‘Cuimhneachadh air dol fodha an Iolaire’

Some time ago whilst embroiled in a pointless slugger culture riot with a prominent unionist commentator whose aggression extended beyond Irish to all Celtic languages I pointed out that many tens of thousands of British Army soldiers in World War I who went to their deaths in the trenches were not actually native English speakers, indeed many had no knowledge of English at all. This point was not accepted but I was reminded of the exchange whilst reading some news from Scotland.A few days ago, New Years day 2009 marked the 90th anniversary of the loss of the Iolaire which was wrecked on rocks off the Isle of Lewis on the 1st January 1919.

Its cargo was a human one, soldiers returning from the trenches of the ‘Great War’, 205 of 280 on board were lost. Here is the story of the tragedy from the BBC in their native tongue, here in English.

I trust all can accept their sacrifice was no less than any others.

  • Cap’n Bob

    Excellent post.

  • Ulsters my homeland

    I thought the imperialist English occupiers had forced English upon the native Gaels (Irish to some)

  • Harry Flashman

    Very interesting story but may I be allowed a little quibble with the statement;

    “thousands of British Army soldiers in World War I who went to their deaths in the trenches were not actually native English speakers, [b]indeed many had no knowledge of English at all[/b]”

    Does this relate to Imperial troops from overseas? I find it very difficult to believe that any native born soldiers in the British Army in the twentieth century had “no knowledge of English at all”.

    I stand to be corrected.

  • blinding

    The attitude of some to indigenous languages in Britain and Ireland portrays them as cultural philistines.

    Their attacks only serve to reveal their insecurities.
    I fear that they protest too much and so LOUDLY.

    Who are they trying to convince?


  • Gael gan Náire


    Don’t really want a ‘culture debate’ but Wiki has some good info.


    Dewi might be along to help us with Welsh but monolgotism survived (survives Dewi?) on a much larger scale than in Scotland.

    Of course, under the British Nationality Act, one is not required to know English to qualify as a citizen, Scottish Gaelic or Welsh will suffice.

  • Greenflag

    HF ,

    ‘I stand to be corrected.’

    You can also sit down 😉 It’s more comfortable .

    Many of the Scottish soldiers who died in WW1 would have been born in the 1880’s and 1890’s . Their mothers would have been born in the 1850’s and 1860’s . I recall a Scottish friend from the islands who is now in his fifties telling me that his mother had very little ‘english’ and could not hold a proper conversation with anybody in English . She could however converse very well with a Donegal Irish speaker in Scots gaelic .

    As long as soldiers in WW1 could say Yes Sir -No Sir -three bags full sir that was about as much as they needed to qualify as cannon fodder . It was not considered necessary to converse other than follow the certifiably insane orders of the Generals safely ensconced 40 miles behind the front lines . The job at hand was to kill . Conversation is an impediment to this task . When people start talking to the ‘enemy’ they are apt to discover that the ‘f***ers ‘ are fellow human beings .

    Does anybody know if Israelis have ears ? or are they just continuing to see what they don’t hear and vice versa ?

  • Glencoppagagh

    I’m sure that thousands of WWI servicemen did not have English as their first language but “indeed many had no knowledge of English at all” is a bit hard to credit.
    It’s possible that there may have been Welsh-speaking units with Welsh-speaking officers but I very much doubt that it applied to Scottish or Irish units.
    I stand to be corrected on this but I believe that in the Gaelic heartland of Western Isles, probably due to their seafaring background, the Navy was the preferred service but I can’t imagine that there would have been any vessel where Gaelic was the working language.

  • Greenflag

    Gael gan Naire

    ( Unashamed Gael?)

    Thanks for the link . I could read only about 80% of it as my Irish is a bit rusty 😉

    IIRC -Scots lost more people as a percentage of their population in WW1 than English , Irish or Welsh . I would guess that Scots Gaelic speakers would have lost more in relative terms as a linguistic group than Scots ‘english ‘ speakers simply die to the fact of high military enlistment from the highland areas of Scotland in which there was not much economic opportunity .

  • Dewi

    8.5% Welsh population monoglot in 1911 – this skewed toward the very young obviously but for people of “fighting age”:

    15-25 – 4.6% monoglot
    25-45 – 6.2% monoglot
    45-65 – 12.6% monoglot

    At a fairly broad brush calculation that would mean about 100,000 people in this category – half female – rest draftable. I,m not up on reserved occupatons during WW1 – but say half were not called leaving something like 25,000 monoglot Welsh speakers in the service….some guesswork there – too much really – I’ll try and find something more solid…

  • lorraine

    good post fellow Gale, and in keeping with the solemnity of the post i will avoid comment on the sectarian ravings of the new village idiot of slugger..

    i remember visiting eilean donan castle and behind the castle is a war memorial to those who fell in the first world war and at first i didn’t notice until my guide pointed out that ALL the names were mc crea: every single name on that memorial was a mc crea, the local clan.

    anybody who has ever visitied that part of the world will be aware of the sublime beauty and tranquility of the place: the castle at the intersection of three beautiful, placid lochs and the profusion of trees stretching up the hills and mountains.

    i remember standing and absorbing the magic of the place while simultaneously thinking to myself: what a loss, what a bloody loss, so many young men plucked out of the highlands and sent to the mud trenches of france to die in a futile war over imperialism.

