Linda Ervine on her mission to preserve and advance the Irish language
The Turas founder tells Áine Toner about a special anniversary, addresses critics and why she has much more still to achieve
Someone who has been described as a language rights activist, and who has been celebrating the Irish language for over a decade — and wanting others to do the same — is Linda Ervine. A six-week beginner’s class became the catalyst for Irish language project Turas, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year.
Turas has been recognised as a force for good in promoting the Irish language, especially to those from a unionist and Protestant background. It is supported by the East Belfast Mission and Linda is a sister-in-law of the late PUP leader, David Ervine.
“My husband says I don’t think of consequences, I just go into things and he was probably right,” she laughs.
“Had I any notion that it would be so successful, that it would grow so much, that it would engage so many people? No. The only thing that motivated me just over 10 years ago was the fact that I loved the language.
“When I came across the language, I realised the animosity and the hostility that some people felt towards it.
“I wanted to challenge that and I wanted to say, that’s not the story here. I did not expect so many other people to fall in love with the language as well.
“I didn’t expect the level of commitment and enjoyment and also the fact that what started off as offering Irish language classes, we have built into a community.”
Turas became a cross-community project, attracting people from both sides of our “sadly divided” community, says Linda.
“The majority of our learners are from the PUL (Protestant, unionist, loyalist) community and the smaller number from the nationalist community.
“But the nice thing is over the years, there have been so many relationships, friendships and even two marriages and one baby!”
Throughout the conversation, she mentions the organisation’s organic growth. This, along with its welcoming nature — “the busyness, the friendliness” — is what she wants attendees to experience.
“Sometimes over the years people have come in here, whether they’re people from the Protestant community who are not sure what they’re going to meet, in a place where people teach Irish, or people from the nationalist community who are coming onto the Newtownards Road for the first time.
“They come in with that sense of apprehension and nervousness and then realise people here are so welcoming and it’s a lovely place to be.”
Linda believes wholeheartedly in what she’s doing, but has faced resistance, which perhaps shows how far Northern Ireland still has to go.
She adds: “I know that I don’t have any other agenda except sharing the love of the language and people come together to learn and to propagate the language. I have good people around me. That was built up, but I started on my own.
“We were criticised quite early on by a member of the Orange Order and that sort of motivated my learners to start their own organisation, which is called Cairde Turas (Friends of Turas). They are all volunteers. They do a lot of the teas, coffees, run a lot of the events and also support me in the way of friendship when times are difficult because I am unfortunately the one with the target on my back.”
Nastiness on social media has taught her to not try to score points.
“I just invite them in for tea,” she says. “That’s all I can do. And what I’ve said is, we are totally transparent here. Here’s what we do. Here’s what we think, it’s all open and if somebody doesn’t like it, then we can’t change to accommodate that. But you know, we’re not sitting here sewing up tricolours, plotting the downfall of the state either.”
What started small has become significant: 500 people have signed up for courses within Turas this year alone.
“At first, a lot of people from the Protestant community were very nervous about people knowing. They didn’t want friends or neighbours knowing, now they’re bringing the friends and neighbours along. I am very proud of what we’ve achieved, but we’ve a lot further to go.”
Turas’s dual focus is on the scholarship students at university and the Naíscoil na Seolta, the first Irish-medium pre-school in east Belfast.
“We believe that is very much a way of creating more diversity within the Irish language community and more people from within the Protestant community owning the language and make them a part of their own community,” Linda says.
“Our motto here is ag foghlaim le chéile, learning together. That’s what it is all about.”
The language rights activist — “I didn’t start out like that” — also recalls some of the “nonsense” she heard when she began learning Irish.
“In the end, I wrote that wee sketch, What the Focal? because of some of the nonsense that I saw and witnessed. I wanted to say, we’re not Sinn Fein, we’re not the IRA, what is this all about? Why do you have this perception? I’ve heard the most ridiculous things, some saying that people are only learning Irish to annoy Protestants. There’s so many easier ways rather than struggling with the irregular verbs.
“People have very strong opinions and they actually believe these things, people who have never been in an Irish language class in their life, never met anybody who’s learning Irish, speaks Irish. As somebody who has gone from total beginner classes to having been all over Belfast and further afield learning Irish and is now at university doing a degree in Irish and running an Irish language centre, it’s not what I see.
“I see people who are dedicated, love the language, love the craic, love the enjoyment and love the challenge. I joke about it, if people are sitting there, struggling with irregular verbs, they’re really not getting up to any mischief. I do get the odd one to come in and see. I don’t what they expect, I don’t know what they think they’re going to find. They find very ordinary people. Nobody’s sitting there with a balaclava.”
Our conversation moves to Ulster Scots, a language that has, until recently, been largely neglected.
