Friday, 14 December 2012

Ulster Scots on the Map

The Blether Region's thanks go to Ian James Parsley for alerting it to more detailed sets of figures on competence in Scots at local level. Unfortunately, it seems difficult to link to the figures on the NISRA website, but the relevant document is entitled "Dataset 2347_2011" and gives percentages by local authority area.

As readers will be aware, the headline census figure for "some ability in Ulster-Scots" for Northern Ireland was just under 8.1%. Nine of the 26 local government districts in the territory reported above-average percentages on this question and therefore have some claim to be Scots-speaking areas.

They are as follows:

Ballymoney 29.43
Ballymena 22.15
Moyle 21.71
Larne 19.20
Coleraine 15.93
Ards 13.27
Antrim 09.57
Carrickfergus 09.39
Newtownabbey 09.13

The overall impression is that the heart of Scots-speaking Northern Ireland is north County Antrim and the north-east corner of County Derry around Coleraine (the establishment of a university in the town will presumably have rendered the latter area somewhat less Scots in recent decades, but it is still stronger than anywhere in Down).

Moyle, covering the former Glens of Antrim Gaeltacht and with a Catholic majority, has the third-highest total, suggesting that Robert Gregg's decision to mark it simply as "Gaeltacht" in his seminal 1963 map of Scots-speaking areas may be in need of revision. Indeed, for any combination of skills involving speaking ability, Moyle is in second place, after Ballymoney and before Ballymena. The Glens are a small area not only bordering Gregg's "Scotch-Irish" dialect zone but with traditionally strong ties to Scotland. While it is possible that the area's dialect has become more Scots as a result of decreased isolation since Gregg drew his maps, a more likely explanation is that there was a lengthy period of bilingualism before Gaelic finally died out in the 1960s. This all goes to confirm that, despite how it may be promoted at an official level in Northern Ireland, Scots on the ground is a genuinely cross-community phenomenon.

On a related point, although Gregg's decision to map the eastern edge of the Laggan Scots-speaking area as coterminous with the border between Donegal and Northern Ireland has been queried recently, the low percentages reported in the Derry and Strabane local authority areas (4.49% and 6.89% respectively) suggest that he was more accurate in that case. Limavady, at 7.84%, is slightly better but of course borders Coleraine.

As expected, the lowest figures for competence were reported in Fermanagh and Newry and Mourne (4.0% and 3.7% respectively), which include strongly Catholic areas where Scots-influenced Mid-Ulster English yields to South Ulster English.

A further inescapable conclusion is that the Down "Scotstacht", as John Kirk terms it, is on its last legs, with the Ards Borough Council area reporting a figure of only 13.27%. Remember: this figure covers all levels of ability, including knowledge of individual Scots words. The Down area was always smaller than its counterpart in Antrim and seems to have suffered a three-way squeeze from the salubrious areas of Down bordering Belfast Lough to the north, growth of the commuter belt around the capital, and displacement of people during the Troubles. This may also go some way towards explaining why the revival of the Ulster dialect spearheaded by staff or board members of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra has, in many respects, been able to take such an idiosyncratic and untraditional path.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Census and Scots

