Some correspondence in the "Irish News" on the subject of Standard Irish and Ulster Irish.
Everybody is all mixed up over Ulster Irish
Seán Ó Cearnaigh, Irish News, 16 January 2004
Eamonn O'Connor's recent correspondence relating to Irish (January 12) betrays a unique ignorance of the contemporary history of the language since Irish independence in 1921. While his opponent 'Ulster Scot' rambles on about the misty past, Eamonn himself is unable to enlighten him. In fact, if Ulster Scot was to accept Eamonn's version of events, he would be more confused than when he first entered into the controversy.
Eamonn dismisses the central and most valid point made by Ulster Scot ie that the Dublin government adopted the Munster dialect as a substitute for the spoken tongue in the rest of the country. This is easily proved, especially in the case of Ulster Irish. The latter was always under pressure from the south from the foundation of the Gaelic League in 1893. In the end, Ulster was forced to set up its own defence council in 1924, in the form of Comhaltas Uladh, which from then on led the fight for the survival of Irish in Ulster until it finally capitulated in 1948.
Ulster Scot states that "this form of Irish should not be taught in the schools of the north" and Eamonn adds "it shouldn't and it isn't." Eamonn should research his subject better. Not only is 'this type of Irish' taught in the schools, but it is forced on the Gaeltacht as well. Many years ago I had to withdraw my children from a Gaeltacht school because standardised Irish (to give it its true title) was inhibiting their understanding of all subjects.
Eamonn also states that students in 'the six counties' learn Ulster Irish, which is why they go to the Gaeltacht in Donegal. Would that it were true! Ulster Irish has been corrupted to the extent that the young are alienated and the old are cynical. Anything passes for Irish now and, instead of linking up with the Gaeltacht in defence of Ulster Irish, those who espouse the language have given their blessing to Ulster Scots. Their attitude to both these issues demonstrates how far we have come since 1948. A living, virile tongue was sacrificed then for opportunistic reasons and Ulster-Scots, which is a linguistic non-starter, has been accepted for the same reason.
We have passed the point where these trends can be reversed and Eamonn should not pretend that all is well in a Gaeltacht where children don't understand their teachers and parents are mystified by books their children use at school.
Treatment of Ulster Irish is a matter of shame
Ciarán Ó Duibhín, Irish News, 20 February 2004 (republished on 3 March 2004)
I have to agree with Seán Ó Cearnaigh (January 16) about the shameful neglect of Ulster Irish in its native province. It is not the fault of the learners, of course, for they are not in a position to question what is served up to them. And that, by and large, is Standard Irish, an unbalanced amalgam of the Irish dialects of Gaelic — and only the Irish ones. Further dilution with a leavening of English semantics completes its conversion into a form which is fashionable to be taught and learned.
If the Irish language has been hijacked, it is not by politicians but by its own revival movement. It has been taken away from the native speakers, redesigned by its more advanced learners to their own specification, and the disastrous result foisted back on native speaker and learner alike, through the agencies of the education system and the media (with the noteworthy exception of Radio na Gaeltachta).
The question is whether it is too late for us to reclaim Ulster Irish. Has enough of it, even in Donegal, survived the ravages of Standard Irish, to rebuild upon? Seán is pessimistic, and perhaps he is right. Certainly, if there is to be any hope, something has to be done.
We need to think about what kind of Irish is worth learning, and to demand that the formal educational systems and the voluntary sector in Ulster deliver Ulster Irish to us; that the Gaelic-language media in Ulster provide us with Ulster Irish; that the textbooks of Ulster Irish be reprinted and supplemented; and that the large number of books in first-rate Ulster Irish, which are our most valuable resource, be republished in the language in which they were written, rather than in the linguistically-emasculated form which has been in vogue for the past half-century.
Ulster Irish is worthy of our attention. It is the most central dialect of Gaelic, both geographically and linguistically. Above all, it is the language which was spoken in Ulster into the present or the recent past, by people who included many of our own ancestors. If our motive in learning Irish is to identify with our roots, and to develop this identity for the future, such an aspiration will not be met by learning something that our forebears never spoke and would not understand.
