"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
"...stories birling through my mind..."
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.
Aodán Mac Póilin observes; “Another ignored aspect of the development of society in Ulster is the extent to which settlers and native Irish intermingled.” I learned this myself whilst writing the history of Irish dancing, which is effectively a study of Ulster’s cross-community friendships. Marriages between Catholics and Protestants were commonplace and many wealthier Irish people converted to the Anglican church after the Flight of the Earls in the early 1600s in a bid to keep their lands. All of this had an impact on language.
The fall of Irish
In order for English to become the dominant language, the number of inter-linguistic households must have been vast right up until the 1800s. Irish came to be seen as inferior, however, by educated people. Writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), who had parishes in east Antrim, saw English as a way of civilizing the “natives.” He said, “I heartily wish some public thoughts were employed to reduce this uncultivated people from that idle, savage, beastly, thievish manner of life.” He felt that acquiring English was the answer. In the 1800s, nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell also recommended the abandonment of Irish as a means of progress for the Catholic people.
The decline of Irish Gaelic was extremely rapid. Between 1841 and 1891, the number of speakers on the island of Ireland dropped from 3 million to three-quarters of a million. There are now around 10,000 speakers, and while successive governments in Northern Ireland across the last ninety-odd years may be criticised for their treatment of Irish, the language has also struggled within the Republic of Ireland, where there were more than 250,000 Irish speakers at the dawn of independence.
The international language holocaust
Irish is not alone. Most languages in the world are in danger of extinction. “We are on the brink of a linguistic holocaust,” Mac Póilin explains, and it’s an appropriate analogy because it helps us understand why it is happening.
Across history, people have allowed the mass extinction of people by turning a blind eye, so it follows that people will be careless enough to allow the disappearance of a language, along with bees, trees and ice caps, by turning a blind eye. More than half of the world’s 6,000 to 7,000 languages are spoken by less than 10,000 people. One language dies every fortnight. In 100 years from now, it is estimated that we may only be left with 500 languages worldwide.
The problem is that Irish does not share roots with any majority language. There is no language to subsume it. It could die out altogether.
Are we set to be the generation that turned a blind eye?
If you would like to read the second part of this blog click here: Part 2 in this series of Blogs Ulster Scots: it’s like English.
Irish Dancing is available here.
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