The Belfast Telegraph has got into the polling gimmick in a big way recently (blame it’s “sister” paper, the Oirish Independent, which positively thrives on them). The results have been mixed to say the least, and there is a lot of criticism both of the methodologies and the interpretations made of the results derived from them. Scepticism seems to be the overwhelming view but here, for what it’s worth, is the latest survey examining opinions on the Irish and English languages in the North of Ireland. Oh, and of course the “Ulster-Scots”, ahem, language:
“The poll shows that there is substantial support for government documents and letters to be issued in Irish and Ulster-Scots as well as English.
…35% of respondents wanted all three languages used with 11% wanting English and Irish (a total of 46% for Irish).
Just 7% wanted English and Ulster-Scots, giving 42% support for Ulster-Scots.
When the 21% who expressed no opinion were taken out of the equation a clear majority of respondents who expressed an opinion want both Irish (58%) and Ulster-Scots (53%) used with only a third of people opting for English alone.
Support was highest in the public sector (66% in favour of Irish and 61% in favour of Ulster-Scots).
According to the 2001 census 167,487 people (10.4% of the population) here claimed “some knowledge” of Irish.
Ulster-Scots wasn’t covered in the census so the most recent estimate was in the 1999 Life and Times survey which found that 2% of respondents claimed to speak the language (about 30,000).”
Interesting, though to be honest I find some of the figures debatable. However the recent survey by the northern Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure titled “Public Attitudes towards the Irish Language in Northern Ireland” which I examined here gave the following figures:
“56% thought that Irish should be offered as an option on documents, leaflets, notices etc. where other languages are offered.
Three-quarters of Catholics (75%) and just over two-fifths of Protestants (41%) said they would like to see Irish offered as a language option in documents, leaflets, notices etc. where other languages are offered.”
As for the Ulster-Scots issue. Well, what can I say that hasn’t already been said by many, many others? In fact I touched upon this thorny subject last year. I examined the origins of “Ulster-Scots” in the local dialect of the English language in the north-east of Ireland which was reinvented as a “national language” in the 1970s by a few crank academics from the British minority in the north-east of the country to give their community a greater sense of “national ethnicity”. They even gave it a brand new name: “Ullans” (which was quickly dropped from “official” use since most people knew just how ridiculous it sounded). Indeed many of these self-same gentlemen also believed in the “secret history of the Ulsterfolk”, a bizarre tangle of 19th century occultism, Protestant religious fundamentalism and Anglophone racial supremacy which preached that the British ethnic community in Ireland were one of the Lost Tribes of Israel.
As the journalist and cogent observer of northern affairs Jason Walsh wrote in 2009:
“‘Some years ago I was employed in a production capacity by an Irish Unionist newspaper and it was here that I first came head-to-head with the bizarre twilight world of Ulster Scots.
… a good friend of mine in the newsroom was responsible for laying-out ‘the Ulster Scot’, a free supplement all about this make-believe lingo.
At the time I thought it was nothing short of hilarious: clearly Unionists were chafing at the sight of the Irish language undergoing a genuine (though frequently overstated) renaissance…
What was the best thing to do about this, pondered Unionist politicians, until one had the astonishingly grandiose idea of actually inventing their own language. Of course, synthetic languages like Loglan and Esperanto are difficult to learn and it’s even harder to persuade people to actually learn the damn things, so in order to facilitate rapid growth the new language of Ulster Scots would be simply the dialect of English spoken in North Antrim with a kind of dyslexic phonetic spelling system and a few inscrutable phrases pilfered from Lowland Scots dialect of English. If Ulster Scots is a language then so are the dialects used in Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’ or James Kelman’s ‘How Late it Was, How Late.’ When BBC Radio Ulster announced, sadly incorrectly, that the Ulster Scots term for mentally disabled children was “wee daftie weans” I almost fell over, so hard was I laughing at the antics of these clowns.”
More recently Frank McNally recorded his encounter with Ulster-Scots in the pages of the Irish Times:
“Anything that leans one way or another in the North is open to suspicion: including, as I mentioned here before, a notorious punctuation mark in the title of the [Ulster-Scots] language agency, the Boord O Ulstèr Scotch.
At a press event promoting the Boord some years ago, I asked – out of genuine curiosity – what the effect of the accent on the E in Ulster was. Whereupon a spokeswoman admitted it had none: “we just thought it looked good”. And so it does. But I couldn’t help noticing that the accent pointed in the opposite direction from the Irish fada, which was hardly accidental.”
Indeed not. An entirely invented language for a less than invented people whose linguistic origins were actually a mix of the Irish, Scottish and English languages. Even the people tasked with its promotion admit, tacitly, that it is all stuff and nonsense. So where is the genuine need for all these Tolkienesque antics? The historic or “ethnic” languages of the British or Ulster-Scots minority in Ireland were Scottish (Scottish Gaelic) and English. Some Unionists have realised that and latterly embraced their Scottish heritage and in doing so have inevitably found themselves confronted by the shared Gaelic identity of Irish and Scottish speakers in both countries. And that is no bad thing.
But for once and for all let us drop the fairy tale of the Ulster-Scots tongue. If origins for its supposed existence can be claimed in Scots or Scots-English (the now developed dialect of English spoken in Scotland) and 17th century Scottish and northern English colonial settlers in Ireland, that existence passed centuries ago. What meagre local differences in English speech that existed in that pre-industrial age quickly faded into the common English tongue of the British colony in Ireland (if they ever existed in the first place). Those who spoke a Borders variant of English adopted “the Queen’s English” while those that were bilingual Scottish-English speakers simply followed suit (though, perhaps, at a lesser pace since a knowledge of Gaelic was actually advantageous to them in dealing with the Native Irish).
Let’s get down to the real language politics of the North of Ireland. And let’s get the promised civil rights legislation for Irish speaking citizens and communities in place.
That is the greatest need of all.