The Language of Ulster

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 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.”
The earliest extant Scottish document which contained Gaelic matter is the Book of Deer in which Latin Gospels were accompanied by marginalia in Gaelic and Latin, the Gaelic being if the 12th century. Many other manuscripts however, of a later date belonged to the common Scots-Irish tradition and the most important of these was the Book of the Dean of Lismore, an anthology of verse compiled between 1512 and 1526 by Sir James McGregor in Argyllshire. This is thought to be the earliest extant anthology of heroic Gaelic ballads in either Scotland or Ireland. Later Gaelic prose concerned the hero Finn McCool and his war band, becoming part of the popular tales if the West Highlands and Islands although such stories are as much part of the heritage of those who returned to Ulster from Galloway and Carrick.
The 1961 census showed that there were still 80,978 Gaelic speakers in Scotland. In addition 3,702 Scottish Gaelic speakers were recorded in the 1961 Canadian census. The survival of Scottish Gaelic is therefore in many ways less in doubt than that of Gaelic in Ireland. This stems from the remarkable fact that the majority of Scottish Gaelic speakers are Protestants, who are accustomed to read the Bible and use it as a vernacular in their religious services. Indeed the first book to be printed in Irish Gaelic was a translation of the Calvinist Book of Common Order, commonly called John Knox’s Liturgy, published in Edinburgh in 1567 for the use of Presbyterians. Scottish Gaelic was not to become a literary language until the early 17th century.
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. 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, the Mid-Ulster Gaeltacht centring on the Sperrins lay entirely within what was to become Northern Ireland. 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 Gaelic, and south-west Fermanagh Gaelic which was an outlier of the Gaelic of Cavan and Leitrim. Perhaps the most literary 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. 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 Gaelge 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.
The history of the English language starts with the settlement in Britain of Jutes, Saxons and Angles in the 5th and 6th centuries and these population groupings came from respectively Jutland, Schleswig and Halstein. The Jutes settled mainly in Kent, Southern Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, while Saxons occupied the rest of England south of the Thames as well as modern Middlesex and Essex. The Angles, who also settled in what is now modern Friesland in the Netherlands, eventually took the remainder of England as far north as the Firth of Forth, including the area of the future Edinburgh, and the Anglian speaking region developed into two speech groups.
To the north of the river, Northumbrian was spoken and to the south, Southumbrian or Mercian. There were thus four dialects, Northumbria, Mercian, West Saxon and Kentish. One result of the Norman Conquest of 1066 was the placing of all four old English dialects on a more or less equal level. The Old Northumbrian dialect became divided into Scots and Northern by the end of the 13th century. In its roots and origins Scots was closet perhaps to Frisian and thus is grouped today together with Received Pronunciation or standard English along with Frisian in the language grouping known as Coastal Germanic. This forms with the Dutch and German or land Germanic the group known as West Germanic. In fact, the Anglo-Saxon Boniface was so well understood in Friesland in 754 that it became dangerous for him to stay there. The Frisian heritage is also apparent in the name of Dumfries, which is thought to mean “The Fort of the Frisians.”
It must be stated that Received Pronunciation English is not intrinsically superior to other varieties of English but has for purely historical reasons achieved more extensive usage than the others. This may have been fostered by the establishment of public schools such as Winchester, Eton, Harrow and Rugby and its use as the standard English in ancient universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, and Trinity College, Dublin. Irish pronunciation generally has been conservative and is clearer and more easily intelligible than many other dialects. Ulster English in fact preserves many older words than have since gone out of use in England. It has been stated that more of Shakespeare’s words are used at the present time in Armagh than in Warwickshire itself. Overall there has been a widespread generalisation of Ulster English (Northern Hiberno-English) throughout Ulster including Belfast. The source of this Ulster language is a mixture of English dialects in the narrower sense and of Lallans. John Braidwood in his classical study Ulster and Elizabethan English has pointed out that the English contribution, historical and linguistic, should not be minimised. Brendan Adams (1977) delineated a border between Ulster English and the Southern speech as running between two parallel lines from Bundoran to Dundalk and from Sligo to Drogheda. As with Gaelic, south of a similar line dialects are quite homogeneous while north of it Scottish influences have led to more complex regional variations.
There remains however an area in which among the rural population an Ulster Scots language is still spoken. This may be indeed a purer form of Lallans than that spoken in Scotland itself. The language area begins at Whitehead and its borders run south-westwards, approximately a mile distant from the shoreline north of Glengormley down to Dundrod. The line then runs north to the east of Antrim and swings round north of Antrim town to the Long Mountain, progressing then to just south of Rasharkin and then swinging north-west across the Lower Bann nearer Kilrea to continue in a more or less straight line to the shores of Lough Foyle. On the other side of the Belfast Lough it begins at Groomsport running along the Holywood Hills through the Dundonald gap to Gilnahirk and south-westwards through Carryduff and Boardmills to gradually turn round to run eastwards to Strangford Lough, north of Killyleagh. It then commences again at the Saltwater Bridge north of Ardkeen in the Ards Peninsula and runs along this to Cloughey. As well as this large area in Northern Ireland there id the Laggan area of Donegal, the boundary of which begins a mile or two north of Muff and runs across to Lough Swilly then across the Fanad Peninsula through Carrowkeel, Milford, Termon amd round to the Foyle near Clonleigh.

