LINDA ERVINE: ‘The Irish language is an important part of Protestant heritage’

JOANNE SAVAGE talks to peerless Irish langauge advocate Linda Ervine MBE about how the vernacular we speak in Norhern Ireland is littered with Gaelic, Ulster Scots, Manx and French Hugenot vocabulary

Tuesday, 27th July 2021, 10:30 am
Unionist Gaeilgeoir Linda Ervine runs the Turas Project on the Newtownards Road

Linda Ervine has unquestionable loyalist, unionist and Protestant credentials.

Her former brother-in-law David Ervine, a former member of the UVF and arguably the most charismatic leader in the PUP’s history who helped broker the Good Friday Agreement, made a profound impression on her, and her second husband Brian, also led the ultra loyalist party.

Yet she was this year awarded an MBE by Her Majesty the Queen for services to the Irish language, and today runs the Irish language project Turas at the Skainos Centre on the Newtownards Road, which offers classes to all levels from beginner to advanced (packed out classes whose popularity shows no signs of waning). She has almost single-handedly untapped a little talked about interest among the Protestant community to learn Gaelic, which is so often dubbed a republican interest, used, much to her dismay, as a political football by Sinn Fein and opposed by the DUP and others as an affront to respect for British culture in this divided terrain. This is certainly not how Linda sees it, and she points out how many young men who identified as British while serving in the First World War were also identified in the census at that time as Irish speakers.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Linda with husband Brian Ervine, former leader of the PUP and brother of the late David

In 1833, notes Linda, the Presbyterian General Assembly termed the Irish language ‘our sweet and memorable mother tongue’. Ten years later they made it a requirement for all of their trainee ministers to have a knowledge of the language because so many of their congregations couldn’t speak English.

When she first asked her friend, the daughter of a loyalist paramilitary, to take beginner Irish classes with her, the friend rolled her eyes. Protestants learning Irish, really? But Linda went back to the census and found that her friend’s great great grandmother, a Church of Ireland attendee who lived on the Shankill Road in 1901, also identified as an Irish speaker, and after that the two of them headed off to their first class, an introduction to Irish and Ulster Scots at the East Belfast Mission, arm in arm. Then she moved on to a beginners class at An Droichead on the Ormeau Road, and fell in love with a language she regards as “complex, beautiful, and an undeniable part of our shared history”. 

From November 2011 onwards, her passion for and knowledge of Irish grew, and she set up her own beginners class on the Newtownards Road which has now become the much-vaunted Turas Irish-Language Project, for which she is development officer. Turas means ‘journey’ in Irish and, adds Linda, “for me it is not only a journey into a language but also a journey of healing and reconciliation”.

Linda, a mother of three, grandmother of five, and native of east Belfast, has dedicated much time to educating people about the hidden Protestant history of the Irish language, and is frustrated that unionists, loyalists and Protestants have such limited understanding of the wider social and cultural history of Gaelic. She has urged politicians from the UUP and the DUP (as well as the Orange Order) not to view the Gaelic language and culture as exclusively the domain of republicanism (admittedly with little success).

Linda as a five-year-old school girl

Linda must be one of very few Protestants who has publicly spoken in support of and advocated for the implementation of an Irish Language Act, recognising that other minority languages, such as Cornish and Welsh, have similar protections throughout the rest of the UK, and does not like to see Gaelic weaponised and degraded as a political tool, when it is a formative part, like Ulster Scots, of the language we speak here in Northern Ireland every day.

She believes unionists have “nothing to fear” from such legislation and that non-Irish speakers will not be impacted in any way: ”My aim is to connect people from Protestant communities to their own history with the Irish language. And to make them understand that learning or speaking Irish is certainly no threat to British identity.

“It’s also untrue to say that Gaelic is only of interest to nationalists and republicans. Why should it be? Its origins show that it was historically spoken by huge numbers of Protestants across Ulster and in Scotland, where I have listened to Presbyterian services in Gaelic.

“When people denigrate Irish as a republican interest, they are showing profound ignorance of the complexities of their own history, and that honestly makes me sad and frustrated.”

She talks of visiting Rangers’ home ground when in Scotland where she was presented with a Rangers pendant and an official Rangers club T-shirt, with the motto of Rangers written in Gaelic – ‘Sinne na daoine’, meaning, ‘We are the people’.

Linda adds defiantly: “If we look at the murals in loyalist areas we see written on the walls ‘lámh dearg abú’ victory to the red hand – the motto of the Red Hand Commando. If we look at the flags we see ‘Faugh a ballagh’ an anglicisation of the Gaelic ‘Fág an bealach’ – which means’ clear the way’ and is the motto of the Royal Irish Regiment. I could go and on, yet because of what I call the ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá’ syndrome many people from within the unionist community dismiss the language as republican. This is wrong.”

Her defence of how deeply Gaelic, like Ulster Scots, is woven into the fabric of the language we speak today, is rooted in a true understanding of the twisted root of nationalist and unionist history: ”I believe that the people of Northern Ireland have a rich cultural identity, a mixture of native Irish and of the many peoples such as the English and Scots, the Manx Gael and the French Huguenot who made Ireland their home. 

“This rich ancestry influenced our surnames, our place names and our everyday language.

“Our vernacular of hiberno English reflects this mixed identity. We are native English speakers whose English is littered with beautiful Scots and Gaelic words. The syntax of our speech reflects that of Gaelic.

“As a people we are culturally rich yet instead of embracing that wonderful cultural mix, we separate it into narrow divisive boxes and deny ourselves access to the very things that make us who we are.”

‘It’s not the Ulster Scot or Gael - but both’

Linda does not see any division between Irish and Ulster Scots, in her understanding the two do not exist in binary tension; rather, the influences of both feed into the English we speak today.

