Thinking about inclusion and community in modern-day Ireland

‘What is ‘community’ in modern-day Ireland?’

This was the question posed to us by Anastasia Crickley in the Development Perspectives Toleration 4 Integration seminar November 16, 2020. This seminar provided a critical space for participants to consider how we conceptualise ‘integration.’ Much discussion centred on the importance of reciprocity—that ‘integration’ is a two-way street, and that instead of speaking of ‘tolerance,’ we should be focusing on notions of inclusion.

To me,  ‘inclusion’ and ‘community’ are relatively synonymous. They both mean that everyone feels valued in their relations to others.  They also mean that everyone feels embedded in the place they live.  This is not to say to say that ‘communities’ necessarily need a uniform physical space within which to exist, but rather, that whatever form this ‘space’ takes, those participating in the community feel that they are able to navigate it. That it makes sense to them. That they belong

I’ve been thinking a lot about notions of ‘community’ lately, especially since I was interviewed by the BBC on research I conducted when I lived on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland.  That project looked at the extent to which migrants to the Highlands and Islands (the traditional Gaelic-speaking areas in Scotland) felt a part of their communities, and to what extent learning (or not learning) the Gaelic language played in their sense of inclusion.  On the face of it, many of these migrants were less ‘visible’ than perhaps other migration contexts because of shared ethnonational characteristics with the local population: migrants were generally white, spoke English, and were UK nationals. However, despite these shared characteristics, the feeling of not belonging—or taking a long to feel a sense of belonging— was palpable in many of the interviews .  Naturally, it takes time to feel a sense of belonging anywhere if one moves to a different locale, but what struck me was that the role that local knowledge plays in the sense of belonging.  Interviewees remarked on how kind and welcoming people were in general (which resonates very strongly of my experience being a migrant to the Isle of Lewis myself), but how migrants’ lack of local knowledge provided a barrier to inclusion. I’ll never forget the look of joy on an interviewee’s face as she told me how she had learned the Gaelic words for different colours while attending a parent-toddler group with her child and how because she learned the word—‘dubh’ (‘black’)— she now understood the name of the body of water near her house.  Learning just that one word helped her feel more embedded in the place she lives.

This resonates with a recent article in the Irish Times by Manchán Magan which argues that the Irish language offers a way for us ensure a more sustainable future.  As the article emphasises, Irish provides us a way to understand the landscape around us and a way to mediate our environmental experiences in a way that a language that is not ‘of’ this place simply cannot. This aligns with other illustrations of how indigenous knowledge holds key insights to sustainability—and to go back to a previous blog post: it’s important therefore that everyone in Ireland has access to this knowledge, and that those who may not have grown up Ireland have the opportunity to learn and speak Irish. 

Landscape and language: Before the most recent lockdown here in Ireland, I was out hill-walking near the beautiful Killary Fjord. At the beginning of the walk, my fellow walkers and were wondering if there was a river at bottom of the valley but we just we couldn’t see it. We eventually saw it, and when we rounded the corner of the walk hours later, I realised if we had just paid attention to the sign at the beginning, we would have known for sure there was a river- ‘Bun Abhann’ means ‘bottom of the river.’

But so far, I have only focused on one side of the coin, so to speak. As I mentioned earlier, in the Development Perspectives workshop, we talked about how inclusion is not just one group assimilating into another group, but symbiosis between two groups, with each becoming enriched through interaction with the other. (And indeed, true inclusion would erase the notion of ‘other’ altogether).  In terms of language, in many ways, the more I thought about it, the multilingual pedagogy and practice of Scoil Bhride (Cailíní) described in Professor David Little and Dr. Deirdre Kirwan’s research provides a microcosmic template for the symbiotic society I envisage.  In Scoil Bhride (Cailíní), a primary school in the Dublin suburbs, pupils are encouraged to integrate their home languages into their learning processes, and what often surfaces are texts across three languages—English, Irish, and the pupils’ home language.  This in turn strengthens not only pupils’ learning in general, but the sense of being valued I mentioned earlier in my conceptualisation of ‘community.’ As Kirwan (2019, p. 42) writes:

This supports the idea of making linguistic diversity a resource for all pupils regardless of their linguistic origins. Being valued for who they are and for what they bring with them to the learning process facilitates pupil engagement with their own learning.

What is clear from this research is the symbiotic relationship between pupils’ various home languages and Irish in fostering inclusion:  pupils started to use their home languages in the classroom once they started to learn Irish, as learning Irish to them signaled that it is ‘okay’ to have another language.  And for pupils who had English as their first language, Irish became a way in which they made sense of their fellow classmates’ other languages and helped them understand that in fact quite ‘normal’ to speak another language in addition to English. This multilingual approach embodies a true sense of community—pupils feel valued for their differences and are encouraged to share these different gifts with their classmates. At the same time, all pupils sharing in learning and engaging with each other through Irish and English.

So, in returning to the original question of how I think of ‘community’ in a twenty-first century Ireland, I think of one where everyone one can understand and share in the multiple gifts with each other— the gifts that have been here for centuries upon centuries, such as the Irish language, and the gifts people have brought with them in the forms of different languages and outlooks, in interacting with each other and our environment in positive ways.

“This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020

research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 794800”.

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