From approximately 1770 onwards, Ulster Scots was cultivated by local poets known as the “Rhyming Weavers”, who flourished mainly in Mid Antrim, East Antrim and North Down. Educated in both Latin and Greek, they achieved a higher level of culture than any section of the peasantry in Western Europe. They were not merely writing an imitation of Robert Burns but belonged to a tradition which went back to Allen Ramsey and beyond in Scotland. The greatest period of their activity was roughly the century between 1770 and 1870 but the tradition continues even until today in Co. Antrim. Unfortunately the literature of the people has not been fully developed by the urban elite, although an Ulster Dialect Archive has been established at Cultra Manor, the headquarters of the Ulster Folk Museum.

Brendan Adams exemplified the two different types of Northern speech by reproducing a few lines of the well known poem by W.F.Marshall entitled Me and Me Da. Part of the original poem in the Ulster English Language spoken in Co. Tyrone is as follows:

I mind the day she went away,
I hid wan Struken hour,
An cursed the wasp from Cullentra
That made me da so sour.
But cryin cures no trouble,
To Bridget I went back
An faced hor for it that night week,
Beside hor own toarf-staack

Transposed into the Ulster Lallans language of Co. Antrim this reads:

A mine the day she went awaa,
A hud yann stricken oor,
An cursed the wasp fae Cullentraa
Thaat made ma daa sae soor.
But craayin cures nae trabble,
Tae Bradget A went beck
An Faced harr for it that naght week,
Beside harr ain turf-steck.

