"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
"...stories birling through my mind..."
What will happen if he ever stops?
I thought about this in May 2015 as I meandered around Georgetown with my cousin. The sun was glorious, the cherry blossoms in bloom and we paused to photograph the wreaths made from bulbous hydrangea on the cottage doors. Neither of us could picture Norman retiring, but he’d been talking about it since our arrival in Washington D.C.
Norman’s home in Georgetown served the public of Northern Ireland in the same way that Norman did. It was a meeting place where friends, family and dignitaries were treated alike. There was wine in the evening, and, on the Friday night, a visit to his favourite restaurant. He gave his time but never switched off. An email would ping at 10pm — politicians stranded at the airport -- and off he’d go in a taxi to sort it all out.
I first met Norman Houston in 1999 when I was an intern on the Washington Ireland Programme. The induction week was packed with activities as 30 students made their way around the White House, Capitol Hill and various other monuments of Washington D.C. A visit to the British Embassy came early on in the programme, and as the interns stood up and presented their competencies — horse riding, chello, sailing, law student of the year, student union president of this, junior party member of that — I froze and blurted out in a big Larne accent, “I’m Angeline and I’m from Larne.” Next up came the spokesmen from the panel, civil servants with distinguished careers in diplomacy, and among them Norman, who said, “I’m Norman and I’m also from Larne.”
Soon, I discovered that Norman’s favourite word was “posh.” His assumption that I was “awfully posh” by association with such talented students was immediately dispelled. And so we weaved our web of connections, not least the lovely auntie Helen, his second mum and a friend of my mum’s. Norman proudly stated that he was raised in a prefabricated house in Craigyhill —an area affectionately known as Tin Town — but the working class gentility in him was clear. He often told me that his Auntie Adelaide, who I got to know well on the school run, was a natural when he brought her to events in America, that she was bound to have been an aristocrat in a previous life. I think the same might be said for Norman.
Last week I read that the spoken language in Larne is urban modified English and not Ulster Scots at all. This led to something of an existentialist crisis because I was under the impression that I could speak and understand Ulster Scots on account of my Larnian credentials.
In the end I did what any good Larne woman would do and armed myself with a book. The late Professor Gregg, it was put to me, was the man I needed to know, and I discovered this excellent resource: https://www.libraryireland.com/gregg/, which is free to access. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in language in Ireland or Scotland. It took me six full days of reading to figure out why my impression of Larne language is so different to that of Gregg’s. The short version for those who don't have ten minutes to delve into the following insights into Larne Language and its relationship with Gaelic, Scots and English, is that the real Ulster Scots is found in certain areas in Larne, and I happen to have been brought up in one of them. Existentialist crisis over! Please do read on...
Professor Gregg was a master of languages and a pioneer of Ulster Scots, collecting material from the 1920s before he even began his formal studies. He studied languages at Larne Grammar School and Queen’s University, Belfast — familiar territory for me — and led a distinguished career as a linguist both here and in Canada. My own ambition is to be a novelist, not a linguist, but I can confirm that I'm a little more familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet today than I was last week and my eyes are now wide open to the possibilities that even a basic knowledge of linguistics can bring. I’m now kicking myself for taking that module on Existentialist French Literature at Queen’s instead of Linguistics.
Robert Gregg and I were both raised in almost the same area of Larne. What separated us was two generations and several rungs of social class. Robert was born in 1912 — sixty-three years before me, and his home was on the Glenarm Road, which happens to be the setting of Dusty Bluebells, my first attempt at a novel with Ulster Scots dialogue. Robert was raised in a Victorian terrace house, a grand home for its time and one that was built for Larne’s burgeoning middle class. I spent my early childhood in a small kitchen house on the Waterloo Road around the corner from his old home before moving to a new estate nearby.
