A Chathaoirligh, a Sheanadóirí agus a dhaoine uaisle, go raibh míle maith agaibh as an gcuireadh inniu. Is onóir mhór dom a bheith anseo inniu. Tá brón orm, ach beidh mé ag caint i mBéarla mar tá nuance i gceist leis an mhéid atá le rá agam. Tá sé iontach deacair i dteanga eile.
I really want to get my story across. I will talk about northern Protestants and the Irish language. My own journey with the language epitomises the situation of many Protestants within Northern Ireland. I had no knowledge of the language, no connection to the language and no particular interest in it. It was a non-entity until I had the opportunity to be introduced to it in 2011. What followed was a roller coaster of new information as I discovered the place names, surnames, the words that we use in our everyday speech and the words that surrounded me my entire life, but I had never had the knowledge of them. It is not an exaggeration to say that meeting with the language changed the whole direction of my life. It enhanced it. I realised that I found this treasure. I just wanted to share it with other people in my community who, like me, because of the tradition they came from, had never had the opportunity to learn Irish.
When the media decided that my journey was interesting, it ended up in a couple of newspapers because my husband, Brian, was leader of the Progressive Unionist Party at the time. The reaction to that was twofold. There were some people from the Protestant community who approached me because they, too, wanted to learn Irish. There were others who criticised me and said that I was a traitor and a Lundy. That is the pattern that I have observed over the past ten years, since I set up the Turas Project in oirthear Bhéal Feirste.
Many of you probably think that I am very brave and very courageous because I obviously wear a flak jacket to work everyday and I go through a hail of missiles, which plays havoc with my hair. On a serious note, I face criticism and attack from some quarters but, overall, apart from a bit of nonsense on social media, the majority of the time I go about my business totally unhindered. I do not let the negativity that comes from a minority impact on the work that I do.
However, the success of my project has presented a threat to those who view Irish as a language of the enemy. Their only weapon against me is to undermine me by spreading false information. They say that I am working for Sinn Féin, that I am only in it for the money and that I am a useful idiot. I have even read that I am going out with somebody from Sinn Féin. My husband, Brian, asked me where I get the time. Those who make these accusations do it through social media. They do not use their own names or photographs. I find that it is difficult to feel threatened by people who do not have the courage to even expose themselves. They spew out their lies and innuendo from the safety of their own living rooms. These keyboard warriors are not interested in the wonderful cross-community work that takes place daily within the organisation that I run and the long-term friendships that are created between participants in our programmes.
Here is an insight into my world. These are the comments I hear from Protestants who have no link with the language, no engagement with the language and no knowledge of the language: “Why would I want to speak a republican language?”, “Protestants have no interest in the Irish language”, “It is a foreign language”, “It is a dead language”, “Sure they do not even speak it in the South”, although I do not know how true that is, and “You would be better off learning French or Spanish, love".
I am also told that learning Irish is divisive, which is something that I totally reject. For me, it is the perfect medium of reconciliation. It brings together people from our divided community. It is a bridge that unites our communities and reminds us of our shared history. It is a bridge between the countries of the British Isles. It is a language that went from Ireland over to Scotland and to the Isle of Man, and is part of the family of Celtic languages spoken throughout the British Isles at one time.
When I started my job as the manager of the Turas Project, I created a presentation called the Hidden History of Protestants in the Irish Language, which I have delivered to thousands of people over the past ten years. So many times I have watched people arrive and their body language shows that they are hostile. They have cold, hard stares. Then I watch as that changes to a look of disbelief, and then an accepting smile, as they discover that the language has links to the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian church, the Orange Order and even the Red Hand Commando, to name but a few. What I am trying to say is that people feel differently and react differently when they are given a broad range of information, rather than a narrow slice.
Here are some of the comments I have heard over the past ten years from the people who learn Irish with us: “I have always wanted to learn Irish”, “I wish I had the chance to learn it in school”, “It is beautiful”, “It is really difficult, but I have loved enjoying learning it”, “It is so interesting”, “I love finding out about the place names”, “I cannot believe it was all around me and I did not know”, “I have made so many friends” and “I just love it”.
