The Irish language has the oldest literary tradition in Europe[i], second only to Greek. It belongs to the Indo-European linguistic family, as do its closest relations - Scots Gaelic, Manx Gaelic (known as Q-Celtic languages) and Welsh, Cornish and Breton (the P-Celtic languages).
Irish is apolitical; it is not a political construct. It belongs to all of the citizens of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland regardless of religious belief.
Consider, for example, Cumann Gaelach na hEaglaise, the Irish Guild of the Church. It was founded in 1914
“to preserve within the Church of Ireland the spirit of the ancient Celtic Church; promote the use of the Irish language in the Church; collect from Irish sources suitable hymns and other devotional literature; and encourage the use of Irish art and music in the Church.”
To help mark the centenary of the Guild, the Church of Ireland promoted a project under the title "Towards 2014: Promoting the Irish language within the Community of the Church of Ireland."
The Anglican Guild keeps a list of its clergy who speak Irish fluently. One of them is Archdeacon Gary Hastings from East Belfast, and currently Rector of the Collegiate Church of St Nicholas in Galway. Religious services in Irish are conducted on occasions in Belfast, for example at St Georges Church of Ireland and also in Fitzroy Presbyterian Church.
Recognition of the key historical role played by Presbyterians and Methodists to preserve the Irish language was articulated last year by Assemblyman Paul Givan. The same point has been made by an academic at Queen’s University Belfast.
She asserts that
“The support given to Irish may be regarded as vexatious by unionists. Many Ulster Protestants are unaware that Irish is a legitimate part of their cultural heritage, and see it primarily as the tool of Sinn Féin in promoting republicanism. They reject Irish as something that would taint them by association...Yet in the past, Protestants have done much to promote Irish. It was an object of affection and admiration for many influential nineteenth century Protestants and unionists. [ii]”
Consider these two examples - Robert Shipboy MacAdam (1808 - 1895) and Alice Milligan (1869-1953).
“Educated at Royal Belfast Academical Institution, MacAdam was of that generation of Presbyterian industrialists who saw no contradiction between the encouragement of the Irish language and loyalty to the Crown... At the age of 22 he founded the Ulster Gaelic society - the first of its kind in Ireland - collected many Irish manuscripts, and publishing a Gaelic dictionary.” [iii]
“There was no other person in the whole of Ireland who had spent so much in preserving these literary treasures. Especially, in a time when the English efforts were to stamp out all traces of the Irish culture. Before long, he had put together the first collection in Irish of song, proverbs, folktale, and folklore.”
The Plantation of Ulster in the seventeenth century witnessed the immigration of many settlers from Scotland. Many of them were Gaelic speakers. When, for example, the Marquis of Argyll brought his troops to Antrim in the 1640’s, most of them were Gaelic speakers who later settled in Ireland [iv].
Dr Blaney’s account adds that some of the Gaelic-speaking Scots were Presbyterians, some were Anglicans, and others Episcopalians. It observes, to take one example, that Rasharkin was settled by Anglican Highlanders who petitioned the Bishop of Connor to provide them with a Gaelic-speaking Minister. As if to prove that there was little difference between the settlers’ Gaelic and that of the natives, MacAdam is quoted in 1873 that he had conversed with “Glensmen and Arranmen” and “can testify to the identity of their speech”.
Myra Zepf, the daughter of Dr Blaney, is an Irish speaker and author of three children’s books in Irish. She was appointed last week as Northern Ireland’s first Children’s Writing Fellow. The role has been created by the Arts Council and Queen’s University’s Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre. She is quoted as explaining how Irish has been an enriching and beautiful part of her life, and that she is pained at its politicisation at Stormont. [v]
Alice Milligan was born in Omagh to a middle class Methodist and Unionist family.
“In 1891 she was profoundly affected by the death of Charles Stuart Parnell and converted to the cause of Irish nationalism, despite her family background. She promoted the Irish language as a member of the Gaelic League (the number of Irish language speakers in Belfast rose from 900 to almost 4000 within 10 years)... She co-edited journals, the Northern Patriot and Shan Van Vocht... Along with Anna Johnston and Maud Gonne, she helped organise the centenary commemorations of the 1798 rebellion. When Maud formed the radical women’s organisation Inghinidhe na hÉireann (in 1900), Alice wrote plays to support its cultural activities.”[vi]
These Daughters of Ireland aimed “to discourage the reading and circulation of low English literature, the singing of English songs and to combat English influence which is doing so much injury to the artistic taste and refinement of the Irish people.”
Quoting these objectives, a prominent Cambridge University historian observes:
“The last phrase should be noted. For all their militant anti-Englishness, this and other movements on the broad Gaelicist front were cultural, not political.[vii]”
We are surrounded by the Irish language every day. One of the best examples is its reflection in most of our place-names and in many of our surnames. Kathleen’s Island (Enniskillen) is the county town of The Men of the Manaigh Tribe (Fermanagh) [viii], one of whose many attractions is Owen’s Height (the Ardhowen theatre). The Mouth of the River Farset (Belfast) is our capital city.