Robert’s childhood was played out in an up-and-coming industrial town and a booming tourist resort. He would have watched hundreds of jaunting cars pass him every day on their way up the coast. My Larne was different. The natural setting was beautiful, but the town centre was haunted by giant, abandoned hotels from its tourism heyday, which have since been replaced with residential accommodation. There wasn’t the same attraction for middle class people with Standard English voices to come to Larne for work in the 1980s as there had been in the early 1900s. This in itself changed the linguistic landscape in a way that would have surprised Robert Gregg.
Gregg attended Larne Grammar School in the early 1920s when only a small elite of people had access to grammar education. I went to the same school in 1987, by which time the Eleven Plus entrance exam had been in place for a couple of generations. While I was not unique in being from a working class background, I was certainly one of a small number with strong accents. My middle class contemporaries, many of whom came from outlying country areas, found my “Larne language” entertaining. In first year, I had attended Larne High School, where dinnae, cannae and wudnae were perfectly normal extracurricular words, but these were not common in Larne Grammar School. I often hear people blaming education for the loss of Ulster Scots, but it could be argued that the opening of both Greenland Secondary School (now Larne High) and St. Comgall's Secondary School contributed to a widening of some common Ulster Scots lexical items among pupils who didn’t speak with an Ulster Scots accent at home. In the 1950s and 1960s, folk from the countryside also came into the town for work and to live in the newly built housing estates of Antiville and Craigyhill. This resulted in another influx of Ulster Scots voices.
Professor Gregg identified an older form of Ulster Scots in Glenoe in the home of his maternal family, the McDowells. If we work our way back to the 1600s, we see a meeting point of languages, with County Antrim Gaelige informing the incoming Lowland Scots voices in sounds, vocabulary and idiom. Ulster Gaelic would have been spoken in Larne, but Gregg used his linguistic expertise to identify that Gaelic words in Glenoe had arrived via Scotland. He also explained that some family names were from the Highlands, a result of prior migrations from the Highlands to Lowlands of Scotland. In addition, Gaelic was spoken in Galloway until the 18th century, introducing the real possibility of bi-lingual individuals migrating to Glenoe. Gregg believed the persistence of /x/, e.g. nicht for night, in Glenoe may have been down to the sound’s frequent occurrence in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic. He was also able to establish that Ulster Scots speakers had conserved many features of Middle Scots speech, which have largely been lost in Scotland itself. This, I presume, is part of the reason why academics see Ulster Scots as a language in its own right, rather than a dialect of modern Scots. Like Ulster English, which can be a little Shakespearean, Ulster Scots has some older features that have not survived in the country of origin.
Gregg’s observations have given me an understanding of the language of my female line. My mum’s speech is rich with Ulster Scots idiom, cadence and rhythm and my granny’s was the same. My granny grew up in Browndod, a towland between Glenoe and Ballysnod. As a child, she drew her water from the well, had a dry toilet, ran around barefoot and had limited access to education. Ulster Scots was part of the deal for low-income country residences. She did, however, marry into Standard English by way of my granda Rossborough, who despite having plantation Scottish heritage and a mother from Islandmagee, did not speak Ulster Scots. He would have spoken what Gregg described as “Regional Standard English,” a dialect still beautiful in its own right. Granda’s family, who owned a saddlers had perhaps worked their way up from Ulster Scots.
Professor Gregg’s Phonological study of Larne is a golden record because many of the language patterns that Gregg described as Regional Standard English are fading from the town’s linguistic memory — bek for back, beg for bag and the following identical couplings: kendle for candle, kettle for cattle; neck for knack; wreck for rack; flex for flax. I grew up with cannae, dinnae, and hinnae, and the broader Scots pronunciations like tap for top and aff for off, claith for cloth, hoose for house, mooth for mouth, so I was confused about Gregg’s Larne until I read the following:
"To the north and north-west two or three generations ago workers from the country south-west of Ballymena were settled in the neighbourhood of Brown's Linen Factory. Their dialect, which is in any case closely similar to the other US rural dialects already mentioned, has been well preserved in this district to the present day and as a result of school and other social contacts some of its special phonological features, e.g. the use of the medial glottal stop in place of /t/ in words such as: butter [ˈbʌʔər] Saturday [ˈsɑ:ʔərde] bottom [ˈbɔ:ʔəm] etc. have even spread to the standard speech of other parts of the town."