The 2011 Continuous Household Survey (CTS) also provides data with regard to knowledge of Scots, which it puts at 15%. For various reasons, the Blether Region counsels taking these figures with a pinch of salt:
  • Since Scots in Northern Ireland is widely perceived as a tool being used against Irish, Catholic respondents will have been tempted to deny ability (indeed, my own wife did so on that basis); they may even believe that there is no such thing as Scots. Some will also have been alienated by the way that in Northern Ireland the speech variety is generally sold as part of a cultural package — sometimes an explicitly sectarian one. The proportion of Catholics in the speech community is almost certainly higher than that suggested (just over a quarter).
  • There may, in some cases, have been a similar temptation to exaggerate ability on the Protestant side, though, for reasons explained below, this will have been less.
  • The questions all referred to "Ulster-Scots", meaning that a probable cohort of 5,000 Scots-born speakers will not have been included.
  • Given that the questions were designed to capture every level of ability, almost any speaker of Mid-Ulster English (or, indeed, other varieties) could with some justification have answered in the affirmative. In that regard, it is surprising that the result was not 95%. Perhaps some respondents were out for a wee dander to get their heads shired when that question was asked. But one shouldn't girn.
That said, there are certain facts that can be gleaned:
  • In contradistinction to Irish, people in the least-deprived areas are more likely to have a knowledge of Scots. This will mainly be because they will have larger vocabularies generally, including some recondite words shared by Scots and older or dialectal English, and because the middle-class will be better linguists. To a lesser extent, it may also reflect remaining disparities in wealth based on religion.
  • Again unlike Irish, older people are more likely to have a knowledge of Scots. This reflects its status as a recessive dialect not being promoted through the education system and with only limited intergenerational transmission. This is amply illustrated by the disparity between the headline figures in the CTS and the census.
  • Only 10% of people are interested in learning more about Scots, as opposed to 18% for Irish (drawing on what, in sectarian terms, is a slightly smaller pool of potential recruits). This is because more Unionists have internalised utilitarian arguments against support for minoritised speech varieties. Time and again, we have seen that many have an ambivalent or negative relationship with Scots (which almost disappeared from public life during the twentieth century). The census also showed that many more Protestants self-designate simply as "British".
  • Although 15% of people claim some knowledge of Scots, only 1% of people claim to be able to write it. To some extent, this is a predictable result of obscurantism in the spelling of the revived variety, but mainly it reflects the fact that nearly all Scots-speakers in Ulster have little or no knowledge of traditional Modern Scots literature of whatever provenance. Indeed, that any substantial number of people can support the bizarre contention that the Ulster dialect is a separate language supports that interpretation. The fact that 14% of people claim to be able to understand spoken Scots but only 4% of people claim to be able to read it may also be relevant evidence in that regard.
  • Given the fact that 4% is also the figure for those who claim to be able to speak Scots, that may well be a more reliable figure than the headline 15%. It is also far closer to the figure of 2% produced by in 1999 by the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey. Indeed, when those who know only single words of Scots (very common in Mid-Ulster English) are removed, the figure is 3%, hardly differing from the NILTS total. The census (covering those aged over three as opposed to 16) also produced a lower figure for Scots, of 8%, again covering a wide range of ability. The census figure for speaking ability was 2%, almost exactly the same as that found by NILTS.
To sum up, the CTS and census reveal a mainly rural and elderly Scots speech community in Ulster that is not substantially larger than that suggested by NILTS 1999, with the democratic accommodation of Catholic and Scots-born speakers as vital as ever to its survival chances.

The Census and Irish

As readers will no doubt be aware, the detailed results of the 2011 census have now been published. Much of the focus has been on the headline figures for community breakdown. It is very likely that this is the last census where the Protestant community will be larger than its Catholic counterpart. However, it is unlikely that the growth of the latter will be large enough to achieve a united Ireland by the time of the next census in 2021. Indeed, as many have pointed out, even a small cohort of Catholics voting for the Union in any border poll might well be enough to postpone that day for quite some time, perhaps even until the pattern of religious voting has to some extent broken down, in which case, Unionists will still have everything to play for — but only if they listen to Basil McCrea more than to Jim Allister.

What is clear, though, is that at the moment there is a very good correlation between Catholic community background (45%) and voting for Nationalist parties (over 40%). Taking the number of Catholics voting for the Alliance Party into account, it becomes clear that the Catholic vote for the two main Unionist parties is virtually nil, with any different drummers cancelled out by similarly free-thinking individuals on the Protestant side. Depending on the exact rules in place at the time, it is therefore eminently possible that Northern Ireland will see a Nationalist First Minister at some point. If the Nationalists are sensible, they will change the rules to allow rotation of the post of First Minister in exchange for movement on a language Act. However, the naming of a playground in Newry after a hunger-striker (ironically, while complaining about a Union Flag over City Hall in Belfast) does not bode well on that front.

The DCAL website also has a series of statistical documents about Irish and Ulster Scots.

