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'Protestant Learners of Irish in Northern Ireland'
by Gordon McCoy

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Text: Gordon McCoy ... Page Compiled: Martin Melaugh

The following chapter has been contributed by the author Gordon McCoy, with the permission of the publisher. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
The chapter below is taken from the book:
The Irish Language

Edited by Aodán Mac Póilin (1997)
Published by Ultach Trust
ISBN 0-9516466-3x 211pp £6.00

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This chapter is copyright Gordon McCoy (1997) and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the author and the publisher. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the author or the publishers. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

From the back cover:

Discussions about the Irish language tend to fall into tediously predictable patterns. It is hoped that this book will be a step towards an informed, critical and engaged debate.

The essays here, which range from the personal to the scholarly, revisit old questions with new perspectives. Some of them bring fascinating new material to light for the first time.

This is no dry academic work. All the contributors are involved with the Irish language movement, and the interplay of commitment and objectivity make for a stimulating read.


The essays here are designed to stimulate constructive debate on the Irish language in Northern Ireland. In a society where communication takes the form of cliches being hurled back and forth across no-man’s-land, it is not always easy for Irish language enthusiasts to find the space for a reasonable discussion. This book represents an attempt to create such a space.

The essays draw on a number of disciplines; history, anthropology, sociolinguistics, and four of them are based on doctoral research. The authors were asked to make their work as accessible as possible to the general reader, and to cut down on learned gobbledygook.

Inevitably, some themes recur throughout the book. The relationship between political ideology and the language movement is discussed in all the essays, and a number of contributors offer varying interpretations of the role of Douglas Hyde. No attempt was made to impose order on such overlapping themes: in itself, the variety of opinion expressed here both reflects and contributes to the debate within the language movement.

Much remains to be covered: Comhaltas Uladh, Irish-medium education and Irish in English-medium schools, the residual Gaeltachts within Northern Ireland in the early days of the state, the relationship of the Catholic church with the language movement, the gaelicising of west Belfast, the 1991 Census, Irish in the arts, economic activity, broadcasting, prisons. Further research is needed in all these areas.

Our thanks are due to the contributors, to Colm Mac Aindreasa for knowing what buttons to push, to Séamus Ó hAnnaidh for his patience and creativity, and to Máire Bean Uí Bhruadair and Eibhlín Ní Chnáimhsí for their direct input and for keeping the show on the road when their colleagues were otherwise engaged.





Living with Irish.


Plus Va change:
the Irish language and politics.


The very dogs in Belfast will bark in Irish
The Unionist Government and the Irish language 1921-43.


Nationalists and the Irish language in
Northern Ireland: Competing Perspectives.


Protestant learners of Irish in Northern Ireland.


Aspects of the Irish language movement.


Can linguistic minorities cope with a favourable majority?


Notes on contributers


Protestant Learners of Irish in Northern Ireland


In recent years Protestant learners of Irish have become very ‘mediagenic’, attracting considerable interest in local newspapers, as well as in radio and television broadcasts. This interest is not without due reason. Protestant Irish speakers cross physical and ideological boundaries between the unionist and nationalist communities. They challenge the Catholic and! or nationalist image of the Irish language, as well as stereotypes of Northern Protestants as the champions of British culture in Ireland. The phenomenon of Protestant learners confronts many preconceived notions of what the Irish language represents; it also forces us to examine our attitudes to nationalism and unionism in Ireland.

In certain circumstances Protestant learners represent a religious minority within a minority language group. On the other hand, many of these Protestants would like to see a united Ireland, and by learning Irish they feel they are taking part in a nationalist project of cultural restoration. They are welcomed within Irish language circles, and their Protestantism seems unimportant and becomes backgrounded. Their opinions on the Irish language often differ little from their Catholic counterparts. Unionist learners of Irish are another case altogether. Their way of looking at the language often differs from that of nationalists, but they undercommunicate their views in Irish language circles for fear of giving offence. In preparing this chapter, I decided to concentrate on unionist learners of Irish as I wished to contribute something new to the understanding of the Irish language issue in Northern Ireland; the nationalist approach to Irish is comparatively well-known.

In this chapter I will draw upon the beliefs and experiences of 81 Protestant learners of Irish whom I studied for a doctoral thesis; most of the fieldwork was carried out between October 1992 and December 1994. I will use quotations and evidence supplied by many Protestant learners during ‘one-off’ interview situations. However, I will also mention two groups of learners which I studied over a period of time. Between February and October 1993 I taught Irish to a group of working-class Protestants in the Glencairn estate, which is in the Greater Shankill area of Belfast. I also observed a network of middle-class learners located in the affluent north Down region. The stark contrast between these two groups convinced me of the importance of class background in the analysis of Protestant learners of Irish.

Language and Identity

The dominant ideology embracing the Irish language is that of Irish nationalism; the language is connected with the desire to end British rule in Ireland. In the following quotation, a Protestant nationalist explains his interest in the language:

I had a particular objection to the British Royal family, so I was exploring at the time my feelings about that and looking at the whole idea of the partition of the island of Ireland, and wondering why that had taken place, and I suppose over a period of years when I was at grammar school I started to think, ‘Why is this island divided?’ and I think I eventually came up with the idea that it shouldn’t be... I sort of felt that there wasn’t really a good reason for the island to be divided. I think from that knowledge I came round to saying, 'Well, what are the features of Ireland, what are the essential aspects of its culture, and what are the things that people share, that wouldn’t necessarily be too one-sided or the other, that wouldn’t necessarily belong to one religious group or the other?’ The biggest feature I could see then was the Irish language, and it was something that needn’t necessarily belong to one group or the other.

This Irish speaker had discovered a secular symbol which he believed could be used to unite a people divided by religion. Many nationalist learners believe that the language provides a means by which they can express their Irish national and nationalist identities. Consequently, many nationalist Protestant learners do not understand how unionists can learn the language and retain their allegiance to Britain. This point is illustrated by the following quotations, which were supplied by three nationalist Irish speakers who were Protestant:

Well, I find them a bit strange. I find it a bit strange to want to learn the language of a country and a people that you’re trying to say you don’t want to be a part of. Unionists say they want to be in Britain, they’re saying the Irish language is part of their culture, so they should learn it, yet they’re trying to keep themselves away from that culture as well.

GMc: Can someone like Chris McGimpsey1 who learns Irish be a unionist and an Irish speaker?
Learner: Well, I don’t think you could be, no, I don’t think you could. But it’s the beginning if they show an interest in Irish, it’s something like, a wee bit like the thin end of the wedge. In a way they’ll come to conclude, well, ‘Irish isn’t too bad at all and the Irish aren’t too bad’. People who learn Irish have a leaning towards nationalism.

I think it’s a bit difficult when the government to which the unionists owe their allegiance has done so much to destroy the language over a period of time. If you get into the Irish language and that sort of thing, to a large extent that brings you closer to the Catholic people on this island. I think it brings you closer to them in a certain way and it encourages you to think in a more sort of Irish way and a more sort of all-island - it gives you an all-Ireland perspective on things and if you start to think, ‘Well, this is my language, this is the language of the other people on this island’. I think it’s a bit difficult to say, ‘Well, what’s this border doing here?’

In the first text the respondent cannot reconcile unionism and the Irish language. In the second text the speaker asserts that unionists who learn Irish do so because they are in the process of abandoning their allegiance to Britain. In the second and third texts the speakers articulate the belief that unionist learners will change their outlook when they are drawn into Irish language circles. In the third text, the speaker claims that unionist Irish speakers cannot be loyal to successive British administrations which attempted to destroy the Irish language.

In the third text we have an example of linguistic determinism, the view that each language expresses and creates a distinct and autonomous system of thought. The belief that language and world-view are closely related has existed for centuries. Linguistic determinism is an important element of German Romantic nationalism, the Irish version of which linked the separatist movement to the revival of the Irish language. Since the Irish language is believed to be a repository of Irish nationality, advocates of linguistic determinism argue that unionists will acquire a nationalist outlook by learning the language.