Bemused by 'partitionist views' of the Irish language
Pol Deeds, Irish News, 9 March 2004
I was quite bemused by the singularly partitionist views of Ciaran O Duibhan (20/02/2004 and 03/03/2004) regarding the Irish language. His enthusiasm for sacrificing linguistic unity in favour of competing dialects shows complete ignorance of the accepted theories on language survival.
Stranger perhaps is his ignorance, for I assume that is what it is, of the views of one Ulsterman, Niall O Donaill from Loch an Iúir, who in the middle of the last century became one of the leading exponents of standardisation. I would recommend to Ciaran his essay Forbairt na Gaeilge (The Development of the Irish Language) in which can be found the thesis that lead to the survival of a national language that speaks to and of Irish people across this island and beyond.
It also lead to the establishment of our Ulster dialect at the heart of the accepted standard. Many of our Munster cousins also complain about the emasculation of their language through standardisation. Indeed, if you read the work of our greatest modern poet (Sean O Riordain) or novelist (Mairtin O Cadhain) — both Munstermen — you may understand their indignation. [Pol subsequently corrected his description of Mairtin O Cadhain as a Munsterman.]
The fact that both these writers have contributed so much to the literary canon post-standardisation, alongside many Ulster writers, and the fact that elements of all dialects can be heard and read in all of our daily Irish language media, shows what a success the great compromise has been.
So what about those like Ciaran who would have us break away from the standard and climb back down to our local linguistic roots? Well, I see them rather like our other cousins — English language ones, but like Ciaran people proud of their Ulster dialect — those who believe that the poetry of Robbie Burns is written in another language (although my anthology of English verse tells me otherwise).
These are all people who aren't satisfied with adding their unique extra flavour to the mother tongue — that universal symbiosis between standard and dialect, between the central and the peripheral, which nourishes both equally, However, Ciaran should note one crucial difference — that English, an international language, will not suffer regardless of how many dialects choose to break away. But Ireland is too small for its nascent bilingualism to sustain several sub-languages within the weaker of the two.
As regards Ciaran's assertion that standard Irish is an "imbalanced amalgam" of dialects, I would love the hear some proof. The standard, which took a lot of time and effort to develop, is actually finely balanced and entirely native (in the Irish sense 'dúchasach').
Standard Irish has done little for the survival of the language.
Ciarán Ó Duibhín, Irish News, 10 April 2004.
I thank Pol Deeds (9 March) for his views on standard Irish, though they are very different from my own. Pol does not dispute that Ulster Irish suffers from neglect, but considers that standard Irish has the better chance of survival. I need therefore only address the latter question, but I will first say that I see no attraction in a rootless community of users of standard Irish, and Pol has said nothing to convert me.
The naïve intention behind the official standard may be to get people all over Ireland using the same kind of Irish, but the practical effects have been extensive and negative, due both to the nature of the standard selected and the breadth of the domain over which it has been imposed.
The effect on the Gaeltacht is easy to understand. Here are the people who know the language, and we tell them that their speech is substandard and they must relearn the language from us, the non-native speakers. The degree of demoralisation will depend on the distance between the local Irish and the standard, and this is very far from being equal for all Gaeltacht regions.
The consequences were brought home to me many years ago, when I heard a native of Glencolumbkille claim it was wrong to speak Irish to children in the home, as they would have to unlearn it when they went to school and were faced with "proper Irish".
Next, the standard places obstacles in the way of learners who aim to acquire good Irish. The difference between two languages, as Nils Holmer put it, is not just in how a thing is said, but in what is said. To learn what people say in Irish, the obvious sources are the speech of the Gaeltacht and the literature of the era when Irish was a healthy language with plenty of monoglot speakers, up to about 50 years ago.
