Sitting on a shelf in my living room is a beautiful and meaningful gift that I was given by a friend this Christmas. It is an ornament in the shape of a log with seven tiny blue and white delft fish swimming above it. When you look closely you realise that whilst six of the fish are all swimming in the same direction one solitary fish is swimming the opposite way to the others. Attached to the log is a sign in Gaelic which reads ‘Ag snámh in éadan an tsrutha’ which translates as ‘swimming against the tide’.
And I am proud to be doing just that, to be swimming against the tide of intolerance that at times seems to engulf Northern Ireland. In my position as Irish Language Development Officer I have the opportunity to work with groups from both traditions and to challenge the stereotypes of green and orange politics.
But being out of step with what appears to be all around you can be difficult. By becoming an advocate for the Irish language I have made myself a target for criticism and attack from those who disagree with the stance I have taken. I have experienced criticism from individuals within the unionist community as well as lack of support and misunderstanding of the purpose and ethos of my work.
However it isn’t the disapproval of strangers or the negative comments on social media which I find most hurtful, but the dirty looks and whispers among people that I know especially when those people are fellow Christians. Part of me wants to ask them what they think is so wrong about what I do. I want to explain why and how I got involved with the language. I want to tell them that four years ago I was introduced to a language which because of my religious background I had never had the opportunity to engage with; that I became fascinated by it and decided to learn to speak it. That I fell in love with its sounds, its phraseology and discovered its true history. That I read books such as ‘Presbyterians and the Irish Language’ by Roger Blaney, ‘Hidden Ulster: Protestants and the Irish Language’, by Pádraig Ó Snodaigh and ‘Towards Inclusion: Protestants and the Irish Language’ by Ian Malcolm and I discovered that I as a Protestant could rightfully claim this language as my own, a truth I believed was important to share with others. I want them to hear the laughter of learners and experience the positivity and friendliness that is Turas, but stone faces and closed minds make this impossible.
Since setting up Turas, East Belfast’s Irish language project, I have met many people who like me, feel they have been denied access to the Irish language but who now through Turas, enjoy the opportunity to attend classes in their local area. Turas, which is the Gaelic word for journey, has become not just a journey into a language but also a journey that is changing mindsets and softening hearts, eroding long held negative attitudes and providing a new context for the Irish language as a language of healing and reconciliation.
At times I feel despondent at the political situation in Northern Ireland. Sixteen years after the Good Friday Agreement we seem even deeper entrenched in bitterness and hatred. Almost half of the electorate do not vote and feel no motivation to engage with the political system. What chance is there for change when at the highest levels of our society the conflict continues? How can communities be expected to show tolerance and respect when their political leadership express intolerance and disrespect? How can the walls come down when division is being rebuilt every day within our Assembly?
Yet despite all of this I firmly believe that the majority of people in Northern Ireland want something better and in our own small way the success of Turas confirms that many are looking for an alternative. The reality is that I am not the only fish swimming against the tide, there are many other people in Northern Ireland who desire peace and seek compromise on the contentious issues. I am not a solitary fish but part of a silent shoal swimming in the direction of a modern and pluralistic society.