The assertion that Protestants learn Irish because they are nationalist has some validity. The 1996 Social Attitudes Survey reported that no more than 6% of Protestants favour a united Ireland (Breen 1996: 36). However, 31% of my respondents said they were nationalist in outlook. Therefore the percentage of nationalists among the group I studied was higher than that among the Protestant population as a whole. However, the assertion that all Protestants learn Irish because they are nationalist is invalid; 46% of my respondents were unionist in outlook2. I must emphasise that these figures are not set in stone, as the proportion of unionist learners is rising.

It is true that many Protestants who learn Irish are nationalist in outlook. The idea that unionists can be converted to nationalism by means of the Irish language is more controversial; most of the nationalist learners I encountered had rejected unionism before they learned Irish. I have found little evidence of a ‘conversion process’ among unionist learners of Irish.

I asked some of my unionist respondents about their opinions on the relationship between the Irish language and Irish nationalism. In the course of one interview, a learner told me that he was afraid that his Protestant neighbours would intimidate him if they discovered his interest in Irish; they might believe that he was betraying the Protestant community. I asked him if Protestants who learned the Irish language were betraying their community, by becoming nationalist in their outlook, for example. He was most emphatic that they were not:

That’s totally nuts - absolutely not. I mean its quite the reverse, in fact, from my point of view. I’m pulling something out of a fire, you know, I’m not joining it in there. What I’m doing is redefining it as something that’s important to me as an Ulster person. I want to learn Ulster Irish and its nothing to do with nationalism at all. I mean you’ll be waiting for a long time before you’ll find me coming round to that viewpoint... I’m going to pull it out from all the rubbish around it - all the nonsense.

This learner wishes to divest the Irish language of its ‘unnecessary’ nationalist image, and views the language through unionist cultural lenses (for example, in his reference to Ulster Irish). A north Down learner explained the conflicting attitudes he held about the Irish language:

I suppose there was a division between wanting to do it and being confronted by it, in the sense that you’re kind of suspicious that to do it is some kind of political act, which you don’t necessarily want to be part of ... I never knew there was any neutral place that you could go to learn it, I mean any time that I met it, apart from hearing it on RTÉ, anytime that I met it was almost always in a political sense, you know, unless it was placenames, or you came across it in books. I mean I’m an historian, and I’ve come across it in history, you know, and I’d have to find translations of it, one was aware of its place, and all of that, and the literature as well. And I always wanted to be able to read the poetry... There was a division between wanting to do it and being confronted by it. It was a challenge to learn it, but at the same time the republican tradition of it was screaming at me and there was the oppressive connotations of it in the South.

This unionist learner struggles with his wish to enhance his knowledge of Irish culture and his dislike of the association of the Irish language with nationalism. His account illustrates the ambivalent feelings many unionist learners have about Irish. They perceive the ideological gulf that lies between themselves and nationalist Irish speakers to be a large one. In the following text, the speaker discusses a magazine supplement about ‘raving nationalist’ Irish speakers who were Protestant:

I’ve no doubt that they were very sincere people, but I think maybe because I think, ‘Oh. isn’t that funny, that person’s Protestant and yet very much a nationalist’. But the fact of the matter is that when I’m viewing it from my standpoint as an Ulster Protestant, it’s completely sort of - it’s very unusual for any of us to suddenly turn and become an Irish nationalist, because it’s exactly the opposite of what you are. For me to turn round and suddenly become a nationalist would be very odd, and you would wonder where that person was coming from to think like that.

Just as many nationalists cannot understand how unionists can learn Irish and retain their political allegiances, this text reveals the incredulity of the speaker at the suggestion that she may become a nationalist.

Unionist learners do not feel that they must choose between two mutually opposed British and Irish cultures. Rather, they often express a syncretic cultural identity which draws upon elements of Britishness and Irishness:

I feel quite privileged now because I mean you feel the best of both worlds. You extract from both sides what you like best, you know. I haven’t come to terms with anything now really. I’m happy to be British-Irish or Irish-British or whatever, you can take pleasure from both. I mean, I take great pleasure in looking at the ‘Changing of the Guard’ or something like that there ... It doesn’t mean to say that I can take no pleasure in things that I took pleasure in before. I mean, when they play ‘The Land of Hope and Glory’ or something, it doesn’t mean to say that I shouldn’t, I feel quite happy to associate with that, and I’ve no problems about it. I’d say that the Irish culture would certainly be part of me now, yes, sure, and I’m a better person for it.

This north Down learner is adamant that she is not embracing an Irish nationalist identity at the expense of her British one; the way in which her response is worded suggests that she might have felt that this was expected of her.

For many Protestants, national identity is situational and complex (Waddell and Cairns 1986). Protestants may feel Irish on holiday in Donegal, British on Remembrance Day, and subscribe to an Ulster identity when they feel that the British government has failed them. Middle-class unionists often express a sense of Irishness (albeit a vague and ill-defined one) in cultural or geographical terms. They may articulate Irish identities by supporting the Irish rugby team or Irish athletes at the Olympic games. They will also take holidays in the Republic of Ireland, thereby familiarising themselves with other parts of Ireland (Todd 1987: 16). Unionist intellectuals often favour the expression of an Irish identity which is compatible with a British one (e.g. Foster 1995). The Irish language provides a means for some unionists to express an Irish identity which they feel is harmonious with their allegiance to Britain.

Working-class unionists are more attracted to an Ulster national identity than their middle-class counterparts. This identity has as its primary imagined community Northern Protestants, while there is a secondary identification with Britain (Todd 1987: 3). Moxon-Browne explains the Ulster allegiance in terms of disillusionment with English policy in Northern Ireland (1991: 28). Working-class unionists who learn Irish may associate the language with this identity, expressing a preference for the Ulster dialect of the language:

If someone says to me, ‘What’s the Irish for that?’, I’ll be able to say that in Irish and that’s that. And I regard myself in a sense as Irish in that I regard myself as an Ulsterman and as part of the island. It’s everything else that I am not terribly happy with - the way we have been treated by Britain. And I think if you’re going to establish an identity for yourself I would say, ‘I’m a Christian first’, and then I would say, ‘I’m an Ulsterman, and as an Ulsterman I’m Irish’, and it doesn’t mean that I want to be involved with the Republic in any sense, but it does mean that I’m from the island of Ireland and perhaps there’s a degree of learning identity in learning Irish... Speaking Irish is not a republican thing to do, its an Ulster thing to do, and to speak in the Ulster language and to speak Gaelic in Ulster is a thing that Ulstermen should do. I’d like to see them all speaking in Irish.

In this text the speaker alternates between expressing Irish and Ulster identifications. Towards the end of the text the speaker uses the term ‘Gaelic’, thus challenging the insular image of the language by introducing a semantic link to Scottish Gaelic.

Nationalists who believe that unionists will lose their political outlook when they socialise with Irish speakers are often mistaken. Many Protestants, especially middle-class ones, have Catholic friends and take holidays in the Republic of Ireland, but they do not adopt the views of the nationalists they encounter. Furthermore, the nationalist belief that unionists would abandon their political allegiances upon their exposure to Irish history is optimistic, to say the least. History is a product of present concerns as well as a storehouse of essential truths. Thus there are unionist and nationalist histories of the Irish language:

I would come from the unionist tradition, and I could actually use my knowledge of Irish at the moment to defend the unionist position an awful lot better than most of the unionists ... the absurdity of Ireland as a sort of Gaelic, Catholic nation and the idea that because the sea is round it that makes it a nation. The language links us with Scotland and with Wales and with Cornwall, and actually England too. England is as Celtic a nation as we are. So I would see the Irish language as linking us with the other Celtic peoples, and I think its a blind spot, this obsession with England as an enemy. The English are the same people as we are, so it seems to me that Irish language is something which holds the British Isles together. I mean the very word ‘British’ speaks to me of a Celtic language, you know, and not of English. Old Shakespeare with his England and her sister nations bound together by the triumph of sea. I see the sea as binding nations together. The sea has always bound Kintyre and County Antrim, and for these absurd people to draw a line down there and say, ‘This is Ireland and that is Scotland’ - that’s rubbish.