Here Gregg is describing what is now known as the Factory Community, where I and my dad's maternal family grew up. This is the heartland of Dusty Bluebells. The population in this area more than tripled when adjoining housing estates like Ferris Park and Sallagh Park were built in the 1950s. Greenland estate, where I lived from the age of 7, and Regents Park followed later. Those incredibly strong — some might say hard — accents prevailed and spread, although this has to be counterbalanced by the number of people who left Ulster Scots behind on account of education or social advancement.
Professor Gregg created lists of markers that differentiated Ulster Scots from Ulster English, which, despite its name, contains a great deal of Scots vocabulary. I tested the list on my mum, whose Ulster Scots is typical of that found among thousands of Larne people her generation. On the first list — echt, enuech, fecht, nicht and teuch — we experienced a giant FAIL. We would use the /x/ in words like shuegh and spraghle but not for eight, enough, fight, night and touch.
We didn’t fare much better with list 2, which included abin for above and fit for foot. (We say fut). We passed on door, floor and guid from this list, but none of us say shoon for shoes, although we’re aware of it. By list 3, I was ready to throw the Ulster Scots baby out with the bathwater — under the Inver bridge, which was once pronounced brig. List 4 was easier — epple for apple, femily for family, ferm for farm. List 5 reassured me — aboot for about, hoose for house etc, although Larne folk say wer in place o oor. There is also the list 5 issue of fu for full. Larne folk give it an /l/ and a bit of welly in the middle, particularly when describing someone who is blootered. By list 6, I felt unworthy for not saying twuster for twister and indeed for not knowing what a twuster was. I have heard people say “twunty” but can’t bring myself to say it. List 7 — lang for long sounds like my Larne language. (And no one need ever know that none of us have ever ever said maun for must and wat for wet). List 8 had mixed results — snaw for snow, faa for fall, whaur for where were all recognisable, but we don’t say wha for who. On list 9, we all failed at een for eyes, but excelled at bried for bread. List 10 was written for us — hame, yin, stane, weans. List 11 was alright too — doag for dog, no for not. List 12 was familiar — aye for always, haai for hay. List 13 had some of our favourites like oul and coul. List 14 was a breeze — dae, dinnae, haetae, cannae, gie, gien, tak. These lists were used to map out Ulster Scots across the whole of Ulster.
This was a rudimentary experiment, but I’d say that my mum and dad have around 60% of Professor Gregg’s markers of the traditional form of the Ulster Scots language. We’re also au fait with the late James Fenton’s County Antrim Ulster Scots vocabulary: frae, scrae, hap, oxter, sope, kye, fash, footer, boass, glar, clabbar, boady, bleck, drap, swally, fissle, skinkle, glipe, gype, smit, fleg, mony, loass, claith, luk, sut, gornickle, as weel, forebye, feared, bumble, hannle. (I’ll stop there because he wrote a whole book filled with them, which I’d also recommend).
The thing about Larne is that the migration of Scots folk never really ended. Everyone has family in Scotland. My mum’s sister, Sandra, who passed away last year, married Jack from Stranraer in the 1960s and they lived both here and in Stranraer. My uncle Noel married Elaine from Peterhead after meeting her at the Butlins holiday camp in the same era. University students often bring wives and husbands home to settle in the town, while Larne-Stranraer “ferry romances” continue to blossom. The question is, should Ulster Scots be defined by the markers identified by Professor Gregg, which are even older than some of the current Scots dialects brought over on the ferry? Or could some system be developed that respects Ulster Scots in its older form whilst also acknowledging change? Now that we’ve all had so much fun with the Ulster Scot’s Agency’s A Wheen o Words, could this be taken further — a graded test awarding A1 for the basics and C2 for Glenoe Ulster Scots?
