Language school protests show Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit divisions

Linda Ervine sits on a replica of the ancient stone chair used to inaugurate the Gaelic Chiefs of Clandeboye in Northern Ireland. Ervine, founder of Northern Ireland’s first integrated Irish nursery school, has been the victim of harassment and bullying. (Photo provided)

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — The announcement of Northern Ireland’s first integrated Irish nursery school was enthusiastically received and soon its 16 places were filled, among others, by children from mixed marriages, Catholic and Protestant.

But a hate campaign against the notaiscoil and its founder Linda Ervine quickly emerged on social media and on streetlights, prompting her to consider moving it from an elementary school lot to protect children.

A Protestant, Ervine is a devout Unionist – she identifies as British and hopes her birthplace will always be part of the UK, as it has been since its inception in 1921.

“It’s been tough, it’s been depressing, it’s been very stressful for all of us,” she said of the bullying and intimidation, which included the superimposition of her face on posters of the nationalist Sinn Fein party. accompanied by the words: “Every word of The Irish spoken is like another bullet fired in the struggle for Irish independence.”

“The idea of ​​someone denying me the right to speak Irish because I’m Protestant and telling me I’m doing something wrong is a form of madness,” Ervine told NCR.

Over the years, Northern Ireland’s policy of division has led to the Old Irish language, once spoken by all here, becoming more identified with Catholic and nationalist communities, who generally seek the territory to be part of of the Republic of Ireland from which it was carved. A hundred years ago.

After the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, the Irish language became even more of a political touchstone. Identity is a sensitive issue across Ireland and politicians often use questions of ‘Britishness’ or ‘Irishness’ to rally their supporters. This is expected to accelerate ahead of the May 2022 elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It remains to legislate here the law on the Irish language, Acht na Gaeilge. While a growing number of trade unionists are comfortable with Irish, many Unionist politicians oppose its proposal for formal recognition as an official language alongside English, as the Welsh language is. in Wales.

“The Irish Language Act will provide legal protection for the language and essentially remove it from the fanciful decision-making of any politician who finds themselves in a position to decide what should or should not happen with the language,” Niall said. . Comer, professor of Irish at the University of Ulster.

Comer said the law “will also recognize Irish as the official language of Northern Ireland and help end years of persecution and underdevelopment of a language that was once spoken throughout Ireland” .

Prof. Darach MacGiolla Cathain, pictured here in St Mary's Chapel Lane, was born and raised in Shaw's Road, an Irish-speaking community in West Belfast that his parents helped establish.  (RCN/Claude Colart)

Prof. Darach MacGiolla Cathain, pictured here in St Mary’s Chapel Lane, was born and raised in Shaw’s Road, an Irish-speaking community in West Belfast that his parents helped establish. Once a month he celebrates Mass in Irish at St. Mary’s, Belfast’s oldest Catholic church. (RCN/Claude Colart)

Speaking Irish is not new to the Father. Darach MacGiolla Cathain, who was born and raised in Shaw’s Road, an Irish-speaking community in West Belfast that his parents Adam and Monica helped establish.

A pioneer group of 12 couples decided in 1969 to create the community, raised funds and built their own houses. When the children were born, the parents came together to open the first Irish-language nursery school in Northern Ireland. They then campaigned for primary schools and later secondary schools. Today, Belfast is served by fifteen Irish-language colleges and two high schools.

The Shaw’s Road community is at the heart of the West Belfast Gaeltacht, an Irish-speaking community, said MacGiolla Cathain, who coordinates chaplaincy for Irish secondary education in the Diocese of Down and Connor.

Of the five Catholic dioceses in Northern Ireland, only two, Down and Connor and Dromore, lie entirely within the borders of the British nation. The other three are partly in the Republic of Ireland, where Irish is the national language and a compulsory school subject. Gaeltachts are found in many of the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland.

Once a month, MacGiolla Cathain celebrates Mass in Irish at St. Mary’s Chapel Lane, Belfast’s oldest Catholic church, and greets parishioners in their native language. Dia duit (“God be with you”) is traditionally how Irish speakers say hello. The answer is Dia’s Muihre Duit (“God and Mary be with you”).