By describing Irish as a Celtic language, this learner symbolically links the language to the British ‘mainland’. He rejects what he perceives to be the attempt of Irish nationalism to substitute an insular Irish identity for one embracing the historical links between Britain and Ireland. His reference to the sea ‘binding nations together’ echoes the unionist assertion that the Irish Sea facilitated rather than hindered population movements between Britain and Ireland in ancient times.

It is not only nationalist Irish speakers who hope that the language can be used to change the opinions of others. Many middle-class unionist learners believe that working-class learners would adopt their liberal views if they learn Irish:

This language was here before any of this conflict between Protestant and Catholic. I think that’s something that would do an awful lot for the advance of this country and the advance of community relations, if Protestants became more aware of the cultural heritage that they share with their Catholic neighbours And they lack a real cultural heritage, this nonsense of beating Lambeg drums on the ‘Twelfth’, really, it’s a bit shallow. They ye got something a lot more rich than that. I was trying to tap into that on my own as well, learning Irish ... I would like to see some kind of attempt to raise the awareness among the Protestant people of the cultural awareness that they share with everybody on this island, instead of saying ‘no’ to everything that doesn’t wear an orange and purple sash, which is really what it’s become.

This middle-class unionist balances his positive opinion of the Irish language with a negative evaluation of Protestant working-class Orange culture. The speaker wishes to replace and / or supplement Orange culture with Irish culture. Middle-class unionist learners, like the person I have just quoted, believe that working-class loyalists will become less anti-Catholic if they learn Irish.

I doubt the ‘conversion’ of unionists to nationalism or even liberal unionism by means of the Irish language. However, Protestants make many exciting discoveries when they take an interest in the Irish language. They often acquire a new way of looking at their surroundings. Many learners describe their interest in the Irish language as one that comes to have enormous personal benefit for them:

I remember when we first started, I found a real buzz with, do you know it was like lifting, breaking through silence or something because I was really going, ‘This is something I never ever knew’. And if I heard Irish, I didn’t know what it meant, but then, it was sort of like, the cloud lifting or something and I realised, ‘This is the language’, and I thought, ‘Why on earth didn’t I do this earlier in my life?’

In the following text, a learner describes her experiences in an Irish language college in Donegal:

Every night the college organised something ... And a fiddler, and of course the famous Lillis (Lillis Ó Laoire, a singer from Donegal), the sean-nós singer, he was there, and then we’d a dinner one night and a céilí, and then afterwards you went to Biddy’s (a local bar). But every afternoon there was a programme as well. You could have gone hill-walking, if you’d any interest in playing an instrument, you had that, and the famous sea n-nós singing which I adored ... I mean it was ‘now for something completely different’. I have never seen anything like that in my life. I had never heard anything like it. I didn’t know those things existed. I’d never been to a céilí, and everything was a revelation ... (after listening to Lillis Ó Laoire talking about traditional songs) Really, he could have been speaking any language, but it was beautiful you know, it really sounded beautiful, though I didn’t understand it.

Many adult Protestant learners experience a tremendous sense of excitement when they begin to learn Irish, but they also feel a sense of regret that they were not informed about the language earlier in their lives. Graduates often told me they would have chosen to study Irish at degree level had they been more aware of the language before they enrolled for university. Among Protestant learners there was an almost universal regret that the language had not been introduced to them during their school years.

Some Protestant learners have difficulty in identifying with the Irish language because their interest receives little support in their own community:

I find it strange, because a part of me says, ‘Well you’re here and you live in this land and it should be part of you’, but in a sense at the same token, my background isn’t, and therefore it nearly feels that it would always be an ‘add on’... It’s nearly like learning a foreign language, it’s nearly like that, yeah. I would like to feel that I own an Irish culture. I would like to establish it as part of my - but I don’t see it in my family background and therefore it’s difficult. In my own circle of friends and family and stuff, it wouldn’t be really encouraged, or they wouldn’t appreciate it fully, so it’s not something that I’m actually going back to, what I feel to be my roots or something ... I wouldn’t want to be narrow, I mean, exclude friendships (with Catholics / Irish speakers) across the board, or whatever, you know. I’d quite like that, it’s just circumstances, and where I live, and everything, and work. It just reinforces the circle that I’m in, and there isn’t the opportunities, really. Unless the (Irish) class, the likes of the class forces a mix and a broadening, and a changing over, it’s forced a change in that sense. Whether it continues, I think it would need to be a conscious effort on my part which might be difficult on a long term basis. I don’t know.

The degree to which learners can identify with Irish depends upon the knowledge that is available to them. The speaker in the above text had just begun to learn Irish. She struggles to identify with the Irish language, but feels she cannot as it is not part of her background. When I had finished interviewing this learner, I attempted to demonstrate to her that there was a tradition of Protestant Irish speakers. I did this by showing her a Protestant translation of the New Testament into Irish, whereupon she became tremendously excited, exclaiming, ‘Why did no-one show me this before? Why did no-one tell me about this?’

Many Protestant learners lessen their alienation from Irish by drawing upon historical evidence of previous Protestant involvement in the language. This Gaelic past enables contemporary Protestants to ‘traditionalise’ their interest in Irish:

Well, its programmes like that, its programmes like the McAdam programme (a BBC production on the life of Robert McAdam, a nineteenth-century antiquarian and revivalist), and the other articles I’ve read. All of that makes one feel that you’re actually part of a tradition, you know, not breaking into a tradition, not sticking out like a sore thumb... I didn’t even know, for instance, that there had been Presbyterian speakers of Gaelic in County Down. You know, things I discovered like that. I discovered that in my own school that Neilson (a nineteenth-century Presbyterian minister and scholar of the Irish language) had taught there and everything. Well, all these things, well, they didn’t make any difference to me learning the thing, but there was a way in which you felt a lot more confident. I suppose I felt that I wasn’t some kind of lunatic eccentric, you know.

In this text a north Down learner associates the Irish language with a Protestant heritage (the McAdam programme and the articles), his school tradition (William Neilson), and his local identity (County Down). These have the combined effect of rationalising his interest in Irish in terms of a tradition. Even if there are not many contemporary Protestant learners of Irish with whom he can identify, he feels re-assured that many other Protestants spoke Irish in the past. In this way, the learner circumvents occasional feelings of isolation among Catholic Irish speakers.

Other Identities

When considering the Irish language, commentators often concentrate on the ideologies of nationalism and unionism, as well as features of Protestantism and Catholicism in Ireland. It is important to consider that learners of Irish often have other kinds of identification; local community and familial identities, for example. In many situations these ‘small-scale’ identities may be more important to learners of Irish than ‘macro-level’ national or religious ones. In the following quotation, the speaker is replying to the question, ‘When did you first want to learn Irish?’

Why, I was hoping no-one would ask me that! I don’t know why I’m learning Irish. I’ve always been fascinated with words and the crazy spelling. My father had Irish - the only thing that I remember him saying was ‘Cad é mar atá tú (‘How are you?’). And then of course on holiday in Bunbeag (in North Donegal). I was there three times a year, four times a year ... I always went to it, and now looking back, I know it was Gaeltacht, but then we didn’t know, but we heard the language and we saw the writing, and I remember falling madly in love with the word ‘aisling’ (vision), and calling my house that ... and the names used to fascinate me on the signs.