“The sad thing is, it’s not the people that are involved in the languages, it’s people outside who don’t actually know anything about them, or sometimes they’ll use them as a badge of their own bigotry and hatred, but they have no respect or no understanding,” says Linda.
“What I see with Irish is people who respect language and culture. When I started learning Irish, I had no interest in Ulster Scots and it was Irish speakers who pulled me up and said, ‘no, hold on, that’s a language, have respect for it’. And that made me interested and I saw the overlap between the languages.
“One of my learners said, this [Irish] has just enriched me.
“I know from my life that it has absolutely enriched my life being part of this. I’ve met so many people, I’ve been to so many places that I never would have been if it hadn’t been for that introduction to the language. Has it changed me politically or who I am in any way? No, of course it hasn’t.”
She mentioned David Mitchell and Megan Miller’s academic publication from Trinity College Dublin,Reconciliation through language learning?, which examined Turas’s impact, saying, “their outcome was that we are helping to build peace with the work that we’re doing here”.
“For us, it’s just such a wonderful place to be,” she says. “Again, there was no plan, but it has grown and developed. I know now if I was to fall under a bus, Turas will go on because there’s enough people here, whereas one time it was all about me. It has been my baby and I’ve carried it. But now it has legs and it’s walking and it’s growing.”
It’s in double digits, we say.
“It’ll be at secondary school soon!” she laughs.
Currently in the third year of her part-time degree in Irish, she praises her fellow students but says she’s not “a good language learner”.
“I knew nobody was going to put me out of this job if I stopped learning. But how can I encourage other people if I don’t do it? That’s so important for my own learners,” says the former teacher who was awarded an MBE for her services to the Irish language.
“I’m a struggler and it’s getting better, but very slowly. I think it’s a good thing that I do struggle because I can empathise, I can encourage them and say that you can do this.
“I see how people from the Protestant community… they had no background in the language, they don’t know anybody who speaks Irish, they didn’t do Irish at school. They didn’t know any prayers, they don’t see it in the street signs. They come from not only a point of nought, but a point of where they know maybe they’ll be criticised. It’s important to give them teaching that really does start at ground zero.”
The night before starting her job, Linda was nervous but her faith carried her through. The reading for her first day intimated that no matter who you work for, you’re really working for God.
“I personally agree and I recognise that people don’t have a faith, we grew up with no faith. But I believe that that’s why we’ve been very successful on what many people would regard as stony ground.”
She continues challenging the idea the Irish language belongs exclusively to one community.
“I very strongly feel that if more people from the PUL community who achieve qualifications in Irish, who take jobs within the factor, that changes other perceptions of who is an Irish speaker. That’s very important. It’s not anybody from within the Irish language community who are saying stay away, it’s absolutely the opposite.
“I think if we’re serious and we want to change that [idea], which we do, then it’s very important to help people from the PUL community to gain those qualifications and to achieve jobs and become more prominent in the Irish language.
“Because, unfortunately, I’m seen as a bit of a lone wolf. I’m certainly not; I’ve a number of friends who are Irish speakers and have been involved in the language for many years. It’s just because I got that bit of prominence. I think it’s important to encourage other people up the ladder as well and that’s what we’re doing. Just to be frank about it, we’re putting our money where our mouth is.”
In Northern Ireland, language continues to be problematic for some. Earlier this week, it was reported that an Irish language sign installed at Mill Park in Tobermore was removed by residents within days of being erected by a local council.
“It’s very depressing,” says Linda, mentioning Cumran Primary in Clough, where a poster saying “keep Irish out of our kids’ classrooms” was left in its grounds, and similar problems faced by Naíscoil na Seolta, which was originally to be housed at Braniel Primary School.
“The reality is that it’s not most people who live in those areas, it’s a tiny minority who take it upon themselves to speak for other people. The reality is they don’t; they speak on behalf of themselves.
“Signage is a big bugbear. People are interested in place names but they don’t like signage. For me, if somebody was threatening to take all the English signage down, I absolutely get why you’d be angry.
“But that’s not what is being asked, what is being asked is to share a space.
“What is being asked, the same thing has happened in Scotland and Wales and the Isle of Man. You’re being asked to share a space; you’re asked for another word to be added.
“For me, if you don’t like that word, or don’t agree with that word or don’t understand that word, just ignore it.”
Her interest lies in how language unites us a group.
“One of the things we’re interested in is that the language joins us as a group of islands. The language that’s in Scotland, the Isle of Man, is part of the Celtic languages which were, at one point, spoken throughout the British Isles.
“There are Celtic place names in England. For me, it says we are a group of islands, we have these familial ties to each other. It doesn’t say we are a separate thing.”
For more information on Turas and the classes available, visit www.ebm.org.uk/turas