Wednesday, 22 December 2010
The News Letter had an interesting editorial on townland names recently, which shows how supportive even staunch Unionists can be.
In it, the fact that the vast majority of such names are of Gaelic origin is neatly skirted around. Instead, we are told that "A townland, or bally — in Ulster language — is a small division of land used in rural parts of the British Isles". "Bally" is of course the Irish baile, used in all provinces of the island. Moreover, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "townland" in Great Britain has very different meanings, in Anglo-Saxon England referring to the land forming a tún or manor and in Scotland to the enclosed or infield land belonging to a ferm toun — hardly direct equivalents. Nevertheless, the Blether Region welcomes the interest shown and is consequently reluctant to criticise.
Where criticism is warranted, on the other hand, is the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure's decision to axe the Northern Ireland Place-Name Project at Queen's University, surely an example of the sort of initiative that can attract unembarrassed support from Unionists and play a diplomatic role for the Irish language as a whole.
The more cynical will conclude that it was for just that reason that it had to go.
The Scottish media report that BBC Alba, the Gaelic-language television service hitherto limited to satellite and Internet broadcasting, is to appear on Freeview from May or June next year, replacing a bundle of BBC digital radio stations during broadcasting hours.
Unfortunately, that spectacularly misnamed anti-Scottish newspaper the Scotsman headlined its coverage "BBC ALBA television knocks radio stations off Freeview". Unlike its rival the Herald, it did not even bother to report when the change would occur, from which one might infer that it believes none of its readers would be interested in watching (odd for a newspaper that — fair play to it — carries a Gaelic column).
The news follows hot on the heels of confirmation that TG4 would be carried on Freeview in Northern Ireland "ahead of 2012" (the Irish News reads this as being 2011). No doubt pressure will follow for BBC Irish-language programming to switch too, a move that would effectively create the first cross-border television station.
Monday, 20 December 2010
Brian Walker gives an interesting mention to John Laird's new autobiography over at Slugger O'Toole.
While conceding that Laird is "beyond caricature to some" (the comments following his post contain the obligatory "buffoon"), Walker believes that he "captures the essence of a neglected cause".
There is the odd liberal barb to his equanimity, however, as when he reports Laird's belief that the Ulster Scots are "still quite distinct from the Irish after 400 years". A further, perhaps more pertinent question might be whether that people, who once existed, could have remained separate from their fellow Protestants among the Ulster English for such a time. If not, then current attempts to rediscover Ulster-Scots identity begin to look more like an elective interest on the part of a Unionist fringe, with the only common denominators not blood or ethnic tradition but not-an-inch politics and loopy evangelicalism (Laird self-identifies with neither). Perhaps it is partly for this reason that "in the wider unionist community the claims of the Scottish tradition have limited appeal".
The peer caused a good deal of controversy during his convenership (to use a suitable Scots word) of the Ulster-Scots Agency, a time when taxpayers North and South were expected to pick up the tab for long-distance taxi fares, including one from Belfast to Dublin. His later resignation came when he put his own money into a musical also in receipt of a grant from the agency, apparently not as an investment but in a well-intentioned attempt to ensure that it went ahead. Both these episodes show that Laird, who had enjoyed a successful career with his eponymous PR firm, struggled to adapt to the necessity of keeping public and private separate. At times his silly-season pronouncements on Northern Ireland language politics seemed like examples of the philosophy that "all publicity is good publicity"; his expenses claims evoked the suspicion that Ulster Scots was merely "our own gibberish", a flag of convenience, a confessional cash cow. At the time, one friend of the Blether Region working to promote Irish even theorised that, while a conventional minority-languages development curve might lead from activism through diplomacy to career, Ulster Scots had cut out the middle part.
Laird also used his bad-good publicity to attack Irish, which sowed more doubts. At huge cost to the taxpayer, he asked "hundreds of trivial parliamentary questions". Ten years ago, some people thought that he was doing it in order to effect a change of personnel (and consequently religion) among the senior civil servants at the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure with whom the agency had to work.
The philosophical renewal implicit in Laird's journey from taxi passenger to musical impresario, high-class sponger to social entrepreneur, shows that, by the end of his tenure at the Ulster-Scots Agency, he had internalised his own Ulster-Scots PR. But it came late in the day.
Only time will tell for what he will be remembered.
Thursday, 16 December 2010
Squinter of the Andersonstown News has an interesting take on Belfast City Council's penchant for funding travel to Nashville, Tennessee as part of the burgeoning Ulster-Scots industry. The writer quite reasonably points out that there are far more people in the United States, Nashville included, who acknowledge an Irish ethnic tradition than an Ulster-Scots one.
That doesn't mean that the Ulster Scots were never there, of course — just that they no longer exist as a recognisable group. As the academic Patrick R. Ireland states in a study available on the Web, "none of the three case countries, the U.S. included, bears witness to a coherent, identifiable Irish Protestant political legacy".
And there are obvious similarities, for example, the brand of evangelicalism prevalent in the United States and Northern Ireland, something that serves to delineate both polities from Europe — including, nowadays, Scotland. As one liberal Northern Ireland politician put it to the Blether Region: "People in America are even nicer than people in Northern Ireland, and even madder too."
Just as professional Ulster Scots are doing their best to soup up the three-wheeled wagon of the traditional dialect into a fully fledged language, they have enthusiastically embraced the paradigm of an evangelical nation spanning the Atlantic. One case in question is the Southron Liberation Media News Network. Its website reports in detail on the work of David Kerr, who as well as for a time being the Northern Ireland face of the National Front is an Ulster nationalist and the former pastor of LOL 1303, the British Israelite lodge founded by Tara's William McGrath and of which Clifford Smyth was a prominent member.
While the contemporary United States, Northern Ireland, British Israelism, the Orange Order, Ulster nationalism and Ulster Scots may be difficult to connect for the academic, for the biographer it can be easy enough.