Ulster Scots is primarily an oral language, and this is why so many people in Northern Ireland are frustrated when they see it written down. They think the writing part is fake, but of course, all languages have gone through this process of deciding what is standard or not. Professor Gregg and a colleague, Brendan Adams, set about addressing the spelling of Ulster Scots in the 1960s. (Brendan was a nephew of Larne man and folklorist Richard Hayward). Diacritics (marks to indicate sounds) are sometimes used in Ulster Scots to help readers imagine sounds, and for this, Ulster Scots has been mocked. Reading through the ‘Essays for and by J Gregg’, however, I see why this is so. Let’s take the word butter. When you want to bring the Ballymena out in butter, it is incredibly difficult to do so on paper. Bu—er? Buuher? Buu’er? Butter? Where do you start? This is where the linguists come in with solutions because they have a way of writing down sounds. When I was writing Dusty Bluebells, I muddled through with the Dictionary of Scots Language, Fenton’s Hamely Tongue and my own personal knowledge of Scots' novels, even throwing in some Dutch and German for good measure, but if I’d relied upon a solution that had been created for me by experts, I may have avoided any trouble. (This week I purchased a copy of the Ulster-Scots Language Academy Press's, Ulster-Scots Writers' Guide but predict that my rebellious spelling habit might continue.)
Professor Gregg passed away in 1998, leaving a beautiful legacy behind, but it is a legacy tinged with an element of sadness because of what came after — the politics, the language battle (that brought down a government) and the sniggering in the background from those with little time for the tri-lingual heritage of their country.
Gregg was able to conclude from research right across Ulster that compared with other English dialects, “the Ulster Scots dialects are the most clearly differentiated from every point of view — phonetically, lexically, morphologically and syntactically.” Both Robert Gregg and Richard Hayward might be happy to know that “He got a quare gunk,” “Ye're quare an' saft” and “It wud skunner a pig” are still in use in their childhood hometown, and that those factory folk around Brown’s Irish Linen Factory did more than just spread their medial glottal stop.
Angeline King is a novelist, PhD researcher and Writer in Residence at Ulster University. Dusty Bluebells is available here.
It’s fitting that I read Shuggie Bain like an addict. The world went on around me as I crouched down and supped on words, allowing myself to be slightly less fastidious about the care of the children. At around the three-quarters mark, the novel was complete in my mind. I was satiated, but grateful for the last quarter to allow me time to recover and digest.
Author Douglas Stuart has a keen eye for humanity and he has created one of the most memorable characters ever to grace the pages of a book — not Shuggie Bain, the boy whose life-story had me ready to volunteer at the local food bank and write to my local MP about giving free school meals to all children — but his mother, Agnes Bain, a complex, tortured soul reliant on drink. I picture her now in my mind walking down a bleak highway in her fur coat and high heels, head held high, her remaining inner and outer beauty a metaphor for what might have been. I doubt I will ever create a character as compelling as Agnes Bain.
My childhood differed from Shuggie Bain’s, but much of the novel still resonated with me. Like Shuggie Bain, I was born in the mid-1970s when parts of Northern Ireland were as grim as parts of Glasgow, but I’ve never really taken the time to be angry about the social deprivation I saw in school, on the brae on the way home or at the wee park where the bonfire was lit each summer. We had good parks nearby, we could walk to the town centre, we had the seaside on our doorstep, we ran the streets. Yes, we lived in fear that our daddies might be shot or bombed, but there was always hot water and holidays to Butlins. When reading Shuggie Bain, I found myself experiencing real anger about Glasgow’s past, the dismantling of industry, the too-quick economic decline — the way people didn’t matter. Was Belfast dismantled more slowly or did we not notice because of the bombs?
“This House condemns the Kailyard School of Novelists.”
John Buchan, Oxford University, 1897
The PhD Writer in Residence chapter has begun and I have been reminded of a question posed to me recently: Is Dusty Bluebells a Kailyard? I settled for “sort of” by way of response. In truth, I was convinced that I had not written a Kailyard. That was before I read a study of the Kailyard by Andrew Nash
You may be wondering, what on earth is a Kailyard?
