Belfast's Gaelic Revival Seeks to Bridge the Divide

In Northern Ireland's capital city, memories and tensions simmer below the surface. Can a shared language repair decades of division?

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- On the Short Strand, a stretch of land just outside the city center, Belfast's Catholic community has carved out an area where identity means Irish, not British.

Few here have forgotten the Troubles, the brutal, bloody battle between the Protestant unionist and Catholic nationalist communities over the North's constitutional status, which caused what seemed like an irreconcilable schism and spanned almost 40 years, ending with the "Good Friday" Agreement in 1998.

Here, street signs are written in Gaelic and streetlights are topped off by Irish tricolors--a stark contrast with the Protestant region, Newtownards Road, which lies on the other side of the Strand. There, the block loyal to the Queen is accoutered with Union Jacks and vibrant murals that recount the days of the Ulster Freedom Fighters. The immediate overload of unionist imagery, painted in now-chipped bright reds and deep blues, is the Protestant response to the strong Catholic presence.

But on this same street is a budding movement to unite the two sides and tap into a shared heritage. Protestants and Catholics alike are reviving the Irish language--a piece of culture on the brink of extinction in Northern Ireland--in a move to depoliticize a tongue typically associated with the nationalist perspective and forge an identity that transcends religion.

"The Irish language has been used in a divisive way," says Linda Ervine, Irish development officer of the East Belfast Mission on Newtownards Road. "But to me, it has the potential to unite us."

Ervine, a Protestant who grew up in the area where the segregated religious communities meet, or the Interface, helped launch Irish language classes at the mission two years ago after she realized her own ancestors spoke Irish. Since 1985, the mission has served as a Protestant outpost that helps those who live in the inner city, regardless of background or faith.

The language was almost lost by the end of the 19th century because Irish became associated with poverty and Catholicism (particularly during the potato famine, which hit the poor the hardest). During the famine, about 3 million Irish emigrated. But what few Protestants in the neighborhood know, Ervine says, is that Irish, or Gaelic, was saved by a small group of Presbyterians, many of whom were steadfast loyalists.

Part of Ervine's recruiting tactic is telling her fellow Protestants about their religion's role in saving Gaelic in the 1900s. Protestants of different denominations used Irish to proselytize Catholics, and some attempted to preserve it through manuscripts or by promoting it as a living language.

Today, demand for classes is only rising, Ervine says. The mission currently hosts three language classes, but it plans on adding two more in April. And because unionists don't grow up speaking the language, Protestants from all walks of life are taught Irish by Catholic instructors.

"It's an excellent means of reconciliation," she says.

Ervine's efforts coincide with a national initiative--called Líofa 2015, or "fluent" 2015--launched in 2011 by Belfast's Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín, a prominent Sinn Féin leader and former member of the Irish Republican Army.

The minister has said in the past that she hopes the program will encourage 1,000 people from all religions and political parties to sign up and be fluent in Irish within the next two years; 2013 has been designated as the year of the Irish language, or Bliain na Gaeilge.

"If we are to continue to move towards a peaceful and prosperous society we must work towards reducing distrust and misunderstanding by building understanding of one another's traditions," she said in a March statement.

According to census data, about 10 percent of people in Northern Ireland have any Irish language skills. Perhaps more telling is that around three-quarters of Catholics would like hear more Irish being used, while more than two-thirds of Protestants want to hear less. In the Republic of Ireland, Gaelic is far more common--about 41 percent of people can speak the language, census figures show.

Not all politicians agree that the Irish language can help heal the wounds left by the Troubles. Basil McCrea, a unionist member of the legislative assembly, supported the culture minister's language initiative, but doesn't believe Irish will be depoliticized anytime soon.

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Sarah Parvini is a journalist based in Los Angeles.

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