The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Reclaiming Irish

Dr John Coulter argues the time has come for Unionists to reclaim the Irish language from republicans by learning Gaelic instead of making fools of themselves by trying to repackage a rural Ballymena accent and calling it Ulster Scots.

Dr John Coulter • 27 December 2004

Northern Protestantism has supposedly launched a counter offensive against republicanism's domination of the Irish language as a political weapon by promoting its own lingo.

Ulster Scots, which common sense would tell you, is essentially a broad rural Ballymena accent, washed down with a healthy support for Glasgow Rangers soccer club! To its fanatical followers, Ulster Scots is an oral language, so talk of it being dismissed as an accent, dialect, or even just drunken Prod gibberish is like a cultural red flag to a bull.

But what Protestants need to do practically is to form their own version of the Gaelic League and reclaim the Irish language back from republicans. They should forget about making fools of themselves by trying to repackage the Ulster Scots Ballymena accent.

Instead, Protestantism should concentrate on re-taking those elements of culture, such as the Irish language and St Patrick's Day, which republicanism has paraded as part of Irish nationalism's supposedly unique ethnic identity.

In reality, however, Northern Protestantism can only go the Ulster Scots cultural route if it wishes to survive. Its Irish identity died with the radical Presbyterians who were defeated in 1798 during the doomed United Irishmen's rebellion.

To be specific, the defeat at the Battle of Ballynahinch effectively marked the death of the concept of revolutionary Protestant nationalism in Ireland. It was a defeat helped by the establishment Church of Ireland's tactical support for the fledgling exclusively Protestant Orange Order.

In this third millennium, Protestants' British identity is being slowly but surely undermined by an increasingly pluralist and multi-racial England with the Protestant Throne seemingly determined to distance itself from the defence of the Reformed Faith. Indeed, there is the real danger that within a generation, fundamentalist Islam - not Christianity - could become Britain's state religion.

With both its Irish and British roots becoming increasingly eroded, Protestantism has been forced to look to Scotland as a source of cultural identity. Many in Northern Ireland, even within the majority Protestant community, would view the Ulster Scots 'language' as little more than a hyped-up and carefully spin-doctored country chit-chat.

But they certainly would not want their cultural identity defined by the blood-curdling portrayals of anti-English nationalism as outlined by Hollywood legend Mel Gibson in his brutal movie Braveheart.

In Northern Ireland, the Scottish Ulster cause is being championed by two fairly well funded organisations - the Ulster Scots Agency (Boord o Ulster-Scotch), established as part of the Good Friday Agreement, and the older Ulster Scots Heritage Council (Ulster-Scotch Heirskip Cooncil) formed in 1995.

The cultural war which Protestantism faces in language terms was clearly spelt out by a past announcement from Iontaobhas na Gaelscolaiochta, the Irish language schools organisation. It said the numbers being taught in Irish medium schools in Northern Ireland had reached more than 3,000 and no less than 60 new schools were planned over the next few years.

However, it would be accurate to suggest that whilst a large number of the North's one-million Protestant population would sympathise with an Ulster Scots identity, precious few would be able to recognise this supposed Ulster Scots tongue, let alone speak it.

Protestantism's cultural counter reformation has been built on the twin pillars of historic ancestral links with Scotland, along with a healthy dose of the arts, such as dancing and music.

But a major factor in the development of the Ulster Scots campaign on the culture, history and language fronts has been the dynamic enthusiasm of two of its leading lights - pro-Agreement UUP peer Lord Laird of Artigarvan, and Nelson McCausland, a prominent anti-Agreement North Belfast DUP Stormont MLA. The media literacy of these two Ulster Scots activists should not be underestimated.

Lord Laird, the former public relations guru John Laird, has a wealth of experience in dealing with the media. Assemblyman McCausland has gained the reputation, too, as a skilled communicator, cutting his teeth as a Gospel recording singer and a one-time chief spokesman for the Christian fundamentalist pressure group, the Lord's Day Observance Society.

Before teaming up with the DUP, Mr McCausland was also formerly linked to the Ulster Independence movement, then headed by leading Orange cleric, the Rev Hugh Ross.

Whilst the arts and historical aspects of the Ulster Scots culture has been gathering a rapid momentum within Protestantism, the development of the language has proved to be a major stumbling block. In spite of the strong leadership given to the campaign by Laird and McCausland, it almost ran aground as a result of the sex scandal in the United States involving ex-Agency frontman Stan Mallon.

However, when it comes to dismissing the Ulster Scots language as merely an accent from rural North Antrim, the pro-linguists lobby comes out with all clamours swinging.

One told me bluntly: "Despite media commentators dismissing the language as 'gibberish' - and I can assure you that we take no prisoners on this one - the language as a recognised European minority or lesser used language and has certain rights. Ulster Scots has survived as an oral language.

