We Protestants fear Gaelic, and we were raised to mock it

DUP’s Arlene Foster speaking to the media at Stormont. Richard Irvine feels Foster could have realised that in opposing the Irish language, Northern Protestants are opposing part of themselves. Picture: Niall Carson/PA

Ulster Protestantism associates Gaelic with republicanism, which we oppose, and our cultural insecurity has informed the DUP’s rejection of an Irish Language Act, says Richard Irvine

MY MOTHER hailed from “the Field of the Yew Wood”, Ahogill. She never told me that. No one from that small village (Achadh Eochaille), where I spent each weekend until I was a teenager, ever did. Likely, they didn’t know.

Other things they did know, but never said. My great-grandfather, master of the village Orange lodge and a widower, remarried in his 60s, to a Catholic woman, and his son never spoke to him again.

That son, my grandfather, and later also lodge master, similarly went on to marry a Catholic. Cycling out one Sunday to Carnlough, he met the woman who would be his wife of 30 years. I never once guessed she was raised a Catholic (she converted to Prebyterianism upon betrothal). That knowledge only came long after both their deaths.

No Irish was ever spoken in our house. Or consciously spoken — “craic”, “brogue”, and many another solitary adjectives or nouns slipped through, but I lacked, and still do, knowledge of the etymology. My mum described Irish as that “ould palaver”; my aunt, more brutal, switched off the television whenever Irish was spoken.

The Irish language, for me, was the incomprehensible, the sinister, and the secret.

On holidays in Donegal, my mum muttered of Fenians, when shop assistants addressed her in that ‘ould palaver’. At election time, our arch enemy, Gerry Adams, to the unsuppressed fury of my parents, stumbled and tumbled over its ‘barbaric’ syllables in party political broadcasts. His linguistic audacity added insult to the IRA’s literal injury.

At Queen’s University, in the 1980s, my Protestant brethren were permeated by similarly suppressed outrage at the then bilingual policy of the students’ union. In anger, confusion, and insecurity, we mocked and derided the unpronounceable signs upon the union’s walls. These were inscriptions of disloyalty and exclusion.

In, of all places, the Irish Language Centre, the Culturlann MacAdam O’Fiaich, on the Falls Road, I recall audibly expressing dismay that all of the posters were in Irish. I was overheard, and, unhelpfully, a courteous and confident, and similarly young, man pointed out to me that I could address my ignorance by attending one of their many Irish language classes. He was polite and welcoming. I said nothing, but I was affronted.

And that is the point. The Irish language, to me, and to the vast majority of my peers, was never a real language — rather, it was a treachery, a plot, and a Machiavellian political scheme of the disloyal and the dangerous. And, worst of worst, masquerading under the guise of culture, it assumed a form we could not comfortably call out.

Liberal, open-minded and cultured, we young, university-educated Protestants could embrace music, literature, art, and language from all over the Earth, but could not embrace Irish. Such is the self-mutilating denial of the insecure.

Of course, Irish was never the affront I took it to be. It was my culture that supplanted Irish, burying it in the peremptory administration of imperial bureaucracies and commerce.

I cannot relate to the dislocation and alienation that native speakers must have experienced. I do not know the history of the language. I am told many Protestants were native speakers, too — I have no sense of validation. I have never met a Protestant, native Irish-language speaker.

Yet, I do recognise the loss. I do feel the narrowness of my inheritance; I do hear the fear and calculated disrespect in the scornful mockery of Gregory Campbell’s “Curry my Yoghurt”. I share that fear, too, inculcated before consciousness — part of my job lot of Ulster Protestant identity.

Irish is not my language. I doubt that, in middle-age, I have the energy and tenacity to learn it, and yet it is part of my story, too.

Its denial says too much about the iron fear we Protestants have lived in for too long.

With courage, Democratic Unionist Party leader, Arlene Foster, could have acknowledged this, too. She and her party had the chance to lead and make solid the shallow path forged by Protestant Irish-language activist, Linda Ervine, sister of the late PUP leader, David Ervine.

Like Ervine, Foster could have realised that, in opposing the Irish language, we oppose a part of ourselves. Sadly, she, like so very many of my community, failed to realise that no loss was involved here, nor political horse-trading due.

Lacking any appraisal of value, we saw, in Irish, not a gift and endowment, but a “weaponised” concession in a long “cultural war”.

We saw no language, just republicanism — and we have always opposed that.

A comprehensive Irish Language Act would have enriched and healed us all — restored to us all the poetry that resides in “the Field of the Yew Wood”. Instead, we continue to reside, literally and politically, in the stunted location of a place without translation.

* Richard Irvine is a Belfast-born teacher and lecturer in English and history. He writes occasional articles on current affairs and has been a commentator for BBC NI.

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