Sunday, 12 December 2010
The report of the Ministerial Working Group on the Scots Language to which so many of us have been looking forward is now available, and it contains many good things. Unfortunately, however, the only mention of "Ulster" in its 29 pages is an erroneous reference to "BBC Ulster" (i.e. BBC Northern Ireland). There is no talk of shared linguistic heritage, nor of economies of scale. While it is true that activism on this side of the Sheuch has taken a bizarre path linguistically, and one often tinged with a sectarian politics that Scotland — which has its own, much smaller problem — rightly wishes to avoid, it is sad that there is no discussion of east-west links.
However, the report's authors have more to worry about than that, since it has already been the subject of attack from the English Tory press in the form of the Daily Telegraph. Bizarrely, one of the Torygraph's quibbles is the wish expressed in the report to promote Scots alongside Gaelic and English as one of three indigenous languages of Scotland. The journalist appears oblivious to how tolerant that position is. After all, if Scots is a language, English is hardly indigenous.
Saturday, 11 December 2010
Friday, 10 December 2010
The Belfast Telegraph has an interesting online exhibition of political posters at the moment, one of which is this gem. Clicking on the image will reveal a larger version, at the bottom of which one sees that the definite article has been respelt as "tha". On the poster itself, that innovation has been reversed. Obviously either too much for the politicians or too confusing for the printers.
But enough of the carping. Can anyone think of Scots being used in this way in Scotland?
Monday, 6 December 2010
The BBC reports that Ian Paisley Junior has called for Ballymena to become a city to mark the Queen's sixtieth anniversary on the throne in 2012. In 2002, readers will recall, five cities across the UK were granted city status to mark her Golden Jubilee, one each in England, Scotland and Wales, and two in Northern Ireland, one Protestant (Lisburn) and one Catholic (Newry).
The creation of two cities in Northern Ireland was particularly controversial because there were absolutely no obvious candidates. It should be patent to most folk that, in the common understanding of the term "city" (as in the German Großstadt) — i.e., cathedrals and universities notwithstanding — there is only one city in Northern Ireland: Belfast, and a middling one at that. It would have been far more sensible to remove the title of city from Derry/Londonderry, which is merely a large town; such a step would have had the useful side-effect of neutering the raucous disagreements about its name.
Historically, such hubris has not been limited to the granting of city status. When, in the 1920s, Westminster decided to gift the old Unionist-dominated Parliament of Northern Ireland a permanent home, the local Government enthusiastically took up the offer. The fact that the money ran out before the original plans could be realised is nowadays memorialised in the application of the plural term "Parliament Buildings" to a single edifice, albeit an incongruously grand one.
And, of course, in the field of linguistics there is "the Ulster-Scots language", although local activists are only partly to blame for that. Their Scottish counterparts rightly viewed treating Scots as a language as the first step in its becoming one (again). Unfortunately, the subtleties of language planning eluded that nation's civil servants, who saw the official recognition of Scots as a language as a cost-free alternative to having a policy on it. Eventually, their Northern Ireland counterparts followed suit, in the erroneous understanding that terming Ulster Scots a language was equally plausible, despite the fact of its being barely distinguishable from mainstream Scots in Scotland.
That fatal mistake has set the scene for the continuing failures in public policy on the dialect, to which one might compare attempting to build a spanking neo-classical building such as Stormont on top of foundations that, quite apart from urgently needing to be secured, are only a small fraction of the required size.
Far better if we all came clean on Ulster Scots and set to work researching, collecting, transcribing and recording what there is of it. At one estimate there are 70 volumes of weaver poetry, yet 11 years after the creation of the Ulster-Scots Agency they are still not available in Internet transcription. And the huffing and puffing about language status continues.
It is time that we paid less attention to altering perceptions — and more to altering objective reality.
Thursday, 2 December 2010
A friend of the Blether Region kindly typed in Tony Blair's comments on Ulster Scots from his autobiography, which we here reproduce. The action, as if we needed reminding, takes place during the negotiations leading to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.
"Now you might think that co-operation on these two issues [trade protection and the Irish language] would be relatively uncontentious. In fact the Unionists screeched to a halt. It turned out there was some obscure language called Ullans, a Scottish dialect spoken in some parts of Ulster which was the Unionists' equivalent of the Irish Langauge. By this time nothing surprised me. They could have suggested siting the Assembly on Mars and I would have started to draft options.
Everyone was now tired and fractious. I had an awful meeting with Bertie [Ahern] and David Trimble, in which Bertie did not take quite the same relaxed view of the importance of Ullans as I did, suggesting that maybe David would like to speak some of the 'fecking thing' so we could hear what it sounded like; and David taking umbrage at the idea that the dialect was a Unionist invention, explaining solemnly and at length the Scottish roots of Ullans with all the sensitivity of a landowner talking to a village idiot."
The book then details how Alastair Campbell made clear to his boss "if I thought he was now going to tell the world's media that contrary to what he had told them earlier, we had failed to secure an agreement after all because of a Scottish dialect called Ullans, and so the war in Northern Ireland would go on, such an announcement, on his part, was more than a tad unlikely."
Make it so, as they say on Star Trek.
Yesterday the BBC reported the results of DUP MLA Trevor Clarke's probing into the translation costs of Northern Ireland's devolved Departments: a combined total of less than £200,000 over the last three years for Irish and Scots.
Given that Irish has had Part III status under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages since 1999, one could be forgiven for asking why this figure isn't much higher. Part of the reason is that Caitríona Ruane (whom the BBC Scotticises as Catriona) took the sensible step of employing two in-house translators, mainly to cater for the growing Gaelscoil sector.
As far as Ulster Scots goes, translations of public documents might not be where academic language planners would start, and there are still considerable questions regarding quality, authenticity, demand and communicative value, but it would be difficult to argue that there is no case whatsoever to be made for the very modest level of official translation taking place.
Needless to say, that is not the attitude expressed by the DUP Assemblyman who tabled the question, although even he admits that the amount is "small, in terms of the total budget" (in fact, according to Northern Bank analysts, the Northern Ireland block grant is currently in the region of £9.3 billion).