A Kailyard is a nostalgic novel written in Scots and English, and the word was first applied to Scottish literature in 1895 by J.H. Millar. The Scots-English language technique — achievable because Scots and English are mutually intelligible — goes back further in time; Ulster’s own ‘Orange Lily’ by May Crommelin is often referred to as a Kailyard even though it was written almost twenty years before the term was coined.
Kailyard, meaning cabbage patch, became synonymous with three popular Scottish authors of the late 1800s: J.M. Barrie (of Peter Pan fame), S.R. Crockett and Ian MacLaren, who were all busy garnering much critical and commercial success, whilst simultaneously committing crimes against the tastes of John Buchan of Oxford University Union — a novelist and future Governor-General of Canada.
Kailyard novels were popular on a scale that is hard to imagine today and novelists were paid eye-watering sums of money for their endeavours. Crockett’s The Firebrand earned him £1,000 in 1902 (approximately £125,000 today), whilst The Lilac Sunbonnet by S.R. Crockett sold 10,000 copies on the day of its publication. The Kailyard industry also had global reach.
Sifting through Nash’s research, I came up with the following list of criteria that I could use to assess whether Dusty Bluebells is indeed a Kailyard.
Sentimental & Nostalgic
Absolutely! I have taken the street rhymes, songs, conversations and ways of my old aunts, happed them up in Brown’s Irish linen and stored them in a museum of words.
Evasion of social or industrial issues
Maybe! Such issues are not salient themes in Dusty Bluebells. I was more concerned with family history, genealogy, parenthood and the idea that we can see our own infancy if we’re long enough alone.
Concerned to demonstrate history
Dusty Bluebells comprises an allusion to child abuse, a hint of rape, a tale of adultery and a tragic story of incest, yet it reads like a Cinderella story when compared with Wigtown Ploughman by John McNeillie, my latest literary discovery, as recommended by Scottish poet Stuart Paterson.
So satiated was I at the three-quarters point that I could have easily put down Wigtown Ploughman and walked away happy in the knowledge that I’d read another great, but I stayed the course and finished it, following the protagonist through every bare knuckle battering, brutal rape and plundering of opportunity to reform.
And I was enthralled from the beginning to the bitter and inconclusive end.
By comparing my own work to Wigtown Ploughman, I lay no claim to any notion that Dusty Bluebells is as worthy, but there are parallels and I’d like to explore three in this blog: Place, Language and People.
Wigtown Ploughman and Dusty Bluebells are both studies of place; Dusty Bluebells tightly hugs the shore of County Antrim and Wigtown Ploughman cuts deep into the Galloway countryside.
The action of Wigtown Ploughman takes place in The Machars, near Kirkcowan and Wigtown, one bay east of Stranraer, the ferry destination with which most Ulster people are familiar. The area is known as “Little Ireland” and it is no surprise given the time immemorial migrations back and forth across the twenty-mile water.
Dusty Bluebells is set primarily in the community surrounding the Brown’s Irish Linen Factory in Larne, an area settled in the late 1800s by workers from the countryside around Ballymena, hence its old moniker, “Little Ballymena.” The Scots dialect found there was until recently as broad as any in Scotland.
“Little Ireland” and “Little Scotland” might be appropriate monikers for the regions of the respective novels.
Both novels play with realism, and whilst Dusty Bluebells holds a mirror up to Larne and allows the reader to walk the streets and consume the character of the people, Wigtown Ploughman takes the reader to the land and has him eat and drink and sweat in it. McNeillie’s technique is powerful and I immediately experienced that sinking feeling of falling short as I reached the second page.
Like McNeillie, I wrote my novel in Standard English with Scots dialect.