But the standard distances us from both the Gaeltacht and the literature, as our schools throw out entire libraries of 'old' Irish books, which their students can no longer read. Equipped only with our knowledge of English and an English-Irish dictionary, we just encode English thoughts in Irish disguise, and the directness with which much present-day writing in Irish can be decoded to English speaks for itself.
Séamus Ó Searcaigh warned about this side-effect of standardisation in 1953, when he wrote that what will emerge will be "Gaedhilg nach mbéidh suim againn inntí mar nár fhás sí go nádúrtha as an teangaidh a thug Gaedhil go hÉirinn" (Irish which is of no interest to us, for it has not developed naturally from the language brought to Ireland by the Gaels).
Most telling of all, for me, are the words of John Ghráinne Ó Duibheannaigh, surely one of the best living speakers of Irish: "creidim go mairfidh an Ghaedhilg ach ní thuigfidh mise í." (I am convinced that Irish will survive, but I will not be able to understand it.)
Thirdly, there is the question of what is the relevance to our own Gaelic heritage of a 'compromise' over a wide area, even if it were not so heavily biassed against Ulster Irish. For example, standard ideology expects us to talk in Irish about 'Ballymana' and 'Limawady', when the forms 'Ballymena' and 'Limavady' reflect accurately the east Ulster pronunciation of Gaelic.
And why choose to base a standard exclusively on Irish dialects of Gaelic, rather than on the whole of Gaeldom, which includes Scotland? Ulster Irish has as much in common with Gaelic in Scotland as in other parts of Ireland. Pol may describe my view as 'partitionist' but the greatest partition of the Gaels is actually institutionalised in the official standard. It takes the Irish Gaels, Ulster included, directly away from the Scottish Gaels — so much for strength in unity.
We can only marvel at the theory that the official standard, as it exists, enhances the prospects of the language surviving in any worthwhile form. Rather, it is suicidal for a language like Irish to cut itself off from its strengths and to re-invent itself around second-language learners.
I hope to examine later just how the official standard discriminates against Ulster Irish, and to offer some ideas on how it could be changed, or failing that, what we can put in its place.
Standard Irish is biased against Ulster dialect.
Ciarán Ó Duibhín, Irish News, 17 April 2004.
At the end of his letter, Pol Deeds (9 March) reasonably asks me to support my assertion that standard Irish is an "unbalanced amalgam" of the natural dialects, biassed against Ulster Irish, and I will attempt to do so.
It is genuinely surprising to find someone maintaining that the official standard has treated Ulster Irish fairly. Any speaker of Ulster Irish is deeply aware of the problems everytime he encounters something in the standard, or when something he writes is translated into standard Irish by an 'editor'. Or I could quote others on the unfairness of the official standard to Ulster Irish, including such supporters of the principle of standardisation as Tomás de Bhaldraithe (Feasta 1958, 1959) or Muiris Ó Droighneáin (An tUltach, over many years) or Niall Ó Dónaill (Comhar 1981). But when Pol asks to put his finger in the wounds, he is entitled to do so.
The designers of the standard enunciated a number of principles, such as 'two dialects out of three' and 'simplicity', and if those principles could be taken at face value, it would be possible to believe that the official standard is 'finely balanced'.
A closer look, however, shows that Munster forms have been chosen over forms common to Ulster and Connacht, e.g. rabh, nuaíocht, ceannacht, cuartú, cliú, áirid, cistineach, foighid, páighe. South Connemara crua was preferred to cruaidh as found everywhere else. I know of only one instance, amárach, where the Ulster form prevailed over the combined might of Munster and Connacht.
Ulster has simplicity massively on its side in the mutation of a singular noun after preposition and article. Scotland uses the same rule, and Forbairt na Gaeilge (page 41) recommends adopting it as standard. But instead the standardisers invented a complicated compromise between Connacht and Munster. The Ulster rule was finally admitted to the official handbook as an alternative, in an incomplete form (it still disallows sa tseomra [and ag an fhear mhór]), and in a misplaced and poorly-integrated footnote.
