The Language of Ulster: Part 1

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, marshland, lakes and mountains, 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 (native British Pretani/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). The earliest certain evidence for a Celtic language in Ireland dates to c. 100 AD. This is Brittonic (Welsh: ieithoedd Brythonaidd/Prydeinig, Cornish: yethow brythonek/predennek, Breton: yezhoù predenek), spoken by five British Tribes , ie the Brigantes, Gangani, Manapii, Velabori and Coriondi, who first came to occupy the south of Ireland following the campaigns of Julius Caesar in Gaul and then Great Britain. These are not likely to have been the only Brittonic Celtic-speaking people to have come. We must add  warlords, monks and, of course, the slaves such as St Patrick.

Although no literature has survived of the Brittonic 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. But the term “Gaelic” (gwyddel) in Ireland is Old British for incoming “raiders” who knew themselves as Feni or land-owning freemen and did not have a common name for themselves until they adopted it centuries later from the people they had conquered. Although they spoke an archaic form of Celtic, there is nothing more certain in early Irish history, however, than that the Gaels were relative newcomers to Ireland. And, other than the split between “q” and “p” in the languages, the first serious difference between Brittonic and Irish Gaelic does not appear until the 1st century AD.

The legendary Ninth Legion, Legio IX Hispana, the Spanish Legion, was one of the oldest and most feared units in the Roman Army. Put together in Spain by Pompey in 65 BC, it came under the command of Julius Caesar who was Governor of Further Spain in 61 BC, and served in Gaul throughout the Gallic Wars from 58 – 51 BC, the Legion was decisive in ensuring Caesar’s control of the Republic. After Caesar’s assassination it remained loyal to his successor Octavian. It fought with distinction against the Cantabrians in Spain from 25 – 13 BC but suffered terribly in the British revolt led by Boadicea (Boudicca) in 60 AD, losing as many as 50 – 80 per cent of its men . However, several high ranking Officers who could only have served after 117 AD are well known to us, so we can safely assume that the core of the Legion was still extant in the reign of Hadrian, 117 – 138 AD.

The first great leader of the Feni ( later “Gaels”) in Ireland, Tuathal (Teuto–valos) Techtmar, was probably a Roman soldier, commanding Gaelic-speaking auxiliaries from Spain. The earliest known source for the story of Tuathal Techtmar’s conquest of Ireland from the Aithech thuatha (Vassal Tribes) is a poem by Mael Mura of Othain AD 885. Mael Mura intimates that about 750 years had elapsed since Tuathal Techtmar had marched on the native British, Pretani or Cruthin ritual centre of Tara to create his kingdom of Meath, which would date the invasion to the early 2nd Century AD. This is probably approximately correct. The standard pseudo-historical convention is employed, however, to make him an exiled Irishman returning with a foreign army. Others conjecture that he invaded Ireland at the time of Agricola in Britain 77/78 to 84 AD.

Túathal is claimed to have fought 25 battles against Ulster, 25 against Leinster, 25 against Connacht and 35 against Munster. The whole country subdued, he convened a conference at Tara, where he established laws and annexed territory from each of the four provinces to create the central province of Míde (Meath) around Tara as the High King’s territory. He built four fortresses in Meath: Tlachta, where the druids sacrificed on the eve of Samhain, on land taken from Munster; Uisneach, where the festival of Beltaine was celebrated, on land from Connacht; Tailtu, where Lughnasa was celebrated, on land from Ulster; and Tara, on land from Leinster. Yet Tara was still in Pretanic hands until the time of Congal Claen in the seventh century.

The account in the Lebor Gabála Érenn, which does contain a shadow of history, is probably older and in this we see that Tuathal was born outside Ireland and had not seen the country before he invaded it. We can synchronise his birth or “exile” with the reign of the Roman Emperor Domition (81–96), invasion to very early in the reign of Hadrian (122 – 138) and his death fighting the Cruthin under Mal mac Rochride,  king of Ulster, at Mag Line (Moylinny near Larne, County Antrim in the reign of Antoninus Pius (138 – 161). This fits with Juvenal (c60 to 127 AD) who wrote “We have taken our arms beyond the shores of Ireland…” Tuathal may indeed represent the fictitious Mil Espáne (the Soldier from Spain), or even the Ninth Legion, the Legio IX Hispana, but that we will probably never know. His son, Fedlimid Rechtmar, later avenged him. Túathal, or his wife Baine, is reputed to have built Ráth Mór, an Iron Age hillfort in the earthwork complex at Clogher, County Tyrone.

The history of the Gaelic  language in Ireland can be divided into four periods: Ogham Irish Gaelic (400-700 AD), Old Irish Gaelic (700-900 AD), Middle Irish Gaelic (900-1200 AD) and Modern Irish Gaelic (1200 AD-present). The 5th and 6th centuries AD in particular are known to have been a period of unusually rapid development in the Gaelic language, as shown by the contrast between the general language of Ogham inscriptions and the earliest Old Gaelic known from manuscripts. There is little doubt that this was due to the widespread adoption of the Gaelic speech by the original inhabitants and the passage of older words and grammatical forms such as Old British or Brittonic (Welsh) into Gaelic. By this time, therefore, Gaelic had become, according to Heinrich Wagner, “one of the most bizarre branches of Indo-European” since “in its syntax and general structure it has many features in common with non-Indo-European languages.” These included Semitic and Hamitic influences, which point to a Phoenician origin in Southern Spain and North Africa, with Tarshish as the most obvious candidate.

The oldest Irish sagas were composed in a language that suggests that they were first written down in the 7th and 8thcenturies 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. Brittonic 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 Brittonic language, which originally had no future tense.  Scottish Gaelic was also to preserve archaic features now lost in Irish Gaelic.

To be continued

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