Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Townland Names

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.

Freeview for the Gaels

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

A Tongue All His Own

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

Whistling Dixie

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

Ministerial Working Group on Scots

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

Nelson's Cronies

In response to a Freedom of Information request from North Down SDLP politician and Scots-speaker Liam Logan, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has revealed the membership of the Ulster-Scots Academy Steering Group appointed by the Minister, Nelson McCausland. The six members of the group, which is chaired by former civil servant Wilfie Hamilton, are:

Keith Gamble, a board member of the Ulster-Scots Community Network formerly chaired by the Minister;
Dr. Ivan Herbison, a retired lecturer at the School of English, QUB;
Lee Reynolds, a prominent DUP member;
Dr. William Roulston of the Ulster Historical Foundation and former board member of the Ulster-Scots Agency;
Anne Smyth, an Ulster-Scots activist, wife of Dr. Clifford Smyth (guest speaker at the LOL 688 lodge dinner held at Rockmount Golf Club in November 2008, at which Anne played accordion), and mother of Alan Smyth, a member of the same lodge;
Mark Thompson, former Chairman of the Ulster-Scots Agency and a member of LOL 688.

This means that, while the group boasts a single academic linguist, it includes two people with links to the Minister's own Loyal Orange Lodge, the Cross of Saint Patrick. Furthermore, the fact that as much weight has been accorded to doctoral non-linguists as to doctoral linguists suggests that the Minister intends the academy to duplicate the functions of the Ulster-Scots Agency, while lacking its cross-border membership.

The choice of nominees also underlines the exclusion of the more moderate activists of the Ullans Academy in the ambit of Dr. Ian Adamson, as well as Scots and, unless the Blether Region is very much mistaken, Catholics. As the DCAL official answering the information request states, the appointments "do not need to go through the normal board appointment processes and are not subject to the merit principle".

That's us told, then.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Signs of the Times

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

Grade Inflation

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

Tony Blair on "Ullans"

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.

Questionable Practices

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.