Friday, 30 July 2010

Four New Gaelscoileanna to Open

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

Ulster-Scots Texts to Go Online

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].

Friday, 23 July 2010

S4C Budget to be Cut

The Guardian reports that Westminster's Department of Culture, Media and Sport is to cut the budget allocated to the Welsh-language Sianel Pedwar Cymru (S4C) by almost a quarter.

According to the article, some commentators doubt that "such a small talent base can sustain a full-service television channel", and yet "One cost-cutting solution being mooted is for S4C to drop Clirlun, its recently launched high-definition service on Freeview" — despite the fact that this would presumably achieve a cut in overheads rather than programme spending.

The news does not augur well for the Con-Dems' approach to regional or minority languages and will no doubt see both parties do less well in Wales.

"Separately, the BBC's executive board is renegotiating the corporation's three-year contract to supply S4C with programmes, and may come under pressure to make good some of the shortfall, though this would be met by licence fee payers."

The BBC disposes over huge wealth garnered through the application of an involuntary impost that it refers to as a fee but which is, to all intents and purposes, a tax — and, like the "community charge" of yesteryear, a tax that takes no account of liable persons' ability to pay. For decades it used that money to contribute to the minoritisation of Celtic languages and a host of regional varieties of English while promoting Received Pronunciation, a dialect spoken by between 1% and 3% of the UK population and, no doubt, an even lesser proportion on the Celtic fringe.

Given the corporation's shameful history, the Blether Region can see no reason for it not to make up the shortfall in its entirety.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Scots Place-names

Irish place-names are obvious and ubiquitous in Northern Ireland. The same cannot be said of Scots ones, however. And yet there is evidence enough for them if one cares to look.

The most obvious ones are Gaelic names borrowed directly from Scotland such as Stormont, Culloden and Strathearn. The last of those is of particular interest because it derives from Srath Éireann or "Valley of Ireland", a name adopted at a time when Scotland was an Irish colony.

As well as the many instances of "Scotch" (often in contradistinction to "Irish" or "English", perhaps the best example being the streets in Armagh City), there are also many Planter surnames to be found in the names of townlands and villages where Scots founded settlements.

Scots may also have dealt slightly differently with native Irish names when it came to their transliteration, being more likely to retain the native "ch", which was also part of the Lowland Scots orthographic tradition. Thus we have Ballymenoch in Holywood, part of the Hamilton lands in the Hamilton-Montgomery Plantation of 1606, but Ballymenagh in Tyrone. There is an intrusive final -d in Dundonald, something typical of Lowland Scots, with similar instances of -d and -p found in proper names such as McKendrick, Henderson, Thompson and Campbell. In some cases Scots may have substituted Gaelic toponymic forms with which they were familiar for others with which they were not. Thus we have Portglenone for Port Chluain Eoghain (no glen there).

There are also obviously Scots names such as Kirkistown on the Ards peninsula ("church town", retaining a Middle Scots possessive -is) and Glarryford in Antrim ("muddy ford"). And one could hardly forget Sandyknowes roundabout, mentioned daily in radio traffic reports. Interestingly, BBC presenters tend to pronounce this correctly as Scots, whereas commercial broadcasters often substitute the cognate English knoll, or, indeed, the not so cognate knows. Incidentally, the great Lowland Scots writer Walter Scott spent part of his childhood on a farm of a very similar name in the borders.

Unsurprisingly, given the linguistic mix in Ulster, there are also hybrid names such as Connswater, named after Conn O'Neill but evidencing a distinctively Scots term for a large stream. And the most likely explanation for the final element in Lisburn is that it is the Scots burn.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Committee of Experts' Report

Conor Spackman of the BBC has summarised the conclusions of the Committee of Experts' report on implementation of the Council of Europe's Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in Northern Ireland. In addition to reporting on the issue with inexplicable tardiness — the document is dated 21 April — the corporation has chosen to illustrate the Irish language with a photograph of a frightening Troubles-era mural that looks about 30 years old (see above); the picture has also been cropped by someone who clearly has no regard for, or understanding of, the meaning of the Irish. One can only presume that the mural was considered "neutral" elucidation, while a picture of a smiling child in a naíonra, for example, was not.

