The Folly of Richard Haass

Dr Richard Haass

The unwelcome intervention of Richard Haass into the Language debate will bring untold damage to the Gaelic language in Northern Ireland..His blanket use of the term “Irish Language”, which has been used as a political weapon by Republicans, will bring shudders of apprehension to most members of the Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist community. The imposition of a standard “Irish Language” into our system will do nothing for Gaelic as a living entity, yet at the same time drawing away much needed funds from our hospitals, libraries and schools. 

So what does Mr Haass mean by “Irish Language”. The division between Ulster Gaelic and that of the rest of Ireland developed well before the arrival of English from the 17th century. T.F.O’Rahilly (1932) outlined a number of features which distinguished the two major Irish Gaelic languages and regarded the position of word stress as one of the most important of these. He believed that the Southern language reached south Co. Meath in the east. The boundary then ran west through Westmeath and Longford to South Galway. The Southern language was more homogenous than that of Ulster and more widespread, occupying at least three-quarters of the island. 

Ulster Gaelic was characterised by an increasing influence of Scottish Gaelic as one proceeded north and east, though some Scots influence was evident everywhere in Ulster and East Ulster Gaelic is almost indistinguishable from that of Hebridean Islay and Argyll. English was to take over the distribution patterns of the Gaelic language during and after the 17th century, thus perpetrating that ancient frontier between Ulster and the rest of Ireland evidenced also in the structure known as the Black Pig’s Dyke.

At the beginning of the 20th century in that area which now constitutes Northern Ireland there were eight districts in which dialects of Ulster Gaelic survived among 5% or more of the total population. As well as the Red Bay Gaeltacht of the Glens of Antrim and Rathlin Island, constituting East Ulster Gaelic, the Mid-Ulster Gaeltacht centring on the Sperrins lay entirely within what was to become Northern Ireland. The last native speaker of East Ulster Gaelic from Rathlin died in our early Eighties. 

There were also three areas along the border which were extensions of localities in which Gaelic was spoken by a higher percentage of people. These were South Armagh Gaelic, which was part of the old Oriel Gaelic spoken also in Louth and Monaghan; west Tyrone Gaelic, which was an extension of Donegal or West Ulster Gaelic; and south-west Fermanagh Gaelic which was an outlier of the Gaelic of Cavan and Leitrim. Perhaps the most literary and beautiful of these was the Gaelic of Old Oriel. A fourth border area was Strabane, which was formed by immigration from Mid-Ulster and Donegal. The eighth area was around Trillick in southwest Tyrone. 

The Gaelic heritage survives in Ulster in place and personal names, i.e. Shankill and Craig. In fact, there are more of these names of Gaelic derivation in Ulster than anywhere else in Ireland. Ulster Gaelic however has seriously declined as a living language. There are now only two small Gaelic-speaking areas in Donegal of 8,400 and 2,000 souls, with a further 15,500 in the remainder of the island (Desmond Fennell). This was due firstly to the effects of the industrial revolution taking people from the land and concentrating them in the major cities which were English-speaking, secondly to the early antagonism of both Church and State and more recently to feelings that Gaelic-speaking had become the weekend sport of the urban elite, with subsequent rejection by the people. Recently however the language has re-established itself in West Tyrone and Belfast, where it has become a badge of national identity.

Yet the decline of Ulster Gaelic also owes much to Irish Nationalism itself. The main problem for the early Gaelic nationalist was that there was no single “caint na ndoine” or language of the people to promote as the “Irish Language”, but an extensive range of local idioms and grammatical forms. Most scholars agreed with T.F.O’Rahilly that “in the case of Irish it is especially necessary that a standard language be left to evolve itself …the pressing problem of the hour is to keep alive and vigorous every one of the last few dialects of Irish that have survived. Little good would a manufactured ‘literary’ language be if once the stream of living Irish … is allowed to dry up” (Studies, 1923). In the early 1940’s with the development of the Gaelic nationalist urban elite, de Valera requested the translation department of the Eire parliament (since there was no central Academy to direct language reform) to produce a standard reformed spelling. 

This they did in 1945, followed by a proposed standard grammar in 1953, which was composed mainly of forms selected from Munster and Connaught Gaelic, and largely ignored the Ulster Gaelic of Donegal, Rathlin and the Glens. This standard grammar has now been generally adopted as the “Irish Grammar”. One of the most influential essays prior to its development was Forbairt na Gaeilge by Niall O Domhnaill, ironically of Donegal Gaeltacht origin. O Domhnaill’s work was vigorously nationalistic, strongly advocating the artificial development of a standard language as the “mental tool for a new national life” and he declared that the standard would be created in Dublin. For O Domhnaill the main goal of Gaelic revivalism was “to give Irish a national character”. This was bound engender hostility towards Gaelic among the Unionist population of Ulster, who could have acted to preserve more of their ancient heritage. This hostility will be enhanced by Mr Haass’s intervention, which will hinder, if not destroy, recent attempts to promote the language in East Belfast.


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