Ulster Irish today is pretty much a synonym for Donegal Irish. But did you know that Irish was also widely spoken in Eastern Ulster, despite the high number of English and Scottish settlers since the Plantation of Ulster? Indeed, East Ulster Irish was seen as an Intermediary dialect between Irish and Scottish Gaelic forming part of perhaps part of a dialect continuum. This is backed up by the fact that there is still confusion to this day over whether Rathlin Island Irish is an East Ulster dialect or dialect of Scots Gaelic!
First of all, Ulster Irish is one of the three main dialects of the Irish Language (The others being Munster and Connaught Irish) and is spoken in the northern province of Ireland called Ulster (a province which straddles two countries, that of the Republic of Ireland and that of Northern Ireland which belongs to the UK). Traditionally Irish was spoken across the province but the last native speakers were dying out in East Ulster by the mid twentieth century. Nowadays, Ulster Irish is mainly spoken in the Donegal Gaeltacht and Shaws Road in Belfast [although in East Ulster, Donegal Irish is used].
Eastern Ulster Irish or Gaedhilge as it was known in the dialect, is very interesting linguistically and were it to still exist, it could perhaps be a mechanism through which strong ties could be maintained between Irish, Scots Gaelic [Gàidhlig] and Manx as the same language would be spoken on both sides of the Strait of Moyle and it would be the centre of the Gaelic speaking world.
Since the dialect survived into the 20th Century, there is plenty of recorded evidence of the language that we still have today such as video or audio recordings, placenames and books (in the past, spelling was much more phonetic). The recordings which captured my imagination years ago when I heard about their existence on the radio are the famous Doegen Recordings [I will attach a link at the end of the article]. These recordings were of native speakers of various different regional dialects in Ireland (many of which are now extinct) made between 1928 and 1931 by the German linguist Dr Doegen and to whom we should all be eternally grateful. At a time when Irish was more widely spoken, we had pockets of speakers recorded (these pockets have since disappeared) in the Sperrin Mountains, the Glens of Antrim, Rathlin Island, North-West County Cavan, South-East County Monaghan, South Armagh and North County Louth in a place called Omeath. Irish survived in the Sperrins until the 1950s, until the 1970s in the Glens of Antrim and 1985 in Rathlin Island, Bella McKenna of Rathlin Island was the last speaker of East Ulster Irish and fortunately she was recorded on video speaking before she died.
These recordings reveal the pecularities of this dialect and what makes it different from the rest of Irish. You may have seen earlier in this post the East Ulster way of saying Gaelic – Gaedhlig. Very similar to the Scots Gaelic – Gàidhlig in contrast to Gaeilge in the south of Ireland. We also have examples such as bhfeil in East Ulster (the same in Scots Gaelic) compared to the Irish – bhfuil. They also pronounced vowels differently like ‘ea’ for example. In most Irish dialects fear was pronoucned far but in East Ulster Irish, it was pronounced ferr. This sound rule is also applied in Manx and Scottish Gaelic. Also the common name Seán is pronounced Shawn in most of Ireland, but in East Ulster it was pronounced Shane.
East Ulster Irish also has some of it’s own unique vocabulary for vocab that it is the same in every other Irish dialect. For example coinfheasgar (tráthnóna – evening in Irish. The Manx for good evening is fastyr vie), arsúigh (innis – tell), corruighe (fearg – angry), práinn (deifir – hurry), go seadh (go fóill – yet), márt (bó – cow), toigh (teach – house).
Rathlin Island Gaelic is fascinating and deserves its own post (actually someone has made their own blog dedicated to it and I will attach a link to it at the bottom). Rathlin Gaelic had it’s own features such as bhá (considered a Scottish Gaelic feature) instead of the Irish bhí and the -adh endings would have been pronounced -ag. Ainm ‘name’ was pronounced like arm. As I have previously stated, scholars have long debated over whether it is Irish or Scots Gaelic. It contains features of both languages and could have been a transitional dialect between both. What perhaps facilitated this was that the inhabitants of Rathlin Island were themselves descended from Scottish settlers. Some of these were Highlanders who fled persecution following the Battle of Culloden in 1745. This influx of new settlers brought variations in the language, which were enduring. The dialects closest to Rathlin Gaelic that are still alive today are Islay Gaelic in Scotland and the Irish in Fanad in North Donegal.
Languages are too often seen as mechanical and impersonal. Here, in East Ulster Irish we have not just a dialect but a story of a people. We see how despite these people lived on the island of Ireland, they were under the massive influence of Scotland and they themselves were evidence for how close gaelic cultures were to each other. I would very much be in favour of the revival of these dialects. Like any language it cannot die, it can only be dormant. A dialect that could act as intermediary between language would truly be a treasure. Foreign learners of gaelic could choose to learn this dialect in order to maximise the amount of people thet could speak to and it would also fascilatate the rapid acquisition of another of the gaelic languages. With our help, Ulster could again become centre of the Gaelic World.
Thanks for listening, have a nice day!