This north Down learner attributes her interest in Irish to her family history, her childhood experiences, as well her fascination with language. She and the other members of the group relate their interest in Irish to long-established customs in the district, including traditional music and dancing. The group also read about the Protestant Gaelic tradition in County Down and are enthusiastic about the Irish roots of local surnames and placenames. The group feels that Irish culture has not been ‘imported’ from other parts of Ireland, but represents part of the tradition of their local community. While discussing the Irish language with the north Down learners, I formed the impression that their local community identity was as relevant to them as wider and more abstract concepts of British and Irish identity.

Thus small-scale affiliations are important when Irish speakers consider their relationship with the language. On the other hand, western concepts of ethnicity and culture that transcend national boundaries have had their influence on Irish language enthusiasts. Both Protestant and Catholic learners of Irish are influenced by a global upsurge of interest in minority cultures and languages. This is particularly true of younger learners of Irish; it is now trendy to be ‘trad’:

GMc.: What do your friends think of your interest in Irish?
Learner: They’d say, ‘That’s very fashionable of you.’ I think Irish is fashionable, actually. I think its fashionable to pick up on anything that’s sort of like - because everyone thinks, oh, isn’t it sad that the native Americans are being trampled on, let’s make them a reserve for them all to live in. And it’s the same with languages and folk art and so on, and all that sort of stuff. There’s a sort of desire to protect it, and it’s a bit trendy, really. It’s because the modern world is so homogenised, you go to any country in the world and you’ll be able to buy a tin of Coke and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Everything is the same now, getting to be the same. So anything that’s old and definitely more part of one country is interesting and makes the world a more interesting place. That’s why Belfast is crammed with all these little shops selling wooden ornaments and beads from the Third World.

The Irish language is related to the world-wide upsurge of interest in minority ethnicity and the dislike of bland, homogenous Anglo-American culture. As such, Irish is de-ethnicised by divorcing it from concepts of Catholicism and nationalism; the language is represented as part of a culture that is accessible to everyone.

Protestant Learners and the Irish Language ‘Scene’

I have shown how nationalists, including Protestant ones, regard the connection between the Irish language and Irish nationalism as common-sensical and natural. However, unionists who learn the Irish language do not accept certain conventions of the Irish language scene. This leads to cultural mis-matches between unionist and nationalist Irish speakers. The following incident happened during a cross-community Irish language class. The teacher handed out a photocopied song that is very popular among Irish speakers; the song includes a line which refers to driving the ‘na Gaill’ (the foreigners) out of Ireland3. One unionist learner reacted in this way:

That song that we did, I didn’t feel too happy about singing it. I must admit, I really didn’t. You see, I think that’s from her (the teacher’s) background, you know, it’s acceptable, but it does feel odd ... And funny enough, there was a week’s lapse, and Cathal gave me a lift home, and he actually brought it up that he didn’t feel right in singing it either, and he felt it was out of place in a mixed group ... and I appreciated that someone from a Roman Catholic background had differing opinions or whatever, would feel the same about it.

Unionist learners object to aspects of the Irish language scene, such as singing republican songs (usually in English!), and discussions about the GAA, in which few Protestants express an interest. Like the learner quoted above, most unionist learners of Irish keep a very low profile at Irish language classes and events. They are fearful of objecting to certain conventions as they feel at times that they are observing a culture which is alien to them. The fact that nationalist Irish speakers are unaware when they are giving offence compounds the problem.

As the Irish language is often associated with the Catholic community, Protestant learners of Irish find that they are often assumed to be Catholic. This often irritates them as it underlines their distinctiveness from other Irish speakers. In the following text ‘Adele’, who was brought up on the Shankill Road, tells her experiences to myself and ‘Ruth’, a fellow Protestant learner. Adele begins by relating an incident which occurred while she was attending an Irish language course in Donegal:

There was this German girl in our class called Monika, and she bounced up to me one day and said, ‘Oh, you’re from Belfast’ and I said, ‘Yes’ and she said, ‘Oh, do you know the Cultúrlann’ and I said, ‘Yes, I do, I’ve been there once or twice’, and she said, ‘Oh, I love it’ and then she started listing all these people (mentions the names of members of the language movement), did I know them, all the usual ones and I said, ‘Well, I didn’t know them personally, but I know who they are’. And she just showed a lack of understanding of the issues involved, you know, it was kind of like you know, ‘You’re into Irish, therefore you must be a sort of republican Falls Road kind of person’...

And then the pièce de résistance came on the second day of the course. In the coffee break I was talking to this American woman, and Monika was there, and the American said to Monika, ‘Oh do you come to Ireland often?’ and Monika said, ‘Yes, I come at least once a year’, and all this. And she said, ‘I’ve been to Belfast and I love Belfast, people are so wonderful, and it’s great. But the people on the Shankill Road, they’re just horrible! They’re just such horrible people! One day I went for a walk up the Shankill Road and the people were so horrible and it was just like a slum, you know and everything was so dirty.’ And she just went on like this, and I just stood there, and I have to say I felt like a ton weight had come down on my head, you know, I just stood there thinking, ‘What is the point of going on with this, this constant battle, you’re always on the outside ...

I was saying to Margaret (a friend who was learning Irish), you know, like some other classes I’ve been to in the Arts Club and the Ulster People’s College (Irish classes in south Belfast)... I always felt a wee bit on edge, not massively so, but just enough to make you that wee bit uncomfortable, and everybody would get in with the teacher, but you wouldn’t be in. You’d always be hanging about sort of not quite knowing what to do. Even at the Ulster People’s College, until you sort of came (addresses Ruth) I really just came and then went home

Sean (a teacher at the Donegal course) initiated this discussion about the language, ‘Did we think it was dying, did we think it was worth reviving and all this’. And I just sat there thinking, you know, Sean and all the others were quoting things that were good, like the Cultúrlann, all the newspapers like Lá, but I just sort of thought, ‘All the things that were quoted were all things that were in west Belfast or you know, your average Protestant, even a liberal Protestant, would feel a bit uncomfortable about’. And I just sat there and I just sort of wanted to say ‘Look, you know, this is all very well, but what about me? What about me and my friends and people like me? We are human beings, we are here in front of you. How do we get included in all of this? It’s like we don’t exist’.

In this text Adele indicates her reluctance to travel to Catholic west Belfast and her lack of identification with the language revival there. The pièce de résistance comes when a foreigner, whom she expected to be more neutral in outlook, expresses anti-Protestant attitudes. In doing so, she makes a terrible faux pas in terms of the social etiquette in Northern Ireland, but Adele decides that she cannot embarrass Monika by telling her that she is speaking to a Shankill Protestant; thus she draws upon a convention which prohibits embarrassing her interlocutor. Adele’s decision does not challenge Monika’s belief that all ‘indigenous’ learners of Irish are Catholic.

When I talked to Adele on another occasion, she expanded the events related above to elaborate on what she called the ‘Catholic tribalism’ of Irish speakers. She said that they discuss life in their home districts, arrange to socialise in areas where Protestants are reluctant to go, and discuss GAA matches that Protestants have little interest in. In doing so, Catholic Irish speakers create and sustain friendships that are restricted to other Catholics. They draw upon ‘pools of predictability’ of shared background and experience which facilitate intra-Catholic socialisation (Burton 1978: 65). In such encounters Adele’s distinctive Protestant identity is highlighted, although she is a ‘fellow’ nationalist.

Protestant learners who suspect that their religious or political affiliations may be resented by Catholic learners often attempt to conceal their religious identities from other Irish speakers. For example, one learner told me that Catholics on a Gaeltacht course stare at her when she tells them that she is from Bangor (which implies that she is a Protestant). She prefers to tell other Irish speakers that she is from County Down (which gives no indication of her religious affiliation). Other Protestants go further and deliberately masquerade as Catholics when they believe that they may be in danger if their real identities are revealed. One Protestant, who learned Irish in west Belfast, bought a copy of the Andersonstown News every week in order to be able to pose as a local in class.

