EAST Belfast Mission’s Irish language project, known as Turas—the Irish word for journey— began in 2011 when the Mission, a Methodist Church on the Newtownards Road, organised its first ever Irish class. Although the class wasn’t advertised, it got off to a good start, with over 20 enthusiastic attendees. My memories of that night are of a room full of people struggling to get their tongues around cad é mar atá tú? (how are you?) and tá mé go maith (I am well). There was also lots of laughter, but not a lot of natural ability at that point.
It would be another year before funding was secured to start the Turas project with one full -time staff member and a number of volunteers. The Turas project grew very quickly and what began as one class became two and then three, and even a class for parents and children was created due to the interest and demand locally.
Our learners became interested in Gaelic songs, so a singing class was formed and this led on to a tin whistle class and a monthly music session. That singing class is now the Grúpa Cheoil who have performed for the Lord Mayor of Dublin and at the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann.
The learners—the majority of whom started in the bunrang (beginners)—are now sitting comfortably in the meánrang (intermediate class) or have found their way to the ardrang (advanced class). Last year over 250 people registered for the various classes, made up of total beginners, beginners, intermediate, family class, singing, GCSE, conversation and advanced.
The story of our students
So who are our students? Well, the majority are from east Belfast and Castlereagh, with smaller numbers coming from other parts of the city and from outside Belfast. Although the majority are from the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist (PUL) community, we pride ourselves on our strong cross-community ethos. It has been amazing watching people develop their language skills from cúpla focal to comhrá as we journey together, struggling with new vocabulary and grammatical structures, and making lots of friends along the way
Although our learners (above) come from all sides the community, it is those from a PUL background who are most likely to have no previous knowledge of the language. For them it is a totally new experience, and they are starting from ground zero. They have not learned the language at school, they don’t tend to have friends or relatives who speak Irish, they don’t see it on street signs in the areas in which they live, they don’t learn it in prayers. And as well as their lack of previous knowledge, many have the added barrier of knowing that they may face criticism from members of their own communities, for engaging in this new activity.
Yet despite this, the number of Protestants engaging with the language is increasing year on year. They are no longer frightened or nervous of other people knowing that they are learning Irish and instead they are keen to encourage their friends to also get involved. The more visibility there is of Protestant learners the more likely it is that others will also engage with the language.
With this in mind, Turas set up a scholarship scheme to encourage learners to undertake third level qualifications in Irish. Due to support from various groups and individuals, Turas has been able to provide scholarships for a number of learners who are undertaking university courses in Irish. This year, three people are doing a Diploma in Irish at Ulster University, while five people are enrolled on degree courses in Irish at both Ulster University and Queen’s University.
One of the learners attending university is Gail McCune. Seven years ago, Gail—a local east Belfast woman—decided to attend an Irish class at Turas. Although a little apprehensive at first, Gail discovered a love for the language which has inspired her to continue with her study of Irish. Over the years, Gail has improved her language skills achieving a Distinction in the Irish Language Diploma. Last year she embarked on a degree course in Irish and Archaeology at Queen’s University. Gail’s decision to attend that first beginners’ class which was provided by East Belfast Mission’s Turas project has proved to be life changing.
Gail’s story can be viewed at: https://qft.vhx.tv/free/videos/ulster-gaeilge-gail
By encouraging people from the PUL community to engage with the Irish language, achieve qualifications and go on to apply for posts within the Irish language education and work sectors, the perception of the language as belonging to one side of the community, will gradually diminish. We believe that we are at the beginning of that journey and we look forward to the day that language is not seen as an indicator of someone’s religious or political allegiance.
Linda Ervine is the Irish language officer for East Belfast. Turas is a project of the East Belfast Mission: http://www.ebm.org.uk
NB: Pic of the class was taken before Covid-19 restrictions