Almost half of the students at a new Irish language centre in east Belfast are from a Protestant background, it has emerged, although a new Gaelic sports club is facing loyalist opposition to its growth in the area.
Since the Turas Centre opened on the Newtownards Road in 2014, demand for Irish classes has grown steadily. Currently, 187 people from the Protestant community make up almost half of the centre’s students, according to a BBC report.
One of them is Lesley Halliday from Donaghadee. She said she first developed an interest in the Irish language as a child, which led to her father asking a colleague from work to come to their home and teach her some of the basics.
She told the BBC: “I got my numbers, letters and basic phrases but I didn’t have any opportunity to speak it and that’s the thing.”
The centre offers a range of classes every week from beginners to advanced levels. Another local Protestant, Paul Taylor, is proud to say he started taking classes at the centre last September.
“With the centre being in east Belfast it was easier for someone like me to go to it,” the 57-year-old said. “I don’t think I would’ve had the confidence to go to one of the Irish culture centres. It helped open the door for me.”
Paul now proudly sees himself as part of the Irish language community. He said: “If Protestants are worried that they would feel marginalised or unwelcome, they can rest assured that it is simply not true.”
However, the transformation of an underused soccer field to a Gaelic sports pitch nearby has been halted due to concern around some social media posts by loyalists.
A new Gaelic club in east Belfast was founded two years ago and the sport is rising in popularity among Protestants in the area. It currently has no permanent base and the Victoria Park site, which is owned by the council, had been identified as suitable for a GAA facility.
According to Belfast councillor Séamas de Faoite, work to revamp the site has been stopped for now. Activity on social media by loyalists was blamed for the decision by council officials to stop the work.
Mr de Faoite was scathing of those opposed to the siting of a GAA pitch in the area. He declined to go “into specifics” due to “the commentary from people who would much rather try and stop GAA from taking place in east Belfast”.