Linda Ervine on being 'hardened' to hatred against Irish language

Linda Ervine is pushing ahead with yet more plans for Turas, the Irish language project in east Belfast. She tells Gail Bell what keeps her moving forward and why she will never be beaten by negativity

Linda Ervine's mission to connect the people of east Belfast with the Irish language has expanded to include an Irish nursery school and now tours exploring the area's history. Picture by Mal McCann
Linda Ervine's mission to connect the people of east Belfast with the Irish language has expanded to include an Irish nursery school and now tours exploring the area's history. Picture by Mal McCann

LINDA Ervine is having a bit of a breather – but not for long. Third-year exams for an Irish language degree have now finished, but work as project manager at the busy Turas centre at East Belfast Mission continues – along a "quirky" new route this summer.

'Turas' – meaning 'journey' or 'pilgrimage' in both Irish Gaelige and Scots Gaidhlig – began more than 10 years ago with Irish language classes "to connect people from Protestant communities with their own history with the language" but has expanded to include an Irish nursery school and now several bus tours exploring the local history of east Belfast.

Read more: Murals in Belfast and Northern Ireland: An explainer

A repackaged Con O'Neill bus tour recently launched the now-annual Con O'Neill Festival in September – zooming in on the life and times of Con MacNeill MacBrian Fertagh O'Neill, "the last Gaelic lord of Upper Clandeboye" – while a "quirky" new East Belfast Murals Tour is also now part of the tourism offering, looking at local street art depicting well known faces such as George Best and CS Lewis among others.

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Meanwhile, a rebranded 'journeyeast' website highlighting all three tours on offer – Gaelic East Belfast, Con O'Neill and East Belfast Wall Murals – has been developed, with the latest murals addition set to be part of this year's Eastside Arts Festival in July.

During the 11-day event, the unflinching 'Irish language activist' will also take a beginners Irish language family class for parents and children (at the Turas home at the Skainos Centre on the Newtownards Road), before moving to Féile an Phobail in August for a 'Language Matters' talk – and to wave off another bus, this time, the Con O'Neill tour.

Then, there's a visit to Dingle, Co Kerry to fit in – at the invitation of priest, "a lovely, lovely man", who each summer invites a Turas group down for a "fully immersive experience" of tours and Irish classes, not forgetting "the absolute highlight" of her season, the Scoil Samhraidh Mhic Reachtain – Irish summer school – on the Antrim Road.

"My husband and I might get a few wee days away here and there over the Twelfth week, but it really is 'all go' this summer," laughs the woman whose love for the Irish language is still ruffling feathers in some Northern Ireland political and social circles.

Linda Ervine with the 'giant' Con O'Neill, 'the last Gaelic lord of Upper Clandeboye' and the subject of a new history tour
Linda Ervine with the 'giant' Con O'Neill, 'the last Gaelic lord of Upper Clandeboye' and the subject of a new history tour

With such manifest loyalist, unionist and Protestant credentials – her brother-in-law, the late David Ervine, was a leader of the Progressive Unionist Party and her second husband, Brian, is also a former party leader – it was never going to be a love affair without consequences in this divided part of the world.

But, with a Turas mission statement based on the belief that the Irish language belongs to everyone, Protestant as well as Catholic, the hatred for what she was doing – and continues to do, now teaching beginner classes at 'Turas' herself – still takes her by surprise.

"I suppose I have become hardened to it a little bit, but at the start I was really shocked," she says. "I didn't understand why people would say the things they did about me learning Irish and then offering classes to other people who wanted to learn it in east Belfast.

"It frustrates me to think of the millions of pounds that have been poured into this place to promote reconciliation and people, for very cynical reasons, use divisiveness to further their cause.

"There really is no point worrying and what I have learned to do with negative politics here is not to attack back, but just to push on ahead. My husband always says not to wrestle with a chimney sweep or you will get dirt all over yourself and that is very true."

Her faith helps: a strong Christian faith she gravitated towards as an adult – "I didn't grow up with a faith; I didn't read a Bible until I was in my 30s" – and the reason, she believes, why the Turas programme of 'under the radar' healing and reconciliation has been so successful.

"When I did starting reading my Bible, I certainly didn't read anything about suspicion of your neighbour," she adds, wryly.

"It just wasn't in there. That helped me and what I see here is healing – a lot of healing taking place in a very informal way.

"We don't have to have 10 Catholics and 10 Protestants or whatever; we're just people coming together to do something we love, but friendships are organically created – we have had two marriages and one baby. It is very much about community."

A self-confessed rebel at school, Ervine also came late to education, working in chip shops, cafes and taking cleaning jobs until she had her first baby when she was 16.

She had all three children "very, very young" so, when she eventually decided to go back to school, her babies were teenagers when she started an English degree at Queen's (where she is now studying part-time for her degree in Irish, due for completion next year).

In a former life, the grandmother-of-five and MBE (awarded last year for services to the Irish language) was an English teacher for nine years – until she found herself captivated by Irish "totally by accident" during a six-week taster session organised by a cross-community women's group in 2011.

"I then started going to classes on the Ormeau Road with my friend and it sort of grew from there," she recalls.

"Then, because my husband was the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party at the time, a journalist got hold of the story and it went into the newspapers and, well... it got a lot of attention.

"But I see that as a sort of two-tier thing: you had people who saw me learning Irish and felt it almost gave them permission to do the same and then there were others, of course, who were very much against it.

"Sadly, there were a number of people who I once regarded as friends who no longer speak to me – they just cut me out of their lives, just like that."

With her calm resolve, sense of fair play and good-humoured common sense, you get the feeling Linda Ervine is just the sort of person Northern Ireland politics so desperately needs, but while she has no desire to enter "that mire" herself, she holds "great admiration for some people who are in there and getting on with it".

"I have more than enough to keep me busy at Turas and if change is happening at a local level, at a level of people coming together just to learn a language or jump on a bus to learn more about their local history – our shared history – then that's a great start," she reasons.

"The Irish classes are ever more popular – this year, we signed up 500 people for classes and we are just putting together our new programme for September coming.

"Going forward, we want to develop the nursery school into a Bunscoil and really grow the tourism offering and develop the bus tours. You know, people come here, they get off the docks and pay all this money to do all the Game of Thrones stuff, but we have a real story here – nobody made it up.

"We have real places and we have a real Gaelic lord and a real story of violence and loss – and healing. It's better than any scriptwriter could come up with."

:: The Con O'Neill festival takes place on September 9 and 10. More at journeyeast.uk.