Adele’s experiences represent a type of ‘worse-case scenario' that Protestants relate about their interaction with Catholic Irish speakers. Protestant learners feel a sense of difference between themselves and Catholic Irish speakers, but the potential to form lifelong friendships with Catholics exists. In many instances the shared love of the Irish language overcomes political and sectarian divisions. In the following text, a learner describes his experience of learning Irish in an evening class run by the nationalist-controlled Queen’s University Students’ Union:

I find that one of the great things about it is, I think it actually creates more trust than anything else, especially with young Catholics who are turning against the Church so fast. But it is such a loaded thing, and it has become such a loaded thing, that I find that it breaks down barriers very quickly. When you know Catholics who don’t speak Irish at all, the fact that you know it sort of makes them look at you in a much more sympathetic, not sympathetic, but a more trusting way. I find it breaks down barriers that way ...

(on going to the class at Queen’s University) I was a bit sort of nervy about going, because it was a sort of bad time in the ‘troubles’, and I thought, ‘I’m going to be swamped by this, you know. I’ll have to sit putting up with all sorts of stuff.’ And in fact consistently I’ve found that in most Irish language circles they don’t care what you are as long as you speak Irish, the love of Irish predominates over everything, and I found the reverse in fact. In fact, one of the other reasons why I was let off with not doing my irregular verbs was I quite often had ‘wee pet status. But I never found, augh, well occasionally in the bar afterwards, when I was talking English to people, you’d have a discussion that would get a wee bit fraught. But I never had any problem, you know.

In this text the speaker asserts that increasing secularism dissolves tensions between Irish speakers from differing religious backgrounds. Political issues arise when the class has finished and its organisers no longer have any control over the issues that will be discussed. The speaker even claims that as a Protestant he is especially welcomed within an Irish language environment. In the following text, a unionist university student explains how he related to classmates that did not share his political views while on a Gaeltacht course:

There was a couple of bitter rows with people who were real hard-liners, but most of us got through it with humour. There was a lot of humour between us and we ignored the subject and said it was really a matter of ‘You have your idea, I have mine, like, you know, just leave it aside’... When I was in the Gaeltacht I made some very close friends among some of those students and the political issue just fell aside. And we’re still very close friends, although if you asked us about our political beliefs, they were completely different ... The Gaeltacht just intensified the ones who were friends and the ones who were just acquaintances.

In forming friendships, the speaker and his Catholic friends decided to avoid political issues in conversation, as they would not agree about them. They followed the rules for ‘mixed’ socialisation in Northern Ireland by avoiding contentious issues. As such, they agreed to undercommunicate aspects of their ethnic identities. Humour was used to avert conflict between the students; this is a stylistic device often employed to defuse tense situations (Tannen 1989).

Learners of Irish sense a degree of autonomy of the language movement from nationalism. They also notice that their teachers make great efforts to make them feel welcome. Members of the Irish language movement wish to welcome Protestant learners of Irish for many reasons: Catholics regard themselves as being less sectarian than Protestants; the Irish language movement is avowedly non-sectarian, and some Irish speakers strive to put this principle into practice; nationalist Irish-speakers believe that to deny Protestants access to the Irish language would symbolically bar them from admittance to the Irish nation; and Irish speakers are keen to encourage others to take an interest in a language which they fear is in danger of becoming extinct.

When Protestant and Catholic speakers of Irish meet for the first time, they often follow the social etiquette which entails the avoidance of religious and political topics of conversation. However, Protestant learners often notice that many Catholic Irish speakers depart from this etiquette, as they feel the need to prove they are not republican. Thus Protestant learners often become the unwitting confidantes of Catholic Irish speakers who bitterly resent the republican image of the Irish language. This process is often two-way; many Protestant learners, especially middle-class ones, feel they must distance themselves from the loyalist extremists of their own community. As one learner explained to me, ‘We need to prove that we’re not Orange bigots and they have to prove they’re not Provos’.

In the absence of such ‘proof’, Protestant and Catholic Irish speakers often fantasise about each other’s political beliefs, leading to incidents which reveal mutual misunderstandings. The experience of a Protestant friend of mine provides an unfortunate illustration of this phenomenon. While studying the Irish language at university, he was disturbed by jokes’ about his being a spy for MI5. Upon finishing the course, he continued his involvement in the Irish language scene, but noticed that some members of the Irish language movement fell silent when he was near them. Later he moved to Scotland and became involved in the Gaelic language and music scene. He told me that he felt more at home in this environment, as the political and sectarian barriers which prevented him from being comfortable in the Irish language scene did not exist in Gaelic Scotland.

Finding a Class

At present most Irish language classes in Northern Ireland are in nationalist districts. Protestants, including many nationalist ones, are often reluctant to go into these areas for many reasons: they are afraid of republicans, as they fear being mistaken for loyalist or security force spies; they may have jobs, such as those in the civil service, that identify them with the British state; they may abhor violence, and those who support it; some of them fear being shunned by Irish speakers; they may object to a nationalist and / or republican bias in the teaching of Irish; and in the case of west Belfast, they are afraid of losing their cars to joyriders. Many Protestant learners do not go into nationalist districts to learn Irish because they simply do not know what to expect there; as one put it to me, ‘I’d be a stranger in a strange land’.

Some Protestants feel uncomfortable at the prospect of attending classes located in nationalist districts, even if they feel they would be made welcome there. One north Down learner told me that he had attended a couple of classes in Cumann Chluain Ard, an Irish language society in west Belfast, but that he wouldn’t go there often:

GMc.: So, would you go back to it?
Learner: Oh aye, I would. I wouldn’t go regularly, but, because I would be doubtful about the politics of some of the people who went there. Whereas I may be nationalist, I am certainly not in any sense republican in the normal sort of meaning of that word, locally, or any way in favour of violence.

In another conversation this learner told me he would not go to the Shankill Road to learn Irish; although he would be a Protestant in a Protestant district, there would be people in a class there who would support violence to achieve their political goals. In his social activities, the support or non-support for violence is a more important factor for the learner than the ideologies of unionism and nationalism. Thus he feels more comfortable in the presence of non-violent unionists than fellow nationalists who support violence to achieve a united Ireland. This ‘non-violence’ criteria for comfortable social interaction is a feature of the north Down group as a whole; the learners often castigate both republican and loyalist ‘extremists’. I can generalise from these experiences by saying that middle-class Catholic and Protestant learners often get along together because they are opposed to the use of force to achieve political goals in Northern Ireland.

In the following text, a nationalist learner from east Belfast voices her fears about travelling to nationalist districts of the city to learn Irish:

I’d wanted to do it for the last few years, but I was always a bit shy of doing it because I don’t know where the impression came from, but I had the impression that I would really have to go into quite nationalist areas to learn it, and I was a bit scared of that. So it was a relief when I heard that the YM (the YMCA has premises in Belfast city-centre) has offered courses and that was sort of open, neutral territory, if you like. It’s awful to be influenced in that way, but I feel it was somewhere I could learn the language, I wouldn’t be under pressure, I wouldn’t be feeling that everybody would be watching me or I wouldn’t be on my guard, that sort of thing.

Such classes are at a very early and precarious stage of development. Furthermore, Protestant learners are often unaware of the number of Irish classes in ‘safe’ areas that are available to them. Classes in neutral or Protestant districts often cater for complete beginners, and there are few support mechanisms for those Protestants who get past the beginners’ or intermediate learners’ stage. If inter-communal conflict increases, classes in Protestant districts often close, due to local hostility or the fear of it.

