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"A boiling pot": Growing pains of the Irish language in Northern Ireland

The Irish language faces intense obstacles in Northern Ireland, but many are prepared to stand up for it.

LAST UPDATE | 27 Mar 2022

LINDA ERVINE STARTED learning Irish in 2011, when she took a six-week taster course as part of a cross community women’s group.

“I was intrigued by it first of all,” says Ervine, who is a Protestant and grew up and lives in East Belfast.

“I think the first thing that struck me about it was the fact that we say we speak Irish – ‘Tá Gaeilge agam’ – and I remember thinking I would love to be able to say ‘Tá Gaeilge agam’, I’d love to be able to say that as part of who I am and part of my identity.”

When the course finished, she wanted to continue learning, but there were no opportunities to do so in her part of Belfast, so she enrolled in a class across town.

Ervine comes from a staunch Unionist background. When she began learning Irish her husband Brian was the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, a hardline loyalist party. 

Soon, her interest in the language caught the attention of a journalist, who wrote an article about Linda’s efforts. From here, the word spread around the Unionist community, and Ervine was approached by people who also wanted to start learning.

“It really seemed to open the door to an interest, because lots of people then approached me and said they’d like to get involved,” she says.

“And over the years that number has just grown and grown and grown with people who want to learn Irish.”

Linda soon began teaching her own beginners’ class at the Methodist East Belfast Mission on Newtownards Road, which over the years has become Turas, the Irish Language Project.  

Today, Ervine is the development officer for Turas, and has been awarded an MBE for services to the Irish language. She recently addressed the Seanad for Seachtain na Gaeilge, and has become one of the unofficial spokespeople for Irish in the North, where interest in the language and the number of speakers is on the rise.

Gaelscoileanna on the rise 

The Irish language is growing in popularity in Northern Ireland, especially at primary level and in adult further education, where enrolment in classes like those offered by Turas has been increasing. 

Figures from the Department of Education in Northern Ireland show that the number of children attending gaelscoileanna (Irish medium schools) increases every year. There are currently 28 primary level Irish medium schools in the North, and 2 post-primary (secondary) schools, as well as 17 nursery units and 27 pre-schools.

In the 2020 / 2021 academic year, there were a total of 7,064 pupils being educated through Irish, up from 3,272 in 2004 / 2005. There were 4,604 students learning through Irish at primary level and 1,511 at secondary level.

“In the next three or four years, the way the trends are going, that’s going to probably increase to 10,000 very quickly,” says Niall Comer, a lecturer in Irish at Ulster University, and the outgoing president of Conradh na Gaeilge, the Irish language cultural organisation. 

“It has doubled in a very short space of time, because people have seen not only the interest in Irish as our national language, etc, but also the benefit of bilingual education.”

Comer says that there has been a concerted effort in recent years by organisations like Conradh na Gaeilge and others to raise awareness and appreciation of the language, and that has contributed to the surge in popularity.

“The return of adult learners to Irish [has also contributed to the growth]. The opportunities to attend Gaeltacht courses, night classes, online classes in particular,” he says.

From a salvaged hut to a thriving school

Fifty years ago, there were no Irish language schools in the North. With the partition of the six counties in 1922, the Irish language was all but eliminated from public life, with just small pockets of speakers in different areas.

This changed in 1971, when a group of Irish speaking families in West Belfast founded Bunscoil Phobal Feirste, the North’s first Irish-medium primary school. The school was set up on Shaw’s Road by the same families who founded the North’s first urban Gaeltacht in the late-1960s.

At first, it had nine pupils and was housed in a single makeshift hut. The school survived through the fundraising and work of volunteers for 13 years, before it was awarded official status in 1984 and began to receive government funding.

Today, Bunscoil Phobal Feirste has 420 pupils and grows bigger every year. Seamas Ó Tuama, the school’s principal, attended as a child in the 1970s when his own father was principal. 

“It’s amazing to be here and to be part of it. Every day is a privilege, even though it’s taken years off my life… It feels amazing to be a part of it,” he says.

“When you think back to a small hut that was salvaged and put on the site in front of me now to where the sector is. The beauty of it is that Bunscoil Phobal Feirste is only a small part of the wider picture now, which is amazing to think about,” says Ó Tuama.

