Saturday, May 06, 2017

Making sense of the Census – the language question?


My paternal grandmother was Madge (Maggie Anna) Coffey; she was raised on the Warnock’s Road in Portavogie. The house she grew up in is still there, although now derelict and overgrown, and I can see it from my front door. Her father, William Coffey, relocated the family to Newtownards for a while where he had a shop. He was 49, and living in Greenwell Street, when he filled in the family's 1911 census form. My granny was just 2 months old. They attended Greenwell Street Presbyterian Church, even though they had been gospel hall Brethren folk back in Portavogie. They moved back to the village soon after.

Coffey is a very common surname here, I have second cousins and schoolfriends who are Coffeys. The graveyards at Ballyhalbert, Ballyeasborough and Glastry have plenty of examples of the name, going back to the mid 1700s. When you go through the 1911 census there are two Coffey families in Portavogie who, when self-completing the forms, wrote ‘Irish’ in the language box. Which is a huge surprise.

But not only them, there is also a Bailie family in the village who did the same thing. Also an O’Brien family who I am pretty sure were in the local Orange lodge did the same. A widow called Eliza McLaughlin. A McMaster family. A Young family. A Mahood family. A Close family. A Keenan family. A Hughes family. A Glenn family. A McConnell family. An Adair family. A McVeagh family. All Protestants of the three main denominations. All County Down born. All who in their language entry described themselves as Irish speakers ... but which, as you can see in the example below, was later scored out by the census official who came round to collect and check the forms.

Irish lang

Had it not been for the scoring out, done by one observant census collector, a present-day researcher might assume there was a large network of Irish speakers in Portavogie a century ago. Well, I am 99.9% sure that these families, like all of the 'native' families in Portavogie, were in fact Ulster-Scots speakers. My hunch is that they knew they didn’t speak ‘proper English', their experiences of school and church would have confirmed that for them, but with the form giving Irish as the only alternative to English, they filled it in. Wrongly. 

In my lifetime, it was in Billy Kay’s wonderful 1989 radio documentaries The Scots of Ulster that he visited Portavogie and interviewed the late great matriarch of the village, Eileen Palmer, who among other things was the driving force of Portavogie Fisherman’s Choir. In the interview Mrs Palmer said that the language of Portavogie was, as she put it, “the Scotch Irish”.  This is a term that has never applied to language, only to the American diaspora. She just didn’t have the words. She knew it wasn’t English, but had no understanding of terminology which would correctly describe the local tongue.

This is what happens when a culture is starved of self-understanding. People lose the sense of value and importance, and the ability to articulate. People don’t know what it’s called. People fill in forms wrongly.

For the present day, it appears that trawling the census to gauge the numbers of Irish speakers could therefore be fraught with pitfalls and nuance. You need to have an understanding of the social and cultural background to assess if the entries are correct. In the case of Portavogie and my Coffey ancestors, the forms were filled in wrongly. I imagine this could be an issue for many Ulster-Scots speaking families and households of the time. Belfast had rapidly grown through the development of industries and the railways, country folk moving there for work, and the same with the market towns. A thorough analysis would be interesting.

[UPDATE - I later did a quick check for Ballyhalbert, the other village which is near to where I live, and the same pattern emerges, a dozen or so households who wrote that they were Irish speakers, but which was then scored out, presumably by the official census collector. A thorough piece of research is needed for a full picture.).


In 1844, the Principal of Ballyhalbert National School, Joseph Conkey, had copies of Robert Huddleston’s poems. I hope they were used in the classroom during lessons. Conkey’s edition is pictured below, from Linen Hall Library in Belfast.

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PS: There is one man - a John Braine from County Cork – who was living in Portavogie at the time who wrote ‘Irish and English’ in his. There is another family, called Hickie, also from County Cork but who left the language column blank.

PPS: This linguistic experience of school is provincewide and community-wide. As the Ulster-Scots Agency website says, "In his autobiography Steps on My Pilgrim Journey, Cardinal Cahal Daly, the former Cardinal-Archbishop of Armagh,  recalled that Scots was spoken in his native Loughguile, near Ballymoney, during the 1920s: ‘In school, one had to talk “polite” to the teacher; but in the playgound one talked the local “patois” which in North Antrim was close to Lowland Scots’. 




Wilson McLeod said...

According to Barry McCrea in his book Languages of the Night (p. 148 fn 5) 'for some reason an unusual amount of obviously English-speaking Protestant families, all over the country, returned themselves as Irish-speaking monoglots in 1901 and 1911'. He doesn't give details, unfortunately, but this doesn't entirely align with the account in this blog post. First these returns were not scored out as they were in Portavogie. Second, this phenomenon was apparently seen in various parts of the island so that the 'Ulster Scots' explanation seems less than fully adequate.