Linda Ervine on how an Irish medium pre-school in east Belfast found a home after a campaign of intimidation
Several months after an Irish-medium pre-school was forced to scrap plans to set up at a primary school in east Belfast, the first children have begun settling into their new space in a church hall. Claire Simpson speaks to Irish language campaigner and teacher Linda Ervine about the challenges the project has faced.
Naíscoil na Seolta - first Irish-medium pre-school in east Belfast - opened its doors earlier this month after years of planning.
The opening was a victory for the school which had been due to set up in rooms at Braniel PS but was forced to scrap those plans in July due to intimidation.
The school is now operating from a shared space rented from the Christian Fellowship Church on Belmont Road.
Campaigner Linda Ervine, one of the key figures behind the project, said intimidation and untrue claims, including that children would be bussed in from across Northern Ireland to the site in a predominantly Protestant area, had caused her severe distress.
“I suppose one of the worst for me was there were posters put up with my face superimposed on them. I had to involve the police at that stage,” she said.
"I felt quite threatened because you don’t know where these things are going to go, you don’t know who is involved and also when things were put out on social media who is it going to get to?
“There have been a lot of times over the last year when it has been really worrying. But we have a really good, strong committee and have pushed on.”
Turas, which has been running Irish classes for adults in the Skainos Centre in east Belfast for almost a decade, is behind Naíscoil na Seolta.
Ms Ervine said those who complained about the naíscoil’s original site in the Braniel were “from a very, very small minority”.
“They organised a protest and there were five people, including them,” she said.
“The majority of people were not bothered, were not interested, but unfortunately because there were threats of protests we were not able to gauge what was real and what wasn’t - that’s how social media is.
"We didn’t want to cause any problems for the children of the Braniel and their parents so we decided to pull out.
“The unfortunate thing is that it put people from the unionist community in a very bad light. It made it seem they are intolerant and bigoted and that’s just not true.
“My organisation is continuing to provide Irish classes within the Braniel primary school to over 400 children.
“Can I say that their parents are intolerant or bigots? Of course they’re not. They want their children to learn Irish. We were just unfortunate that we came across a small number of people who are intolerant.”
Ms Ervine said no one had complained about the school, which employs two teachers and an assistant, after it moved to its new location.
“We’ve been made very welcome by the CFC,” she said.
“We had lost a few families because of the situation (in the Braniel) and because of practical things - we had moved and couldn’t guarantee where the new school was going to be.
“We’ve already had two new families who have expressed an interest. At the minute we have 12 children and we have space for 16.
“This is our settling in period.”
Ms Ervine said the project shows how Turas has managed to open up the language to people within unionist and Protestant communities over the last decade.
“For the first time people within the Protestant community in east Belfast can say this is an option I’d like for my child and they’ve been able to inquire and talk about it,” she said.
“We’re getting a really good response at the minute from parents who are interested in the benefits of bilingualism and immersive education.
"We just think this will grow and grow and grow…Seeing the family connection and the pride that the family has that the child is gaining another language - that’s just such a wonderful thing.”
Ms Ervine said setting up the naíscoil, including securing funding and getting staff and volunteers, had proved challenging.
“The funding that we received covered two years but it would never have covered the list of things that we required,” she said.
“One silver lining was we had set up an online fundraiser and before the intimidation was made public we had raised £6,000. We didn’t make it public, we were trying to keep it under wraps, but when it was we raised over £6,000 in two days.
“When we did our shopping for equipment that made an awful difference because we were able to get everything we needed for the naíscoil.
"We had to buy so much stuff - building blocks and storage and jigsaws and books so the children have a little library and reading corner.
“Children learn about textures. We have water play and sand play, filling and pouring, so they have the chance to explore all those things.
She added: “You have to create a home corner with a kitchen and a tiny table and chairs and a wee ironing board and sink and kettles and food so they are learning about the world.
“The use of the Irish language is an added bonus for them.”
Ms Ervine manages the Turas project and is a member of the committee of the naíscoil.
She hopes the school can eventually find a permanent space of its own.
“Our plan is to get a permanent home,” she said.
“But that’s not on the cards at the minute.
“It’s very early days for us. Because of the intimidation and having to move venue the focus has just been on moving in and getting settled.
"We had to push really quickly with that.
"Now that we’ve settled in and got things off the ground we can now look to the next stage… (of) finding an area in east Belfast that we could make into a permanent home that will be a stand-alone site for us.”
To donate towards Naíscoil na Seolta visit www.virginmoneygiving.com/fund/TurasNaiscoilnaSeolta.