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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

A Living Tapestry of Tongues


Sean Fleming • 6 August 2004

At a time of increased interest in language issues in the north of Ireland, Tom Paulin, the poet and arts critic writing in a 1983 Field Day pamphlet entitled, ‘A New Look at the Language Question’ suggested that Irish English could exist as a fully-fledged language alongside Irish Gaelic and Ulster Scots. By Irish English he did not mean Hiberno-English (English as clearly influenced by the grammar and vocabulary of Irish Gaelic) though that would be an important part of it. He was referring to English as influenced by both the Irish and Scots languages as well as by Elizabethan, British, American English and other influences. The growing awareness of language issues at the time it was written was related to the political conflict at one of its most intense periods when questions of identity were salient. The Irish language movement was influenced by the Hunger Strikers which awakened a new Irish cultural consciousness. Around this time also Ian Adamson, the Ulster Unionist historian and linguist argued that the Cruithin were the indigenous non-Celtic people from whom the Ulster people were descended and that the Gaelic language (as opposed to the Irish language) should be claimed by Unionists as part of their heritage.

Interest in a language concept termed Irish English may not be widespread but the literary and artistic talent throughout the island is testament to the strength of such a concept. There is no doubt that this could develop and I believe some other factors which have not been mentioned could make their mark on it in the future. The language of the Irish Travellers, Shelta or Gammon /Cant as it is variously known, and Ireland’s new immigrant communities and ethnic minorities can only add to and enrich its lexicon. In fact the language and its creative use could develop a real cultural commonality irrespective of ethnic identity. The following quotations here are taken from interviews I did with leading academics and language enthusiasts which may serve to highlight this cultural asset. It should be recognised that Irish English need not suffer from some kind of inferiority complex. We are talking about a language in which some of the greatest literature has ever been written and one thinks of Yeats and Joyce in particular and other exceptional Irish writers.

Loreto Todd is a renowned linguist and author of books such as ‘Words Apart’ and ‘Green English’ which explore Ireland’s linguistic heritage. She believes that the strands that have come together in Ireland succeed in making it specially unique. Green English is her term for English as spoken in Ireland. She explains:

"Black English is a term usually used for the English of the African Diaspora and Green English is a form of English used in Ireland that has been carried world-wide. Irish people have always been great travellers. One thinks of Colmcillle and the early Irish monks .You had Irish people in the Caribbean almost as early as you had African people and they were instrumental in creating that type of English (Creoles)."

Comparing Irish English with what is sometimes called Black English and its impact on contemporary culture helps us to understand the influential way in which Irish people have moulded English. Todd believes that this comes down to the variety of influences in Ireland especially in Ulster. She sees a defining characteristic of language here as being that of diversity. She sees its potential as a cultural commonality since it has drawn together different cultural/ linguistic strands and also as a force in literature and other art forms:

"Irish, Ulster Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Hiberno and Ulster English all belong here and should all be cherished. The depoliticisation of language is necessary if this is to be successful. Our common linguistic heritage is one of the chief marks of our identity and it can be a positive and valuable way of creating new understandings and good relations between people irrespective of their political viewpoint. It must not be a tool of propaganda giving an ugly distortion to a rich cultural fabric and thereby prevent achieving a cultural consensus. There has been in the past in Ulster a very lively tradition of songs and ballads which you can recite as poems. Ulster’s finest writers can hold their own with anyone. They have their roots in a very rich oral tradition of poems and story telling. If you wanted to get a literary tradition that can be harsh in its way and have an incredible truthfulness you couldn't do better than the Scottish tradition; if you wanted a literature that delves into the imagination and almost outdoes science fiction in its wonderful imaginative qualities then you couldn't do better than the Irish tradition. If you wanted a time when the English tradition was at its most vibrant then you couldn't do better than the Shakespherian tradition. How then could we not produce great writers, great talkers, great storytellers and musicians? "

While many people of a Unionist persuasion may be, to quote from Paulin’s work, "unwilling to contemplate the all–Ireland context which a federal concept of Irish English would necessarily express" its flexibility should allow for it to be seen as a language with various branches, one of the richest being Ulster English. Nelson Mc Causland, a leading member of the DUP and director of the Ulster Scots Heritage Council, opts to place it in an Ulster context shaped by his Ulster Scots cultural viewpoint:

"We have three language traditions Ulster Scots, Gaelic and Ulster English. It is getting away from polarity to plurality. Both Gaelic and Scots have influenced Ulster English. In fact if you look at the Concise Ulster Dictionary it is clear for obvious reasons that the influence of Ulster Scots on Ulster English was greater than Gaelic because they are sister languages."