One of the commonest surnames in Ulster, McCullough, bears testament to the Provincial name, Uladh. MacConUladh means son of a hound of Ulster. A researcher[ix] says that the surname originates in Scotland where it is spelled McCulloch. The latter is and was common in Galloway, whence stemmed so many of Ulster’s settlers during the Plantation period.
Incidentally, the place-name Galloway is Scots Gaelic, and the term Gallowglass [x] derives from two words Gall (meaning foreigner) and óglach (meaning young warrior).
On the subject of Scotland, the beach that was in the news recently from which a young warrior from Glasgow, the surfer Matthew Bryce departed before his dramatic rescue and recovery in the Ulster Hospital, is called Machrihanish. This is Scots Gaelic and might mean the Plain of the Isle (or of Ness, or possibly the Plain of Shanais).
One aspect of rural Ulster life with which all people closely identify is our townlands. For example, Derebard (Doire an Bhaird in Irish), translates into English as poet’s oak-wood. The townland is serendipitous as a birth-place, if you are WF Marshall, “the bard of Tyrone,” sometimes referred to as a Scots-Irish poet.
One journalist[xi] paid homage on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Marshall became a Presbyterian Minister in Castlerock, but was brought up in one Tyrone’s few English toponyms, Sixmilecross,[xii] 6 Irish miles from Omagh.
Marshall’s writings are recounted in what he called the Tyrone dialect. In so doing, he revelled in Gaelic place-names reflected in the lilt of “Tyrone Jigs.”
“There’s Cavanamara and dark Derrymeen,
There’s Carrickatane and Munderrydoe,
With Strawletterdallan and Cavankilgreen
All dancing a jig with Cregganconroe”
Drumlester townland is synonymous with Marshall. In Irish it is Droim leastair meaning Ridge of wooden vessels.
Not to forget the poet’s own surname. The name Marshall occurs all over Ireland, but is common only in Ulster. Found in Ireland from early medieval times[xiii], it is commonest in Down, Derry/Londonderry, Antrim and also in Dublin.[xiv] Bell adds that its northern prevalence stems from The Plantation of Ulster by Scottish settlers.
The name is Norman, originally le Maréschal. This stems from the same word in Old French, meaning “horse servant.” Appropriate pathos for the bard, living and dying in clabber to the knee.
Irish, in common with the other Celtic languages and most of Europe’s languages, categorizes nouns as either masculine or feminine. A brilliant book by an authoritative international linguist[xv] makes amusing and informative play of this fact. He makes a persuasive case to show how English is at a disadvantage expressively and poetically without grammatical gender differentiation.
Genders, as he puts it, are language’s gifts to poets.
Poetic and prosaic Irish loves alliteration and it does onomatopoeia better than any other language. It is this very sonorous quality that the M.P. Gregory Campbell’s parody may have sought to mimic with satirical and controversial effect.
Learning Irish or Scots Gaelic as a second or third language has proven educational advantages. Travellers arriving in Inverness airport cannot fail to observe the publicity which promotes this fact. Students who learn Gaelic, becoming conversant in more than one language, perform better across all other subjects than those who are mono-lingual.
One of Great Britain’s leading arts and culture journalists, Richard Morrison of the Times, commented on the importance of the UK’s non-English languages thus. Britain’s Gaelic languages, he argued, are thriving. Welsh has 500,000 speakers, Scots Gaelic has 50,000, there are 3,000 fluent Cornish speakers, and 600 people speak Manx.
“When a native language dies, a lot of other things disappear too. Place names and family names become inexplicable. Local traditions vanish because people no longer have the words to describe their customs....And the world’s stock of useful words (that only occur in one language yet identify something we all need to articulate...) is diminished....
© Michael McSorley 2017
[i] “Lingo, a language spotter’s guide to Europe” p207-212 Gaston Dorren
[ii] “Protestants and the Irish Language: Historical Heritage and Current Attitudes in Northern Ireland,” Professor Rosalind M.O. Pritchard
[iii] The Ulster History Circle website.
[iv]. “Presbyterians and the Irish Language" (1996), Roger Blaney
[v] Ivan Lyttle Belfast Telegraph 6 May 2017 news p.10
[vi] “Celebrating Belfast Women: a city guide through women’s eyes,” p 38 Women’s Resource & Development Agency
[vii] Modern Ireland 1600-1972 R F Foster pp 449-450(Penguin Press 1988)
[viii] Manach itself in an Irish Gaelic noun which means a monk
[ix] Robert Bell “The Book of Ulster Surnames.” P 51. 1988.
[x] Collins English Dictionary millennium edition p 627,Gallowglass means heavily-armed mercenary soldiers, originally Hebridean (Gaelic-Norse), from Irish gall (foreigner) + óglach (young warrior-servant)
[xi] Paul Clements Irish Times 27 January 2009 p 15 An Irishman’s Diary.
[xii] Patrick McKay “A Dictionary of Ulster Place-Names” 1999 p 132 ISI QUB.
[xiii] Edward McLysaght “The Surnames of Ireland.” P209. 1991 reprint
[xiv] Robert Bell “The Book of Ulster Surnames.” P 187. 1988.
[xv] Guy Deutscher “Through the Looking Glass , why the world looks different in other languages” chapter 8 Sex and Syntax
[xvi]Richard Morrison “When languages die whole worlds die too” The Times 1 June 2013 p19.