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.

McCrea says much of that can be attributed to the way nationalist Sinn Féin politicians like to speak Irish in Stormont, Northern Ireland's legislature--something he calls hijacking the language.

"You know when [Sinn Féin is] annoyed because they respond in a huge amount of Irish," McCrea says. "It's like flying a flag. It's got nothing to do with language and everything to do with politics."

Sinn Féin's stance on the Irish language has long been associated with the saying, "every word of Irish spoken is like another bullet being fired in the struggle for Irish freedom."

McCrea argues that the language is promoted more as a token than as the spearhead of the tolerance movement

Twenty years ago, at the peak of Catholic-Protestant tensions, a unionist named Ivor Reid might have agreed.

Now the 51-year-old sits in a classroom at the East Belfast Mission, reciting terms he's learned in Gaelic alongside his fellow students. He and about a dozen others are enrolled in a beginner's Irish class, where they learn the basics of the language every Wednesday night.

"Conas tá tú? (How are you?)," the instructor asks.

"Tá mé go maith (I'm well)," the students respond.

Reid grew up in a part of town where "everything's British" and murals with painted Union Jacks are inscribed with messages like "The Ulster conflict is about nationality," lest anyone forget.

Reid doesn't buy into the idea that everyone in the city gets along post-peace process, he says, and argues that people take their British pride too far--a reference to the flag protests that took place last fall and still flare up to this day.

"My community, they probably think I'm nuts," he says, taking a swig of his coffee during the class break. "But the people I've met learning the Irish language, they aren't republicans...this is our language, not just republican language."

Reid sees Irish as a way for both sides to communicate and better understand each other, a way to rid the city of an "us and them" attitude.

"It's not sorted out, that's the problem," he says of the enduring societal divisions. "Which is sad, but it's Northern Ireland. The older generation has turned around and said, 'You know, wise up.'"

If the Líofa campaign succeeds and Gaelic becomes commonplace, it won't be the first time language has helped unite a nation still reeling from tragedy and division.

Though Irish was never fully extinct as a spoken language like Hebrew once was, experts draw a parallel between the faded language's resurrection in Israel and the Gaelic revival in Northern Ireland. Paul Frommer, a linguistics expert and creator of the Na'vi language spoken in the movie Avatar, says Hebrew is an example of how language brings people together.

"Every language is a reflection of the culture in which it developed," Frommer says. "The way you speak says an awful lot about who you are and who you identify with."

In the United States, Native American tribes like the Navajo have been reviving their languages because they see it as part of who they are. Similarly, if Protestants in Belfast accept that Gaelic is in their blood, despite their political affiliation, the language could mend decades-old wounds, Frommer says.

Ervine echoes Frommer's sentiments. While she is considered loyalist royalty--her husband, the late Brian Ervine, was a leading unionist politician, as was his brother, David--she believes her students can maintain their religion and political identities while accepting "Irishness." She says her political status helps takes the sting out for Protestants interested in learning Irish.

"This idea that you have to be choose to be one or the other, that comes from politics. That comes from the top," Ervine says. "We are Irish...I feel I'm Irish."