Be all that as it may, it is worth recapitulating some of the report's main points:

  • if the Unionist parties continue to veto an Irish language Act, Westminster should intervene and pass one itself;
  • a ban on speaking Irish in court is "contrary to the spirit and objectives of the Charter and the general commitment of the UK authorities to protect and promote Irish";
  • striving for parity between Irish and Ulster Scots will hold back the development of both;
  • there has been very little progress on Ulster Scots, and, as with Irish, the "de-facto standstill" dates to the restoration of devolution in 2007;
  • although the proposed Ulster-Scots Academy has been touted as an antidote to the "cultural" focus of the Ulster-Scots Agency, it is a distinct possibility that an academy too would have such a focus — meaning that the net result would simply be to circumvent the cross-border decision-making architecture of the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement.
The inevitable conclusion is that it is high time Westminster repatriated jurisdiction over the charter.

As for the BBC, let's hope that we don't need to wait until the next silly season for a report of this detail on language issues.

A Linguistic Puzzle

The Blether Region received this picture from a friend in Canada. No information was provided regarding the site of the gravestone, but from its style — and relative opulence — it appears to be North American. Evidently the stonemason had some difficulty with the Gaelic script that he was asked to add to the inscription. There is an extra element to the "m" and a missing dot over the "d" that would normally be required to show séimhiú, or lenition. Most confusingly, the "i" is too long and could be taken for a number of other letters. The consensus, however, is that the inscription was intended to read Guidh orm or "Pray for me".

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Robin's Readings

Over the next six weeks, starting on Sunday, 18 July, BBC Radio Ulster will be broadcasting a series of dramatised readings first performed in the nineteenth century as humorous monologues.

Robin's Readings were created by W. G. Lyttle, born in 1844. After his death in 1896, he was buried in the grounds of Bangor Abbey, where his memorial describes him as: "… a brilliant and graceful writer … and a true son of County Down".

As well as being the author of Daft Eddie and Betsy Gray, Lyttle was above all an entertainer. He most often appeared at social gatherings in the guise of his alter ego "Robin", a jovial country farmer from the fictitious Ballycuddy in County Down, who regaled his audiences in Ulster Scots. The scripts from these performances were subsequently collected and published as Robin's Readings.

The stories recount the adventures and mishaps of Paddy McQuillan, a cheerful but unfortunate County Down farmer. In the first few episodes, Paddy (played by Will McAvoy) attempts to join a Masonic Lodge, visit Glasgow, and thwart his mother's attempts to match him with the formidable Miss Norris. Paddy's best friend, Robin Gordon (played by Paddy McAvoy) takes up the story of Paddy's marriage and the birth of his children — before this first series concludes with Paddy's emigration to Canada.

There's a real warmth and humour in these stories — even though they're about 150 years old. What comes across is the sense of a close, rural community sharing in each other's joys and troubles. Lyttle wrote in authentic Ulster Scots, which was spoken throughout the Ards Peninsula.

Sunday, 18 July 2010 4.03 p.m. / Repeat Wednesday, 22 July 2010 7.30 p.m.


This is the first in a series of humorous stories featuring the trials and adventures of Mr. Paddy McQuillan: in this first episode, it's Christmas Day, and Paddy goes to Belfast, where he has a rather unfortunate encounter at a Masonic Lodge ...


This story begins with Paddy deciding, despite his mother's grave misgivings, to visit Glasgow. On board the ferry, he falls in with a Scotsman called Sauny, who takes him in hand and promises to show him the sights of the city, starting with a Glasgow Eating House ... This story concludes next week.

Sunday, 25 July 2010 4.03 p.m. / Repeat Wednesday, 29 July 2010 7.30 p.m.


