"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
Irish culture & folklore
"...stories birling through my mind..."
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.
The British Israelite Theory
Picking up on the Christian part of the Cruithin theory, Aodán Mac Póilin goes on to explain the British Israeite theory, the idea that British people are descended from the Tribe of Dan and are among God’s Chosen Few. It seems that extremists used this theory in the 1970s to promote the place of the British people in Ulster and that some Ulster Scots writers have drawn on the theories in literature.
As I read Mac Póilin’s book, I became self-conscious about Ulster Scots and wondered if all of this is related to why people sometimes tilt their heads to one side at the mention of it. Not knowing worked for me creatively because I was able to write from the heart, unhindered by what people might think. Naivety is a useful tool for the creative mind.
Sometimes the culture being promoted within the Ulster Scots movement isn’t necessarily Scots in nature, but rather Irish Protestant. Pretty much all manifestations of my own family’s “Protestant heritage” are associated with the Ulster Scots movement; in particular, band culture. There is a significant number of Scottish tunes involved in band culture, there are also British and international influences.
Remembrance of soldiers who fought in the First and Second World Wars has also been brought into the Ulster Scots arena. It is true that people of Ulster Scots descent gave their lives in both wars, but the wars are part of our shared culture and it feels misplaced to assign them to one cultural movement or another.
The translation of government websites and subsequent invention of words was one of the more controversial aspects of the Ulster Scots campaign in its early years. I recall sitting in work one day when a colleague pulled up a government website that had been translated into Ulster Scots: it was the scene from ‘The Office’ that Ricky Gervais couldn’t have dreamt up.
Language enthusiasts will know that words are made up every single day in order to incorporate modern technological advances and cultural change, but it was a step too far for the people of Northern Ireland, who were only beginning to get their heads around the fact that some “culchie accents” were to henceforth to be known as Ulster Scots. Ridicule of any language is not nice, but this incident demonstrated the degree to which policy makers were out of touch with Generation X.
Creating new language communities feels normal in Irish, and indeed Aodán Mac Póilin was part of an impressive Gaeltacht project in Belfast, but few would dream of suggesting an equivalent in Ulster Scots, mainly because Ulster Scots is so close to English, but also because it would create a political furore. Some might also argue that there is enough marking out of territory in Northern Ireland without factoring in Ulster Scots. However, a walk through The Browne’s Irish Linen Factory community where I grew up is a walk through a living Ulster Scots language/dialect community and I can’t help but think that it would be a shame to sit back and watch the language languish there and in other pockets of the country.
Ulster Scots schooling
An Ulster Scots medium school would not make sense to anyone, chiefly because no one would want it. There’s also the issue that pretty much every adult in Northern Ireland has the listening skills necessary to understand Ulster Scots, and most can mimic it orally. The comedy show Derry Girls was the most Ulster-Scots thing I’d ever heard on TV, and although there was a call for subtitles in some parts of the UK, I don’t think anyone in Northern Ireland needed a translator.
Learning through immersion
Ulster Scots immersion seems like a strange concept, again due to a lack of confidence in something too familiar, but storytelling and conversation classes for adults and children are both ideas worth investigating.
Storytelling has come to my attention because my dad is the only person on a local storytelling course who tells his yarns in Ulster Scots. He doesn't mean to and he probably tries hard to think in Standard English, but when he’s in full flow, it’s all thon, thonner cannae, dinnae and wouldnae. I suppose storytelling is a much more natural medium for Ulster Scots than the negotiating table.
Dare I say it, but I’m sort of grateful to Mr Trimble and all the others who recognised Ulster Scots. It feels good to know that my dad’s made-up bedtime stories and my mum’s legendary yarns were narrated in something other than “bad English.”
The next blog in the language series is called Irish: The Belfast & Larne Story and it's available here.
You can find out all about those Ulster Scots influences in Irish Dancing here.
Scene from Snugville Street
The Wedding Wisp
82 Waterloo Road
The Teacher Voice
The Last Day of Summer Scheme
The Children of Latharna
The Band Stick
The Bully up the Brae
God Created Butlins
History & folklore
Language Blog I
Language Blog II
Language Blog III
Language Blog IV
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