[This post has been provoked by this one, by Ian James Parsley]
Before I embark on this short essay, sure to find no more than a single other in agreement, let me tell you of an encounter I had in Ballymena a number of years ago.
One evening, having given on talk on the Gaelic of the Antrim Glens, now extinct save for the song Airde Chuain being a regular party piece amongst Irish speakers today, I encounter a gentleman from the town, himself an Irish speaker.
He naturally, spoke with a local accent compelling me to inquire if he could he speak Ulster-Scots, he replied that he could not, being from “the wrong end of the town,” the other end being Ulster-Scots speaking in his youth.
He informed me that he could understand Ulster-Scots and that he believed that few could speak the tongue today.
He related how, whilst he worked with the Forestry Commission, back in 1960s that he would often be called apoun to act an interpreter!
The Belfast bosses being unable to understand the Scots speech of his fellow workers, whilst he of course could.
But you ask, did he not have a Ballymena accent, therefore, is that not Ulster-Scots?
Since the ‘Good Friday Agreement’, much of the debate around Ulster-Scots has centred around its position with regards to the Irish language, incredibly with little reference to its relationship with English.
Some politicians, notably, Nelson McCausland and Lord Laird demand equality with the Irish language – ‘pound for pound equality’.
‘Pound for Pound’ is in my view not practical but with regards to the principle, my opinion has always been, “fadhb ar bith” – no problem.
Recently, in an online debate with Ian Parsley, the politician and Ulster-Scots activist, I have discovered that not all Ulster-Scots activists agree with the McCausland / Laird view.
Parsley being of the opinion that Ulster-Scots as a tongue is simply not in the developed position that Irish is and therefore that this type of ‘equality’ with Irish is not possible.
Many would suspect that Minister McCausland and Lord Laird would agree with this. However, I would think that they would therefore assert that provisions for the Irish language should therefore be restricted.
In my experience, most Irish speakers would hold that suspicion.
Unfortunately, I must report that in recent years the attitude of Irish speakers to Ulster-Scots has deterioted. Once open minds now closed save for an enlightened few.
The is now no discernible difference between the attitude of Irish speakers and the those of the majority monoglot English speaking majority. It is my view, that this is unfortunate.
Interestingly, I have noticed that some Sinn Féin figures have voiced support for an Ulster-Scots GCSE (perhaps mischievously, perhaps not) whereas Ian Parsley has spoken strongly against – even going so far as to state that such a development would be “dangerous.”
I believe that ultimately, ones attitude to Ulster-Scots, Ulster-Scots and education etc and to as to the stage of development of Ulster-Scots rests on what one defines as Ulster-Scots.
Therein lies the root of the problem.
I confess that my knowledge is unscientific, despite my efforts I have been unable to source academic resources on the current status of Ulster-Scots, my knowledge is based on some limited field work and my knowledge as a journalist.
Some claim that Ulster-Scots is the language of hundreds of thousands, if this is the case then of course, I would think that getting the language onto the school curriculum and formalizing examinations etc and of course, Ulster-Scots medium education would be a priority.
If on the other hand, Ulster-Scots is moribund and we are in a revivalist situation, then Parsley’s points are valid.
So where does the truth lie?
My observations lead me to the following conclusions:
There are hundreds of thousands of people who speak a dialect of Ulster-English influenced by Ulster-Scots.
This is sometimes thought of as Ulster-Scots, it is not.
There are tens of thousands of people who speak a dialect of Ulster-English quite influenced by Ulster-Scots. This is this speech that one hears in Ulster-Scots broadcasting.
This is often thought of as Ulster-Scots, it is not.
The perception of the pair above colour the public perception of Ulster-Scots, negatively.
There are however, a number of people, perhaps no more than a handful, who can speak a dialect of Scots in Ulster.
This is Ulster-Scots.
If my perceptions are correct then Parsley’s assertions have some validity, but if the linguistic situation is much stronger than I perceive then perhaps his fears are unjustified.
I would point out that I refer in no part, to the artificial written language known as Ullans, I refer merely to vernacular speech.
Ian Parsley has stated : “The fact there has been zero progress linguistically, despite millions of our money being thrown at it for more than a decade.”
This point is obvious.
In my work as a journalist, I have investigated the subject of Ulster-Scots teaching.
I found that Ulster-Scots is not (according to the Boord a’ Ulster Scotch themselves) taught in any school or apparently anyway else aside from one group in South Antrim.
This article was accompanied by an editorial calling for support for Ulster-Scots, which aside from the obvious, good well, called for a ‘tape’ survey, a linguistic atlas, language teaching materials etc., (as opposed to hats, papers in English etc.).
Unfortunately, the possibility of my own journalistic short-comings taken into account. the story lacked impact as people were simply unwilling to engage with the subject.
Few read beyond the first line. Ulster-Scots does not exist, end of.
I find it saddening that some people simultaneously dismiss Ulster-Scots as simply English, yet difficult to understand, not existing and yet harsh and ugly at the same time.
You can’t claim both.
You cannot cite a host of words, declare them ugly, strange and indecipherable and simultaneously declare that they do not exist.
That is simply prejudice triumphing over reason.
Most people today believe that Ulster-Scots simply does not exist. My experiences and knowledge indicate to me that that is not true. But that is unlikely to change anyone’s view.
But I would remind people, and Irish speakers in particular, that some unionists simply do not believe that the Irish language exists.
That may seem ridiculous, but the parallel is obvious.
I have met people in the Loyalist / Unionist community who believe that Eamon de Valera actually invented the Irish language personally. I have met highly educated Unionists who believe that the Irish language was essentially invented by the Irish Free State, drawn from long extinct medieval Irish.
Now, does that second scenario not remind you of Ullans?
And there lies the problem, I see the (official) Ulster-Scots movement as representing a reflection of how the Unionist community sees the Gaelic revival movement.
I believe that it is for this reason the the Ulster-Scots Agency has been led to essentially abandon Ulster-Scots speech to its fate.
Perhaps, it should be insisted that the Ulster-Scots agency ulster-scotticise itself and use Ulster-Scots as its working language, just as Foras na Gaeilge operate solely in Irish?
Why have I picked on Irish speakers specifically?
Frankly, I would expect a little more understanding from Irish speakers for Ulster-Scots speakers than I would from English speakers in Ireland.
Ironically, I see a scenario where Gaelic speakers could be the most interested in Ulster-Scots. We do have the much of the expertise required.
Féach chomh maith.
Freelance journalist, working mostly in Irish.
Have my own independent news website – antuairisceoir.com – which is in constant need of material.
I am the former editor of the newspaper GaelscÃ©al, www.gaelsceal.ie