The Scots of Wigtown Ploughman is similar to that of Dusty Bluebells, which is remarkable given the fact that both novels are set in the twentieth century, two to three hundred years after the largest Scots migrations to Ireland occurred, so a milder form of Scots in Ulster might be expected given the passage of time. This isn’t the case. In fact, the Scots in the Larne area only began to ebb in the 1980s and I was both implicated in and witness to its decline; once tertiary education and international travel opportunities became wide open to the working class, Ulster Scots began to fall away.
Many of the phrases in Dusty Bluebells reflect Ireland’s obsession with religion, and it is here that the threshold between Ulster and Scots can perhaps be heard.
A dirl of rhyme filtered through the scullery as Cassie stacked the last wheaten farl onto the cooling-tray. Granny was singing about urchins, her hands twisting and plaiting a wisp of straw in her lap.
‘‘Hae ye a wisp for the whole o Ballygally forbye Cairncastle?” teased Cassie, eyeing the overflowing basket by Granny’s feet.
Granny gave a smile as taut as the straw she held in her hand. ‘This bonnie wisp is goin naewhere.”
“Da saes ye’ll hae the devil upon us, with your Hogmanay.”
“If your da spent less time thinkin aboot the deil,” said Granny, “he’d hae less work on his hands.”
Cassie began clearing up the kitchen. All work had to be done before the first-footers crossed the threshold on New Year’s Day, one of the superstitions Granny held onto despite her son-in-law’s censure.
“It’s brave an early to redd up the trimmings,” said Cassie as she lifted the prickly holly from the chimney-brace.
“A clean hoose keeps bad omens oot!” said Granny.
“There’ll be nae talk of bad omens in this hoose!” trumpeted Cassie, mimicking her father’s unyielding voice.
Granny replied with a smile that doubled around her lips like a plaited wisp of barley. It was a fearless expression, ready to deflect any man’s chiding.
Cassie looked across the silver line of hawthorn outside the window. The moon shone white on a navy sky and the lights of the Maidens’ lighthouses blinked yellow. She pictured her mother by the window, her paintbrush pointing to the horizon, her expression fearless.
Cassie clanged the brass bells to mark midnight and sipped back her whiskey. Granny leaned in close on the settle. “I met your granda at Hogmanay, ye ken?”
Cassie dropped her empty mug. Granda Scott’s name was never mentioned.
“Och aye,” said Granny. “The good Lord blow’d him through thon door. Hair as black as coal. I was leukin oot for weans beggin for bread and coal. But here, dear. The first-footer was Hamilton Scott frae Donaghadee. Loast in the fog efter a danner up Sallagh.”
Granny held up the short wisp of straw to reveal a heart shape where the loops of her creation intertwined. “I’d a wisp like this yin in my hand for the weans.”
“Och, Granny,” said Cassie, laughing. Hammy Scott was said to have died at sea, but Cassie had overheard a different tale the night of her mother’s wake.
As the sound of the fiddle echoed in the scullery, Granny Armstrong had whispered the truth to her sister, that Hamilton Scott had been a figment of Letitia Lynch’s imagination. The pair of them had leaned over the open coffin and prayed for the soul of the dearly departed — Charlotte Scott, the bastard daughter.
“It’s a cryin shame the weans dinnae come first-footing roon here,” said Cassie.
“Your da wudnae stand for it. Beggars, he’d call them.”
“Ma wud hae said the same.”
“Och, och anee,” rhymed Granny. “Yer ma liked the oul ways when she was a wean. She aye gien your da his place as the heid o the hoose. And rightly so.”
Cassie thought about her mother and her illness, the fatigue that died in the dim light. She would stay up half the night painting and then she would lie for days, not fit for lifting a hand. The Armstrongs said that Charlotte Scott was too much the lady, with her painting and resting.
Cassie missed her ma, but she’d never been drawn to the landscapes painted by her hand. She’d never been drawn to their colours, as dark as Haleve nicht.
“Granny,” said Cassie. “Ye know there’s mare a chance o’ a draft blowin through thon door than a first-footer. Come on tae bed.”
“Young yins! Where’s the magic? I believed in magic. And leuk at me.”
“Aye, leuk at ye, Granny,” said Cassie, as she rattled the last of the slack from the bucket. “An oul widow wi naethin but a sixteen year-oul tae warm them cowl feet. Let’s get ye til yer bed.”
Cassie’s mind birled from the whisky. She tossed and turned half the night. At the stroke of five, a cold wind skimmed across her cheeks.
She slipped her hand into the icy air and switched on the lamp. Wind whistled through the chimney flue.
Cassie pulled back the heavy quilt and there was Granny. Nose tipped up. A gladsome smile. White hands gripping the heart-shaped wisp like a prayer.
Hands as cold as linen.
“Perhaps the saddest incident comes from Ballygalley. An old woman, named Jane Parke, well-known to most of the residents of the neighbourhood, resided in a roughly-built cabin under the sea wall, a short distance on this side of the Halfway House. She lived principally by charity and recently was in receipt of Poor-Law Relief. Repeated warnings had been given her of the danger she incurred by continuing to reside in her tumble-down shanty in rough weather, but she was deaf to all advice, and now had met her death as the result of her obstinacy, her dwelling being completely wrecked and she either drowned by the heavy seas or was killed by the walls falling in on her.”
Larne Times, 29 December 1894
The following blog post was written in March 2020 after a walk around Ballygally trying to locate the position of Jean Park's home. Since writing it, a team of Jean Park enthusiasts have been in touch with more information, and this has become a truly enticing tale. I have highlighted anything new with an asterisk. Many thanks for your help.*
I’m holding up the photograph of you, Jean Park — a face born of boulder, rock and shingle — but you did not emerge from these rocks; they say you emerged from the sea, a small baby found in a boat in her dead mother’s arms. Your face is contorted and twisted with age, older than your 71 years, but you had no time to prepare for any photographer. Did you know what you were doing when you agreed to squat down and look at the camera? Was the photograph taken the same year you died? A farewell. Something to make your legend real.
I want to find a way to know where you resided. Was it on this spot, by Ballygally Head? I see the photographer, Robert John Welch, climbing down from the road past the seaweed drying out along the wall. I see him tip his hat and approach you. Today, you’re his golden find. He would record your name as Janet, but we know you as Jean, the common Ulster pronunciation of the name Jane.
I hold up my mobile phone and see the rocks and the grassy bank and picture the telegraph pole in the photograph that was damaged the night that you were washed away. Above it are the mountains that stretch out along Path Head — misty in your photograph; exactly proportional to what I see through my iPhone’s eye. My brother sees Ballygally Castle behind you. (He sees castles where I see walls). The bank is ever-changing, as we witnessed with the carving of a large swathe of coast at Ballygally in a recent storm. Rocks come and go, but this seems like a good hiding place, an opportunistic spot; you would have been the first person to be seen as the tourists rounded the bend at Ballygally Head.
This bay is the cold, dark edge of Ballygally. Did you pick it because you knew that no one would bother you here, that no authority would climb down and question you? It’s a cove below the head of a sleeping giant, whose face is handsome on approach from Larne or looking down from Sallagh, but here, up close, he’s stark and cold and covered in lichen.
A few years ago, I was inspired by what Linda Ervine was doing in Belfast and contacted her to find out how I could go about setting up an Irish class in Larne. At that time, I was aware that Larne was the centre of the universe, but oblivious to its heritage as a centre of Irish poetry!
Linda is an Irish language student from Belfast, whose personal story is as remarkable as her journey to Irish. The cross-community side of what she does as an Irish language activist is one thing, but the grassroots community building is another: she and the Turas team have brought people flooding into the Lower Newtownards Road in their hundreds in search of Irish culture.
When Belfast was the Athens of the North
On the surface, Belfast seems like an unlikely setting for an Irish language movement. By 1708, it was a plantation “Scots town” with only 7 Catholics among the Protestant population of around 2000 people, but it was surrounded by villages filled with Gaelic speakers.
