War of the sharpened tongues

AS part of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 Northern Ireland’s Irish language enthusiasts were promised legislation and a commissioner to protect and promote its usage. They are still waiting and have been treated with ‘total disrespect’ according to the Republic’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney. Indeed some unionists in the Northern Ireland Assembly show open contempt for Irish, which they associate with republicans and nationalists, and have cut funding to support organisations. They ignore the fact that most of our place names and many of our family names have their origins in Irish and it is the language of some of Europe’s oldest literature including the 12th century Scél Mucci Mic Dathó. The big year in the war of the sharpened tongues was 2007 when a dispute over whether the city should be Londonderry or, in Irish Doire, went to the High Court in Belfast. Irish is an official language of the European Union and the national language of the Republic but remains a neglected and abused casualty of Northern Ireland’s conflict.

No one knows how the first Stone Age settlers spoke, though they left their Ogham writing on standing stones, and the Celts who followed in the Bronze Age brought a variety of Goidelic languages. Christian settlers added Latin, the language of a scholarly faith, around 500AD. The Vikings brought Old Norse at the end of the first millennium. French, the language of the king’s court, was added with the arrival of Norman invaders in the early Middle Ages. Irish had asserted itself among all classes by the late Middle Ages. Colonists in the Elizabethan, Jacobean and Cromwellian periods brought modern English. It was accompanied by Scots, a sister language to English but with its own distinct words and patterns of speech. The poet Seamus Heaney paid tribute to the Ulster-Scots of his south Derry childhood in the poem, A Birl for Burns, in 2008. The Irish language plunged into almost terminal decline in the 19th century and was spoken as a first language in only the isolated western communities by 1950. Scots too struggled to survive in the face of relentless pressure on young people to speak and write English. Immigration has brought significant numbers of Polish, Portuguese, Lithuanian and Cantonese speakers to our shores. Stranmillis Primary School in Belfast received an International School Award from the British Council in 2007 because its pupils spoke in 20 different languages.

Languages overlap and enrich each other. Every year new words are added to the Oxford English Dictionary, instigated by the Archbishop of Dublin Richard Chevenix Trench in 1855, and other terms fall out of usage or change meaning. The same word can mean different things to different people. Never tell an American you are going outside to smoke a fag. English is full of words from other tongues and there are dozens of varieties around the world. The British Conservative party takes its name from the Irish word for an outlaw, tórai. The first Irish dictionary appeared in 1662 and was the work of a monk called Richard Plunkett. Modern Irish also has many variations. Munster Irish and Ulster Irish are different and differ again from the Irish learned by republicans imprisoned during the Troubles – purists refer to it as ‘Jailtacht.’ There are many modern words which Irish borrows from English. You might use the teileafón to call the dochtúir about the coróinvireas. It has also borrowed from Ulster-Scots. Craic, which means having a good time, comes from crack which the concise Scots Dictionary defines as to ‘converse’ or ‘gossip’.

Etymologist and lexicographer Diarmaid O Muirithe wrote beautifully about the richness of our speech in Ireland and traced the origin of many everyday words that often bamboozle the visitor. The linguist and humorist, Brian O’Nolan, wrote a column in The Irish Times which launched his career. Among the first pieces in 1947 was a wonderfully comic sketch about an Englishman, a Dubliner and a Belfastman conversing on the streets of Dublin. The Englishman asked where he might get a bus to Blackrock but the trio, though they speak the same language, are unable to understand each other. Eventually the visitor gives up in frustration and crosses the road to a bus stop. He is run over by the bus to Blackrock. O’Nolan became more famous using the pen-names Flann O’Brien and Myles na Gopaleen.

I am lucky enough to have been to the European parliament to witness how civilised people can communicate with respect for each other’s languages and dialects. The signatories to the 1998 Belfast Agreement promised to “recognise the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity including the Irish language, Ulster-Scots and the languages of the ethnic communities, all of which are part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland.”


The Northern Ireland Executive’s failure to legislate for Irish speaking is shameful. I cannot speak Irish but I am old enough to have heard it spoken as a first language and have friends who are fluent. I was raised by a family familiar with the Ulster-Scots of Seamus Heaney’s south Derry and defend it from those who sneer or hi-jack it for political purposes. I believe it is important to help both these old tongues survive and to show respect for all the languages and dialects now spoken in modern Ireland. They must not be allowed to become casualties of our spite-fuelled politics. They are a valuable heritage and as much a part of European Culture as the music of Mozart, the art of Picasso and the poetry of Heaney. They threaten nobody, add much to our understanding of our forebears and are an asset for the future.

Scottish Gaelic and Welsh, which are sister tongues of Irish, are protected by legislation in Britain. Ulster-Scots and Ulster-Irish must not be allowed to go the way of Cornish, Manx and Breton which are extinct or endangered.

Fair fa’ ye freens, agus sláinte mo cairde.


© Maurice Neill 2020



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