Again, words like leabhar, bodhar, domhan, leigheas could be shortened in Ulster, but this would not suit Munster pronunciation and they were rightly allowed to stand. But shortening which did not suit Ulster went ahead regardless. So léighim and léim are made to look the same, buidheach seems to rhyme with críoch, and siubhal with diúl, and laghach with cách. These things were adequately represented by the pre-standard spelling, and this is still the case in Scotland.
Standard dictionaries generally label Ulster forms as variants or cross-refer them, if they are mentioned at all. Ó Dónaill (1977) famously cross-refers Ulster bomaite to nóiméad, and, although he made it clear that such forms are acceptable, we find bomaite banned from Irish-medium secondary-level examination papers by the Northern Ireland Department of Education.
[More examples of bias, not included in the letter — CÓD:
In Ó Dónaill's dictionary, the demotion of the Ulster form bomaite to a variant of nóiméad constrasts with the treatment of Munster forms such as garsún, which is not cross-referred to gasúr but is given its own entry.
In Standard Irish, the alternative verbal form dhein is an allowed alternative to rinne. That is fine. But other alternative verbal forms, of much greater extension in space and time, like tchí, gheibh, bheir, ghní, are banned in Standard Irish, despite the fact that they are the usual forms in Ulster and Scotland, and were formerly found throughout the country, in Keating for example. Dhein, by contrast, is found only in Munster.
Adjectives beginning with d, t or s are not lenited after ba in Ulster: ba deas, ba trom, ba sona. According to Ruairí Ó hUiginn in "Stair na Gaeilge" 9.5, page 605, they are rarely lenited in Connacht either. But they are lenited in Munster and they are lenited in Standard Irish.
In Standard Irish, spelling was "simplified" to the point where distinctions essential to Ulster Irish can no longer be represented in writing. By contrast, where a distinction is neutralised in Ulster Irish, advantage is not taken of this to simplify spelling, if the distinction remains in Munster speech. For example, the letter "j" has been used in spelling words borrowed from English, even though the same sound exists in Ulster and Connacht as the sound of slender "d".]
In giving these examples, I must stress that such cases of easily demonstrable bias make up only a small part of the problems posed by the official standard for the speaker of Ulster Irish. Very often, all three dialects differed, and no choice could satisfy even two of them. Even here the choices made are baffling, such as Munster forms madra or captaen, or Connacht forms feicim or Gaeilge. In each case, the fairest choice was obviously one province further north.
How could all this happen? Well, as far as I can establish, the civil servants who designed the official standard of 1958 did not include any speaker of Ulster Irish, or any native speaker from anywhere. At all events, the result shows that they either knew little, or cared little, about Ulster Irish.
They cannot plead ignorance, as many Donegal writers of note objected forcefully to the form being taken by standard Irish, just as they had resisted earlier attempts to impose other dialects on Ulster. They did not just complain, but made constructive proposals, as did Comhaltas Uladh, but these fell on deaf ears.
The standardisers succeeded in maintaining the centre of gravity far to the south, as we must suspect was their imperative. Criteria such as respect for historical forms, continuity with the Dinneen standard then current, and Gaelic usage in Scotland, counted for little in constructing the official standard. They would, in general, have given support to Ulster forms, for example, in the irregular verbs.
Furthermore, there are problems with the standard which are nothing to do with dialect choice at all but with internal inconsistency, with violation of deep universal rules of the language, and with downright poor judgement. All of these I can exemplify.
Let me pose the question: how would the official standard be different, if Ulster Irish did not exist? We would probably have amáireach, but would anything else change?
I hope to discuss later what kind of standard could be acceptable.
Well defined Ulster standard of Irish must be the way forward
Ciarán Ó Duibhín, Irish News, 24 April 2004.
In previous responses to Pol Deeds (March 9), I have looked at the social effects of standard Irish and at the anti-Ulster bias in the official standard. It is now worth considering what kind of standard could be acceptable.
