An Irish language centre will officially open tonight in loyalist east Belfast to accommodate “a growing interest amongst the community”.
The centre is being opened thanks to the enthusiasm of Linda Ervine – the sister-in-law of the late PUP leader David Ervine – who “just fell in love with the language”.
Mrs Ervine, 52, said the classes run by East Belfast Mission in the Skaoinos Centre have allowed Protestants from a working-class background the opportunity “that they never had before”.
Eight Irish language classes are currently run in the centre, with two others at Dundonald High school. Others are, according to Mrs Ervine, in the pipeline.
“People from a Protestant background who join the classes say they have always been interested in Irish, but because of their background they didn’t know where to go to learn it,” she said.
“We didn’t wave a magic wand, all we did was open a door and make it accessible for people. We have, without doubt, been the fastest growing thing in East Belfast Mission as people are constantly getting involved.”
Mrs Ervine, an English teacher, said her interest in the Irish language was whetted three years ago after a six-week taster course was held in East Belfast Mission for a cross-community women’s group.
“At the start it was just a small group and to be honest the Protestant women were more interested than their nationalist counterparts,” she said.
“I really took onto it and got very involved and ended up going to another course at the weekend in an Droichead, an Irish cultural centre at the bottom of the Ormeau Road.
“Then a local journalist got the story and before I knew it people were ringing Belfast Mission asking to join Irish classes – and at that stage there were none.”
She said after sourcing funding for Irish classes “we were amazed at the interest”.
“The more people hear about it, the more they get involved,” she added.
Mrs Ervine, the wife of former PUP leader Brian Ervine, said through introducing the new Irish language centre in East Belfast “we want to depoliticise the language and give it back to people – but not to enforce it on anybody”.
“We attract all sorts of people to our classes. You would be surprised.
“The guy doing the official opening for us on Thursday night, Sam Evans, was one of the founding members of the PUP. Sam had a great interest in the language before I got involved, and went to classes before we started up here.
“I feel Sam epitomises many of the people who come along to our classes and who decide that Protestants do have a right to speak the language. So in many ways he was a trail blazer.”
Loyalists from east Belfast and beyond have voiced their support for the new Irish language centre, according to its founder Linda Ervine.
Mrs Ervine said the language, once perceived as being owned by the nationalist community, was accessed many years ago by the PUP’s David Ervine and Gusty Spence, whilst in prison.
She said a number of former UDA and UVF paramilitaries had been involved,
“PUP leader Billy Hutchinson allowed me to give a presentation at the PUP conference on the history of Protestants and the Irish language,” she said.
“And after the presentation a lot of PUP members showed an interest in what I said.”
East Belfast PUP councillor John Kyle said: “The Irish language centre has a significant number of enthusiastic supporters. There are a number of others in the community who think it is a good thing if it instigates an interest in our cultural history and there are others who think it is irrelevant and have no desire to be involved.
“I think it is a very good development and I admire Linda in what she has done to help people reconnect with part of their history.
“It does remain a minority interest, but it is growing and will continue to.
“The amount of interest has exceeded everyone’s expectations.
“What it shows is that people don’t want to live in a cultural apartheid but want to explore areas of common history and see where that leads.
“So it is a bit of a journey folks are on and we will see where it leads.”
A mural for the new Irish language centre by mural artist Mark Ervine – the son of the late David Ervine – of east Belfast with bilingual road signs will also be unveiled today.