Irish English can therefore split off in a number of directions. After all we are talking here about a medium which is always growing and changing. By allowing others to define a form as Ulster English we release creative possibilities. The frame reference should simply be the island of Ireland; the all-island context opening up different perspectives. The language should not form part of any political objective. Ian Parsley, formerly of the Ulster Scots Agency and also a linguist, expresses what I believe could similarly be said in relation to Irish English. While he is concerned with the Ulster Scots revival his view that: "the Ulster Scots revival needs to be seen in the context of increased regionalisation throughout Europe" is a reflection of what Irish English could be with its regional differences and vernaculars. Whether it is Ulster Scots words, or slang from Cork or Cavan, Dublin or Dundalk, they all form part of this tapestry of tongues. He also expresses what would appear to be an antidote to nationalism in that "paradoxically as Europe becomes more centralised, regions rather than nations will develop identities". His non-political Ulster Scots Research Centre and its sponsored website are an important contribution to this subject.

The Newry or Nyuck dialect referring to the vocabulary and pronunciation found in the Newry area researched by Brian Dodds and available on his website is an example of this regionalisation but also in the context of a broader outlook. He has developed links with Appalachian residents who have been able to share with him the similarities in speech and vocabulary. Coming back to Ireland’s ethnic minorities, linguistic cultural projects could be explored with Shelta, a unique and largely secretive language created out of both Irish and English in the 16th or 17th centuries. Some of its vocabulary is taken from Romani, the language of the Roma and also other Traveller cants. Given the racism against Irish Travellers, cultural projects -say with the Irish language community- could aim to break down some of the prejudice that exists in society and provide a much greater awareness and appreciation of Irish Traveller culture in general. Similar language based projects could be explored with other ethnic minorities. There is no doubt that they will bring new words into the lexicon of Irish English as well.

One need that may have to be met if a confidant concept of Irish English is to flourish is a dictionary to help define its many words. The concise Ulster dictionary was an important milestone for Ulster English. A home needs to be found for the great many words that exist in Irish English. The result otherwise to quote Paulin again "is a language which lives a type of romantic, unfettered existence". He believes it should instead become " the flexible written instrument of a complete cultural idea". One thinks of writers like Roddy Doyle who today perhaps best express a concept that could be termed Irish English. His books have wisps of Hiberno-English influenced by Dublin working class slang and humour. Irish writers such as Sean O Casey and John Synge are writers of Irish English clearly influenced by the Hiberno-English tradition in particular. To see an excellent rendering of modern Irish/Ulster Dialect English in the Derry vernacular read Frances Molloy’s, ‘No Mate for the Magpie’ and in the Belfast dialect the playwright Graham Reid’s work.

Irish English serves brilliantly as a creative and literary language. It is layered, has multiple forms, dialects within dialects; it plays on words and has great colour and expressive quality. Its energy lies in the island’s linguistic diversity. It is a unique expression of identity formed by our history and experience. It expresses new ways of seeing and looking. It is an inspiration for writers, poets, artists and musicians. Developing it and shaping it in our own particular way while giving recognition to it as an original form of language in itself will lead to its further enhancement. A dictionary, an academy possibly, a journal or newspaper and arts/writers groups dedicated to its enjoyment and use would all serve in invigorating its future.


Websites that may be of interest in relation to this subject are:







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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

8 August 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

An Ireland of Equals!
Kathleen O Halloran

A Socialist in West Belfast
Anthony McIntyre

A Living Tapestry of Tongues
Sean Fleming

Paranoia is Healthy: Michael O'Connell's Right Wing Ireland?
Seaghán Ó Murchú

'The Labor of Reading'
Liam O Ruairc

Seamus Costello, Joe McCann and myself...
Liam O Comain

Anti-Semitism at the World Social Forum?
Cecilie Surasky

4 August 2004

Tommy Gorman, Radical Thought
Anthony McIntyre

The UnHung Hero
Dolours Price

State Republicans and Totalitarian States
Kathleen O Halloran

Informers Everywhere
Mick Hall

Now Here's A Political Platform
Fred A Wilcox

Political Theatre
Danielle Ni Dhighe

Energy Crisis in Argentina, FTAA Goes One Game Up
Víctor Ego Ducrot and Martín Waserman
translated by Toni Solo



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