Pol mentions Forbairt na Gaeilge (1951), which was an examination of the possibilities of standardisation, but it was not written in support of the choices made in the official standard which was finalised only seven years later. There is an essential distinction, which Pol does not draw, between supporting the idea of standardisation, and supporting a particular realisation of it. My own quarrel is not so much with standardisation as with the official standard we have got.
Even so, I am not impressed by the hyperbole of Forbairt, with its talk of more plurals of crann than there are trees in the Gaeltacht. In a database of over 2 million words of pre-standard Donegal Irish, I find exactly one nominative plural form, crainn. As an antidote, I would prescribe Na Blianta Corracha, the writings of Séamus 'ac Grianna, in Irish and English.
But what kind of standard could avoid the ill-effects of the official standard? An unbiassed one would help, but what is really required is a basic reorientation in the direction of increased tolerance all round. It should not be a case of "sharing out the grief", as the official handbook expresses it, whether fairly or unfairly, but all the natural dialects should be accomodated, while eliminating non-significant variation.
This would require the restoration of portions of the full spelling, and the codification of much wider grammatical and lexical choices. In fact, a more tolerant standard exists in the combination of Ó Dónaill's dictionary and the Christian Brothers' grammar, but lexical variants are approved only for 'non-official' situations, grammar choices are still insufficient, and spelling issues remain unresolved.
Because of this, and because Ó Dónaill and the Christian Brothers do not identify the Ulster options which they offer, the time is overdue for us to lay down a standard for Ulster Irish, possibly starting from Niall Ó Dónaill's later editing practice. A well-defined Ulster standard would, in any case, be a prerequisite for the wider use of Ulster Irish in the media and in education.
Many people who re-edit Ulster texts already operate in this way, but each has their own set of 'non-standard' features which they preserve, and overall I consider they still bend too far towards the official standard, particularly in the matter of spelling.
When we have defined our Ulster standard, it can be incorporated into the official standard, or if not we can use it by itself. Either way, we should be able to graduate beyond ideology, and reconnect to a form of Irish which will be both intrinsically worthwhile and of relevance to us.
I hope that the language policy units of our government departments will notice this, and will be moved to take an initiative in relation to the official neglect of Ulster Irish, which is just as great in Northern Ireland as it is in the Republic.
Irish language has blossomed since standardisation
Pol Deeds, Irish News, 26 April 2004.
I did not initially feel the need to deal with Ciaran O Duibhinn's first response (April 10) to my letter (March 9) about the standardisation of the Irish language as he failed to counter any of my arguments for it. However — as a mistake (I am sure) on your part led to the duplication of his original letter (February 20, repeated March 3) and there have now been two further responses (April 17 and 24) to my letter — perhaps some comment is necessary, if only for the sake of balance.
I am still eager to see proof for Ciaran's claims that
a) the standard is 'rootless' and
b) the 'practical effects have been extensive and negative'.
His secondary claim that this nasty conconction has been forced upon the poor native speakers of Ulster, like some harsh colonial directive, owes more to fantasy than reality; and Ciaran's romanticised version of events is blind to many facts.
Firstly, Ciaran must surely know as well as anyone else that Irish classes given within the province of Ulster constantly refer to Ulster speech and idioms for examples of genuine Gaelic expression.
He is kidding himself when he suggests that the decline of the language in the Gaeltacht areas is anything to do with the standard (being forced down their necks etc.) The blame for the demise in the Gaeltachts — as areas rich in the language and otherwise — lies with successive Dublin governments over the last 50 years, who never paid anything more than lip service to either the Gaeltacht or to the language.
Ciaran tries to paint a picture of bureaucratic lexicographers imposing a standard upon powerless western folk. The reality, as people in the Gaeltacht areas could testify and as many learners of the language will recognise, is that generation after generation, enthusiasts and academics alike have travelled from their eastern 'Galltacht' to benefit from the unfashioned expertise of native speakers.
