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 a dialect continuum. This is backed up by the fact that there is still confusion to this day over whether Rathlin Island Irish can be classified as an East Ulster dialect or dialect of Scottish 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, Ulster (a province which straddles two countries, that of the Republic of Ireland and that of Northern Ireland which belongs to the United Kingdom). Leinster Irish would have been another dialect that has long since died out (and definitely worth a blog post, watch this space). Traditionally, Irish was spoken across the entirety Ulster, but the last native speakers were dying out in East Ulster by the mid to late twentieth century. Irish died out first in the counties of Down and Fermanagh. Nowadays, Ulster Irish is mainly spoken in the Donegal Gaeltacht and Shaws Road in Belfast [although in East Ulster, Donegal Irish is used].
East 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, Scottish 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, place names 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. Wilhelm 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 peculiarities of this dialect and what makes it different from the other Irish dialects. You may have seen earlier in this post the East Ulster way of saying Gaelic – ‘Gaedhlig’. Very similar to the Scottish Gaelic – Gàidhlig in contrast to ‘Gaeilge’ in the south of Ireland. We also have examples such as ‘bhfeil’ in East Ulster (the same in Scottish Gaelic) compared to the Irish – ‘bhfuil’. The so-called archaic pronunciation of ‘bh’ and ‘mh’ with a ‘v’ sound rather than a ‘w’ sound was also a distinctive feature of this dialect. The Standard Irish ‘níos’ was pronounced ‘nas’. They also pronounced vowels differently like ‘ea’ for example. In most Irish dialects, ‘fear’ was pronounced far but in East Ulster Irish, it was pronounced ferr. This sound rule also applies 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. In the imperative they used -ibh (also present in Scottish Gaelic) instead of the -igí plural ending in Standard Irish.
East Ulster Irish also has some of its own unique vocabulary for words that would be the same in every other Irish dialect. For example : coinfheasgar (tráthnóna – evening in Irish. The Manx for good evening is fastyr mie), arsúigh (innis – tell), corruighe (fearg – angry), práinn (deifir – hurry), go seadh (go fóill – yet), márt (bó – cow), toigh (teach – house), tonnóg (duck).
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 its 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. They formed plurals by adding ‘-án’ or ‘-eán’. For example : taigh (house), taigheán (houses).
As I have previously stated, scholars have long debated over whether it was Irish or Scottish Gaelic. It contains features of both languages and could have been a transitional dialect between both. What perhaps facilitated this was that many of the inhabitants of Rathlin Island were themselves descended from Scottish settlers. Some of these were Highlanders who fled the Highland Clearances 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 spoken in Fanad in North Donegal and Tory Island Irish.
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 their living 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 languages would truly be a treasure. Foreign learners of Gaelic could choose to learn this dialect in order to maximise the amount of people that they could speak to and it would also facilitate the rapid acquisition of other Gaelic languages. This could be facilitated by Irish teachers in the area incorporating some East Ulster Gaelic into their Irish lessons, which has already begun in some schools in County Monaghan! With our help, Ulster could once again become centre of the Gaelic World!
Thanks for listening, have a nice day!
- “Counties Down and Fermanagh were the first counties where Irish died out, but according to the 1911 census, Irish was spoken by the majority of the population over 60 years old in parts of the Sperrin mountains and Rathlin Island. Sound recordings have been made of the Irish of Antrim, Armagh, Londonderry and Tyrone. One of the last speakers of Antrim Irish, Jimmy Stewart of Murlough, died in 1950, and the last speaker of Tyrone Irish, Johnny McAleer, died in 1970. Bella McKenna, the last speaker of Rathlin Irish, was recorded on videotape and died in 1985. With her death came the extinction of the East Ulster dialect of Irish which had been spoken in what is present-day Northern Ireland.” Iontaobhas ULTACH, http://www.ultach.org