Another comparison that one could make is with the cost of asking Assembly Questions about departmental translations. Each Assembly Question costs in the region of £500 to answer. Mr. Clarke's information about the Department of Education, for example, came from two questions, AQW 2079/11, which asked about costs only, and AQW 2082/11, which requested a list of documents translated. If he asked the same two questions of each of the 12 Northern Ireland Departments, the total bill could be as high as £12,000 (2 x 12 x £500), which would cover half a year's salary for one of Caitríona Ruane's Irish-language staff officers.
Nor is Mr. Clarke the only MLA tabling such questions. Indeed, it is perfectly conceivable that, for some Departments and some years, the cost of answering questions about translation will actually be higher than the cost of translating and publishing the documents that forms the questions' subject-matter.
Which brings us to an interesting conclusion. Since commentators are agreed that there are too many MLAs at Stormont, and since there is no real prospect of agreement on reducing their number, one way in which taxpayers' money might be saved is by the imposition of a limit on the number of questions that an MLA might ask. That limit would of course be set generously high, perhaps as a multiple of the average among Assembly Members. And there would be nothing to prevent MLAs pooling their ration; they already co-operate by sharing backroom services and pairing with opposite numbers for votes. Such a policy might actually work to the benefit of some of the less active Members.
The ultimate aim, however, would be to curtail vexatious enquiries of this kind.
As for Mr. Clarke's questions, the Blether Region hopes that they go on to form part of a dossier of evidence in support of a language Act. In the face of such prejudice, which thinks nothing of wasting scarce public resources in an attempt to damage Irish (and undo the UK's settled will in the form of its European Charter declaration), it is becoming ever clearer that the oldest autochthonous language of Northern Ireland needs legislative protection.
Sunday, 28 November 2010
Last Monday saw another round of Assembly Questions to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure in Parliament Buildings. There were no surprise changes to the expected reiteration of positions that we have become used to. The Blether Region's chief reaction echoes Declan O'Loan's comment that the non-appearance of a languages strategy is now no longer acceptable — or, to use different words, beyond a joke.
Nelson McCausland never fails to impress with his astonishingly divergent interpretation of what constitutes fair play, something summed up in comments such as the following:
"The development of a single strategy for both languages is designed to highlight both our shared heritage and the desire to strive towards parity between the languages."
So the Minister is brilliant at talking the talk but not at walking the walk. What next? Well, one point to consider is what happens after May. We have to remember that it is fundamentally not in the DUP's interest to spend money on an Ulster-Scots Academy, since it will play extremely badly with its culturally sceptical voters, perhaps even worse than with Nationalists, many of whom have internalised a minority-languages discourse and can see the point in extending support to the dialect, albeit only as such. So the DUP needs out, and Sinn Féin, which has been taking a good deal of stick from Irish-language activists, needs in.
One such activist told the Blether Region yesterday that, back in 1998, the UUP had chosen DCAL in order to prevent Sinn Féin having both Education and Culture. If one were to reverse that scenario and Sinn Féin took Culture this time round, one might expect the DUP to opt for Education, especially since many of the more middle-class types who have given it their vote since the signing of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement are angry at Caitríona Ruane's policy on grammar schools.
The trouble with that is that the party could conceivably do even more damage to Irish than it has done at DCAL. After all, many aspects of language promotion are served through spill-over from the South or a direct line from Westminster, but not funding for Irish-medium education. If the DUP were in charge of Education, at a minimum one might expect it not to fund new Gaelscoileanna. More worrying would be what might happen if the funding for existing Gaelscoileanna were withdrawn. As the most insularly Protestant manifestation of Unionism that manages to get elected in any substantial fashion, the DUP is not aware, or chooses not to believe, that people on the other side have any genuine interest in Irish. And withdrawal of funding would put a particularly emotive form of pressure on Nationalist participation in the Executive.
The above seems more likely than what for Irish would be the dream scenario of Sinn Féin becoming the largest party in the Assembly and then using that status to negotiate the passage of a language Act as the price for changing the rules to let the DUP retain the post of First Minister.
As for Ulster Scots, well, a change in personnel at DCAL would no doubt spare the dialect the indignity of an Ulster-Scots Academy, but whether it would actually result in any great revival in its fortunes is moot.
Saturday, 27 November 2010
The BBC has launched a new Ulster-Scots website. Recognising the limited resources available for broadcasting in Scots (or Irish, for that matter), a website seems a sensible way of maximising bang for one's buck — and it's an attractive affair.
While one could perhaps take issue with some of the material on it — the lip-service paid to the extravagant notion that there is an "Ulster-Scots language", the inexplicable interest in America, the children's stories about Saint Patrick (remember Cross of Saint Patrick LOL 688, anyone?) — much of it merely reflects the obsessions of local activists, and it would be churlish not to welcome what looks set to establish itself as first port of call for those with an interest in the dialect. The list of Ulster-Scots organisations looks particularly useful.
There is also a good deal of material for learners. Commenting with tongue firmly in cheek, one friend of the Blether Region wrote:
"I like the frequent mention of 'Ulster-Scots' words. I am familiar with most all of them from Fife and Angus. Good to know the 'Ulster-Scots' language is alive and well in those areas. I have a suspicion 'Ulster-Scots' is also widely used elsewhere in Scotland."
Friday, 26 November 2010
Last Tuesday saw a well-attended lunch in the Park Avenue Hotel under the auspices of the Ullans Academy. Blogger Alan in Belfast over at Slugger O'Toole had the following to say about the organisers:
"As far as I can tell, the Ullans Academy is very much on the liberal wing of the innumerable organisations that represent and promote Ulster Scots culture. It points to shared culture and history, from Scotland and throughout Ireland. It's not hung up on equality or parity, and it's about inclusion rather than exclusion."
The last sentence quoted surely makes oblique reference to the other wing of the contemporary Ulster-Scots movement, which promotes a black-and-white, zero-sum view of the world that finds its most influential advocate in the current Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland — whose conspicuous absence Alan remarks upon.
It is clearly a nonsense to strive for equality between Irish and Ulster Scots, since the former is a language, even vis-à-vis Scottish Gaelic, and the latter is an only slightly differentiated dialect of a half-language — one that, except as a cant with no native speakers, lacks even the potential to be a language in its own right.