There are many parts of Ulster, therefore, where people are still bilingual in two varieties of the English language. They use Ulster Scots (Ullans) while speaking among themselves and the approximation of the regional standard of Ulster English, in talking to strangers. (Adams, 1977). Neither Ulster Scots nor Ulster English are “foreign” since the original dialects were modified in the mouths of the local Gaelic speakers who acquired them and eventually, after a bilingual period, lost their native tongue. These modified dialects were then gradually adopted by the Scottish and English settlers themselves, since the Irish constituted the majority population. The dialect of Belfast is a variety of Ulster English, so that the people of the Shankill Road speak English which is almost a literal translation of Gaelic. In rural areas Ulster Scots is learned through day by day conversation and communication by a process of natural bilingualism, but is then treated as an inferior dialect by the urban elite. R.J. Gregg included in Scotch-Irish Urban Speech in Ulster that local Scotch-Irish urban versions of modified standard English “are spoken nowadays not only by the townsfolk, but by educated country dwellers as well. For this very reason they are obviously destined to expand, for with uninterrupted recession of the rural dialects, the regional modified standard language is spreading out from the towns and rapidly encroaching upon the surrounding countryside.”
A similar situation existed for Frisian, the sister language of Lallans. In the 19th century teaching aids for Frisian as a subject were non-existent. In 1907, however, the Provincial Council of Friesland granted subsidies thus enabling the first courses in Frisian for children to be started. These classes, which were run outside normal school hours, did not attract many pupils. In 1924 the Frisian Education Board assumed responsibility for these and other courses and in 1937 it became legally possible for Frisian to be taught as an optional subject. Thanks to the wording of Section 2 of the 1920 Primary Education Act “in those cases where besides Dutch a regional dialect is in active use the subject’s reading in Dutch may include some knowledge of that regional dialect.” Caution precluded Frisian being mentioned by name but all this was changed by the Amendment to the Act in 1955 when the following sentence was included, “In those cases where besides Dutch the Frisian language or a regional dialect is in active use, the curriculum may stipulate that up to the third school year at most the Frisian language or that regional dialect shall also be used as a language medium in schools.” In 1959 the Fryske Akademy established the first educational advisory service in the Netherlands to be fully subsidised by the state. This centre developed a system and paved the way for the production of teaching aids and gave advice to schools which became affiliated to it. In 1974 a further Act of Amendment to the Primary Education Act in Friesland promoted an increase in the use of Frisian as a language medium in all classes. Finally on 1st August, 1980 Frisian was made a compulsory subject. Therefore today while 100% of Frisians are Dutch-speaking, albeit at varying levels, 97% understand Frisian, 83% speak it, 71% speak it at home, 69% can read Frisian, 41%occasionally read a Frisian book, 23% occasionally buy a Frisian book and 31% can write Frisian, 11% well and 20% reasonably well.
In Policies to support Radio and Television broadcasting in the lesser used languages of the European Community (New University of Ulster). Antony Alcock and Terence O’Brien summarised the work of the Fryske Akademy as follows: “(a) linguistic research to prepare a course for the teaching of Frisian in primary school, (b) the provision of materials for teachers and pupils, (c) the design of this programme with a view to its use in utilising a novel low cost form of telecommunications, i.e. teleboard, (d) follow-up studies to test the results and indicate where improvements might be made.” There is therefore much to learn from the Frisian-Dutch Bilingual Primary School system as well as the education system in Wales. There are three types of school in Wales, the first of these is the traditional modern language type of rural Wales, the second Ysgol Gynraeg which originated as a mother language type for small groups of Welsh-speakers in urban areas and the third a bilingual educational project, the Welsh Language School for English-Speaking Children.
The preservation of both Ulster Scots and the Ulster Gaelic must be considered a priority by those who wish to maintain the Ulster identity. Only by the collective will of the Ulster people will either survive. Neither language belongs solely to one or other religious or political “tradition”. Both are indeed under threat by the combined influences of English and Irish nationalisms. Ulster should therefore continue to develop as a centre for both conservation and rediffusion. Co. Antrim is particularly well placed with its continuing Lallans literary tradition. The Gaelic of Co. Antrim has fortunately also been completely described by the Swedish dialectologist Nils H. Holmer in 1942, based on fieldwork undertaken in the thirties. This East Ulster Gaelic shares features with the Gaelic of Fanad, Glenvar, Urris, and other parts of Donegal as well as that of Western Scotland, where the ancient traditions of Ulster were so long preserved.
The people of Rathlin or “Ragheries” interestingly referred to Rathlin as “an tir seo” or “this country” while the mainland was called “Eirinn” or “Ireland”. They were therefore conscious of an older autonomy. Of their language itself Holmer has written: “According to Prof. O’Rahilly (Irish Dialects, p.191), the dialect is ‘essentially a Scottish dialect.’ This will, no doubt, be the opinion of any reader who peruses the preceding pages, especially those dealing with the accidence. If it be admitted that this is a characteristic specimen of Gaelic of the Scottish type, it must not, however, be thought that the difference between the Rathlin dialect and, for instance, that of Kintyre or Arran is approximately the same as between the latter and that of Islay or Skye. Though the distance between Rathlin and the Mull of Kintyre is only about one tenth of the distance between the latter and Skye, the differences are far greater. And, though historically the Rathlin dialect shows closer affinities with Scottish than with Irish Gaelic, the external similarities with the neighbouring Irish dialects are more prominent. This means that a person from Tirconnel would not have very great difficulty in understanding a Rathlin man, while a native speaker from the opposite part of Antrim speaks practically the same language.
The apparent contradiction can be explained in several ways. First of all, the fact that relations with Scotland have been interrupted for over a century must have left its traces in the language. Further, it must be taken into consideration about the Gaelic spoken in opposite parts of Scotland about three hundred years ago (when according to popular tradition the first Scottish settlers arrived) was very different from the present-day dialects of Islay, Kintyre and Arran, and that the Rathlin dialect might be expected to show a number of archaisms. A third very interesting point is whether the Scottish settlers actually came from any of the places mentioned here. There may be some truth in the tradition that the Rathlin people came by the Glens of Antrim. This would mean that the colonization of Rathlin might have been part of the migration westward from Ayrshire and Galloway (which also reached the Isle of Man, cf. O’Rahilly, Irish Dialects, p.117). Some facts which actually point to Ayrshire were mentioned above. In addition, the great difference between the Rathlin dialect and the living Gaelic dialects in Scotland might be more easily explained if it could be assumed that the colonists spoke the Ayrshire dialect of Gaelic, which is now extinct.”
Phonetic texts of East Ulster Gaelic have been published in Heinrich Wagner’s Linguistic Atlas and Survey of Irish Dialects (Dublin 1969) from material selected from 65 texts which he edited as an M.A. thesis, presented at Queen’s University, Belfast in 1962. generous grants towards the work had been made by the Ministry of Education for Northern Ireland and by Queen’s University. The source of his texts was the series of recordings made in 1931 by Professor Wilhelm Dogen in East Ulster (including Irishowen, Co. Donegal and Omeath, Co. Louth). Dogen was then Director of the Lautabteilung of he Preussische Staastsbibliothek in Berlin so that copies of his Ulster recordings are now held in both Queen’s University, Belfast and at the institute fur Phonetik of the Homboldt University in East Berlin. McAdam’s 19th century manuscript dictionary based on Ulster Gaelic is also held for posterity in Queen’s University Belfast.
It has proven highly advantageous to the Ulster people that in Working Documents drawn up between 1979 and 1980 the European Parliament, “Noting that in various regions of Europe movements of ethnic and linguistic minorities are emerging which at times assume forms of frustrated protest and set themselves goals of separation from the national community to which they belong; convinced that such movements reflect legitimate concern for the defences of the heritage, cultural traditions and values which are an integral part of European civilisation,” considered that it was time to draw up a Charter of Rights of Ethnic Minorities which within the European context would satisfy the demands for autonomy which inspire such movements and invited the governments to take appropriate action. The recognition of Ulster-Scots as a language in its own right, and its promotion by the Ullans (Ulster-Scots) Academy has allowed a more complete access to all information regarding our language, history and culture. This will encourage the development of that sense of belonging to Ulster which will help us to cross the religious divide.

Ian Adamson