History was made at Stormont on May 13. In the imposing white edifice built to house what Northern Ireland’s first prime minister called the partitioned region’s “Protestant parliament for a Protestant people”, a speech was delivered entirely in Irish.
Headsets provided translation for Aisling Reilly, a legislator for the nationalist Sinn Féin party which in elections a week earlier had made the unprecedented leap over unionist parties to become Northern Ireland’s biggest force. She called it an “important day for language rights and equality” — a polarising statement given Northern Ireland’s history.
No matter that most people north and south of the border do not habitually speak Irish. Nor that Irish-speaking legislators will now be free to annoy their political adversaries by switching into what one critic on Twitter derided as a “hobby language”. Irish at Stormont is symptomatic of a language that is suddenly enjoying a cultural moment in the sun.
As the UK government prepares to unveil long-promised legislation to elevate Irish (and the even more minority Ulster Scots) to official status in Northern Ireland, Irish is gaining increasing international attention in the arts.
Take An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl). A gorgeous and heart-rending slice of rural Ireland in the 1980s, the movie is almost entirely in Irish. It is captivating on many levels — and for me, the novelty of how the oldest vernacular language in Europe sounds is one of them.
Kneecap, a group from Belfast, have also made waves. Their punchy, politicised lyrics in Irish — dubbed by one broadcaster “punk rap” — prove that a language sometimes considered to be in its death throes is alive and kicking.
I derive great pleasure from attempting to match the Irish announcements on Dublin’s Dart railway with the phrases they belong to — Irish words as written often give scant clues as to how they should be pronounced.
I encouraged my trilingual almost teen daughter that taking Irish at school might be worth it — especially as the alternative was extra maths. And it is advice I plan to take myself. Irish may have little practical use for many people, but why pass up the opportunity to get a window into a lyrical language rooted in an often singular way of seeing the world?
Mainstream use outside the Gaeltacht — or traditionally Irish-speaking areas, mostly in the west and south of Ireland — is often reduced to a few stock phrases before speakers scuttle back to the safety of English.
When Boris Johnson arrived in Northern Ireland last week for talks with regional parties, activists demanded action on the promised language legislation. Regional institutions are currently paralysed by the largest unionist party over its Brexit demands but they have been hamstrung before by Sinn Féin over Irish language rights.
“A country without a language is a country without a soul,” protesters chanted, using a slogan popularised during the fight for independence. Irish was reinstated as Ireland’s first language in 1922 — a status it still has. On Saturday, days before Westminster was set to table the legislation, thousands marched through Belfast; activist Conchúr Ó Muadaigh called it the “biggest Irish language demonstration of a generation”.
Census data show 40 per cent in the republic and 11 per cent in Northern Ireland can speak Irish. Some 60,500 students in the south and 7,000 in the north are schooled through it; indeed in Dublin, Irish-medium schools have become rather trendy.
And while Irish remains predominantly associated with Northern Ireland’s nationalist community, Linda Ervine has blazed a trail in Belfast teaching Irish to Protestants — although not without cost. She had to change the venue for an Irish language pre-school twice after intimidation on social media. “Respect [for Irish] would be a bloody good thing,” she says.
When Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald arrived to meet Johnson, she welcomed him being “here in Ireland”. Moments earlier, a protester had yelled “God Save the Queen”. Identity is often political in Ireland. Sadly, for many language is too.