Indeed, it is a nonsense even to accord Ulster Scots parity of esteem with Irish.
That is not to say that there should not be parity of esteem, and equality of opportunity, between Protestants and Catholics. Of course there should be, but that is a separate issue. And it is separate also from the question of whether it is legitimate or desirable to regard Irish and Ulster Scots, each of which is a series of grunts, as the exclusive or majority property of two religious or political communities.
Let us be in no doubt: what Ulster Scots needs is not God or Caesar but the Brothers Grimm.
And although the Blether Region applauds the anti-sectarianism of the Ullans Academy, which place it head and shoulders above the opposition, there remain two stubborn niggles that cast doubt on its ability to deliver the goods with regard to Ulster Scots: "Ullans" and "Academy".
"Ullans" is a recently made-up term used for the Ulster variety of what, linguistically speaking, is objectively a dialect of Scots. The adoption of novel terminology that shows such little regard for language or history promotes the wholly specious and damaging notion that the variety in question is not a form of Scots. Indeed, from that point of view, the "Ulster Scots" favoured by Nelson McCausland — albeit without the hyphen — is a far better term.
"Academy" has its origins in the Fryske Akademy, a body with the exclusive authority to codify Frisian. If there is no intention to codify Ulster Scots, or Ullans, separately from Scots, why has such a name been chosen? The Academy's own website has the following to say:
"Ullans is a language very close linguistically to English spoken by 'Ulster Scots', Scottish settlers who left Scotland and brought their native language Scots (also known as Lallans) to Ulster, the north-eastern province of Ireland.
'Ullans' is short for 'Ulster laLLANS'. Advocates of the Scots-Irish dialect in Ulster coined the phrase in 1993 as part of the process of trying to make the Scots-Irish dialect into a recognised language."
When the Blether Region raised the status issue with a prominent member of the Academy, one not known for his Unionism, he sought to provide reassurance with the words "Scots is part of Ulster Scots". Yet that primarily political formulation was a reversal of the linguistic reality that Ulster Scots is part of Scots.
Until that simple truth is recognised in policy terms, the future for the dialect looks bleak.
Tuesday, 9 November 2010
Monday saw a Private Member's motion at Stormont on the tardy indigenous languages strategy.
If the transcript in the Official Report is anything to go by, the debate was characterised by raucous interruptions and mutual recrimination. The following points stand out, however:
The original Sinn Féin motion called only for an indigenous languages strategy; it was the SDLP amendment, which Sinn Féin accepted, that called for an Irish language Act. Was this an example of careful choreography intended to show that an Act is a mainstream concern shared by all Nationalists, or does it mean that Sinn Féin, stung by the disconnect between rhetoric and achievement, would now accept a mere strategy?
Former DCAL Minister Gregory Campbell stated:
"One thing is for sure, however: Irish language enthusiasts will not get the barrel load of money that they used to get while Ulster Scots was deprived. That will not happen."
— clear confirmation a) that the DUP's determination to promote Ulster Scots ahead of both capacity and public demand is working to the detriment of Irish and b) that Irish is — or, if nothing changes, could soon be — worse off than under direct rule.
Although it was to be expected that otherwise moderate Unionists would act as lobby fodder to oppose the motion, it is clear too that the Alliance Party, which reluctantly supported it, has a lot to learn. Despite Anna Lo's eminently sensible words about using sign language and the languages of immigrants as tools to ensure access to public services, there is clearly no direct equivalence with Irish or Scots when it comes to teaching immigrant languages to young people. Useful as Chinese may be to (Northern) Ireland PLC, the tongue of well over a billion people simply does not fit into a minority-languages discourse. Every immigrant who accepts that his or her descendants will remain in their new home for ever enters into a compact with the host country and accepts also that, at some stage or other, those descendants are likely to lose their ancestral language. Indeed, in the course of time, through intermarriage, they are likely to disappear as a separate ethnic group altogether, something that may already be happening with Afro-Caribbean Britons.
It is a confused party that uses the arguments of those who oppose an Irish language Act while voting in its favour.
Monday, 1 November 2010
Yesterday's Observer has an interesting interview with linguist Nicholas Ostler about the future of English. His view is that, while the variety is currently enjoying a wave of popularity as a lingua franca, its eventual decline can already confidently be predicted, not because, as in the past, it is usurped by the emergence of another "empire", but owing to the exponential development of machine translation.
Ostler's prediction may well bring solace to those who feel that other national languages in Europe are losing out and ceding domains to English. The Blether Region once spoke to a German scientist in Heidelberg who explained that he hadn't published a paper in German in ten years — and yet the language was once considered essential for many fields of academia. Whether Ostler's view of the future can engender any hope in supporters of languages spoken in states and territories where most people switched to English generations ago is another matter; the interview fails completely to address the power and attraction of popular culture. It is perhaps relevant, however, that Ostler is chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages.
In recent years, the Internet, Gaelspell, and an Gramadóir have all been useful for those learning or writing in Irish. And although there has yet to be any public-policy breakthrough for Scots, e-mail, message boards and the development of informal means of communication have definitely provided a boost, and there are some very good websites such as those of scots-online and the Scots Language Centre.
Ostler's comments about English as a lingua franca could also be applied to Irish in Ireland, a language learnt, in some cases very well, at school and university, but most of the time not passed on to the next generation.
"[…] since it's not being picked up as a mother tongue, it's not typically being spoken by people to their children. It's not getting effectively to first base, the most crucial first base for long-term survival of a language."
Food for thought.
Saturday, 30 October 2010
The Blether Region has been debating with the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland, over at the latter's blog page. The spark came when Mr. McCausland criticised as unbalanced a podium discussion on Conflict in the Middle East held under the auspices of the Belfast Festival at Queen's, an event that he had not himself attended (the Blether Region was actually present and can confirm that it wasn't half as unbalanced as Mr. McCausland suggested). Nelson-watchers will recall that this comes on top of many highly detailed public complaints from the Minister about the policies and practices of arts organisations — complaints that, rightly or wrongly, could easily be interpreted as attempts to bully the cultural community into absolute adherence to the personal agenda of the man who is, after all, controller of their purse-strings.
