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Irish-Gaelic rebirth has Northern Ireland talking

After centuries of being suppressed and cast aside, the Irish language is undergoing something of a revival. But not all of the tensions of the past have gone away, and the renewed interest has caused some discord

A sign in Irish and English is seen at the door of a Turas classroom at Skainos Square, a conference centre in the Newtownards Road neighbourhood of East Belfast. Turas is an Irish-language training program, run by Linda Ervine, that teaches about 200 people, mostly protestant and DUP backers.

When Jim McAuley was asked if he would volunteer to teach an Irish-language class in East Belfast, he shuddered.

Mr. McAuley had never set foot in East Belfast, a largely Protestant part of the city that he used to regard as enemy territory. He's from a mainly Catholic neighbourhood across town known as Falls Road and he'd spent much of his youth as a member of the Irish Republican Army, ending up in jail for 10 years for trying to carry out a bombing. He learned the language during his time in prison from other IRA members and he'd clung to it long after the end of the Troubles, which tore apart Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods in Northern Ireland throughout much of the 1970s and 80s.

Now 62, he couldn't believe Irish-language classes had started at a community centre in the heart of East Belfast. His students would not only be mainly Protestants but one was a former policeman who'd been shot in the head by the IRA.

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"I was seriously very nervous and afraid," he recalled. But he volunteered anyway and today he teaches up to three classes a week in a small room covered in brightly coloured posters listing verb conjugations and translations for words such as pencil, desk, please and thank you. "In a sense, I'm embedded in this community," he said as nine middle-aged students filed out at the end of a class. "I'm working for this community and I've bought into this community around the Irish language."

Mr. McAuley is a testament to just how far the Irish language, or Irish Gaelic, has come in Northern Ireland. After centuries of being suppressed by English rulers and cast aside by sectarian discord, the language is undergoing something of a revival. Adult classes are popping up across the province and the number of schoolchildren learning it is expected to double to 12,000 in seven years. Irish-language street signs are dotting more and more neighbourhoods and some companies have started advertising their services in the language, hoping to cash in on the phenomenon. But not all of the tensions of the past have gone away – the renewed interest in the language has also led to a political crisis and fierce resistance by some.

A local woman walks by a loyalist mural in Newtownards Road, a predominately protestant and loyalist neighbourhood in East Belfast, Northern Ireland.

A key flashpoint has been a proposal to make Irish Gaelic an official language through the introduction of an Irish Language Act. That would have been unheard of not that long ago when the province was ruled by Protestant-dominated political parties. But now, the Irish-Gaelic movement has been emboldened by a gradual change in demographics. The latest census figures revealed that for the first time since 1921, when partition created Ireland and Northern Ireland, Protestants no longer form the majority, while the number of Catholics has grown, along with those who don't identify with either religion.

The act would provide more support for Irish-language programs and make some public services bilingual. And that has prompted a pushback by opponents, who fear any form of official bilingualism will divide communities and cost far too much to implement. Debate over the proposed legislation has caused a political standoff in the provincial assembly that has left Northern Ireland without a government for nearly a year.

It's the worst political crisis to hit Northern Ireland since the Troubles, and last month, the British government had to intervene and impose a budget just to keep public services running. The next step will be direct rule from London.

Arlene Foster, leader of the largest Protestant political organization, the Democratic Unionist Party, has been adamant that the DUP will "never accede to an Irish Language Act" and many of her party's members believe the act is a plot by Catholic nationalists to unify Northern Ireland with Ireland.

Gerry Adams, leader of the largest nationalist party, Sinn Fein, has made it equally clear that his party won't sit in the assembly without an Irish Language Act.

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Irish dictionaries are seen on top of a table in an Irish-language classroom in Newtownards Road.

The island of Ireland has a long and bitter history over language. The Celts brought it here more than 2,000 years ago from Central Europe and for centuries it was the only tongue spoken across Ireland, with versions also introduced in Scotland, northern England and the Isle of Man. That changed in the 17th century when the so-called "plantations" began under England's King James I, who sent over scores of settlers to confiscate land, put down rebellions and colonize the country. With the language already fading under English dominance, the famine of the 1800s drove more Irish speakers out of the country. After partition, Ireland made Irish Gaelic virtually an official language but it nearly vanished in Northern Ireland despite commitments to protect it in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the Troubles.

And yet, in several communities across the province, families banded together to keep the language alive. It started in places such as Carntogher, a rural area southeast of Derry. A dozen or so families pooled their resources to open an Irish Gaelic preschool in 1992, one of the first in the province.

"Only a small number of parents felt the courage to proceed," recalled Liam O'Flannagain, who was among those who helped start the school. "There was no state funding … the state has never regarded, since partition, the Irish language as the native language. The old approach was to view the Irish language as a foreign language and not be encouraged but discouraged at every level."

