I remember when I moved to live in Dublin in 1991 seeing signs for Eaglais Presbyterian Church and not knowing that congregation at all. There were lots of signs to Eaglais but it was obviously the Presbyterian one that most intrigued me. Was it weeks or months before I discovered that eaglais was the Irish word for Church?!
When I arrived back in Belfast, as part of the Chaplaincy team at Queens, in 1994 I was so used to the bilingual world of the Republic Of Ireland that I didn’t even notice the Fir and Mná signs on the male and female toilets. There were many unionists at Queens losing their mind that there should be Irish language signs in the Students Union!
I am sadly not a linguist. To have had a clue about Greek and Hebrew would have been useful in my Theology degree and I would love Greek in my sermon preparation most weeks but it was not my genius. Over the years though it is Irish I would most love to have been able to learn.
Why? Well, most of it is subjective. Janice’s cousin Tim has lived with us for almost twenty years and he is a fluent Irish speaker. Having travelled the world and discovered everybody else’s culture he came back home and thought it would be useful learning about his own. He learned Irish from scratch and did a degree in it. He has taught it too.
Tim’s girlfriend lives in Gweedore, an Gaeltacht area of Donegal. Irish is Noeleen’s first language. She is a singer and when she sings in Irish I always think that it is an absolutely beautiful language and how I wish I could understand her. I feel the same listening to The Gloaming or Liam Ó Maonlaí.
When I started hearing Pádraig Ó Tuama reading his poetry I got another sense of frustration that I wasn’t an Irish speaker. Pádraig would share how Irish words had such profound meanings not easily translated and I would love to have that resource.
As well as Irish being cherished in our home, through Tim, I then became minister of a Church where Irish was also cherished. Fitzroy plays host to a monthly Protestant Church service in Irish, An Tor ar Lasadh (The Burning Bush), (3rd Sunday at 3pm) and quite a number in the congregation are fluent in the language.
This service actually played its role in my connection with Fr Martin Magill. Fr Martin wanted to do an Irish language class but he wanted it to be a vehicle for Protestants and Catholics to meet. He knew that Protestants were not going to drive up to his parish in Lenadoon but that Catholics would be delighted to go a Presbyterian Church as the Presbyterians saved the language at one time in history. He knew of An Tor ar Lasadh and thought we might welcome his idea.
Now, I am not sure that the Presbyterians can take all the credit for the Irish language surviving in the 18th Century but I like to hold on to it as a badge of honour, whether it is true or not! For sure the Irish language was as important to Presbyterians as Catholics. There was a time when you had to be able to preach in Irish to get a call to many Presbyterian Churches.
As the years have gone on I have tried to learn a word or two more. Sadly, about one new word a year is all I can muster!
I do get exasperated when the language is used politically. Yes, there are times when it frustrates me that Sinn Fein use it in that way. However, I get more infuriated when the DUP label it as some Republican thing, dismissing it to the point of hatred.
Such political hatred is a giving away of a language and culture that belongs to me as much as Noeleen in the Gaeltacht. The Irish language belongs to us all. Anyone prepared to read any Irish history since 1690 will find that we are all wrapped up in it and invested in it.
I remember a journalist telling me a story about how he was helping write the memoirs of a Unionist politician. On a afternoon he and the politician drove down to Rostrevor. As they gazed across Carlingford to the other side, my friend shared with the politician how beautiful it was. He then got lambasted by the politicians who assured him it wasn’t beautiful at all. My friend said that sectarianism against people was one thing but being sectarian to mountains and scenic beauty was a whole other kind of sectarianism!
We do not need sectarianism against OUR language. It needs to be treated with respect. I do not want it erased from my history. I do not want it to be merely a symbol to throw at the other. It is ours… for ALL of us!