Many Protestant learners like to go to the Gaeltacht to learn Irish as they feel more comfortable with Irish speakers from the Republic of Ireland. The image of the Irish language in the Republic differs from that in Northern Ireland. As the Southern state settled down in the years after partition, nationalist fervour declined. Public opinion was not favourable towards the Irish language movement, which was seen as ‘excessively nationalistic, even xenophobic’, associating Irishness with ‘militant and narrow Catholicism’ (Tovey et al. 1989: 32).

Membership of the European Union encourages notions of diversity and plurality, and a ‘movement beyond narrow homogenising nationalism’ (Todd 1994: 156). Today young enthusiasts are attempting to give the language a modern and ‘trendy’ image, replacing the isolationist ideology embracing Irish with one which incorporates pluralist and secular beliefs. Attempts are being made to define an image for Irish which rejects the associations of the language with the Catholic Church and republicanism. Protestant learners of Irish respond favourably to these moves, and often feel more relaxed in learning venues across the border:

It’s quite clear to me that the language is far more important than political issues to them. Certainly any of the other teachers that I’ve come across there haven’t been any with real interest in the politics of Northern Ireland anyway.

Whenever you go over the border, you just sort of - it’s so -you know, you just feel this cloud lifting, like you’ve shed this burden or something, you know, and it’s so relaxed and people don’t have the same problems.

Community Pressure on Protestant Learners

I have related how some Protestant Irish speakers have good relations with their Catholic counterparts. In fact, some of them told me they would be more afraid of ‘their own’ than Irish-speaking Catholics. Protestant learners living in working-class districts are afraid that their interest in Irish will be discovered by ‘hoods’ or paramilitaries who may intimidate them. Some of them feel they cannot go to classes even if they are made available in their own districts; they prefer to travel anonymously to other areas in order to learn Irish.

Protestants whose unionism is beyond doubt, such as loyalist paramilitaries, have no problem with telling working-class Protestants that they are learning Irish; their loyalty to their community is beyond doubt. Ian Adamson, a Belfast councillor interested in the Irish language, related a telling incident to me4. Before the ‘troubles’, in the late 1960s, he was a medical student living in the Sandy Row area:

When I went to Sandy Row I brought a lot of my books, the Irish Texts Society and all my Gaelic books. I have a complete set of the Irish Texts Society and the Annals of Ulster ... I’d all these books and a wee lady down the street, she came in to see if she could do for me, and look after me, and I said that would be great. But whenever word got about the place about all these strange books, almost like devil worship, people gave me funny looks, you know. They didn’t talk to me. So I went to Smithfield (market) because that’s where I always bought everything. I bought this big picture of the Queen, and I put it up on the mantelpiece such that you could see it when you passed the window, and it just (clicks fingers) changed like that - the whole attitude. So I never had any trouble after that and everybody was very pleasant to me in the Sandy Row.

The problem with this type of behaviour is that it makes unionist learners of Irish acceptable to other unionists, but it makes them unacceptable to many Irish-speakers. Thus unionist learners may have to stress their unionism in their own community, but underplay their political beliefs in Irish language circles. Many Protestants feel they have to cultivate an image of studied neutrality to go between both camps. Those that cannot do so, such as relatives of security force members or civil servants, experience great practical difficulties in learning the language.

Working-class learners are troubled by the fact that many of their friends and neighbours perceive Irish to be a republican language. The problems of the Glencairn class are a case in point. The learners struggled with the republican image of the Irish language, particularly since their estate was situated in an interface zone close to Catholic districts of west Belfast. In February 1993, the Glencairn Community Development Association received the following letter:

Dear Sir/Madam

It is with complete disgust that I and many others have read of you running Irish language classes. What next a Glencairn Gaelic team, street names in Irish, a visit from Gerry Adams. There is no chance of the IRA bombing you, as they see fellow travellers. Protestants are being attacked from all directions and their morale is almost nil. The programme on BBC1 concerning Protestants in N. Ireland in general and North Belfast in particular clearly demonstrated this5. If you don’t realise how this back stabbing scheme will demoralise Protestants even more or how Republicans, Irish speaking Sinn Feiners, the SDLP and others hostile to British Protestants will make splendid propaganda out of it, then you must live under a stone. Protestants who consider themselves to be British and not Irish have their backs against the wall, and we don’t need a nest of vipers like you to make things worse. It is bad enough to be attacked by our enemies but for you to do their dirty work for them is sickening. The Glencairn Community Development Association is beginning to be known as the Glencairn Republican Community Development Association. If you have the interests of the Protestant people at heart then we beg you to drop your scheme immediately.

Yours sincerely

Hubert Lister

The learners, all of whom were unionists and very anti-republican in outlook, were outraged by the accusations in the letter, which they dismissed as nonsense. The reference to a ‘nest of vipers’ seemed to indicate that the writer was, in their words, a harmless ‘bible basher’; they would have been far more concerned if they believed the author to have been a member of a loyalist paramilitary grouping. As such, ‘Hubert Lister’ was not considered to be a danger to the Glencairn group.

However, one learner had personal reasons to reconsider her interest in Irish. Although she was very enthusiastic about the language, she had a crisis of conscience when republican paramilitaries shot her nephew:

He got shot dead over there at the turn of the road, just over at Ligoneil and at the time it was terrible and all, but then I went to those Irish classes and his mummy says, ‘Dot, what are you doing? It’s all right for them ones that shot my son, and you’re sitting learning their language. It makes you no better than them.’ You know, it does make you think.

In learning Irish she appeared to be associating herself with the murderers of her nephew. After an IRA bomb exploded on the Shankill Road on the 25th of October 1993, I telephoned the class organiser, a local community worker, to tell her that I did not wish to take the class in the wake of the explosion. She agreed that it would not be a good idea for the class to continue as feelings were very high in the district.

Later, when I interviewed the community worker, she had decided to abandon learning the language; the republican connotations of the language had become too much for her:

Well, at the time when I started it I was suiting myself and it was something I wanted to do, but the more I have listened to over the past few months - maybe its because of everything that’s went on. The first thing that put me off was the Shankill bomb, you know, and I sat back then and thought you know, ‘Why am I doing this? I seem to be going along with these people, people who probably know the Irish language who planted that bomb’ And it sort of, I don’t know whether that makes sense to anybody, but it was how I felt you know.

Another learner who had attended the class said that she rarely associated Irish with the ‘troubles’, and the Shankill bomb only temporarily deterred her from learning Irish:

The only time I saw it connected with the troubles and I felt then it would have been, was just after a major bombing on the Shankill Road, and so many people lost their lives, and the wee guy who planted the bomb, at his funeral, the cameras and the television zoomed up to one of the wreaths and it was written in Irish, and I’m almost sure it was Gerry Adam’s wreath, and it was written in Irish, and I felt nearly revulsion, you know, because he was carrying the coffin of the wee guy who blew the people up. It, it all sort of tied it too close with the Irish, and just at that time I associated it with the troubles, you know. That was the only time -‘cos he had used the Irish.

Later in the interview she returned to her original interpretation of the language:

I don’t think it should be allowed to be a discriminatory language. It should be for us all. I don’t think it should keep the Protestants out. I think we should, its our language as well, you know. It’s for Catholics, it’s for everybody, its for people from Ireland.

Although her interest in Irish had not been deterred by the Shankill bombing, the class had finished and was not resumed; she would not be able to learn Irish on the estate, whether she wanted to or not.

The experience of the north Down group differed considerably from that of the Glencairn learners. The group had some reservations about going to folk nights in Catholic bars after explosions in Newtownards and Bangor, but none of them were deterred in their efforts to learn Irish. For the north Down learners, the republican image of the language was a mere nuisance, rather than a major psychological obstacle to their learning activities. On the whole, the north Down learners cultivated their interest in their home district and in the Donegal Gaeltacht, circumventing any possible difficulties with the Irish language scene in Belfast6. Like many middle-class Protestants, the group removed itself from the ravages of the troubles as much as possible.

