Dublin.– Language learning has the potential to build empathy between groups in conflict and help revise destructive understandings of history, according to researchers in Trinity College Dublin, who have conducted a study of the Turas Irish-language centre in East Belfast.

 

The academic study of the Turas Irish-language project comes at a time when the Irish language has never been more politically contested in Northern Ireland. Bitter political disagreement over a potential Irish Language Act is a primary cause of the Northern Ireland’s political parties’ failure to restore power-sharing government in Belfast.

Based in a traditional working-class, unionist area, the Turas project runs Irish language classes and community workshops on the little-known historical links between Protestants and the Irish language, and the Irish ‘all around us’ in place names, phrases and linguistic structures derived from Irish. Turas also provides Irish language singing classes, set dancing classes, and large-scale cultural events. Some 8,000 people have taken part in Turas events and it has around 200 enrolled learners. The project is run by East Belfast Mission, an outreach of the Methodist Church, and led by Linda Ervine, sister-in-law of the late loyalist leader David Ervine.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast, sought to explain why the Turas project is flourishing and to examine the nature of its contribution to peace and reconciliation in the area. Their findings, based on in-depth interviews with leaders and participants and observations of Turas events, have been published in the journal ‘Ethnic and racial Studies’.

The researchers found that the project’s success could be attributed to an appetite among many members of the Protestant community to discover an aspect of their heritage that had been denied them by Northern Ireland’s polarised society. The relaxed and welcoming ethos of the project and the charismatic and energetic leadership of Linda Ervine, were also major factors in the project’s success.

Since the advent of power-sharing in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, the question of what official status or protection should be accorded the Irish language has become a bitterly contested aspect of Northern Ireland’s ‘culture war’, explains Dr David Mitchell, Assistant Professor in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Trinity.

“The Turas initiative is explicitly re-casting Irish as a shared heritage of all the people of Ireland, and indeed Britain and Ireland, given the close links with Scots Gaelic. By challenging the tendency towards cultural polarisation this unlikely grassroots peacebuilding project in East Belfast which uses language learning and cultural encounter as its main focus has made a notable contribution to peace and reconciliation. Our study suggests that language learning initiatives have a unique potential to make valuable contribution to peacebuilding initiatives.”

“Unlike other peacebuilding tools such as sport, the arts or inter-church activities, language learning has the advantage of being naturally accompanied by learning of the history of the language. This can open up a space for the discovery of a shared historical experience or the revision of destructive understandings of history.”

The Turas project has wider lessons regarding the capacity of language learning to build peace between groups in conflict, Dr Mitchell continued:

“Language learning also has the potential to develop empathy for the members of another linguistic community. This is not simply because language acquisition creates ‘common ground’ but also because learning a language opens a window into another linguistic community’s inner world revealing nuances of culture and ways of life which would otherwise remain impenetrable. In addition, the close connection of language and place means that language learning may have a unique power to reframe groups’ strong, exclusive identification with particular territories.”

The study did, however, find that some learners were reluctant to reveal the fact that they were learning Irish to friends and family, and many were concerned that the political battle over Irish was working against the progress being made by Turas towards ‘detoxifying’ Irish among unionists.

Mitchell, David and Megan Miller (2017) 'Reconciliation through language learning? A case study of the Turas Irish language project in East Belfast'. Ethnic and Racial Studies. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2017.1414278.

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