renown of the Irish language and Celtic department and the efforts of An Cumann Gaelach itself.
Irish Medium Education is growing steadily on the island. There is a yearly increase of 10% in Belfast at primary level alone and there are now more than 7,000 pupils in Irish Medium Education across the North. Many of these students will naturally turn to Queen’s, a premier institute of third level education, and have legitimate cultural and linguistic expectations from their chosen university.
The proposal under consideration outlines how initially 15 to 20 Irish-speaking students will live and study together on or near campus. If given the go-ahead the scheme will have many welcome ripple effects. Those selected on merit will commit to organising events, raising awareness and teaching the language to fellow students and others. The proposal will help Queen’s deliver on its own aspirations to engage in better outreach to the local community. This can be achieved through meaningful collaboration with the ground-breaking An Droichead centre in a host of mutually beneficial ways.
An official English language-only approach by Queen’s authorities in the context of a post-conflict society should have been phased out decades ago for there was a resolute commitment to this end contained in the internationally brokered Good Friday Agreement.
The Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages also gave grounds for an expectation of greater protection, promotion and parity of esteem for the Irish language at Queen’s for that charter assigned specific requirements to universities in this regard. It is important to note that no rights exist requiring legislation or special consideration in favour of those who in some way feel upset at the sight or even the sound of another specific language in public places such as Irish.
The proposal, however, comes shortly after Student Union staff were refused permission to wear bi-lingual insignia on their work outfits or incorporate Irish language banners on Students Union emails according to An Cumann Gaelach.” This is petty at one level and disempowering on another.
The authorities also objected in 2018 to the re-erection of bi-lingual signage taken down in 1997 on the shakiest rationale that they could be deemed by some to be ‘provocative, offensive and intimidatory’.
An issue of serious concern to many which came into sharp focus in recent times is that of the limited availability of joint Irish courses at Queen’s. There are 7 possible combinations for joint study with Irish at Queen’s according to An Cumann Gaelach’s report. NUI Galway offers 23 combinations with Irish, University College Dublin offers 25, Trinity College Dublin offers 18 and University College Cork offers 26. Queen’s has the fewest with-Irish combinations of all universities on the Island behind the University of Ulster also.
Recalcitrance by all institutions in receipt of public funds towards the Irish language could return to haunt them when scrutiny takes on a greater legislative heft in the coming months and years.
The Queen’s governing body, Senate, is being asked to meet with An Cumann Gaelach and review their report and proposal in the favourable light they deserve. And when they do this in earnest, Irish-speaking students may begin to anticipate a brighter future and a warmer welcome at Queen’s ar scáth a chéile.
Réamonn Ó Ciaráin is Director of Education with Gael Linn.
He is author of three books on Cúchulainn; Laoch na Laochra: Scéal Chúchulainn (2015), Cúchulainn, Ulster’s Greatest Hero (2017) and Cú Uladh, Scéal Chúchulainn (2018). He is co-founder of Flash Fiction Armagh and co-editor of The Bramley, an anthology of Flash-Fiction.