Northern Ireland – part of us

‘I’m proud to be from Northern Ireland but question my future there’

DUP MP Gregory Campbell’s comments on Irish language indicate wider social problem

Sorcha Ní Mhealláin

First published: Sat, Nov 29, 2014, 17:00

I am sitting in a coffee shop in Sao Paulo drinking an iced coffee and the world is bustling by. I flick through Twitter and news from home, easing that little itch of homesickness that sometimes comes and goes. Coleraine’s Mussenden Temple at night glows from my screensaver.

It’s not the first time that I have read about DUP MP Gregory Campbell’s comments on the Irish language, but this time, it brings a pang of sadness.

Sadness, I say, not anger, because I am thousands of miles away and if I choose to ignore this, I never have to think of it. Most people here don’t even know Irish is a language. What makes me feel sad is the attitude of people and the bigotry and small-mindedness of politics in Northern Ireland.

I am from Castlerock outside Coleraine in Co Derry. I’m proud of my home, of the beautiful landscape, of the hearts of the people and of their ability to endure hardships. I have defended in many a conversation in bars and restaurants and buses around the world the need for young Northern Irish people to be proud, to invest, to represent and to work to change how people see us.

“Was it scary growing up?” “Is your dad like a terrorist?” “Did you have bombs in your school?” they ask, and I have always answered with pride, perhaps like a mother oblivious to her child’s wrongs, always sugar-coating the truth, hoping people will see there is no bigotry, there is no hatred, no rivalry.

But I have been losing my vigour, to tell you the truth; brushing off questions about politics and culture and identity and the Troubles has become much harder, because I am starting to lose my faith. I am also getting older, and I am beginning to think about settling down and having children and where I want to do this, and I feel utterly embarrassed at the lack of respect Campbell’s comments represents for Northern Ireland.

People are perfectly entitled to question government funding for Irish language, to disapprove of it being prioritised, or to be personally disinterested in the language and its development. But to mimic it in the way he did is unhelpful and insulting. Such comments don’t contribute to political policy or debate, but have become commonplace as far as I can see.

What kind of politicians engage in such mindless slagging? What kind of people accept it? What kind of society are we leaving to our children? Are we still obsessing over getting one up on the other?

If we accept criticism of a particular language, are we accepting that it’s also ok for a child to turn to their friend in the playground and mock Polish or Chinese, or make fun of them for having a different colour of skin?

I am young. I am educated. I am proud of where I am from. I will eventually choose where to settle down and raise a family, but I already know it won’t be in a place where xenophobia and bigotry goes unquestioned.

I will not bring up my children to hate or to mock or to disrespect the other side. I will bring them up to articulate their ideas and opinions in a respectful and intelligent manner without offending others. They would never learn this from the politicians of Northern Ireland.

And I am not alone. Look at the UCAS statistics, check out the number of young Northern Irish people making lives in England and Scotland, leaving behind the complexities of their homeland.

I would like to have my children near my parents, and to bring them for walks on Downhill beach. I’d love to teach in the school I went to as a child, but I don’t know if any of this is worth living in a society marked by petty mockery and hatred.

And so the young people leave, pay tax to other governments, raise children and make families who’ll say their mother or grandmother or eventually great grandmother came from “somewhere in Northern Ireland… I think”.

Read Sorcha Ní Mhealláin’s previous article for Generation Emigration: ‘Irish is my language, no matter where I am in the world’