I have watched the interest in Irish in east Belfast grow at a phenomenal rate over the past number of years. What started as a small, fledgling project in 2012 with the support of funding from Foras na Gaeilge is now one of the largest Irish language centres in Belfast, but the majority of learners are from the Protestant, unionist and loyalist, PUL, community. I would like to express my gratitude, while I am here speaking, to Foras na Gaeilge, because it had the foresight and courage to recognise our potential and it invested in our project. Without it, we would never have gotten off the ground and the Turas Project would not exist.
Ten years ago, many of our learners were frightened of people knowing that they were learning Irish. They did not want their neighbours, friends or even family members knowing. They feared criticism or worse – intimidation. Today, they are proud to be learning Irish. They bring their neighbours, friends and family members along to share in this new-found interest. They are posting about it online. They are enjoying their first experience of learning the language and they want to challenge those who tell them that Prods do not speak Irish. They are proving that wrong.
However, despite our best efforts, there are still limited opportunities for Protestants to engage with the language in many parts of Northern Ireland. Much negativity still surrounds the language, with many unionists regarding it as purely political. We fell foul of this last year when we attempted to open an integrated Irish-medium nursery school in a loyalist housing estate in east Belfast. Here is how it happened. I was invited into the estate by the local primary school to teach Irish to every single pupil in the school. While I was there, I was made aware that there was an old, unused mobile at the back of the school that had been set up for early years education. It was the perfect venue for the new náiscoil that we were planning to start. We spoke to the board of governors, one of whom was our recently departed DUP MLA, Christopher Stalford, and they gave it the thumbs up. As almost all of the children were learning Irish already without any issue from the parents, we as a committee believed it would not be a problem to temporarily house 16 three-year-olds.
Sadly, we were very wrong. As soon as the news of the náiscoil broke, an online hate campaign began. This was followed by a petition in the local shop, libellous posters with my face on them around the area, the spreading of misinformation and threats to protest outside the primary school. Despite pleas from the staff of the school and the parents that we should stay, we decided that it would be better to move. After much difficulty, we managed to get another venue.
However, after a short time it pulled out due to fear of intimidation and attack. At the last minute another organisation, Christian Fellowship Church in east Belfast stepped in and offered us a temporary home. Renewed online attempts to stir up trouble and organise protests fell on deaf ears and after what had been a difficult few months we opened on 4 October last year with a reduced number of children but we were still there. Since then, the naíscoil has been peacefully doing what it does best, providing high-quality childcare to young children and the naíscoil's motto: "Páistí sona ag foghlaim le chéile - Happy children learning together" is a reality. The naíscoil is almost at capacity and we have 22 registrations for next year. Our journey or turas continues and the number of Protestant learners continues to grow. More people are engaging with the language and realising that it belongs to us all on the island of Ireland.
Where can we say the Irish language is within Protestant communities today? It is in various places. It is in the negativity and hostility created by "Tiocfaidh ár lá". It is in the dismissive and condescending attitudes that come from some within unionism. It is also in the Protestant students who are now studying Irish with us at university. It is in Naíscoil na Seolta, where despite the threats of protest and intimidation parents are bringing their children and it is in the classrooms of Turas, where every year hundreds of students take their first faltering steps along their own language journeys.
I want to end by sharing an experience I had last night. I got a phone call from a girl I do not know, a Protestant girl called Miranda who lives in a big loyalist estate in Antrim. She rang me because she has a little bit of Irish having gone to a few classes and she has two children. The oldest one is old enough to go to nursery school and she wants to send it to an Irish-medium nursery school. She is worried about what her neighbours would say but her ex-partner is taking her to court because of it and she wanted our support, which we will give her. Miranda is not the most able girl in the world but she is doing something that makes her able; standing up and making the change. One day it will not be an issue for Protestant parents in big loyalist estates to send their children to an Irish-medium school but it takes time. Change is coming. It does not come easily but it does come.