For Irish, there has been continued growth. Today 11% of the population have a knowledge of the language, against 10% at the time of the 2001 census. The census captures data only for those aged over three, however, meaning that there in fact are slightly less than the 200,000 people with a knowledge of the language that one might expect if the 11% figure applied equally to everyone. In layman's terms, 11% means every ninth person in Northern Ireland (according to the Continuous Household Survey, which includes only those aged over 16, the figure is closer to one in every eight).

One of the more surprising facts about Irish is that people in the most deprived areas are more likely to know it than those in the least deprived ones. There must be few other areas of education where that holds true, and it is surely evidence of the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, with extreme political pressures at work, a grammar-school system that works better for Catholics than for Protestants still in place, and, on that Catholic side, much of the talent still at the bottom. Owing to the fact that large-scale revival in the North is a relatively new phenomenon (one need only think of Séamus Mac Seáin's D'Imigh Sin agus Tháinig Seo), age is also a factor: 16% of those aged 44 or under know Irish, but only 10% of those aged 45 or over. This means that, like the Catholic community itself, numbers and percentages of Irish-speakers are likely to continue to grow. In time, the percentage of speakers, though perhaps not the quality, may become comparable with Wales — only 1% of the Northern Ireland population "can carry on a complicated conversation in Irish, talking about any subject".

The real problem for Irish, though, is that the numbers of people strongly in favour and strongly against the language are more or less equal, making progress difficult if it is treated as an either/or democratic issue rather than a human rights one, as many would prefer. This stands in marked contrast to Scotland, where attitudes to Gaelic are much more favourable, despite its revival coming from a lower base. One need hardly be an expert to work out that the Northern Ireland figures are a result of, and testament to, deep structural sectarianism in the polity.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

On Verisimilitude in Art

Ranulph Fiennes's novel The Sett is a sprawling, over-researched conspectus of the seedier side of the 1980s that, despite its flaws, packs some punch.

The book's basic premise is a simple legal rule: you can't libel the dead. Thus Paul Blackledge, a violent badger-baiter murdered by a love rival — a man, who, one might suppose, had no reputation to defend — is chosen as the key figure in a complicated globe-spanning web that through chance encounter has resulted in the brutal deaths of two innocent people and robbed a third not only of his wife and daughter but, through post-traumatic stress disorder, of his memory.

Part of the attraction of such speculative fiction dealing with recent history and actual, if deceased, people is the question of how much truth there is in the mixture. Being a former member of the SAS, Ranulph Fiennes — a reader might conclude — may be privy to information that is not in the public sphere. As some people have claimed regarding The Da Vinci Code, it may in fact be "all true". Having been written during the first half of the 1990s, the book belongs to the pre-Internet age, and if the author has not employed researchers, he may be one of those people who keep "runs" of The Times in the attic. A lengthy list of interviewees is appended to the tale, including, as a final flourish, Alex Goodman, the pseudonym of the hero.

It is perhaps the very ambition of the work that is its undoing, both because the result is incredible (taking in the ALF, the Yardies, the Broadwater Farm riot, the CIA, Pablo Escobar and an American spree-killer) and because its convolutions mean that is often a whirlwind of confusing detail. A host of minor characters are introduced by name, often with quite some biographical background, only to be killed off or disappear from the action. One sub-story, in which the hero is required to have a ferry sunk, is so skirted over as to render it an unbelievable aside. The first 10% or so of the book in particular, when the reader is still coming to terms with the basic narrative thrust, is extremely difficult to follow.

One of the problems with the past is that everyone has their own version, and Fiennes is no exception. His description of the Broadwater Farm riot differs fundamentally from the version at Wikipedia, for example. To some extent that will be merely a question of focus, but there are also instances of what one might broadly term "political incorrectness": people of mixed race are "half-caste"; there are Paddy "bar-proppers" speaking Stage Oirish; an underage prostitute remarks that rape is not so bad for people in her profession. On the other hand, many ethnic characters are portrayed as human, likeable, loyal and loving. Perhaps it would not be going too far to ascribe this odd mixture of tactlessness and affection to the "banter" of army life. We know who the tale's real baddies are because their interest in rape or abusing minors and because of their penchant for cruelty both animal and human (Ranulph Fiennes himself once famously removed the frost-bitten parts of his fingers with a hacksaw, so it's perhaps no surprise to read about them flying off in the book too).