Belfast’s Irish medium secondary school – Coláiste Feirste – has close to 1,000 students and is the biggest gaelscoil in Ireland. Ó Tuama says the language is in a strong position, but there are still many issues to overcome, not least of which is funding.

“It’s the fastest-growing sector in education. It’s growing quicker than the provision for it. You’re looking at things like building and site provision, and just basically resourcing,” he says.

“You need things from facilities, buildings, student places for teachers… the government and the funding need to keep up with the growth of it.”

Hate campaigns and intimidation

As well as problems around funding, the Irish language also faces some opposition on sectarian grounds, where certain sectors of society in the North politicise Irish as being anti-Unionist or too Nationalist.

Linda Ervine and others experienced this first hand last year when they sought to open an Irish language nursery school – Naíscoil na Seolta – in East Belfast, on the grounds of a primary school.

Naíscoil na Seolta was due to open its doors last September on the grounds of Braniel Primary School before it was forced to relocate after a “social media hate campaign”.

In a letter at the time to parents, Braniel Primary School said:

“A social media campaign was started and fuelled by those who are NOT connected to the school… who allowed disgusting comments to be posted that were littered with unfounded erroneous allegations about certain individuals and the Naíscoil.”

“There was an online hate campaign forged against us and a lot of spread of all sorts of rumours and misinformation and just nonsense unfortunately,” says Linda Ervine, who is involved with Naíscoil na Seolta. 

“We’ve pushed on and we are now in a temporary venue and we are in the process of looking for somewhere… more permanent and we’re hoping to be able to get something for September.

Ervine says since they opened the school has been going “really well”.

“We had lost a lot of our children due to the intimidation but now we’re almost full again and we’ve got 22 children registered for next year,” she says.

Irish Language Act

Another key issue facing the Irish language in the North is the long-awaited Irish Language Act, which has become a political flashpoint in recent years. 

The Irish Language Act is a proposed law that would give special status to the Irish language in the North. The laws would allow for Irish to be used in the courts, and for public buildings and signage to contain Irish, among other provisions.

Sinn Féin, the SDLP and others have been calling for such a law to be introduced for well over a decade, and Pobal, the organisation for the Irish language in the North, says such an Act has been promised by the UK government since 2006.

The issue came to a head following the dissolution of the Stormont Assembly in 2017, over the ‘Cash for Ash’ controversy. It became a sticking point in negotiations between the DUP and Sinn Féin and contributed to the political deadlock that lasted for three years.

In that time, a popular campaign has advocated for the introduction of the act, with thousands of people taking to the streets to advocate for the Irish language.

The 2020 New Decade New Approach – which led to the return of power sharing at Stormont – found a compromise which would allow for provisions around the Irish language to be introduced by amending existing laws and regulations, rather than bringing in a new act. Similar provisions would also be made for Ulster Scots.

However, the Assembly has as of yet failed to introduce these measures, following resistance from the DUP. Last year, the UK government said that it would legislate directly from Westminster if the Assembly failed to do so, but such action has not materialised. 

Northern Ireland Assembly elections are due to take place in May, and there is concern among advocates that the Irish language issue won’t be resolved before then. 

“We’re moving perilously close to the cut off date of 25 March and the fear is that it won’t be brought in in this mandate despite continuous promises from Brandon Lewis – the Secretary of State – and the British government,” says Niall Comer.

An election issue

“Do I think it will appear in the next two weeks? I remain hopeful and positive but I’m not convinced that it will, and that’s a problem. 

“Because then if this hasn’t been brought off the table then we’re in a situation where it becomes an election issue again, and it becomes a major issue in the reestablishment of Stormont post-election and the Irish language again becomes an issue when it shouldn’t be.”

Linda Ervine agrees: “It was promised all those years ago and it’s been like a boiling pot on a stove just threatening to boil over all the time. Until it is resolved it’s not just going to calm down and why should it? 

“People were promised something again and again and again, of course they’re going to demand and ask for it as they’ve every right to do.

“I just feel that once it eventually comes through… then everything will settle down again and people who feel threatened by it will quickly realise it’s no big deal, nothing’s changed and we’ll all just get on with our lives.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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