Generally speaking, middle-class learners feel that they can tell their friends and relatives that they are learning Irish without fear of serious reprisals. However, for some the language can be a touchy subject that is best avoided in mixed or polite company, as this Cultra learner attests:

I don’t talk a lot about it, because there’s no point in raising hackles unnecessarily. I think many of our community, because it’s a social club I belong to, it’s a golf club, I simply don’t talk about it, about our situation. Maybe because they’re afraid of what the future may or may not hold, and we have one of our people on the committee who’s lost a son in the RUC and so on. We do have both Protestants and Catholics in our golf club, and everybody’s very friendly to everybody else, but we don’t talk a lot about the situation openly.

Who is Politicising Irish?

In this section I will explore the attitudes of Protestant learners to the Irish language revival. In discussing the aims of the Irish language movement with the learners, I used a document published in 1993 by the Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ), which recommends that the British government support the Irish language revival by implementing a wide range of measures, including state-sponsored bilingualism. The CAJ document uses European and United Nations charters to argue the case for a greater effort by the British government to promote the Irish language in Northern Ireland. The measures proposed include: the right for parents to have their children educated through Irish; the right to use Irish in court and with public bodies; and government support for an all-Ireland television service in Irish. Viewed together, these proposals represent some of the most far-reaching goals of the Irish language movement.

Many Protestant learners of Irish are not well acquainted with the achievements and goals of the Irish language revival; they are particularly unaware of revivalist activities in west Belfast. Their attitudes to the revival are often informed by their own ideological positions:

GMc.: What is the British government’s attitude to the Irish language?
Learner: I’m amazed how much they have contributed towards the Irish, and I think that these folk who tell me that they’re struggling to set up schools without any government money and, ‘How many go to your school?’ ‘Well, there’s six’ (laughs).
GMc.: Do you think that people should be allowed to speak Irish in court (CAJ proposal)?’
Learner: If they are genuine Irish speakers and can’t speak English, then there should be, but to set up dual-language courts in a country where English is the language seems to be an unnecessary duplication. I don’t think you can expect the rest of the community to do this. I don’t think we can expect the rest of the community to finance our hobby, which is what it is.
GMc.: What about the proposal that the British and Irish governments should co-operate to provide a cross-border Irish language television channel (CAJ proposal)?
Learner: Well, knowing the Conservative government in England, I don’t think there’s very much money available. It’s amazing the amount of money that’s poured into this place. I think the Conservative philosophy is coming to the viewpoint of saying, ‘We’re not going to put so much money into Northern Ireland’ and they will find that the money coming here will be used on much more basic essentials than that. That would seem to be a luxury item. We’re not a bilingual community at all.
GMc.: What use is Irish?
Learner: As far as I can understand it’s a great cultural pursuit, it’s a worthwhile intellectual exercise, it helps us to express our own identity and thought forms and so on. But what use is classical music? I just don’t know. I would find it very hard to answer that question.

The speaker draws on the conservative element of Protestant ideology which opposes state interventionism, and he appears to empathise with the policies pursed by the Conservative government. In the first part of the text he echoes unionist disdain at nationalist complaints of deprivation and dependence on government hand-outs (Bruce 1994: 61; Todd 1987: 22). Irish is described as a ‘luxury item’, a ‘cultural pursuit’, like classical music. In short, the speaker views Irish as a leisure pursuit that is not within the remit of public funding. This is exactly the representation of the Irish language that the revivalist movement is attempting to refute.

The conception of the Irish language as a leisure pursuit partly explains Protestant disbelief of the objectives of the Irish language community to create a bilingual community in west Belfast and / or Northern Ireland. Protestant learners live, work and recreate in English language environments in which the Irish language has little immediate relevance. They are not engaged in full-time revivalism to create an Irish language community; most jobs involving the Irish language are located in nationalist districts, areas in which few Protestants would consider working. Protestant learners are more concerned with finding appropriate evening-classes than battling with the Department of Education to secure funding for Irish-medium schools. However, it would be erroneous to suggest that Protestant learners conceive of the Irish language as a mere hobby. Many of them make tremendous efforts and take great risks to learn the language. This indicates that the language is very important to them, even if it does not appear to have a huge impact on their everyday lives.

Protestant learners often oppose some aspects of the revival by the attribution of ‘political’ motives to those involved in them. In the following texts, the learners express their opinions on the erection of bilingual street-signs:

I would think, ‘What’s the ulterior motive to putting it into Irish, when I know that it’s in English?’ And to me I would not see that as trying to promote the Irish language as such, but you reinforce a certain stance.

I’m not sure if the people who live on the streets that have Irish street signs speak Irish themselves, or whether it’s a ‘fuck you’ statement to the authorities.

In the first text the speaker claims that those who erect street-signs are not concerned about the welfare of the language, but have an ‘ulterior motive’. The second text provides a suggestion as to the nature of this motive; a hostility to the unionist and British authorities. The use of Irish in street-signs is described as a form of boundary-maintenance. Protestant learners often attribute cultural motives to learn Irish to themselves, and ‘political’ motives for learning and promoting Irish to others, particularly republicans. I asked a member of the north Down group for her opinions on the language revival in Belfast:

GMc.: Do you know anything about the revival in Belfast?
Learner: Not really. We belong to the North Down Gaeltacht (laughs). No, certainly there’s a revival in west Belfast, a big interest in Irish-speaking schools. Does Gerry Adams have Irish? Every time he opens his mouth he puts a nail in the coffin of the language for the Prods. I know a guy particularly, who’s really interested in Irish, and the other day Gerry Adams said something in Irish and he says, ‘That’s it.’ He finished.
GMc.: Why do you think there’s a big interest in Irish in Belfast?
Learner: Political. It’s certainly political. It is nothing other than political, they’re using the Irish language, they’re abusing it. Yet nobody minds anyone learning Irish. I think its good that people should know it, but not that way, I don’t think it’s right. They’re entitled to do what they want, of course, but I think its being used politically. It’s used in the jails! All the political prisoners in the jails have Irish. They’re taking it and making it their own.

The learner places an ideological and geographical barrier between the north Down learners, who learn the Irish language for ‘cultural’ reasons, and the Irish speakers of west Belfast, who she perceives as manipulating the language for ‘political’ purposes. She implies that republicans jealously guard Irish from unionists interested in the language. However, her opposition to republicans ‘abusing’ the Irish language is at variance with her libertarian principles, which permit anyone to learn Irish if they wish.

Protestant learners attribute ‘political’ motivations to those who do not share their own political outlooks; they accuse others of manipulating the language for cynical reasons and of being uninterested in the language for its own sake. ‘Cultural’ motives to learn Irish are attributed to themselves to indicate a genuine concern for the welfare of the language and it’s future. Learners often attribute positive ‘cultural’ motives for learning Irish to themselves, and negative ‘political’ motives to political opponents. This process often takes the form of constitutional nationalist and unionist learners accusing republicans of ‘politicising’ the Irish language:

I think there’s a class in Conway Mill (a refurbished mill on the Falls Road) or something, but you’re going right into the heart of west Belfast, and I think there’s an emphasised political dimension to the learning of it there, which I don’t care for. I want to learn the language purely for cultural reasons, not for any other reasons, you know.