Continued from last week. Paddy McQuillan is in Glasgow with his new friend, Sauny. Following some trouble at the Post Office when he tries to collect a money order, Paddy goes shopping — but winds up before the magistrate! Having talked his way out of a custodial sentence, he takes the ferry back home to his relieved mother.

Sunday, 1 August 2010 4.03 p.m. / Repeat Wednesday, 5 August 2010 7.30 p.m.


Paddy McQuillan's mother arranges for him to take tea with the formidable Miss Norris — in the hope of making a match for him. Paddy, however, takes a shine to the younger and more appealing Maggie Patten and sets out to court her instead. All doesn't exactly go smoothly, however, with the course of true love …

Sunday, 8 August 2010 4.03 p.m. / Repeat Wednesday, 12 August 2010 7.30 p.m.


In preparation for his forthcoming wedding, Paddy McQuillan sets off to Belfast to get the wedding licence. Then he and Maggie purchase a few essentials in the shops — before it's time at last for the Big Day!


A new arrival means new worries for Paddy McQuillan — what with potential hazards round the house and constant crying throughout the night! However, plans for the baby's christening soon give Paddy more to think about as he arranges a party for all his friends.

Sunday, 15 August 2010 4.03 p.m. / Repeat Wednesday, 19 August 2010 7.30 p.m.


Robin Gordon is very amused to hear that his friends Paddy and Maggie McQuillan have just had twins! Friends gather round to meet the newborns and congratulate their parents — and Paddy is persuaded to have a celebratory tea party.


Robin Gordon and Paddy McQuillan start making arrangements for a tea party to celebrate the arrival of Paddy's twins.

Sunday, 22 August 2010 4.03 p.m. / Repeat Wednesday, 26 August 2010 7.30 p.m.


It's Paddy McQuillan's tay perty, and friends and family all gather round to help the McQuillans christen their new twins — Samuel and Jemima. With poetry, songs and a presentation to Maggie, everyone has a great time.


It's a sad time in County Down — for Paddy McQuillan and his family have been forced, by their rackrenting landlord, to sell up and emigrate to Canada. All their County Down friends gather to bid them farewell.

Text adapted from BBC sources.

The programmes will also be available after broadcast on the BBC iPlayer.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Scots Around Us: Part II

This advertising hoarding was up all around Belfast a year or two back and displays a few quaintly colourful expressions used in the city. Craic is of course a recent Gaelicisation of Scots and Northern English crack, while weeker appears to be the local pronunciation of what the Scottish National Dictionary records as wheecher or wheeker, "anything big or outstanding of its kind, something of top quality or excellence, a thumper, stunner".

Given contemporary developments in the phonology of working-class speakers of Scots-influenced English in Scotland, the Scottish pronunciation is likely to be much closer to that of Belfast in future, if the agent noun manages to survive at all. 

Scots Around Us

Earlier this week the Blether Region passed this van parked outside Willowfield Parish Church on the Woodstock Road. Besom is a Christian organisation in England and Northern Ireland offering help to those in need. Although barely part of Standard English today, the word "besom" appears once in the King James Version of the Bible: "I will sweep it with the besom of destruction, saith the LORD of hosts." — Isaiah 14:23.

In this case, it is tempting to view it also as evidence of how far removed Northern Ireland — or at least the largest and most populous part where the dialect is Mid Ulster English — is from Scotland linguistically. Although Scots is there as a substrate and a source of loan words such as "wee", "dander", etc., only in the Ulster-Scots coastal crescent is it used in its full form. There appear to be no such self-styled Christian "besoms" in Scotland, and no wonder: what sensible woman would want to drive around in a van marked "besom" and prefaced with the name of the local area? She'd be harangued every time she stopped at a red light.

The Scottish National Dictionary defines this figurative use of the word — possibly the most common one in contemporary Scotland and recorded in the Concise Ulster Dictionary too — as "A term of contempt applied to a person, gen. a woman; sometimes to a woman of loose character, sometimes jocularly to a woman or young girl."

