The British background to the Gaelic Language

Set as Ulster is at the North Eastern corner of Ireland, facing Britain across a narrow sea and separated from the rest of Ireland by a zone of little hills known as Drumlins, the characteristics of her language and people have been moulded by movements, large and small, between the two islands since the dawn of human history. P.L.Henry has described the difference between Ulster and the rest of Ireland as: “One of the most deeply rooted, ancient, and from a literary point of view, most productive facts of early Irish History.” Furthermore, “Ulster’s bond with Scotland counterbalances her lax tie with the rest of Ireland. To say, once more, that this applies only to modern times and to dialects of English would be to miscalculate grossly. Here too the mould was fixed in ancient times and modern developments continue ancient associations. We need but think of the Pictish (ancient British Pretani or Cruthin) Kingdoms in both areas, of the Ulster-Scottish Kingdom of Dalriada from the last quarter of the 5th to the close of the 8th century, of the Scottish Kingdom founded under Gaelic leadership in 842, of Irish relations with the Kingdom of the Hebrides and Argyll from the 12th century, particularly the immigration of Hebridean soldiers (gallowglasses) from the 13th to the 16th century. The Gaelic form of this word, Galloglaigh, (i.e. Gallagher) occurs as a family name in Northern Ireland. There was a constant coming and going between North East Ireland and Western Scotland. The Glens of Antrim were in the hands of Scottish Macdonalds by1400, and for the next two hundred years Gaelic-speaking Scots came in large numbers. The 17th century immigration of a numerous Scots element need not to be considered outside the preceding series. It has brought for example Presbyterian Scots with names as familiar on this side as McMenemin and Kennedy, who must be considered rather in the light of homing birds.”

The original language or languages of Ulster have long been subsumed but elements of an old British tongue may be traced in the personal names of the oldest inhabitants, the Cruthin and Ulidians whose political influence declined following defeat by the Gaelic Ui Neill at the Battle of Moira (637) and Crew Hill (1004). Although no literature has survived of the old British language in Ulster, the Goddodin of Aneirin and the Odes of Taliesin, who wrote in praise of the war-like deeds of his Lord, Urien of Rheged in South-West Scotland, have survived. The oldest Irish sagas were composed in a language that suggests that they were first written down in the 7th and 8th centuries from an oral tradition. The most outstanding cycle in the early Irish literature was the Ulster Cycle. The longest tale of this is the Cattle-Raid of Cooley (Táin Bó Cuailgne),dealing with the conflict between “the men of Ulster” and “the men of Ireland” (i.e. the rest of Ireland). The chief hero was Cuchulainn, whose real name was Setanta which is the same as that of an ancient British tribe who have been also recorded as living in present day Lancashire. Old British was displaced in Ireland by Gaelic just as English later displaced Gaelic, so that the Gaelic name Cuchulainn (The Hound of Cullen) is remembered and Setanta became merely his “boyhood name”. When Gaelic was planted on the British mainland, however, its verbal system was remoulded on the lines of the old British language, which originally had no future tense. Scottish Gaelic was also to preserve archaic features now lost in Irish Gaelic.

Having worked for more than twenty years on a linguistic atlas of Gaelic dialects, Heinrich Wagner has found that: “each major dialect and each minor subdialect of Gaelic is dependent on its geographical position, all the dialects forming a chain in which two neighbouring dialects always have certain features in common not shared by more distant dialects. The dialect of North Clare, for example, correctly defined as a Munster or southern dialect, has strong features in common with the dialects of South Galway, although Galway Irish on the whole belongs to the central Connaught dialect. The dialects of the old province of Ulster in the north are almost as close to the dialects of Southern Scotland (Arran, Kintyre, and also Rathlin Island) as they are to other Irish dialects.”   But evidence for a British or P-Celtic substrate to Irish place-names is mounting. Paul Tempan has identified the following, which have unsatisfactory meanings in Gaelic: Drummillar ( Gaelic droim + Old British or Brittonic moel bre ‘bare hill’), Rathlin Brittonic or Cymric (Welsh). rhygnu “to rub/scrape”; Skettrick cognate with Cymric (Welsh) scethrog ‘rocky place’; letter (as in Letterkenny) cognate with Cymric (Welsh) llethyr ‘slope’; Breda < Bredach ‘ higher ground’ cognate with Brigantes; Teelin cognate with Cymric (Welsh) telyn ‘harp, bow’ ; Old name for Downpatrick, Dún dá Lethglais = ‘fort of Lleth Gadwal’, Old British or Brittonic  form of ‘Cathal’s half’…

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