"...stories birling ..."
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.”
Protestant interest in Irish also fell away for a time, with the Belfast Academical Institution ceasing to run classes from 1849. The language became relegated to a symbol of heritage, but it was not a political topic.
When the first branch of the Gaelic League was founded in Belfast in 1895 to promote the language, more than half the committee was Protestant and some members were prominent Orangemen. The anecdotes in Aodán Mac Póilin’s essays about how people set about learning the language are illuminating: for instance, Cathal O’Boyle used to accompany an Irish speaking RIC Constable from County Kerry on his night-beat through Belfast so that he could learn the language.
The Irish language and Nationalism
By the 1920s, the Gaelic League came to be dominated by Catholic priests, who controlled education, sport and social activities. They were particularly outspoken about Irish dancing, as detailed in my book, Irish Dancing: The Festival Story. In the early 1900s, the Irish Republican Brotherhood infiltrated the Gaelic League and used the feiseanna to recruit volunteers.
The Irish language became a symbol of nationalism and, as with many other aspects of our shared cultural heritage, was rejected by those who were not nationalists. The ridicule levelled at the Irish language by some Unionists appears unsophisticated and it’s frustrating to see a language become an unfortunate victim of a political war, but you dig deep enough, you can find out why some people have come to think of Irish as foreign.
Larne: Centre of Gaelic Poetry
When I set up an Irish class in Larne a couple of years ago alongside the local Methodist church, I was inundated with requests to join. Partly, people wanted to learn the language, but there was also an effort to break away from stereotype and reach hands across the language divide. Irish language classes are also in demand in Carrickfergus and Ballyclare. When I attended a DUP mayor’s Irish reception in Ballymena last year, it was packed to the rafters. There is a will to learn. The difficulty is finding teachers.
Learning Irish for two years gave me a narrative of Ireland that I had no access to as a child. It made sense of the land around me. And the land around me is Larne, "centre of Gaelic poetry."
I’ve been trying to find an historical connection between me and the Irish language for some time, but my family tree is mainly made up of Scots folk. Aodán Mac Póilin brought to my attention the fact that my Scottish ancestors may have spoken Gaelic in the time of Gaelic Kings, but there’s no certainty. Instead, I’m thrilled to discover Irish influences associated with place. Mac Póilin gave me not just one Larne poet but several generations of Larnian hereditary bards belonging to the Ó Gnímh (pronounced O’Neeve) family.
The Ó Gnímh family
The Ó Gnímh family was significant not only because of its poetry but also because of its political influence in Ulster. Agnew’s Hill overlooking Larne is named after a family whose lands encompassed most of the town and countryside, including Greenland, the area that I grew up. It is possible that the very same landscape and seascape that inspired me to write my latest novel, poems, prose poems and a children’s book also inspired the Ó Gnímh family.
The Ó Gnímh family bards were the chief poets for Gaelic chieftains, the O’Neills and the MacDonalds. When Brian Ó Gnímh was the chief poet of Belfast’s O’Neill family in the sixteenth century, hereditary poets had influence and could be persuasive. In 1573, for example, Brian Ó Gnímh wrote a poem urging his patron to attack the Earl of Sussex who had been granted most of the lands in counties Antrim and Down by Queen Elizabeth I.
Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh (1540-1630) was Brian Ó Gnímh’s son. Two of his poems ‘After the Flight of the Earls’ and ‘The Passing of the Poets,’ both published in the New Oxford Book of Irish Verse of 1986, describe the transitionary period of history when the Gaelic chieftains lost power to the British crown. Here is an example of Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh’s concerns:
Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh
Ionann is éag na Fódla
ceilt a córa ‘s a creidimh,
táire a saormhac ‘s a saoithe,
más fíor laoithe ná leitir.
The same as the death of Fodla
is the suppression of her right and her faith,
the degradation of her free sons
and her scholars, if lays or letters are true.
Ní leigeann eagla an ghallsmaicht
damh a hanstaid do nochtadh:
atá an chríoch réidhse ríNéill
do chrú fíréin dá folcadh.
Fear of the foreign law does not permit me
to tell her sore plight;
this smooth land of royal Niell
is being washed with innocent blood.
Ní fhuil cion innte ar fhéiltibh,
ní fhuil ná ar chléircibh caingean,
ní mhaireann greann a dáimhe,
ní mhaireann náire a hainnear.
In her is no love of feast-days, no,
nor no recourse to the clergy:
the mirth of her bardic companies is no more,
the modesty of her maids is no more.
Dursan milleadh na macaomh,
díorma ghlacshaor chleas ngoile:
craosól ag clódh a gcéille,
ag sin a dtréidhe oile
Alas for the ruin of the youths,
a noble-handed troop of valorous feats:
hard drinking subdues their sense,
that is the characteristic of all.
This is a sad time for Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh. Not only is witnessing the demise of Gaelic chieftains, but he is to lose his profession. He laments that his fate will lie in farming instead of his beloved poetry, “The honour of poesy is departed;/the credit of guardianship’s gone,/ so that the school of Ireland’s land were better/ As husbandmen of the ploughland.” It was to be an accurate prediction.
Another member of the family, Eoin Ó Gnímh, was a poet and manuscript collector who was still farming in 1699. Edward Lyyud, a Welsh scholar and linguist, came across the Ó Gnímh family in Larne on his travels. (By then the name Ó Gnímh had changed to Agnew.) Aodán Mac Póilin quotes Edward Lyyud’s words: “I met Eoin Agniw, whose ancestors had been hereditary poets for many generations to the O’Neals; but the lands they held thereby being taken away from his father, he had forsaken the muses and betaken himself to the plow; so we made an easy purchase of about a dozen ancient manuscripts on parchment.”
The extensive land running from Kilwaughter and stretching up and over the Antrim hills, was subsequently granted to a different Agnew family from Wigtownshire in Scotland. The Wigtownshire Agnew family was Protestant and sympathetic to the British crown, but some scholars believe that there was a connection between it and the Ó Gnímh poets. It is possible that the Ó Gnímh family had come from Scotland in an earlier wave of migration.
Larne is still full of Agnews today, and descendants of the poets could be Catholic or Protestant, as family members may have converted to the Anglican church in order to own land. A pile of rocks on the shore-side of the road at Ballygally marks the remains of one of the Ó Gnímh family homes, "Cairncastle" (not to be mixed up with Cairncastle village, which is a little further up in the hills).
And so my longest ever blog has come to an end with two main ideas: Ulster Scots storytelling classes and a celebration of the Gaelic poetry of the Ó Gnímh family: in short, a Larne Literary Festival anchored to the land and shaped by the sea.
(If you are a scholar of Irish with knowledge of the Ó Gnímh family, please get in touch with me. I am currently exploring a way to celebrate the family by through public art.)
I am grateful to the angel who was kind enough to send me the Mac Póilin book and I hope that this series of language blogs has helped at least one person untangle some of the language issues in Northern Ireland.
To go back to the first in this series of language blogs, 'Irish: Turning a Blind Eye,' click here.
Angeline King is the author of:
Contemporary novel. "An enjoyable coming-of-age tale with a Belfast twist" (The Irish Times)
Click here to buy
A Belfast Tale
Contemporary novel. “Uniquely, authentically and enjoyably Belfast" (Tony Macaulay, author of Paperboy.)
Click here to buy.
Irish Dancing: The festival story
A history of dancing in Ulster with a focus on the festival tradition of Irish Dancing. Click here to buy.
Children of Latharna
Stories for big weans and wee weans. "Lyrical and nostalgic; wistful and humorous," Ian Andrew, author.
Click here to start reading for free
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