Language Belongs to All the People
Language Belongs to All the People

Sean Fleming (from The Blanket)

In the north of Ireland today the conflict over cultural identity remains a central feature of life with few signs of a unifying identity or consensus emerging. Such an identity or consensus if it were to arise could help to break down the deep social and religious divisions that exist and help forge a new political identity. In that context it's interesting to look at how the Irish language and Ulster Scots language/cultural revivals have developed and been perceived in this society. The Irish language has gone from strength to strength since the sixties and is clearly dynamic when you consider the growth of the Irish language school sector. Unionists see the language revival as being politically inspired and as having a definite republican agenda. Nationalists on the otherhand see the Ulster Scots movement as a political reaction by unionists to own a language that they feel emphasises their non-Irishness. It's unfortunate in my view that the cultural commonalties that both languages offer have not been built upon and developed. The simple fact is that they belong to all the people here and are not the preserve of any one community. ----- EXTENDED BODY:

Proportioning blame for this situation may not be helpful or constructive. Indeed a new look at these minority and marginalised languages should see them as not having to be in competition with each other but instead as needing the mutual support of each other in order to stay alive against the development of monoculture on the island of Ireland.

A new look at the language question today should in my view involve Unionists beginning to realise that there is no reason to regard learning the Irish or Gaelic language as a denial of a sense of British identity. For instance, Gearoid O Caireallain, former President of Conradh na Gaeilge, has expressed this understanding in relation to the language:

`There is hardly any recognition of the fact that there was a time when it was mostly Protestants who promoted the language and there was a time when Irish wasn't seen to be in the ownership of one particular nationality. In Scotland in the Western Isles, it (Gaelic) is spoken equally happily by both those who see themselves as Protestant from the northern islands and Catholics from the southern islands - for people in the Western Isles of Scotland it doesn't conflict with their sense of Britishness.'

History teaches us that it was invading Gaels from Ulster who brought the Gaelic language to Scotland in the fifth century AD and it survives to this day in parts of Scotland. Indeed, the name Scotland comes from the Latin word `Scotti' meaning Gaels from Ireland. Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic is essentially the same language. Continuing to emphasise this Scottish connection may in fact make the language more attractive to unionists as it takes it outside a solely Irish context.

This Scottish connection is again reflected in the Ulster Scots language. It should be understood that it is a variant of the Scots language which itself is derived from an earlier dialect of Anglo-Saxon. It is not a Celtic language unlike Gaelic, Welsh and Cornish. Indeed, in Ulster and Ireland today, the presence of older words in the English spoken here which have disappeared from Standard English is part of the unique linguistic heritage of this part of the world. That's something Irish, N.Irish people should be proud of rather than viewing their speech as being not quite as desirable as that of supposedly educated English speech. In Scots/Ulster Scots we also see the influence of both Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic. James Fenton, a native speaker of Ulster Scots who grew up in the townlands of Drumadarragh and Ballinaloob and author of an excellent book on Ulster Scots called the Hamely Tongue, has said:

`The Ulster Scots tongue in its contemporary form is a blend of what remains of the original Scots (a fairly substantial part), dialectal influences from other parts of Ulster and elsewhere, a considerable input from local Irish speech and locally coloured but ever - encroaching ` proper' English.'

Today there is a greater struggle to keep Ulster Scots alive than is the case with Irish because much of its vocabulary is tied to the old ways of farming and living in Ulster and there are I believe a number of additional problems which need to be faced by what has become known as the Ulster Scots movement. Firstly, I do not believe it is helpful to have at the forefront of the main government funded Ulster Scots language bodies high profile unionist figures. There is, it has to be said, no comparable situation as far as the Irish language is concerned. Secondly, a credibility problem has arisen in that the same people have never been heard speaking Ulster Scots. This inevitably leads to claims that the language is non- existent. As Seamus Mac Seain, a writer with the Irish Language newspaper, La, has pointed out:

`There are people in the Ulster Scots movement who can't speak a word of it. If someone around here were to go about pushing the Irish Language, making all sorts of demands, and couldn't speak a word of it, people here would say what do you think you're at.'