Alarmingly, in his blog posting, the Minister repeats a transparently baseless accusation made by the right-wing journalist Melanie Phillips against one of the participants in the discussion, Professor Beverly Milton-Edwards, who, she said, has "a history of promoting the interests of Islamist terrorists". Phillips once memorably labelled Independent Jewish Voices "Jews for Genocide", i.e. of fellow Jews, but her ugly record of distasteful hyperbole seems not to have perturbed the Minister.
Although sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, Professor Milton-Edwards made it abundantly clear during the event at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast that she is not a supporter of Hamas, criticising it both for its "abhorrent" violence against civilians and for its anti-semitism. Indeed, Mr. McCausland makes no attempt to explain why an outspoken Western feminist should lend her support to Islamic fundamentalism, instead drawing readers' attention to the rather circumstantial fact that Professor Milton-Edwards had apparently not succeeded in having the claims removed from Melanie Phillips's blog — assuming, of course, that the Professor had actually read them.
The Jewish Chronicle has since reported that the family of Professor Milton-Edwards has been threatened.
Yet still the Minister has not removed from his blog the wholly false allegation that he blithely repeated against her.
Unfortunately, the Blether Region's last substantive contribution to the debate on the Minister's blog seems not to have appeared, although Mr. McCausland did publish a now meaningless correction to it. No doubt the post, which mentioned the threats against Professor Milton-Edwards and the Minister's connections with the white-supremacism-tinged British-Israel World Federation, got lost in the ether. One suspects that many Jews, including vocal supporters of Israel, might have qualms about canvassing the support of someone with such dubious associations.
Friday, 22 October 2010
Wednesday's News Letter carries a piece headlined "You can speak Irish and support union". The article itself is not about language, but it is interesting that the sub-editor has seen fit to extract the issue from a longer sentence: "You can speak Irish, play gaelic football, be a Catholic and support the Union." Might it be that speaking Irish is considered the most artificially political of the three, perhaps even Republican? If so, that says a good deal about people's prejudices, as well as the fact that they don't know their neighbours. One (ostensibly liberal) Unionist pundit, Newton Emerson, even went as far as to make the bizarre claim in a BBC documentary broadcast on 17 March 2010 that no one in Northern Ireland habitually spoke the language. Not many Catholic friends there, then.
Of course one can speak Irish and support the Union, and there are Protestant and Unionist Irish-speakers to prove it. What neither the article nor the headline addresses (why would they?) is the question of whether, based on the sole criterion of the best deal for Irish, a voter would place his or her cross for the union. The Blether Region believes not. That said, given the way that things have panned out since 2007, it is equally possible that, offered the choice of self-government in the form of power-sharing devolution, that hypothetical voter might still opt for direct rule.
Tuesday, 19 October 2010
The Belfast Telegraph reports that DCAL Minister Nelson McCausland has rejected a call from the Human Rights Commission for an Irish Language Act.
Justifying his decision, Mr. McCausland once again stated that, in his view, promotion of Irish should be tied to promotion of Ulster Scots.
"I believe that the lack of consensus on the issue of legislation for the Irish language would be detrimental to the protection and promotion of the language in the context of a shared future, and I believe that the best way forward for both minority languages in Northern Ireland is through the strategy for regional or minority languages."
There are several difficulties with the above.
The first is that it is dependent on the notion that Irish is somehow for Catholics and Nationalists only, while the local dialect of Scots is only for Protestants and Unionists. There need be no such neat divides, and allowing oneself to be circumscribed by stereotypes may mean that one does serious damage to the speech varieties that one wishes to protect, something particularly true of Ulster Scots, which has large numbers of Catholic and Nationalist users but whose promotion has been entrusted to a Protestant feel-good organisation with a board dominated by elected Unionist politicians.
A further issue is the two speech varieties' degree of development. It is clearly much lower in the case of Ulster Scots. Nor is there as much demand for the dialect as there is for Irish. On either count, promotion of Irish could virtually cease. Of course, Irish-language activists point out that Irish is being treated differently from Scottish Gaelic in Scotland and Welsh in Wales. But that comparison is intended to encourage levelling up, not down.
Then there is the question of whether current plans for Ulster Scots are likely to bear fruit. In the Blether Region's view, the answer is likely to be a resounding "no". A cynic might even point out that Mr. McCausland's pursuit of linguistic independence for Ulster Scots in defiance of academic consensus is a course ill-advised enough to guarantee that it, and by extension Irish, will fail to grow.
One is tempted to interpret the Minister's concern about "lack of consensus" as meaning that Unionists hold a veto over what degree of public recognition and support should be accorded to Irish.
In response, a spokeswoman for the Human Rights Commission said, "It is precisely when there is no consensus that minorities need legal recognition, respect and protection of their rights."
In other words, in the context of d'Hondt, Irish needs a language Act to protect it from a DUP Culture Minister.
By a strange twist of fate, on his own blog, the Minister has today attacked Monica McWilliams, although with no mention of his concurrent dealings with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission — the body that Professor McWilliams heads.
Friday, 15 October 2010
DCAL Minister Nelson McCausland has a fascinating blog contribution on the history of the Northern Ireland flag. The Blether Region was particularly interested in the following paragraphs.
"In a letter to the Northern Whig (27 July 1953) Captain H Malcolm McKee said, 'I think it was the Duke (of Abercorn) who suggested the six-pointed star to replace the white inescutcheon (small shield inside a larger one) for Northern Ireland.' The 3rd Duke of Abercorn James A E Hamilton was the first Governor of Northern Ireland, an office he held from 1922 to 1945, and he was a member of an old Ulster-Scots family. He resigned on 6 September 1945 and died on 12 September 1953.
In fact the six-pointed star is an emblem of great antiquity and here in Ulster it has been associated with the O'Neills for many centuries. The signet used by Owen Roe O'Neill (1590-1649) showed as its chief device a right hand but above this there were three six-pointed stars.