At times the working-class characters are not well drawn. Their diction varies between colloquialism and stilted formality, the latter sometimes a result of barely assimilated factual prose being inserted into the dialogue. As a Northern Ireland resident, I found the character of Tosh, the former UVF killer, particularly implausible. The notion of a flame-haired Irish-speaking assassin who dispatches attackers with kung-fu kicks à la Mrs. Peel and whose favoured method of execution is "ANC", or "apparent natural causes", suggests a sophistication wholly lacking in that organisation, not just this week but any week. I almost suspected a last-minute change in her background from Republican to Loyalist, though she would have been unbelievable as an IRA woman too. Her speech sometimes lacks realism. Nota bene: in the vernacular, "after tellin'" has perfective force rather than suggesting volition. Similarly, a Glaswegian character uses the word "ken", which, owing to mass immigration from the Highlands and Ireland, is no longer a feature of the dialect. Of course, to a certain sort of English person — recently, Jemima Khan — any urban Scots-speaker is "Glaswegian".

Perhaps it was the description of Tosh, but the book reminded me of another exponent of this tantalising speculative genre, Eoin McNamee, and in particular the character of a fellow SAS man, the tragic Robert Nairac, who may or may not have been involved in the Miami Showband Massacre, and who on the night of his death was told by one drinker at the Three Steps Inn near Forkhill that he had the strangest Belfast accent he had ever heard.

Oddly, although I much preferred the sections dealing with Alex Goodman to those describing the flamboyant criminal masterminds ranged against him, it was some of the ostensibly factual, background information that I found the most interesting in the book. I don't know if or how much Fiennes departed from the truth in writing it — though Pablo Escobar seems to live more like a deranged Roman Emperor than anything else. Above all, the novel affords an opportunity to draw together the text and subtext of a decade and, in so doing, to make sense of our own collective memories.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Tack and Diplomacy

According to a recent poll in the Belfast Telegraph, the proportion of Catholic to Protestant Alliance voters is now 4:3, a figure that was traditionally more like 1:2. Of course, one is often advised to take the results of such surveys with a pinch of salt, since there is a well-documented tendency for respondents to Northern Ireland opinion polls to understate support for Nationalist parties, particularly the former physical forcers of Sinn Féin. As the number of Catholics willing to vote for the DUP or UUP must be vanishingly small, the dissembling response in such circumstances has tended to favour the Alliance Party.

Even if one has one's doubts about whether Alliance is set to overtake the UUP in a province-wide election, however, it is clear that, after a near fatal squeeze during the initial years following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the party is on the up. There is no doubt either that Catholic support for Alliance is growing. For the first time, the end of the Troubles has brought about a Catholic vote for the Union, whose main depository, one suspects, is the yellow, liberal camp.

This raises an intriguing possibility. As Alliance gains more Catholic support, and Catholic representatives, will its grossly illiberal blanket rejection of Irish-language signage based on a pretended equivalence with sectarian symbols remain tenable? One hopes not.

An incident this week, however, does not augur well. Having sided with the Nationalist parties to reduce the number of days on which the Union Flag flies over Belfast City Hall and suffered a splenetic response from the East Belfast UVF, the Alliance Party has either bottled it or once again engaged in the kind of reflexive, analysis-free triangulation that marked its approach to the issue of Irish-language signs. For Alliance Councillor Máire Hendron has indicated her willingness to support an initiative from the Unionist parties to have the Union Flag fly over the Cenotaph 365 days a year, where it is both more visible than on the top of City Hall, and more accessible to passers-by. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the situation, one feels bound to ask whether Belfast has been put through the last week only for the symbolic effect of flag-flying to be replicated on an alternative site a stone's throw away — one of great emotional sensitivity for Unionists and much more vulnerable to attack by vandals, drunk or sober.

Tack one way, then tack the other. Now, how about that on a sign?