On Valentine’s Day, Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster dashed any hopes of restoring government in Northern Ireland. Emerging from the talks to say that there was no prospect of a deal, she underlined the hopelessness of the situation by requesting that the British government should now impose direct rule from Westminster.
The talks had foundered on the subject of an Irish Language Act, which would put the Irish language in Northern Ireland on a similar footing to Welsh or Scots Gaelic. The idea was not always so controversial. The 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement, which paved the way for the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, included a commitment to an Irish Language Act. Only in recent years has the DUP moved to create this as a major fault line. Paul Givan, the DUP Minister for Communities, raised the ire of gaeilgeoirs when he cut Irish language funding in 2016, a decision widely seen as sectarian, and later reversed. In 2017, Foster referred to Sinn Fein as “crocodiles coming back for more” if an Irish Language Act was granted. Her choice of wording galvanised Sinn Fein supporters and the wider non-unionist public into support for an Act. Meanwhile, DUP voters’ views have hardened – two-thirds oppose an Act.
The political posturing is a shame, because you don’t need to speak the Irish language or have a background in it to find it fascinating. I grew up in a majority Protestant area in Belfast where the Irish language was not spoken. My family don’t come from a unionist tradition, but we are not Irish speakers either. Yet I discovered the language’s beauty and the rich history contained within it while attending Northern Ireland’s first integrated school, Lagan College, where Catholics and Protestants are educated together. For A-Level English, amongst other things, we studied Brian Friel’s 1980 play, Translations. Its first performance in Derry (also known as Londonderry) featured many who would go on to be famous, including Liam Neeson and Stephen Rea.
Translations is set in a small Irish village, Baile Beg, in the 1830s. A detachment of the British Royal Engineers arrives in the village, tasked with completing the first Ordnance Survey of Ireland. It is a process with political as well as geographical goals, designed to force the native Irish to speak English, as the survey changes the place names from Irish into English – Baile Beg becomes Ballybeg, and so on. It is also an attempt to change the heart and soul by altering the very sense of place and identity. During the play, tensions rise between the village and the soldiers, and the dark shadow of the forthcoming potato famine looms large. But love also blossoms between one of the soldiers and an Irish woman, despite neither speaking each other’s language.
Many in Northern Ireland are familiar with the more obvious place names that are derived from Irish. Belfast is an anglicisation of Béal Feirste, meaning “the mouth of the (river) Farset”. Stranmillis, not far from Lagan College, comes from an Sruthán Milis, “the sweet stream”, perhaps referencing the small streams that still run through the Botanic Gardens today. The majority Protestant area I grew up in, Dundonald in East Belfast, is an anglicisation of Dún Dónaill, “Donal’s stronghold”, a reference to a 12th-century Norman fort that once stood nearby. The manmade hill on which the fort was built still stands in Dundonald’s Moat Park. Even the Shankill Road area, the heart of loyalism in Belfast, derives its name from Seanchill, “old church”, a place of early Christian pilgrimage dating from around 455 AD that St Patrick likely trod on.
These secret words are everywhere (you can find more here). Despite Irish lessons at Lagan College (we weren’t forced – we could drop it after one year if we wanted) I’m still unable to string together more than a few sentences in Irish. But for me, after having my eyes opened the language’s hidden history, its beauty can be enjoyed by anyone. There is nothing, I believe, to fear from this fascinating legacy.
Reports of the talks seem to indicate that a hardline faction in the DUP has derailed the talks over the prospect of promoting the Irish language. It doesn’t have to be this way. The DUP’s electoral record shows it is clearly in control of leading and shaping unionist opinion. It should be capable of selling an Irish Language Act to its base.
Nobody is going to be forced to speak Irish. Street signs in Irish are unlikely to go up where they are vigorously opposed. There should be no threat to anyone’s culture. Irish speakers from unionist backgrounds like Linda Ervine need much larger platforms – as she says, “I have lost nothing of myself through learning Irish but have gained so much.”
Part of resolving this debate must involve showing how the beauty of the Irish language belongs to all of us, and what its words can reveal about the history of both communities. That way, like me, you can enjoy it without any history or background in it.
Adam McGibbon is a campaigner and writer from Northern Ireland. He tweets at @AdamMcGibbon.