“When everyone else seems to be moving backwards, Ireland, both North and South, is moving forwards, slowly”Kwekubo

‘Conas atá tú?’ ‘Tá mé go maith, agus túsa?’ ‘An bhfuil cead agam dul amach go dtí an leithreas?’

There ends my knowledge of the Irish language – so far. I’m trying to learn more, however: Duolingo provides excellent procrastination fodder in the library, and I can make the excuse that it’s still more mentally stimulating than watching Parks and Recreation (although maybe not quite as entertaining). I’m often asked whether I speak Irish, or can even read it – and met with confusion when I explain that, save for a few words found dotted on road signs and the phrase ‘tiocfaidh ár lá’ (google it), it may as well be Greek to me. Actually, I did Greek GCSE, so technically Greek would be better.

Unlike in the Republic of Ireland, Irish language education is not provided or required on the Northern Irish curriculum. Schools that do teach it are often divided along sectarian lines, further enforcing the idea that the Irish language is the cultural property of one community and not the other – such that the very act of speaking it or teaching it becomes tied up in identity politics.

“It feels mine somehow, not in a sense of property, but as part of a cultural heritage”

Ah, identity politics. It’s a phrase often bandied about in modern political discourse, often pejoratively aimed at the ‘snowflakes’ of the student left by Daily Mail columnists with almost as much free time as they have empty space in their heads. As far as the identity politics lottery goes, I’ve lucked out – two possible nationalities and a sexual minority? I expect Katie Hopkins is practically frothing.

In Northern Ireland, however, identity (usually pronounced aye-den-da-dee, shouted for greater effect) is a universally recognised currency. Where do you live? Derry or Londonderry? How do you say the letter ‘H’? DUP or Sinn Féinn? Catholic or Protestant? Football or GAA? There are some people in Northern Ireland who, unfortunately, can’t see past these binary oppositions. You’re either one or the other. One of us, or one of them’uns.

Which brings us back to me, sitting in the library, practising Irish. I feel such a strong connection to the collection of jumbled letters on the page, which when read and pronounced properly lilt and elide into a mysterious and alluring tongue – neither Romance nor Germanic, but Celtic, a language family that can be traced back to the first millennium BC. Since deciding to try it out on a whim a few weeks ago, I’ve developed a strong connection to Irish. It feels mine somehow, not in a sense of property, but as part of a cultural heritage, keeping a language alive that, even in recent history, has been suppressed. My tongue might trip over the sounds and my brain might struggle to decode the complex word order, but I keep coming back.

British, Irish, or both, the national identity of my homeland might be fought over in the Assembly or on the streets – but my personal identity is mine alone to determine. Living in a kind of limbo – too Irish to be completely British, too British to be completely Irish – my cop out was to just be both and be done with the whole thing. Recent events have changed that, however – the petty nationalism we saw pre- and post-Brexit prompted me to rethink how I consider my national identity. Am I now more Irish than British? How could I reconcile all the things I love about the UK – our NHS, love of queueing, cynical sense of humour, willingness to help those in need – with all the things I hated in the campaign to leave the EU? I found refuge in my Irish-ness, it became an escape, a refuge in a world that seems to have gone mad.

While Donald Trump was a mere rumbling in the distance, Ireland became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by plebiscite, with a massive 60 per cent mandate. While fear, intolerance, and bigotry spread across the Western world, Irish women stood up, and are still standing up, for autonomy over their own bodies, and the tide of opinion has shifted so far that, when that barrier is finally broken down and the eighth amendment is repealed, Ireland’s transition to a modern liberal democracy will be complete. From being ‘the most Catholic country in the world’, so much so that to greet someone in Irish is to say ‘Dia duit’, ‘God be with you’, Ireland’s turnaround in the space of just 20 years has been profound.

In a world where the unthinkable seems not only thinkable, but inevitable, the instability of my nationality and my nation becomes an opportunity. When everyone else seems to be moving backwards, Ireland, both North and South, is moving forwards, slowly. So, tá Gaeilge agaibh?

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