[A History of Irish Flags p 62]
The six-pointed star is also to be found on the Dunvegan Cup which is displayed in Dunvegan Castle, home of the Macleods on the Isle of Skye. The cup is a beaker of bog oak with mountings of silver and precious stones and the star is the chief item of the decorations. According to tradition it belonged to Niall Glun Dubh (d 919), King of Ulster, from whom the O'Neills derived their name. The mountings and decorations were added in 1493 and eventually the cup was given by one of the O'Neills as a gift to Rory Mor, 11th chief of the Macleods, around 1600."
Mr. McCausland was named as a British Israelite by the Guardian on 26 May 2010 and has previously addressed the British-Israel World Federation. It is clear from the above that he has a particular interest in the antiquity of the hexagram or Star of David as a symbol of Ulster.
Incidentally, it was also interesting to read Mr. McCausland's reference to Northern Ireland as a "state" — a turn of phrase that once induced a public fit of apoplexy in former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble.
Incidentally, it was also interesting to read Mr. McCausland's reference to Northern Ireland as a "state" — a turn of phrase that once induced a public fit of apoplexy in former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble.
Wednesday, 13 October 2010
In 1996 the Coen brothers made a very wonderful film called Fargo, which happens to be set in their home state of Minnesota, an area of the United States historically settled by Swedes. The DVD version contains the usual making-of documentary, in part of which the film-makers discuss the movie's "dialect" content. Anyone who has seen it will know that it contains little or no dialect; what some of its characters do exhibit is a slight accent and a distinctive intonation or lilt. The degree to which this differs from a mainstream American accent, its uniqueness and distribution are evidenced by a recent comment by an American impressionist, who described the former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin as being "so Minnesota". Mrs. Palin is from Alaska.
Why the Coen brothers might have conflated accent and dialect is, of course, easily explained: in the United States there is simply much less of the latter.
This brings us to some conflations closer to home, some of which have positively beset public discourse about Ulster Scots.
"Translator" and "Interpreter"
Commentators often rail against the notion of Scots translators by pointing out that everyone can understand the dialect perfectly well. With linguistic accommodation, this may very well be true on a face-to-face (i.e. spoken) basis. That does not alter the fact that considerable linguistic skill is necessary to use Scots (or, indeed, many of England's traditional dialects) productively in written form, including if one is asking someone to produce a translation. The fact that many "Ulster-Scots" translations are so bad merely proves the point.
"Translator" and "Transcriber"
Some readers will remember the furore surrounding the appointment of an Ulster-Scots "translator" to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1999. In fact, there was no translation involved; the successful candidate was to be called on to transcribe any Scots spoken in the Assembly for the Official Report — on top of the full workload of an English transcriber, and for no additional pecuniary benefit.
"Language" in General and Particular
That some Ulster-Scots activists have actively exploited the differing meanings of language with and without the article should by now be obvious. Of course Ulster Scots is language, but it is not and has no potential to be a language.
"Language" vis-à-vis English and "language" vis-à-vis Scots
Almost universally, commentators fail to distinguish between the notion of Ulster Scots as a language separate from English and that of its being a language separate from Scots, at times acting as if the former were as ridiculous as the latter. True, in the present day the claim that Scots is not currently subordinate to an overall English system may be doubtful. One can at least debate it, however, and even if the answer is "no", it is a "no" subject to considerable qualification. On the other hand, the norie that Ulster Scots is not Scots is, where not an example of ignorance, sophistry or downright lies, a faith-based position and, as such, not amenable to reasoned debate.
Yesterday's Guardian carries an article on a translation firm's recruitment of Geordie translators.
Despite an initial unfortunate conflation of accent and dialect, this is an interesting piece, informing us, for example, that a dialect glossary had to be issued to doctors in South Yorkshire in 2004 and updated this year to assist them in understanding relevant terms.
One must wonder, though, whether this exercise is not simply a canny way of garnering publicity for Today Translations. The company MD states that "We see a need for providing interpreters for English as it is really spoken in different parts of the country." In other words, we cannot be sure that there will be a real job at the end of it or a stand-by list of individuals who may never be called upon to use their skills.
An associate of the Blether Region once spoke to a member of the Northumbrian Language Society, who told him that Scots was a dialect of Northumbrian, which, historically speaking, it is — albeit usually rather more differentiated than its parent.
The settlement of Northern Britain by Angles rather than Saxons, the Danelaw, and — for literary Scots at least — the northern scribal school have all cast a long shadow. How to preserve that shadow without, as currently threatened in Northern Ireland, ushering in a new darkness is a question as pressing today as ever.
Thursday, 23 September 2010
Professional Ulster Scots appear to be visiting the southern United States with increasing frequency. News 14 reports on Nelson McCausland's trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, while the Wilkes Journal-Patriot covers a visit by John Laird, the subject of a forthcoming BBC documentary.
Of all the spending decisions made by the Ulster-Scots Agency, perhaps the most controversial was when it paid for its entire board to travel to America. On top of concerns voiced about the correct husbanding of public funds and avoiding the appearance of junketing, some commentators saw in the agency's surprising interest in the United States (despite its activities being legally limited to the island of Ireland) an effort to create an Ulster-American lobby to counter the support traditionally enjoyed by Nationalists among the country's Irish Catholic community.
Today, in 2010, it appears that Auntie Beeb is footing the bill, or at least part of it. Given the obvious political capital that Laird and others stand to make out of building bridges with conservative Americans, it is perhaps surprising that the BBC, which is bound to political neutrality, should be subsidising it. And yet it "helped fund the trip" to Northern Ireland by R. G. Absher and 21 other Americans (appropriately enough members of a military re-enactment society) and plans to air the resulting three-part documentary on BBC America. Absher remarks that "People were just as friendly in one place as another", leading one to wonder if he actually believed that Northern Nationalists would take exception to the presumed fact of an American's Presbyterian ancestry. The involvement of the BBC is particularly worrying because the corporation appears to be making Scots-free programmes benefiting those very politicians who have exerted most pressure on it to improve its "Ulster-Scots" content.