Of course, by opposing the involvement of republicans in the Irish language revival, Protestant ‘culturists’ can be just as ‘political’ as those they oppose. Indeed, some Protestant nationalists are suspicious about unionists interested in the Irish language, and suspect the latter of having ‘political’ motives:

GMc: What do you think of Chris McGimpsey learning Irish, and the fact that there are classes on the Shankill?
Learner: I think that everybody should have access to it and have a free choice. The more access there is, the better. But it’s like, why? What’s the point? If it’s not saying something about your identity as an Irish person, I mean if you’re learning Irish it’s inevitable. I cannot see the point of doing it, other than that. Why would you learn it? Except in a sort of a disruptive way, you know, it’s fun to be able to stand up in Belfast City Council to be able to speak more Irish than them, and score a point that way. But I mean for me you want to learn a language because of something positive to say about yourself, and Irish culture, and a sense of place, and there’s absolutely no point in being into it to score a point against republicans or nationalists. So maybe I just haven’t studied what he’s trying to do with it enough, but my impression would be that it’s very difficult to do in any kind of positive way

Here we have the mirror image of the unionist belief that republicans are manipulating the Irish language for political purposes. The speaker describes the connection between the Irish language, culture and nationalism as ‘positive’. He suspects unionists of having a negative motive for learning Irish in that he believes they wish to score points over nationalists. However, the speaker is reluctant to oppose unionists learning Irish, as this would conflict with his belief that the language should be available for all who wish to learn it.

The above texts demonstrate that the views of Protestant learners on the language movement are informed by their personal opinions on nationalism and republicanism. However, the imputed connections between nationalism and certain Irish language projects does not result in unionist antipathy to all aspects of the revival. Many are favourable to Irish language programmes on radio and television, as well as Irish-medium education. Protestant learners often express a sense of awe when they meet children who can speak Irish. In the following text, a learner from the Shankill Women’s Centre describes a visit to an Irish-medium primary school on the Falls Road:

It was amazing, absolutely. It was very disciplined, but a very relaxed atmosphere, and the children, right from pre-school, using their Irish to communicate. All their nursery rhymes were in Irish and if they want something they try very hard to make themselves understood ... I mean we went to a P1 class and a P2 class and to a P3 class, and in the P2 class I was lost because I couldn’t understand what they were saying! The children all love it, and it’s a very happy environment.

This learner can identify with the enjoyment the children receive from learning Irish. For her, potentially divisive political issues become unimportant. For many such individuals their common identification as Irish speakers overcomes religious and political issues. In Northern Ireland, interest groups unite people from different backgrounds, but as I have shown, enthusiasts often bring their backgrounds with them.


The differing beliefs and experiences of Protestant learners of Irish are often informed by their class backgrounds. Generally speaking, Protestant working-class learners have more difficulties than middle-class ones. This is because social sanctions are imposed more rigorously in working-class districts than in middle-class ones. Protestant middle-class learners have greater opportunities to bend the rules; some of them even abandon unionism, the main political ideology of Northern Protestants7.

Middle-class Protestants do not fear community punishment if they reject the values of their peers; thus the north Down group learn Irish, and some of them express a nationalist outlook, without fear of censure from their friends and relatives. Middle-class Protestants often believe themselves to be liberal and non-sectarian; therefore they will not oppose other Protestants who learn Irish. The world-view of middle-class Protestants is facilitated in part by the fact that they often live in peaceful districts, insulated from the violent sectarian strife of working-class areas.

Middle-class learners can diversify their learning experiences on account of their income; they drive to different classes and attend Irish language courses in the Gaeltacht. Their trips to the Republic symbolises the convergence of values of many Southern Irish speakers and Northern Protestant learners; both reject the traditional associations between the Irish language with Catholicism and republicanism.

Because middle-class learners are educated and well-read, they are often able to draw upon realms of knowledge, such as that of a Protestant Gaelic heritage, which are not widely available in the public domain. Such forms of knowledge are used to bypass the Catholic and / or republican image of Irish, and they help Protestant learners to identify with the Irish language.

Middle-class unionists often subscribe to a British / Irish identity; they combine a sense of British citizenship with a regional or cultural sense of Irishness. The north Down group differ from other Protestants in that they are learning Irish, but they attempt to associate the language with the mixed British / Irish identification of Northern unionists. Some unionist learners believe that by learning Irish they are taking part in an attempt to re-define unionism in terms other than the articulation of an ersatz Englishness.

Some unionists who value the Irish language recommend that unionism should engage nationalism in a contest to define the meaning of the Irish language. They wish to disassociate the language from nationalist ideology and represent it as the property of both religious and political traditions in Ireland. In doing so they tap into two powerful trends in Ireland: the rejection of republicanism, with its perceived monopolisation of aspects of Irish culture; and the adoption of pluralism, which stresses the equal validity and cross-fertilisation of the various cultural traditions on the island.

Protestant working-class learners of Irish have more problems than their middle-class co-religionists. They often fear Catholics and are reluctant to venture into nationalist districts to learn Irish. They are simultaneously envious of and repelled by the culture of their republican ‘opponents’. Some of them attempt to appropriate nationalist cultural capital for themselves and for the Ulster national identity of the Protestant working class. This is part of the struggle to define a coherent Protestant cultural identity in Northern Ireland. However, many working-class learners do not have access to the information that would enable them to challenge the dominant republican / Catholic image of the Irish language.

Working-class Protestants who learn Irish often have deep feelings of ambivalence about the language. They are wary of publicising their interest, as many of their neighbours and friends view the Irish language with suspicion. If their interest in Irish becomes well-known, they come under great pressure within their own communities to reject Irish by accepting the relationship between the language and republicanism. On some occasions, learners do so, and abandon learning Irish. Others continue to learn Irish and face punishment if they are unable to demonstrate their loyalty to the Protestant community beyond doubt. Working-class Protestants have little knowledge of how to find Irish classes, and have a restricted choice of learning venues as they often do not have their own means of transport. Given their difficulties, it is not surprising that most of the Protestant learners of Irish whom I encountered were not working-class.

Unionist learners of all classes often perceive the Irish language to be a private activity that should not impinge upon the public British character of the ‘province’. They are unnerved by public forms of the Irish language, such as bilingual street signs and the use of Irish language personal names. This is due in part to feelings of ambivalence about certain aspects of the Irish language that are associated with republicans. Middle-class learners cope with this problem by distinguishing the language from its speakers; they represent Irish as part of a ‘benign’ culture that is manipulated by malevolent political opponents. They create or draw upon images of the language which challenge the views of Irish speakers with whom they disagree. If they feel uncomfortable with certain learning venues, they avoid them and seek alternative ones, some of which are hundreds of miles away. Middle-class learners insulate themselves from republican Irish speakers in the manner in which they escape the full impact of the troubles.

Working-class Protestants, including those who learn Irish, often feel themselves to be in the front line of defence against republicanism, and they resent the Irish language as it is often used in a symbolic fashion by republicans in the media. Working-class learners differ from their middle-class counterparts in that they have more difficulty in disassociating Irish from Catholic/nationalist speakers of the language. Like other members of their class, working-class learners often perceive these Irish speakers to be their adversaries; therefore they experience feelings of ambivalence arising from their desire to learn the ‘enemy’s’ language. Despite their difficulties, some working-class learners display an ability to make the Irish language ‘their’s’ as easily as their middle-class counterparts. However, the mental mobility of some working-class learners is not matched by a physical one; however enthusiastic they are about the Irish language, the fear of social sanctions from both Catholics and Protestants constrains their ability to tell co-religionists about their interest and find learning venues.


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1. Chris McGimpsey is a Ulster Unionist Party councillor and Irish language enthusiast. His views on the Irish language have been published in ‘The Irish Language and the Unionist Tradition’ (1994).

2. Of the remaining 23% of learners, some declined to offer a definite opinion on the border, or I judged from the nervousness of the respondents that it would be unwise to discuss political issues with them.

3. The song was ‘Óró, Sé do Bheatha ‘bhaile’.

4. Adamson’s interpretation of the Irish language has been published in a series of works (Adamson 1974, 1985, 1991).

5. The programme in question was a BBC Northern Ireland ‘Spotlight’ production relating to demographic changes threatening the survival of Protestant communities in north Belfast and Fermanagh.

6. Two of the learners eventually went to Irish classes in Belfast, including west Belfast, as there were no more suitable classes in their home district.

7. None of the working-class learners I met were nationalist in outlook.

CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

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