Also claims by Lord Laird of the Ulster Scots Agency that there are two nations in Ireland- an Irish one and a Scottish one- is in my view far fetched and not helpful in building cross community support. It is also an unfair statement given that according to the Agency itself many native Ulster Scots speakers are from a nationalist catholic background. I have no doubt that many people within the unionist community have an affinity with Scotland and that should be respected, but to imply that this is driving a separatist movement is deeply questionable. The Ulster Scots tongue it should be remembered is also spoken in the Laggan district in Co.Donegal and the Irish Government has recently made moves in recognising the importance of the language. Ulster Scots, I believe, should not go into an enclave and become a badge of identity for the Unionist community in opposition to developing a more contemporary and inclusive identity. The language though it has to be stressed is spoken in parts of Ulster and James Fenton's book is an excellent and enlightening introduction to anyone unfamiliar with Ulster Scots

Ulster Scots should also have an appeal for republicans too. Aside from the Irish Gaelic influence, Ulster Scots poets known as the Rhyming Weavers in the 18th and early 19th century wrote in support of the 1798 rising of the United Irishmen and the American Revolution.In fact, one of the main reasons for preserving Ulster Scots is this literary heritage. It is a primary historical source giving us an insight into the past and the meaning of words and how people thought and lived at the time. It can also give people more pride in the way they speak and knowledge of the Scots words they use in their speech.

There are ways in which the Irish language community could help to open the language up more to the unionist community. Exploring the Gaelic relationship with Scotland as I've said is is one. The Colmcille Initiative and the Ultach Trust have done good work in this area. Interchanging the term the Irish language with Irish Gaelic or Gaelic might help to break down some of the perceived ethnocentrism of the term. Also looking further afield to Nova Scotia, which was in turn settled by Scottish Gaelic speakers in the late 18th and early 19th century, novel initiatives have taken place there in recent years to develop their Gaelic heritage. They have tried to make their Gaelic language and cultural roots vibrant and alive again. These links or relationships could therefore help broaden the language's appeal. Gaelic initiatives can also be seen today in the Isle of Man in relation to Manx Gaelic. Through various cultural projects, exploring the fact for instance that many of our placenames are derived from Irish Gaelic, unionists may develop an empathy with the language. An understanding should also be made with the unionist/protestant community that the term, the Irish language, simply means the indigenous language of the island of Ireland. This can help therefore to remove the connotations of nationalism from the term.

It is important in all of this to see how politics can remove a genuine appreciation of our linguistic heritage. Language can certainly be used to divide people and sometimes language movements encourage cultural apartheid in order to maintain sectarian divisions .We must therefore reject cultural fundamentalism. My view is that one way in which these languages can continue to grow is through finding and exploring a new cultural centre that would show how Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Ulster Scots and Hiberno- English have interacted with and influenced each other. This could involve a variety of new cultural projects. It should be recognised that learning and appreciation of Ulster Scots can be enhanced through supplementing it with knowledge of Irish or Gaelic. Likewise a learner of Irish will benefit from supplementing their learning through knowledge of the vocabulary and idioms of Hiberno-English (works by Sean O Casey, John Synge and Roddy Doyle provide a flavour) and Ulster Scots. There are areas where these languages can complement and enrich each other. Imagining new creative initiatives where this could be developed could lead to exciting and invigorating cultural development. We should see these languages anew, not as a language in struggle against British or even as some Ulster Scots would put it Irish imperialism but instead, as language and cultural movements playing their part in resisting the monoculture and homogenisation which threatens local, regional and broader cultural identities.

People should not reject minority cultures and languages because they are not seen as economic or because the media and a particular form of globalisation have little time for these cultures. People who devote their time to learning a minority language are taking a stand in a world which threatens diversity. They are expressing what is unique about them and their experience and their sense of who they are. Many, on the otherhand, would rather conform and lose the particularities and riches of their own cultural importance.

A new imagining of the future - who we want to be - is very important because that image influences our actions in the present and often that image will materialise in the future. The image that we form of the future is as important as the way we interpret the past. The choice is either to continue with the same old failed game of division and mistrust or to build new relationships and find new creative ways of moving forward and creating something that will have value. We should not forget the languages and cultures of the minority ethnic communities as well. Exciting and exhililaring art, music and cultural projects have come about through this fusion of multiculturalism. At the Indian community centre in Belfast I read that in the ancient Hindu language Sanskrit evidence of a relationship with the Irish language in some of its words can be found. Wouldn't it be an exciting project to explore this relationship in some cultural form? Therefore, the way forward is to build commonalties, to stop the strife that makes culture the new arena in which the conflict is being fought. Its continuance will only bring about a cultural loss and we will all be the poorer for it. If, on the otherhand, building a new sense of cultural identity were successful, it could help to create a better and more diverse society where people could feel comfortable with and benefit from the cultural riches that are clearly in evidence and which would be of real potential for society as a whole.

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