Linda Ervine’s interview video at the bottom of the article
I first met Linda Ervine, a proud Unionist and Protestant from East Belfast, a few years ago in Gweedore, County Donegal. We were attending an intensive, residential one-week Gaeilge or Irish language course.
I had a great night over a few pints with Linda and her husband Brian. Brian, a former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) is the brother of the late David Ervine. David was also a leader of the PUP and a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in the Northern Ireland Assembly. He was also an ex-Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) member. He played a pivotal role in bringing about the Loyalist paramilitary ceasefires in 1994 and the peace talks which led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Linda had been learning Irish for a few years. She is now the Irish Language Development Officer for a group called Turas. Turas is based in the Skainos Centre on the staunchly Loyalist Newtownards Road in East Belfast.
Turas, meaning journey or pilgrimage in both Irish Gaeilge and Scots Gàidhlig, is an Irish language and cultural project. It aims to connect people from Protestant communities to their own history with the Irish language. Turas is based on the belief that the language belongs to everyone and that it can be a mechanism of reconciliation.
Protestants and the Irish language
Along with Irish language and cultural lessons, Turas also provides workshops and talks on the historic links between Protestants and the Irish language. It holds discussions around the relevance of the language in present-day society. The project also facilitates periodic talks on a range of other topics related to language and culture.
Linda first became interested in the Irish language when she was doing some research into her family tree. From the census of 1911, she found out that some of her ancestors were both English and Irish speakers.
I spoke with Linda again recently and asked her what started her on her own ‘turas’ with the Irish language.
“We did a six-week taster course in Irish and I just fell in love with the language”, she said.
Linda then started attending weekly classes. After a local newspaper did a story on her learning Irish, she said she was inundated with people wanting to join her class.
“The first night, around twenty people turned up”, she said: “We now have nine classes a week. We also do set dancing and tin whistle classes.”
There are now more than 270 people attending classes at the Skainos Centre every week. I asked Linda why she thought there was such an interest in learning Irish in her community.
“I think people are starting to recognise that there is no threat from the language”, she said: “They’ve been told for years that the language is the enemy, that it has nothing to do with them. They’re now starting to question that and saying: ‘Well, maybe that just isn’t so’.”
Linda has come a long way since starting to learn a cúpla focal. She obtained an A grade in her A-level Irish and is now studying for a degree in Irish at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB).