"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
"...stories birling through my mind..."
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.
This blog is the first in series of four. You might enjoy them if the linguistic landscape of Northern Ireland confounds you or excites you.
When a book came through my door entitled ‘Our Tangled Speech’ by the late Aodán Mac Póilin, I felt energised by the language debate within it knew I had to blog about it. These observations are based on a mixture of Aodán Mac Póilin’s research and my own thoughts and experiences.
Edward De Bruce & friends
How many people ever stop to think of the fascinating linguistic journey of the country we live in, of all the influences - pre-Celtic, Gaelic, Viking, Norman, Spanish, French, Scots, and English - and intersection of languages at various points in history? We know that Edward the Bruce came to Ireland in 1315 to serve a short tenure as King, but do we know what language he spoke? Was it Gaelic? Was it an old form of English? Or, was it an early form of Scots? It seems feasible that he would have known all three, but it's an aspect of our history that rarely comes up on the curriculum.
The first written texts in Gaelic date back to the 5th century AD and the majority of the island of Ireland spoke Gaelic until the sixteenth century. During the eighteenth century, however, it ceased to be a majority language.
Meanwhile in Scotland, a form of Middle Irish took hold in the 5th and 6th centuries, spreading throughout Scotland and replacing Pictish. This form of Gaelic, dominant until the eleventh century, was referred to as Scottis. It was eventually taken over by what we now know as Scots. By the 1400s, Scottish Gaelic had been demoted as a national language and was called Irish (Erse), reflecting its Irish roots.
Western Scotland was still largely Gaelic speaking in the seventeenth century. This means that a large proportion of people of Scottish origin in Ulster have ancestors who spoke Gaelic. Economic migrants and plantation settlers who spoke Scots would also have come into regular contact with the Gaelic language in the 1600s. The Ulster Plantation represents a multilingual intersection in our history, when men gathered at markets to haggle for the best price of a cow in a variety of Irish, Scots and Elizabethean English. I rather envy the ancestors who got to witness it.
Scene from Snugville Street
The Wedding Wisp
82 Waterloo Road
The Teacher Voice
The Children of Latharna
The Band Stick
The Bully up the Brae
History & folklore
Language Blog I
Language Blog II
Language Blog III
Language Blog IV
The linguist behind Ulster Scots.
Kailyard & Dusty Bluebells
Jean Park of Ballygally
Fiddles and Melodeons
Martha Taylor's diary
Jean McCullagh at 104
Ballymena & the McConnells
Arms in Irish Dancing
Catholics & Protestants in Irish dancing
Irish Dancing: The Festival Story
The Protestant in Irish Fiction.
The Protestant in Irish fiction II
Ulster-Scots in Irish Fiction
An author in Wonderland
Dancing in Victorian Ulster
Learning the Irish Language.
John Hewitt Summer School
Lesley Allen & Helen Nicholl