  • Dewi

    Ahh Lorraine – spent a wonderful fortnight in the highlands and on Skye five years ago – glorious views and history wonderful.

    Eilean Donan One of four inhabited islands on Skye with one inhabitant…

  • Dewi

    Sorry – I meant four inhabited islands in “Scotland” not “Skye”

  • Harry Flashman

    “in keeping with the solemnity of the post i will avoid comment on the sectarian ravings of the new village idiot of slugger..”

    Do tell, to whom do you refer?

  • Gael gan Náire


    I remember seeing a film years ago with a young Welsh poet going to War – He won the Eistedfodd but got killed before he found out, the film featured a number of incidents with monoglot Welsh speakers.

    What was it called I wonder?

  • Gael gan Náire

    Hedd Wyn?

  • frustrated democrat

    Why does a lack of interest in minority languages make one a philistine, any more than a lack of interest in the OO.

    I have no interest in Irish, Scots Irish (or whatever it is called) or the OO. I grew up in an area where Scots Irish or, English with a funny accent and a few different words thrown in, was the local means of communication so I understand it fairly well. The OO was something everyone was either directly or indirectly involved in so I understand it as well.

    However I have no interest in either or in Irish, there are more imporant things for me to be interested in than things which mean nothing and are going nowhere.

    Everyone to their own as long as I don’t have to pay for it with my taxes.

  • Ulsters my homeland

    ‘in keeping with the solemnity of the post i will avoid comment on the sectarian ravings of the new village idiot of slugger..’

    “[i]Do tell, to whom do you refer?”[/i]

    Could be me, but who cares. She said in a previous post “[u]what takes place on slugger is dialogue. we are allowed to hold opinions and beliefs and express them.[/u]”[/i]

    obviously the new village idiot is denied his opinions and beliefs, lol.

  • Gael gan Náire


    Actually, whilst I pegged the story onto Slugger, I did not intend a ‘minority language’ discussion, unfortunately, whatever you put up there people seem to proceed to one of 4-5 preset consersations, only occasionnaly going somewhere interesting.

    Follow the links to the story I tried to highlight.

  • frustrated democrat


    My post was a response to blinding at 12:08.

  • dewi

    It was Hedd Wyn – nominated for an Oscar IIRC – subject of one of the most famous poems in Welsh.

    Trawsfynydd tros ei feini – trafeiliast ar foelydd Eryri
    Troedio wnest ei rhedyn hi.
    Hunaist ymhell ohoni.

    From the slates of Trawsfynydd -you traipsed Snowdonia’s mountains
    You trod through its ferns
    But sleep afar.
    (My rubbish translation – I’m giving Welsh poetry a bad name)

    He won the chair in Birkenhead (Penbedw). On announcing the victor a black shroud was placed on the chair.

    on topic I can’t find any stronger data I’m afraid but the numbers must have been in the tens of thousands.
    My grandfather’s brother (died about 1974) was monoglot. Once or twice a year in the seventies Wales Today would have to translate inetrviews with elderly monoglots. Nowadays only really the under fives would be monoglot.

  • dewi

    I should have added he was killed in Flanders between submitting his composition and winning…

  • finches

    You make a good point about Gaelic speaking soldiers, Gael. The TUV may think that the Irish language is ‘anathema to our English, British culture’ but historically many British soldiers would have used that tongue for their first language. During WW1, Ireland, then an integral part of the UK, had many monoglot Gaelic speakers (who were of course all British citizens), as did Scotland. Likewise many Welsh people knew very little or no English at all. Perhaps the numbers of monoglots fighting in WW1 mightn’t have been so very high, but certainly there would have been many Irish soldiers who would have used it as their first language and many of those would have had a weak command of English (if any at all). The Legitimist alliance with the French that had existed since the Flight of the Wild Geese broke down after the Revolution, particularly with the dissolution of the Irish Brigade, and Irish soldiers joined the British army in their thousands. The Gaelic phrase “Fá(ugh)g a ballagh” remains the motto of the Royal Irish Regiment. Historically Gaelic speakers have made a far greater contribution to British society and culture than anything the TUV or indeed the DUP have ever done.

  • a fried of mine from Lewis who is a native gaelic speaker said that her grandfatehr who enlisted for WW1 was a monoglot gaelic speaker (as were all of his village).
    By that time it was only outlying villages with little contact or commerce with Stornoway that would have had monoglot gaelic speaking men of military age.

  • Dewi

    Some substance:

    280,000 Welsh people served in WW1. Applying a % of 6.2% (the monoglot % for those aged 25-45) that gives about 17,000 monoglots who fought.

  • Danny

    As far as the Irish language is concerned, the 1901 census recorded a little under 21,000 monoglots. This represented 0.5% of the total population. Irish speakers as a whole represented 14% of the population.

    The total for the 1911 census was 12,000 monoglots.

  • Danny

    Forgot to mention…the majority of these monoglots were concentrated in the coastal and island communities of south Conamara and Oileáin Árann.

    Enlistment in Connacht was considerably lower than elsewhere in Ireland.