Linda said: “For me it is not the Ulster Scot or Gael, I believe that we can draw on both. For thousands of years Gaelic speakers crossed back and forth between Scotland and the north of Ireland; the kingdom of Dalraida which came about in the 5th century symbolises the unity between the two countries – that is our heritage. During the plantation in Ireland both lowland Scot and highland Gael settled in Ireland – that is our heritage.”
And she adds: “For those who wish to use the identity of the Gael as a political symbol of division and separatism I would challenge that by saying being a Gael transcends religion and politics.

“For those who wish to use Ulster Scots as an identity which excludes Gaelic culture – well Ulster Scots is full of Gaelic words and if we look at the symbolism used to represent Ulster Scots, the tartan, the kilt, the highland dancing, etc, well of course it is all Gaelic.”

‘I thought somebody was taking the hand out of me when I got MBE email’

Although a Protestant, Linda confides that she did not grow up in a traditional unionist family.

Her parents were agnostic, socialist and trade unionists who stood against the tide of religious paranoia and hatred that swept through the province in the tumult of the 60s and 70s. But she was raised to reject sectarianism and racism and “to be proud of my working class background”.

Expelled from secondary school at 15 when she fell pregnant with her first child Kelly, Ervine only came back to education in her 30s, attending Belfast Met and collecting GSCEs in maths, English, biology and other subjects - stacking up a string of As - before completing three A-levels in English, history and psychology, then an English literature degree at QUB and a PGCE which allowed her to teach at Ashfield Girls School for nine years (ironically a school that had rejected her during her rebellious teens).

Today she is studying to complete her degree in Irish and is perhaps Northern Ireland’s foremost unionist Gaeilgeoir.

Her proudest moment to date has been receiving an MBE for services to the Irish language.

When she got the email notifying her of this, she was gobsmacked. “I thought somebody was taking the hand out of me,” she laughs. “After I received it I got so many letters from so many people including former First Minister Arlene Foster on behalf of the Assembly and from Michael D Higgins, the President of Ireland, from Queen’s and Ulster University and cards and messages from so many friends and acquaintances by post and on social media and it was so uplifting.”

Today Linda is sustained not only my her passion for the dissemination of Gaelic, and being a devoted wife, mother and grandmother, but also by her faith in God.

“My family didn’t attend church or anything. In my teens and 20s I felt like sectarianism was a very good reason not to be involved with churches.

“But In my 30s I was saved and it really profoundly strengthened me. 

“I had struggled in my 20s with mental illness, praying to a God I didn’t believe in for death. But I survived.

“When I became a grandparent and went back into education I was still having a lot of anxiety problems and we studied a poem about the succour you get from faith in God. It was, as I remember, a poem by Henry Vaughan, ‘Peace’ which really spoke to me. It read: “Leave then thy foolish ranges, \ For none can thee secure, \ But One, who never changes, \ Thy God, thy life, thy cure.”

“I thought - that’s it and I suddenly felt safe in the world.

“I now attend East Belfast Mission and get so much out of it but I began attending McQuiston Memorial Presbyterian on the Castlereagh Road after my daughter asked me to go there to see a nativity play. I found myself sitting there crying and it really took me by surprise, I didn’t know how to do faith or how it worked, but it was life changing.”

She adds: “My belief in God is an immense source of true strength.”

Q&A:‘I’d bring Nelson Mandela, Jesus and Princess Diana to dinner’

Tell us some of your earliest childhood memories?

With my nanny. I spent so much time with her playing off Thistle Street on the Newtownards Road. It was a wee kitchen house, two-up, two-down. Annie used to go to the second hand shops and buy these long formal dresses which my friends and I would put on with high heels and clip-clop about the street.

School days - happiest of your life?

I did well at primary school and passed the 11-plus, but I made a bit of a mess of things after that. I went to Park Parade Secondary School but excelled at nothing and was expelled. I didn’t go much and was pregnant with my first daughter Kelly by age 15. I was a bit of a rebel and now I am such an obedient, well behaved person.

Who in your life makes you laugh the most?

My grandchildren. I have five. I was a granny at 33, so my first grandchild is now 25. The youngest is six. I love spending time with them and they are such great fun.

Your ideal way to spend a day?

I love to walk with friends. I like simple things, like going for a drive and getting a chip and a Maud’s ice cream. I love visiting around the Ards Peninsula and the North Coast.

If you could have a dream dinner party at which you could invite anyone from history, who would you bring?

Nelson Mandela. His attitude towards forgiveness inspires me. He said: “If you don’t forgive, you’re still in prison.” That speaks to me. Then, I’d like Jesus there, and Princess Diana, to hear her side of the story and talk to her about how her sons turned out.

What would you serve them to eat and drink?

I’m terrible in the kitchen. So we’d have a big lasagne with lots of salad. I’ve been teetotal since my 20s, so I’d be on the sparkling water, but the rest of them could have a drop of wine.

Your favourite film?

The Pianist starring Adrien Brody.

Your favourite book?

The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

What music do you enjoy?

Irish language music and traditional music - my father loved that, especially The Dubliners. When I was younger I was a big fan of the Bay City Rollers. I missed the whole punk movement because when I was 16 I was out pushing a pram and had to be sensible. I had three children by 22.

What makes you happiest in life?

My family and I think as you get older you really appreciate their importance. I love what I do but my family really give me true purpose.

Who is your best friend?

My second husband Brian. What’s the secret? Well, I am a very patient woman!

Love is...Acceptance.

The meaning of life is...Trying to do good and bring no harm.

To sign up to Irish language classes at the Turas Project at the East Belfast Mission visit www.ebm.org.uk/turas/.