In his book An Béal Boch (The Poor Mouth), Myles na gCopaleen painted a typically sardonic picture of the sort who in the forties and fifties frequented the Cluan Ard in Beechmount and the universities in Dublin — urbane city types travelling west to fill up their notebooks with the finest country Gaelic slang. These were people in search of 'tobar na Gaeilge', the unpolluted, authentic source of the language which they had chosen to learn. This tradition continues.
Ciaran's concern with greater links with Scots Gaelic than with the rest of the island confuses me and I do not pretend to fully understand it. I would, however, point out that there are already strong links between (standard) Irish and (standard) Scots Gaelic. There is more than one university department in Ulster where the two are studied alongside each other.
Ciaran concludes one reply by 'marvelling' at the logic which finds it possible to reestablish a language 'around second language learners'. His own logic here would suggest that he may find it preferable for the numbers of Irish language speakers to dwindle away — as they were doing — until there were but a couple of 'real' Irish speakers left.
He is also (as he was in his original letter) ignorant of the wealth of theory and evidence which says languages can indeed be revived in this way. Ciaran calls this approach 'suicidal'. I have to say that I marvel at this logic — the Irish language has blossomed across Ireland since standardisation. Because of it, the language has an island-wide infrastructure – allowing the necessary continuity in communication that brings dialect-based standard Irish into more businesses, schools and homes every year.
Argument over Irish is out of time and place
John McIntyre, Irish News, 1 May 2004.
May I comment on the current correspondence between Ciaran O Duibhin (April 24) and Pol Deeds (March 9). Surely this is a case of fiddling while Rome burns.
In a recent census of Gaeilge usage in the Gaeltacht, it was found that a very small percentage of the local children actually used the language on a daily basis. The rest preferred to use English.
Most people have now accepted that the language and culture of the Gaeltacht will die out within a generation. Mr O Duibhin's argument in favour of the Ulster dialect would appear to be a case of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. Of course there will still be people like me who wish to speak Gaeilge as a second language.
The argument has certain relevance to those of us to whom an Ulster identity is part of our self-image. That said, is it appropriate to conduct this argument in the Irish News which caters for the English-speaking majority? Would it not be best argued in one of the Gaeilge language papers? It would be more relevant to the clientele of such a paper and would put to rest any suspicion of people indulging in ego trips.
Better to stick with 'traditional' forms of Irish
Brian Mac Lochlainn, Irish News, 24 June 2004.
I would like to comment on the recent correspondence on New Irish versus the indigenous form.
The proponents of the New Irish in your columns are noticeably not equipped to engage in the debate in terms of linguistic or orthographic principles, so they try to justify what is orthographic vandalism by appeal to alleged sociological benefits, such as the assertion that Irish has flourished under the new spelling.
One sociological effect which they choose to overlook was the imposition of sectarianism on Irish under the new spelling regime. The places which were marginalised or excluded — i.e. Donegal and Rathlin Island (even from a Little Irelander's stance, which would disregard Scotland) — were the only places with significant numbers of Protestant Irish speakers.
Many Protestants feel, with justification, that Irish was invented after partition as a form of cultural imperialism; yet many of the same people have no problem in interesting themselves in place names and local dialect.
It is more than a little ironic that Scottish Gaelic in Scotland — under a hostile British government — is in a far healthier state as regards the number of native speakers and native speaker literature than Irish Gaelic which is allegedly the first language of an Irish state. (School Irish in Ireland hardly makes a fluent speaker any more than school French.)
The Scots, of course, retained the traditional, logical, inclusive spelling which differs little from the traditional Irish spelling. It is also ironic that it is now easier for a Scottish Gaelic speaker to read Donegal literature — as O Grianna wrote it up until 1969 — than for a person schooled only in New Irish to read it.
If parity of esteem in Northern Ireland is to be extended to allowing Protestants to feel comfortable with the Irish language, this can only be done by ending the domination of synthetic, regionally cleansed Irish emanating from English speakers in Dublin and adopted in Belfast. A lot of northern Catholics would feel much more comfortable as well.