"It is not a formal developed language as we would tend to think of, like French or Irish, and it needs to go through a considerable development process, particularly with the compilation of an Ulster Scots dictionary where spellings and pronunciation will be standardised. Its development is only just starting and how it will be developed rests mainly with the wishes and desires of the people who want to maintain it.

"There is a lively debate in Ulster Scots language circles between native speakers and new speakers, between rural Ulster Scots and urban Ulster Scots, and people are beginning to write creatively in Ulster Scots.

"The poet James Fenton writes exclusively in Ulster Scots and will not translate his work. His collection of Ulster Scots, The Hamely Tongue, has thousands of words that he has collected and knows are still in use. Obviously, a lot of native speakers are quite old and there is a real fear that the words will die out of not captured, hence the tape-recorded survey of speakers undertaken by the Ulster Scots Language Society."

Another said the Northern Ireland branch of the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association was one of the largest in the world. There were even plans to export the art of Scottish country dancing to the Japanese.

And in Northern Ireland, the activist emphasised: "The Ulster Scots language, culture and history must be brought into the schools. These aspects of the Ulster Scots culture had been marginalised by the media and the education system, but under current European legislation there was an obligation for Ulster Scots to be taught in Northern Ireland schools."

The real danger for the Ulster Scots language lobby is that it could badly backfire on unionists. By nailing their colours to the Scottish kilts, Protestant unionists are effectively fuelling the perception they are descended from the Cromwellian Presbyterian invaders who ruthlessly - and effectively - crushed the Irish Catholic rebellions in Ireland from 1641 onwards.

In recent years, there has been much emphasis placed in Ulster Protestant circles that Northern Protestantism was descended from native heroes such as Cuchulainn and King Conor as outlined in the ancient tale known as Tain Bo Cuailgne, or the Cattle Raid of Cooley. It is called The Tain for short, and is regarded as a masterpiece of Irish saga literature.

The Ulster champion Cuchulainn was killed defending the Northern Irish territory from the Black Witch of Connacht, Queen Maeve, who launched a full-scale invasion of the North under the cloak of a cattle raid, according to The Tain.
Supporters of The Tain saga say this is proof that Northern Protestantism is actually descended from the native Irish and not from any English invaders as suggested by Irish republicanism.

To follow the Ulster Scots route is to support the perception that Northern Protestantism is not native to Ulster, but is actually imported from the British mainland.

The other problem which the Ulster Scots lobby has to overcome is political. Scotland already has its own devolved legislative parliament, but there is a rapidly growing Scottish nationalist movement. Scottish unionism in the shape of the Conservative Party has been fighting an uphill battle to avoid being politically eliminated north of the English border.

Northern Protestantism's support for the Ulster Scots culture is based on the political foundation that Scotland remains within the Union. But what happens to this ethos if the Scottish National Party (SNP) - which pushes for Scottish independence - ever becomes the party of government in the Scottish Parliament?
There is also a growing body of opinion within Protestantism which believes that the Irish language should be reclaimed from republicanism rather than trying to confront it with a lingo, such as Ulster Scots, that sounds and looks like Bog Latin.
Supporters of this position would eventually like to see the formation of a Protestant Gaelic League, with classes in Irish for Protestants set up in the network of Orange Halls across the North.

The Ulster Scots language plastered across Orange banners on the Twelfth would make a global laughing stock of the Order, especially after its hard-working attempts to clean up its world tarnished image in the aftermath of the various parades controversies, particularly Drumcree.

Having the Irish language on an Orange banner, however, would not be alien to the Order. At one time, a Belfast-based lodge, Ireland's Own Heritage, had Gaelic on its banner. But a prominent member of the lodge was the late homosexual paedophile William McGrath.

He was more notoriously known as the Beast of Kincora, after he was convicted of sexual offences against young boys in his care in the Kincora Boys Home in east Belfast. McGrath was also a senior member of the loyalist extremist group, Tara.
But given his notoriety with child abuse, McGrath's personal campaign to have the Irish language used more frequently by Protestants largely fell on deaf ears for most of a generation.

However, as a new, small generation of Protestant Irish speakers emerges, some unionist activists in the Irish-speaking community believe the time is now right to launch a linguistic counter offensive against Irish nationalism's stranglehold on the island's own language.




Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

2 January 2005

Other Articles From This Issue:

The Thing About History
Tom Luby

Do Not Be Afraid to Face the Truth
Mick Hall

Past Time to Deliver an Outcome
Davy Adams

Reclaiming Irish
Dr. John Coulter

Anthony McIntyre

Response to Anti-Semitism
Brian Kelly

23 December 2004

The Spectre of Imprisonment
Marian Price

Bad Santa
Anthony McIntyre

Blunkett's Interment Law Struck Down
Eamonn McCann

Trust Us, It's Not What It Looks Like
Brian Mór

ARN & Street Seen: End of the Year Comments from Davy Carlin
Davy Carlin



The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices