Protests against language schools show post-Brexit divisions in Northern Ireland

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-language nursery school, has been the victim of bullying and intimidation. (Photo provided)

BELFAST, Northern Ireland – The announcement of Northern Ireland’s first integrated Irish language nursery school was greeted with enthusiasm and soon its 16 places were filled by, among others, children of mixed marriages – Catholic and Protestant.

But a campaign of hatred against the maíscoil and its founder Linda Ervine quickly emerged on social media and on the streetlights, prompting her to consider moving her from the grounds of an elementary school to protect children.

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

“It was hard, it was depressing, it was very stressful for all of us,” she said of the bullying and intimidation, which included the superimposition of her face on Nationalist Party posters. Sinn Fein accompanied by the words: “Every word of 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, the divisive policy of Northern Ireland has led the ancient Irish language, once spoken by all here, to be more identified with Catholic and Nationalist communities, who largely want the territory to be part 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 intensify in the run-up to the May 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

The Irish Language Act, Acht na Gaeilge, has yet to be legislated here. While a growing number of trade unionists are comfortable with Irish, many Unionist politicians oppose his proposal for formal recognition as the official language alongside English, as the Welsh language is in Wales.

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

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

Bro. Darach MacGiolla Cathain, shown here in St Mary’s Chapel Lane, was born and raised in Shaw’s Road, an Irish 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 nothing new to Fr. Darach MacGiolla Cathain, who was born and raised in Shaw’s Road, an Irish community in West Belfast that his parents Adam and Monica helped establish.

A pioneering group of 12 couples decided in 1969 to form the community, raised funds, and built their own homes. When the children were born, parents came together to launch Northern Ireland’s first Irish-language nursery school. They then campaigned for primary schools and later secondary schools. Belfast today is served by about fifteen colleges and two Irish-speaking high schools.

The community of Shaw’s Road sits at the heart of West Belfast Gaeltacht, an Irish-speaking community, said MacGiolla Cathain, who coordinates the 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. The Gaeltachts can be found in several 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 welcomes parishioners in their native language. Dia duit (“God be with you”) is traditionally how the Irish say hello. The answer is Muihre Duit de Dia (“God and Mary be with you”).

However, when you respond to a priest, the answer is Dia Duibh (plural “God be with you”).

St Mary’s, where MacGiolla Cathain was baptized, was built in 1784, thanks in large part to funds raised by the Presbyterians and the Church of Ireland, when only 365 Catholics, about 8% of the population, lived in Belfast.

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

It is the only church in Down and Connor to celebrate mass in Irish every week. Others might do this 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 countries like Donegal,” said MacGiolla Cathain, referring to a county in the Republic of Ireland, where he said celebrating mass in Irish was “about as common as the mass celebrated in Spanish in Spain “.

The priest said he was measuring “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 is around 300, a 50% increase,” he said.

“It is not about claiming, it is about reclaiming oneself because the Irish language does not belong to one religious group or another, it belongs to everyone.”

– Bro. Darach MacGiolla Cathain

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Ervine’s new school, named Naíscoil na Seolta, was due to open in September in the predominantly Protestant east of 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 almost 10 years, an achievement that has seen Queen Elizabeth II bestow on him a special honor. This year for its language services.

His classes on behalf of the Methodist Church’s East Belfast mission began in November 2011 and the following September saw the establishment from 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 invited by Braniel Primary School principal Diane Dawson to teach Irish as part of a post-COVID-19 ‘recovery program’ in March.

Dawson, also a Unionist, was delighted with the results. She introduced Irish, Spanish and Sign Language to facilitate the smooth return of children to a school environment.

She rejoices at 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 ask her 5 year old, “How much is two plus two?” Tell me the answer in Irish.

“A ceathair,” replied the 5-year-old: Four.

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

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

When Ervine wondered aloud if there was room for an Irish-speaking preschool, 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 of the resistance to naíscoil was falsely claimed to come from the community, Dawson said. In fact, some votes against the school came from different parts of Northern Ireland and others from as far away as England and Scotland.

Ervine and Dawson took the threats seriously, keeping in mind the 2001 attacks on children through a Protestant neighborhood to 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 simply be part of our history and show how far we have come”.

If she could, Ervine would say to the opponents of the naíscoil: “Come and sit with me. Have a cup of tea and let’s talk about your problems, in a reasonable and rational way.”

MacGiolla Cathain describes Ervine’s work as “extraordinary”.

Reflecting on his pioneering efforts half a century after his parents’ contribution to the Irish language, he said: “It is very important to break down these barriers. It is not about claiming, it is about recovering because that the Irish language does not belong to anyone, religious group or whatever, 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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