The prize of a Unionist lobby in America is immense — and it appears to be low-lying fruit. The article comments that "'Ware Home' is 'Gaelic for we're coming home'" and quotes Absher as saying that "the term, 'hillbilly,' in America has a backward image, but over there (in Northern Ireland) it has a positive connotation indicating people who stand up for their rights".
All of which brings us to John H. Killian, pastor of Maytown Baptist Church in Alabama, author of the blog Musings from Maytown and associate member of LOL 688. On a trip to Northern Ireland in 2007, Rev. Killian stayed with Roger Bradley, secretary of the lodge, a small organisation remarkable for the numbers of British Israelites and professional Ulster Scots in its ranks. Apart from being interviewed by — you guessed it — the BBC, Rev. Killian found time to develop some strong views on the North. In particular, he opines that Sinn Féin should be opposed because "The Reverend Jesse Jackson has come to Belfast to express his support for Sinn Fein and the nationalist cause" and "With the continued rate of immigrants coming to the United States from Mexico, we could face a similar situation where Mexican immigrants demand the 'return' of the Southwest to Mexico".
Of all the manifold reasons why an individual might oppose Sinn Féin, Rev. Killian must surely have secured the prize for the most inventive.
The Northern Ireland Assembly's Research and Library Service has issued an interesting paper on the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure's arm's-length bodies.
The document shows that the Ulster-Scots Agency was spending 65.17%, or almost two thirds, of its budget on administration in 2007-08. By 2009-10, after the Department had intervened, that figure had fallen to 52.55% (throughout the same period, the equivalent figure for Foras na Gaeilge remained fairly constant at between 43% and 46%). Of course, were the Agency conducting its own academic research, concerns about the proportion of its spending not going on grants to external bodies might be considered irrelevant. But the Blether Region is unaware of any such research, and, as readers will know, many of the grants that it issued were not connected with Scots as a language.
Interestingly, the paper states that:
"The Republic of Ireland Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs funds 75% of the budget of Foras na Gaeilge, and DCAL the remaining 25%. DCAL funds 75% of the budget of the Ulster-Scots Agency, and DCEGA the remaining 25%."
This indeed appears very largely to be the case with the Ulster-Scots Agency. With Foras na Gaeilge, on the other hand, it is clear that there was considerable slippage beginning with the restoration of devolution in 2007, and DCAL now appears to be paying only 17.5%. Irish-language activists in the North may have felt that the 75/25 rule would protect the budget for the language, but that appears to have been only partially true. Part of the disparity is attributable to a large cash boost in the South's contribution from 2008-9, but not all. Indeed, DCAL's funding of Foras na Gaeilge has been falling at a time when both polities' contribution to Ulster Scots has been increasing.
It appears to be the case not only that the Department is cutting its discretionary budget for Irish, but that it is doing so even where bound by an international treaty — and not being held to account.
Thursday, 16 September 2010
The Belfast Telegraph reports strong criticism of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure's plans for an Ulster-Scots Academy in the unlikely setting of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Through many years of observation, it has been the Blether Region's experience that views on Ulster Scots heard at Stormont rarely reflect the opinions of ordinary Unionists or Nationalists. While MLAs in the former camp employ the dialect as part of a Manichaean struggle with Irish Gaelic, their opponents across the Chamber have been wont to humour them in the hope, recently exposed as forlorn, that Irish might at some stage benefit from the application in law of a wholly fictional status to what has clearly always been a dialect of Scots.
Declan O'Loan, Deputy Chair of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, stated:
"This bid for funding for an Ulster-Scots [Academy] is surely inappropriate. The project has been delayed because it lacks definition and even those involved in Ulster-Scots issues disagree fundamentally about it. The whole concept of a so-called Ulster-Scots language has been inflated to an extent that has become comical. Public documents are being translated into an official verbiage which is non-existent in the real world.
"There is a genuine Ulster-Scots culture, history and local dialect, but the study of it is being damaged by falsehoods."
There is little to disagree with in his statement. More surprising was the reaction of Lord Laird to his comments:
"One of the gentlemen [attacking Ulster Scots] is Ballymena's own Declan O'Loan. On many issues I agree with MLA O'Loan, which makes me all the sadder when he lets himself down by attacking a culture which is not his. Declan has underlined once again the narrow out of date think of nationalism."
Now, if Declan O'Loan is from Ballymena, surely the culture must, to a greater or lesser extent, be his. He will at the very least be au fait with the residual dialect of the area, regardless of whether he is an habitual speaker himself. Lord Laird, on the other hand, appears to be a Belfast man, having attended Inst and later been elected to represent part of the city. Artigarvan, the hamlet immortalised upon his ennoblement, is in Tyrone and therefore not in a Scots-speaking part of Ulster. Famously, John Laird even argued for the authenticity of "wee daftie weans" as the Ulster Scots used to refer to children with special needs before he became aware that the term was in fact apocryphal (Lá, 15 October 2003).
One wonders, then, on what basis Lord Laird can see Ulster Scots as his culture while stating that it is not Declan O'Loan's. Perhaps clarification is in order to avoid uncharitable inferences.
Friday, 3 September 2010
The BBC reports that the comparatively tiny DCAL budget is facing huge cuts over the next four years. Along with libraries and museums, the arts in particular are facing a bleak future, despite lower per capita spending than elsewhere in the UK. The revelations came at a meeting of the Statutory Committee.
"[A] senior civil servant, Edgar Jardine, said that the minister Nelson McCausland had identified the Ulster Scots Academy as a priority project which should not be cut.
The Ulster Scots Academy project all but collapsed under previous DCAL ministers."
It seems that the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure is intent on pressing on with the controversial academy project, despite lack of agreement among stakeholders (especially academic linguists) and lack of demand on the ground. Most Ulster Protestants evince the same scepticism towards Government spending on language as Mr. McCausland does to spending on the arts. Where they differentiate between spending on Irish and spending on Ulster Scots on any but the most chauvinistic grounds, it is generally to the detriment of the latter.
A recording of the Committee meeting will be available on the Internet for the next few days.