During the nineteenth century Irish was integral to the Belfast cultural renaissance. Dr James McDonnell, for instance, was at the helm of the Irish cultural movement. He organised the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792 and formed the Ulster Gaelic Society to “revive our language.” The Belfast Royal Academy, which predated Queens University, added Irish to its curriculum in the 1790s. Belfast may have been alive with English and Scots voices, but Protestant preachers understood the importance of learning Gaelic in order to fill their churches with incoming migrants from the countryside.
“The dregs and lees of the Catholic People”
The Catholic Church soon recognised that Protestant churches were teaching Irish for the purposes of religious conversion and so they came down hard on it. Father Luke Walsh referred to Irish teachers as “the very dregs and lees of the Catholic people.”
The Good Friday Agreement story
During the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, I was a student living in France and I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the finer details of Northern Irish politics, so Aodán Mac Póilin’s account of what happened at 3.25 am on Good Friday morning came as a revelation to me.
David Trimble, he explains, threw Lallans onto the negotiating table when everything else had been settled, pointing out that 150,000 people in Northern Ireland spoke it. The Good Friday Agreement, therefore, offers “respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity, including in Northern Ireland, the Irish language, Ulster-Scots and the languages of the various ethic communities.”
When Trimble brought Lallans to the negotiating table, he was asked to speak it in order to demonstrate to the table what he was talking about. Any Ulster Scots speaker would flounder were this to be requested: a negotiating table is a Standard English setting. It’s difficult and even embarrassing to use Ulster Scots out of context. Too many years of being told you speak “bad English” takes its toll eventually.
In 1998, I would have had no notion what Lallans was, even though I came from one an area where Ulster Scots was alive and fairly undiluted. The aunts and uncles and grannies and grandas born in the early 1910s were still speaking in an old way that is now dying out: “Sez I tae me, sez she tae he, och och a nee.”
The Cruithin theory
The next thing that surprised me in Aodán Mac Póilin’s book was the Cruithin theory. The Cruthins were apparently connected with the Dalriada Kingdom that comprised parts of Scotland and Ireland and they were driven to Scotland by invading Gaels in the fifth century. The “Cruithin thesis” was used by a small number of Unionists to challenge the nationalist rhetoric of British colonisation, the idea being that the plantation of Ulster and migration to Ulster by the Scots represented a return of the Cruithin to Ulster and the repossession of a native homeland. A more radical branch of the theory is that the ancestors of the Ulster Scots people were responsible for spreading Christianity in Ireland.
At worst, it's a supremacy theory.
"There's no such thing as Ulster Scots."
These are words I see often on social media. The rationale is that Ulster Scots can’t possibly be a real thing because languages are all supposed to be different and exotic and mysterious, and Ulster Scots is too close to English to be different and exotic and mysterious.
A short lesson on the history of the English language, therefore, seems like a good place to begin an introduction to Ulster Scots.
The word English is derived from Angles, the name of Germanic tribe, and the languages and dialects that all the various Anglo-Saxon tribes brought with them during invasions of Britain around the 5th century A.D. provided the foundations for the English Language.
We refer to that collection of words, sounds and expressions as Old English, but the people of The Netherlands and Germany called it Dutch or Deutsche: both terms of are variations of one another, meaning "belonging to the people."
Languages are porous and change over time, sometimes dramatically. English changed when Christianity spread and Latin was incorporated. There were then some Norse additions when the Vikings invaded Britain in the 700s. During the 12th century, the arrival of the Normans, whose language was a mix of French and Scandinavian, resulted in further changes.
Click on this link and you’ll see my attempt at reading the lyrics of a 1225 song in English to my daughter.
A short history of Scots
The Angles tribe also came to occupy the north-east of England and south-east of Scotland in the fifth century, and Angles gradually spread throughout the Lowlands of Scotland.
By the end of the thirteenth century, this language had developed its own distinct pronunciation and vocabulary.
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