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Minister's Language Briefing

On Thursday, 1 July 2010, DCAL Minister Nelson McCausland gave his long-awaited language briefing to the Statutory Committee. From the transcript it is clear that the Minister believes that:

  • there should be resource parity between Irish and Ulster Scots;
  • there should be a single language strategy to promote them (and no language Act for Irish);
  • the strategy should "be grounded in the Northern Ireland Executive’s Programme for Government 2008-2011, which gives effect to the cross-cutting theme of a shared and better future for all, equality, fairness, inclusion and the promotion of good relations";
  • action on Ulster Scots such as the introduction of a GCSE should not be dependent on demand;
  • Ulster Scots is a language separate from Scots — and thus developmental work on it should duplicate (or contradict) work done for Scots in Scotland.
Needless to say, the Blether Region believes the Minister to be wrong on all counts:

  • it is possible to learn the Ulster or any other dialect of Scots by reading literature, perhaps for as little as an hour a week, whereas Irish requires lengthy academic study in English-speaking schools; the most cost-efficient way of doing so is immersion in a Gaelscoil environment. Is the Minister suggesting that the differential should be re-invested elsewhere? And is he aware that much more money could be spent on Ulster Scots at no extra cost to the taxpayer if the Ulster-Scots Agency ceased to redirect funds to "culture"?;
  • the best way to depoliticise the Irish language and protect it from politically motivated attacks is to pass a language Act;
  • the promotion of Irish and Ulster Scots should be based on their individual needs, not on their perceived status as the property of one or other faith community;
  • measures such as introducing a GCSE in Ulster Scots in the absence of demand will fail. Cornish GCSEs have not been available since 1996 because of limited uptake. Far better to start by spending money creating interest in Ulster Scots, which is what the Ulster-Scots Agency is supposed to do. And why should the CCEA shoulder the costs of a political decision to introduce a GCSE?;
  • in comparison with the main Central Scots variety, Ulster Scots is the least, or at most second-least, differentiated dialect. It is the only one that can be — and until the twentieth century commonly was — written with the same orthography. Given the precarious state of the Ulster dialect, not to pursue joint development with Scotland will sound its death-knell.
The Minister was unintentionally funny (and unusually perspicacious) in the following passage:

"For me, parity is an important concept, because I believe in equality. However, equality does not mean that B has to get three apples merely because A gets three apples. Since you are availing yourself of a banana, Chairperson, I will use the banana for my example. It might be that somebody gets three apples and somebody else gets two bananas and an orange."

If "two bananas and an orange" doesn’t describe the Ulster-Scots Agency, I don’t know what does.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Language in Scotland

Holidaying in Scotland the other week, the Blether Region couldn't help but notice the greater — and different — visibility of both Scots and Gaelic in the country. True, East Belfast has the Gae Lairn centre and the visual punning of Reid, Black and Co., and West Belfast has a whole lot more when it comes to Irish. But none of it enters neutral territory — and, with the exception of those translations (with or without inverted commas), both speech varieties are still largely excluded from anything official. There are no Irish signs at the Northern Ireland Assembly, for example, though there is plenty of Gaelic to be seen in the Scottish Parliament.

In Scotland, instead of "Come Back Soon" there are signs saying "Haste Ye Back", and the sweet shops sell "soor plooms" — as well as the rather imposing-looking "Irn Bru frying-pans", which turn out to be bat-sized lollies in aluminium ramekins. The photo above shows a fishmonger called "Fantoosh Fish". The CalMac (Caledonian MacBrayne) ferries have Gaelic signage alongside the English — granted, in a smaller typeface, but still a sight better than nothing. ScotRail has "Bun a'Chnuic" underneath "Hillfoot", while pragmatically leaving the more Scots-sounding "Hyndland" as the sole form.

And none of it is in any way controversial or artificial.

Food for thought — and not just the lollies.