It is an ironic truth that, in being especially resolute in the stances that he has adopted, Mr. McCausland has distanced himself from the settled will of those whom he was elected to represent. How long before the sharks start circling?
Friday, 20 August 2010
The "virtual museum" of Ulster texts, including some in Scots, which was recently set up by the University of Ulster and mentioned by the Blether Region on 27 July, has now gone online. Unfortunately, they seem to be pdfs only at the moment, which is fine for literary critics but of less use to corpus linguists.
Nevertheless, we must applaud Frank Ferguson's hard work in this regard. He has done something of vital interest to Scots in Ulster that the Ulster-Scots Agency failed to do during its first 10 years in existence.
Thursday, 19 August 2010
During a short stopover at Edinburgh Airport the other week the Blether Region spotted this sign, another sad piece of evidence that the world will never be quite the same after 9/11.
As if the message itself didn't provide cause enough for tears, there was the small matter of the German translation, "Formular bitte nehmen Sie ihre Schuhe nur, wenn Sie Anrufe für Sicherheitspersonal aufgeforfert.".
Media-watchers among you will recall the case in Wales of a translator's out-of-office message being mistaken for a finished translation and hung in a car park. The German above is not much better, the first word being a translation of the English "form", which may or may not suggest the injudicious use of Google Translate.
And as if to prove a point, we were lucky to make a clean getaway with the photo, as another traveller in the queue who dared to take a few snaps was upbraided by airport staff and forced to delete images of the security area from her camera.
Friday, 30 July 2010
The Irish Times reports that Minister of Education Caitríona Ruane has announced the opening of four new Irish-medium primaries, in Magherafelt, Kilkeel, Limavady and Ballymena.
Concern has been raised at the opening of new schools at a time when there are unfilled placed in existing institutions. The Blether Region does not know enough about that issue to comment.
However, Internet discussion on the decision has been extremely intemperate in nature, with some commentators appearing to assume that an Irish-medium school is there to indoctrinate rather than to provide a balanced education or that it caters for only one faith community. On Slugger O’Toole, Gaelscoileanna were referred to as "a new form of segregation" and even "Hiberno-madrassas".
The fact is that anyone can send their child to an Irish-medium school in the full expectation that the same standards in force elsewhere will apply, regardless of what brand of religion they practise, or even whether they have one.
Gaelscoileanna are not there to teach children to crack their eggs at one end or the other — merely to call it ubh when they do so.
Tuesday, 27 July 2010
The Ulster Poetry Project is an initiative created by the School of English, History and Politics in association with the Library and IT Systems Development at the University of Ulster to develop and extend its research into Irish Book History and Ulster Poetry. As part of this project the university will be launching an online resource called the John Hewitt Centre, which will contain a digitised selection of his collection of nineteenth-century poetry. The Hewitt archive at the University of Ulster is one of the most significant collections of Hewitt's work, as well as a major repository of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ulster poetry. One of the aims of the Ulster Poetry Project is to celebrate John Hewitt's work and scholarship and to continue his research into the poetry, culture and arts of the province of Ulster.
The launch of the project will take place in Room H215, Main Building, University of Ulster, Coleraine on 30 July at 6.30 p.m.
This is really very positive news, and should, among other things, enable interested parties to create their own corpora of authentic Ulster-Scots texts.
The following texts will be made available online in the first tranche.
Samuel Burdy, Ardglass, Or the Ruined Castles: also The Transformation and Some Other Poems. (Dublin: Printed for the author by Graisberry and Campbell, 1802), [xxvii, 110p; 21 cm].
Campbell, James, The Poems and Songs of James Campbell of Ballynure: with additional songs not before published, (Ballyclare: S. Corry, 1870), [vii, 144p].
William Drennan, Glendalloch: and other poems / by the late Dr. Drennan; with additional verses by his sons (i.e. J. S. and W. Drennan), (Dublin: London: Edinburgh: Belfast: William Robertson; Simpkin, Marshall; John Menzies; H. Greer, 1859), [xxii, 280p; 17 cm].
Samuel Ferguson, Congal: a poem in five books / by Sir Samuel Ferguson (Dublin: London: Sealy, Bryers & Walker; G. Bell, 1893), [xv, 174p: ill.; 17 cm].
Flecher, Henry McDonald. Poems, Songs and Ballads / by Henry M'D. Flecher (Belfast: James Reed, 97, Victoria Street; C. Aitchison, Castle Place; George Phillips and Sons. Bridge Street, 1866), [(1-7) 8-240p; 17 cm].
Huddleston, Robert, A Collection of Poems and Songs on Rural Subjects, Belfast: Printed by J. Smyth, 1844), [146p].
Huddleston, Robert, A Collection of Poems and Songs on Different Subjects, (Belfast: Printed for the author, 1846), [168p].
McEwen, Andrew, Zayda, and Other Poems, (Belfast: Published and sold by Lamont Brothers, 1845), [220p; 18mo].
McKenzie, Andrew, Poems and Songs on Different Subjects, (Belfast: News-Letter Office, 1810), [180p].
McKinley, John, The Giant's Causeway, a poem: with The Traveller Benighted in Mourne, (Dublin: J. J. Nolan, 1821), [xlvi, 98p].
Porter, Hugh, Poetical Attempts / by Hugh Porter, a County of Down Weaver, (Belfast: Printed for Archbold and Dugan, by Simms and M'Intyre, 1813), [xv, (1), (17)-203 (i.e. 202)p; 19 cm. (8vo in 4s)].
Read, William, The Hill of Caves in Two Cantos With Other Poems, (Belfast Cornmarket: Dublin Conduit Street: Dublin Grafton Street: Printed by F. D. Finlay; Henry Colburn; R. Milliken, 1818. ), [vi, 100p; 8vo].
Savage-Armstrong, George Francis, Ballads of Down, (London: Longmans, Green, 1901), [xii, 384p].
Sloan, Edward L., The Bard's Offering: a Collection of Miscellaneous Poems, (Belfast: J. Reed, G. Phillips, 1854), [ii, 120p].