Irish 'is a language for all'

YOUNG Protestants would be surprised to learn that the Irish language is a part of their culture, according to an Ulster language expert.

Growing up in a unionist household with a father who had a passion for the Irish language, Ian Malcolm fell in love with Gaelic as a child - a move that developed into a life-long interest in languages.

His first book, Towards Inclusion, explores the Protestant relationship with the Irish language and how it is an integral part of the Ulster Protestant heritage.

Mr Malcolm - a former sub-editor at the News Letter - argues the Irish language should be accessible to all, regardless of political stance or religion.

Focusing on the attitudes of young Protestants who have had little or no exposure to the language, his research produced surprising results.

The majority of the 142 questioned expressed disappointment at not having had the option to learn the language at school. A further finding was that the younger children - aged 16 to 18 - were much more positive about having the option to study the language.

According to the 2001 census, only 10.4 per cent of the population had some knowledge of Irish, but Mr Malcolm said everybody in Northern Ireland should learn how to speak it.

With 95 per cent of placenames in Northern Ireland derived from Irish, such as Belfast, Dungannon and Ballymena, he said the Irish language surrounds our lives in Northern Ireland. He described the concept as “living Irish”, through our surnames and place names.

“My argument is that everybody in Northern Ireland uses the Irish language,” he said.

“Ironically, there is no better exhibition of Irish place names than on the banners waving on the Twelfth of July.”

And he said the new era of peace in Northern Ireland is the perfect opportunity to encourage Protestants and unionists to embrace the Irish language.

“The children of the peace process are very important in advancing the case for the Irish language to be part of us all,” he said.

Mr Malcolm, who left work to study Irish at Queen’s University, argues it is our cultural heritage to learn the “beautiful” language.

“It is just a language - you can curse the Pope in Irish just as easily as you can curse the Queen in English,” he said.

Studying the Irish language in the Fifties, Mr Malcolm’s father felt intimidated by nationalists in his hometown of Lurgan. The IRA border campaign prevented him from returning to learn the language.

Despite his love for the language, his father quit the classes but continued to speak Irish in the home, and always bade his children goodnight in Irish.

Mr Malcolm is the co-founder of the Northern Ireland Diversity Project which aims to promote Irish as a language we can all believe in.

He now works as a translator and interpreter and freelance language consultant.

Famous unionist Irish speakers include the UUP’s Ian Adamson, PUP’s William Smith and former UVF member Gusty Spence, who learnt the language during his time in prison.

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