When responding to a priest, however, the response is Dia Duibh (“God be with you” in the plural).

St Mary’s, where MacGiolla Cathain was baptized, was built in 1784, largely on funds raised by Presbyterians and the Church of Ireland, when only 365 Catholics, or around 8% of the population, lived in Belfast.

The number of Catholics reached about half of the city’s population in 2011, and the final 2021 census figures will be released next year.

It is the only church in Down and Connor to hold Mass in Irish every week. Others may do so on occasions like St. Patrick’s Day or when people request services in Irish for first communions, weddings and funerals.

“It’s obviously more prevalent in the likes of Donegal,” said MacGiolla Cathain, referring to a county in the Republic of Ireland, where he said celebrating Mass in Irish is “about as commonplace as Mass celebrated in Spanish in Spain”.

The priest said he measured the “growing appreciation of the language” in Northern Ireland by the number of confirmations of the Irish language in his diocese. “About seven years ago the number of children was around 200, now it’s around 300 – a 50 per cent increase,” he said.

“It’s not about claiming, it’s about reclaiming because the Irish language doesn’t belong to one religious group or another, it belongs to everyone.”

— Fr. Darach MacGiolla Cathain

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The new school in Ervine, named Naíscoil na Seolta, was due to open in September in predominantly Protestant east Belfast. She chose the name na seolta or “the sails” as a nod to the region’s shipbuilding history, including, most famously, the RMS Titanic.

She fell in love with the language during a six-week introductory course as part of a cross-community women’s group and has been teaching it to adult beginners for nearly 10 years, a feat that has seen Queen Elizabeth II award him a special honor this year. for his services to the language.

His courses on behalf of the Methodist Church’s East Belfast Mission began in November 2011 and the following September saw the establishment of a center called Turas, which means journey or pilgrimage in Irish and Scottish Gaelic.

Seeing attendance increase “year on year” in East Belfast convinced Ervine of an increased interest in Irish there. She decided to open a naíscoil after being asked by Braniel Primary School principal Diane Dawson to teach Irish as part of a post-COVID-19 “recovery programme” in March.

Dawson, also a Unionist, was delighted with the results. She introduced Irish, Spanish and sign language to gently bring the children back into a school environment.

She revels in a mother’s memory of a scene in the back of her car when the children’s iPad stopped working. She heard her 8-year-old son ask her 5-year-old son, “What is two plus two? Tell me the answer in Irish.”

“One ceathair,” replied the 5-year-old child: four.

A road sign in West Belfast uses both the English and Irish languages.  (RCN/Claude Colart)

A road sign in West Belfast uses both the English and Irish languages. (RCN/Claude Colart)

When Ervine wondered aloud if there was room for an Irish-language nursery school, Dawson immediately suggested an empty mobile classroom on the property.

Within weeks, the education authorities granted permission and two years of funding was secured from Foras Na Gaeilge, which promotes the Irish language throughout Ireland.

While only three complaints came from parents at Braniel Elementary School, most resistance to naíscoil was falsely claimed to come from the community, Dawson said. In reality, some votes against the school came from different parts of Northern Ireland and others from as far away as England and Scotland.

Both Ervine and Dawson took the threats seriously, aware of the 2001 attacks on children walking through a Protestant area towards Holy Cross Girls’ Primary School. “We knew it couldn’t be another Holy Cross,” Ervine said.

She is determined to open the naíscoil and is convinced that one day it “will be part of our history and show how far we have come”.

If she could, Ervine would say to the naíscoil’s opponents, “Come sit with me. Have a cup of tea and let’s talk about the problems you have, reasonably and rationally.”

MacGiolla Cathain calls Ervine’s work “tremendous”.

Reflecting on his pioneering efforts half a century after his parents’ own contribution to the Irish language, he said: “It’s very important to break down those barriers. It’s not about claiming, it’s about getting reclaim because the Irish language does not belong to one religious or other group, it belongs to everyone.”

[Sahm Venter is a freelance journalist and the editor of several books, including The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela.]

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