Northern Ireland

Irish language activist Linda Ervine on how religion saved her from mental health struggles

Linda Ervine. Picture by Mal McCann.
Linda Ervine. Picture by Mal McCann.

Irish language activist Linda Ervine has spoken of how she embraced religion after struggling badly with her mental health.

Appearing on RTÉ's Tommy Tiernan Show, Mrs Ervine told of how she was expelled three times from school and had “prayed for death” as a young mother.

The popular programme often features more personal interviews than usual chat shows, with comedian Tiernan unaware of who his guests will be.

Describing her journey towards embracing the Irish language as a Protestant in east Belfast, Mrs Ervine also spoke of the threats she received in the early days of setting up the Turas Irish language centre.

Married to Brian Ervine, then leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, she said that her love of the language was stronger than any negativity towards her.

“It has become less unusual, this year in our classes we have signed up around 500 people for Irish classes,” she said.

Recalling her face being superimposed on to Sinn Féin posters, she said the opposition to her classes was more prominent online than in real life.

“I think one of the most difficult things for me was that I saw people that I knew, people that I was even related to, were liking the threats and the intimidation. That’s very hard.”

Growing in an interface area of east Belfast without any religious faith, she said it was only in her 30s that she embraced Presbyterianism.

“I suffered from mental illness for a long time. When I was 27, I came to what I saw as the end of my tether and I prayed for death,” she said.

On being expelled from school three times, she recalled: “I didn’t go, I didn’t behave, I didn’t participate. I was pregnant when I was 15 and had a baby girl.

“I wasn’t in a good place. I was living with my grandparents and then I got married and had another two children.

“I suffered a lot of ill health, a lot of mental illness. I had agoraphobia and social phobia.

“I just found life very difficult. It was only in my 30s that I was saved, I had a lot of years of psychotherapy.”

Gaining her qualifications, she studied at Queen’s University and became an English teacher at a school that previously excluded her as a teenager.

Linda Ervine, picture by Hugh Russell.
Linda Ervine, picture by Hugh Russell.

Becoming a grandmother at the age of 33, she remembers a transformative moment of going to see her granddaughter in a church nativity.

“When I went…just something happened. I decided I would go back and started taking my granddaughter to (church).

“I used to sit at the front and cry, overwhelmingly cry. I didn’t know this was an answer, I just felt drawn to it.”

She continued: “For 25 year I never slept outside my own home. I never stayed in a hotel, I never went out for meals or did any of those things.

“I was very underweight, I was frightened of everything. My whole life was just controlled by fear.

“That changed, I travelled, I went places, I put on weight. I had a life again.”

Speaking Irish with co-workers and friends, she said her husband was also progressing in his Irish skills.

“He always jokes that when I started learning Irish, that unless he spoke to me in Irish I wouldn’t make him his dinner.”