Linda Ervine on the wonderful journey of learning Irish
LINDA Ervine was heading into central Belfast for a night at the theatre last Saturday when she got a phone call.
She was told that a senior Orangeman - Belfast County Grand Master George Chittick - had just told a loyalist rally in north Belfast that Protestants shouldn't learn Irish because the language was "part of the republican agenda".
His statement came just a few weeks after Linda - Irish language development officer at the East Belfast Mission (EBM) on the Newtownards Road - and her team launched Turas, an Irish language project designed to connect those from a Protestant/ unionist/loyalist background with their links to the language.
Linda started learning Irish three years ago and had helped facilitate Irish lessons at the EBM's Skainos Centre before Turas (which means 'journey' in both Irish and Scots Gaelic) launched last month.
"I remember our launch getting coverage and I said 'We'll never get media attention like that again' and who would have believed that Mr Chittick would then come along and do that? I should have him doing my PR," laughs Linda, after the Orangeman's remarks sparked renewed media coverage on the story of Irish lessons being taught to the people of east Belfast. Mr Chittick's exact words were: "A word of warning to Protestants who go to learn Irish... it's part of the republican agenda."
The Orange Order distanced itself from the comments, saying it has "no formal policy or guidelines" on the issue.
First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson also rejected what the Belfast County Grand Master said: "In a free country people are perfectly entitled to learn whatever language they wish and to practise whatever language they wish and no-one should be attempting to indicate that they are right or wrong in doing it."
Linda - who is married to former Progressive Unionist Party leader Brian Ervine, brother of the late David Ervine - says the Orange Order has links to the Irish language. "I met the Orange Order last year and it was a very positive meeting. They ran a story in The Ulster Standard about Norman Henry, who's an Orangeman from Donegal and a fluent Irish speaker. I don't think he's promoting a republican agenda," says Linda. "Last Sunday morning when I came to church a man who's a member of the Orange Order immediately came over to me and apologised and distanced himself from it and asked me about doing a talk at his lodge. "I've had numerous enquiries since from people from the unionist community who want to come to classes now and who don't like that Mr Chittick seems to be deciding whether or not people should learn Irish. "I say this as a Christian - what [Mr Chittick] meant for harm, the Lord has turned into good. This hasn't harmed us; those who hated us hate us anyway and Mr Chittick just confirms what they already think. "The feedback I've got, even from people who aren't interested in the language is that they can see through what he's at and that it's just bullying and trying to intimidate people. "If he wants to warn Protestants about speaking Irish and if he's genuinely concerned, why didn't he come over and speak to us? Why does he say it to a crowd of 500 at Twaddell?"
Turas was opened by Sam Evans, a founder member of the Progressive Unionist Party.
There is a long list of Protestant links to the Irish language, from the Presbyterian Church encouraging ministers to learn Irish in the 18th century to Queen Victoria visiting Belfast in the 19th century and letting it be known that 'Cead Mile Failte' was one of her favourite phrases. Another ambassador for the language was the first president of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector from Co Cork. Turas comprises an office, a classroom and a social room/library at the Skainos Centre. More than 150 people currently attend eight classes a week, while classes have also spread to Dundonald High School and more schools and churches have expressed an interest in offering classes too. "We just have to keep doing what we're doing.
This language is open to everybody," says Linda. "In Northern Ireland we draw on Ulster Scots, Scots Gaelic, Irish and English - they're all part and parcel of our make-up. It's a lovely thing, so why shouldn't we enjoy that rather than limiting ourselves? "We're trying to de-politicise it and I'm not happy about it being used in a political way. Yes, the language can be politicised by Sinn Fein or whoever. But if the republican movement decided to say that Christmas Day was a republican holiday, would we stop celebrating it? "For us it's about the language and it's also about reconciliation. It's a perfect way of people coming together. It's about 90 per cent Protestant people and 10 per cent nationalist people. We can go to west Belfast and nobody cares about politics or religion; it's not important. People have respect for each other."
Linda Ervine's late brother-in-law David, who died in 2007, was himself a fan of Irish. "David started learning in prison along with [former UVF leader] Gusty Spence. He was very positive about the language and he was proud that he had a bit of Irish. "It's just sad that he didn't live long enough to find out that his own grandparents had Irish [as recorded in a census]."
Linda began her own 'turas' with Irish after the EBM cross-community women's group ventured to the An Droichead cultural centre on the Ormeau Road.
This eventually led to a 15-week course at the Skainos Centre, before more and more classes had to be put on due to demand. "We've also started doing activities with parents and kids together, so that's been fantastic and it's been really successful," says Linda. "Some of the people in the class told me that six months ago they had thought about protesting against us and now they're in the class and getting their kids educated about Irish and loving it."
As well as the ongoing classes, the Skainos Centre will host a light-hearted play on March 8 loosely based on Linda's experience of learning Irish - it's called What the Focal?
Linda says she loves learning Irish but is still "far from fluent". "I'm not a linguist so it is hard, but I love it and enjoy it. Even if I never get there, I'll enjoy the 'turas'. It's a wonderful journey."
:: For information on Turas classes and events, call 028 9045 8560 or visit www.ebm.org.uk/communityirishclass.php.