The families persisted and today the Carntogher Community Association has a thriving Irish-language school, a housing project, retail outlet, auditorium and state-of-the-art multimedia studio. They've also bought up some nearby farmland to start a nature program, run totally in Irish Gaelic. "We've seen huge growth in the language," said Leonne Ni Loinsigh, a manager at the centre. "The Irish language isn't offensive to anybody and it's our right to be able to speak our language. And for anybody to say otherwise, I think it's very narrow-minded." The education movement spread elsewhere and, eventually, the Northern Ireland government agreed to fund Irish-language immersion programs in a handful of schools. Today, there are 39 Irish-language schools at the primary and secondary level.

Posters of grammar, top, and names of colours in the Irish language.

For high-school student Cathir Doyle, learning Irish Gaelic is something he hopes will give him an edge in the job market. "The Irish Language Act, if it passes, it will open up a lot more careers," he said after attending a career fair in Maghera, southeast of Derry, which featured dozens of companies and organizations that hire Irish speakers. "So I think that it will be a really valuable asset to have in years to come." He's Catholic and has friends of all faiths who can't understand the fuss around the language. "I have a lot of friends from different cultures and religions and I get along grand with them. They actually ask me a lot about the Irish language and why do I speak it, and they've been genuinely interested."

It's not just in education where the language is coming back. In West Belfast, a largely Catholic area, Irish Gaelic is being used as the centrepiece of a community redevelopment program that includes a school, a radio station and a £50-million ($86-million) infrastructure project to lure businesses and build affordable housing. "We use the language as a catalyst for economic and social regeneration," said Jake MacSiacais, director of the group called Forbairt Feirste, which is spearheading the project.

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There are even signs that Irish Gaelic is making inroads in some Protestant neighbourhoods where hostility to the language has been a constant for decades. Most Irish-language speakers are Catholic and many Protestants don't see it as relevant to their culture. That's something Linda Ervine has been trying to change. She's a devout Presbyterian from East Belfast who was introduced to the language through a women's group that had a cross-community program with a Catholic church. Ms. Ervine fell in love with the language and eventually founded Turas, which means journey, an Irish-language training program aimed at Protestants. She and her volunteers, including the former IRA member Mr. McAuley, teach nearly 200 people every week at the East Belfast Mission community centre and she is hoping to expand into other neighbourhoods.

Linda Ervine, a language rights activist, poses for a portrait at the offices of Turas Irish Language Programme.

"I speak Irish and it doesn't hollow out my Britishness in any way," she said. "In fact, if anything it's made me much more aware of the links to the other parts of Britain. It's given me pride in my Presbyterian heritage." She's now a passionate advocate for an Irish Language Act, convinced it's the only way to preserve the language and ensure that it flourishes for all communities. "I have certainly faced criticism," she said. "I suppose maybe I'm seen as a traitor and saying something different. But I believe very much in what I'm doing."

Despite the revival, the Irish language faces plenty of challenges and there are many people who are uncomfortable with the surge in interest and the sudden rush toward bilingualism. There are also numerous restrictions still on the books. For example, it's still unlawful to speak Irish Gaelic in court and the rules surrounding bilingual street signs vary from each local council, depending on who's in charge.

"I believe it's completely divisive," said Trevor Wilson, a town councillor in Cookstown, near Maghera, which is a largely nationalist area. Mr. Wilson, 62, is a member of the Ulster Unionists, who oppose an Irish Language Act. He's been on council for 40 years and he chafes at how the Sinn Fein-led administration has started putting bilingual signs on community buildings and council vehicles.

"It actually creates division. It actually doesn't help community relations," he said. "When it's rubbed into your nose, it becomes a big issue." He's no dinosaur and he encourages people to learn the language. He also knows how far Northern Ireland has come from the dark days of the Troubles, when his father was injured in a bomb blast. But he can't see the need for an Irish Language Act and he argues that there are enough protections in the Good Friday Agreement. Providing some form of official bilingualism is a step too far, he adds, and too expensive considering only 11 per cent of the population can speak it.

Gearóidín Monroe teaches a Turas class of Irish language for beginners.

Those arguments infuriate Neil Comer, a professor of Irish and Celtic studies at Ulster University in Derry and president of Conradh na Gaeilge, an Irish-language organization. He says the Good Friday Agreement is vague and that making Irish Gaelic an official language is vital to ensuring it survives. He also points out that Scotland and Wales have similar legislation to protect Gaelic and Welsh. "The reason we want the language act is not to strengthen nationalism or to weaken unionism, it's to protect the language from bad decision-making by politicians," Mr. Comer said. "I know that if a language act was to be implemented tomorrow, there would be a furor but it would die down, like everything else does. The world wouldn't change."

For people such as Malcolm Pollock, a retired banker, the debate over the Irish Language Act is largely irrelevant. He's a Protestant who took it up because he loves maps and enjoys tracing the origins of place names. He also believes people are eager to rediscover their cultural roots and learn something distinctive about where they come from.

"I think a lot of languages generally are coming back. Like Manx and Cornish. They are all coming back because I think it's a bit of a kickback on globalization," he said. Mr. Pollock ignores the flak he gets from DUP supporters and others in his community. "I have a lot of relatives who think I'm nuts," he said with a smile. "But I don't care. I just want to learn it because I like maps. I think a lot of people are ahead of the politicians here."

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