Sunday, November 03, 2019

Ulster-Scots language in east Ulster - the 1911 Census and the 1960 Gregg Survey maps compared


Regular readers here will be aware of previous posts on the anecdotally-notorious unreliability of the language question on the 1911 census, for east Ulster in particular. The niggling concerns of many were confirmed in technicolour by Barry Griffin's mapping which was published just earlier this year. I'll not rehearse all of the issues, you can read the previous posts. (just search for 'census' in the box in the left hand column).

Just this week, as a result of an Ulster-Scots community language workshop session I attended in Ballywalter, I got the famous 1960s Gregg languages survey map out and then decided to compare it with Barry's excellent mapping work which shows the supposed 'Irish' language speaking area of east Ulster as had been self-recorded by households in the 1911 census. As you know, many of us have thought for some time that the folk who completed those forms as 'Irish' had done so in error, because the only two options on the forms were 'English' and 'Irish', and they knew full well that they didn't speak English.

Despite multiple variations in the data compilation – ie a 50 year gap, the self-understanding and self-completion v professional linguist, the vast scale of the census v the individual research of Gregg, as well as all of the linguistic 'erosion' that Ulster-Scots has undergone during the 20th century, the two areas are remarkably similar.


So, I am ever-more convinced that those 'Irish' speakers who filled in their own census forms were in fact Ulster-Scots speakers, but they had no mechanism to record that accurately. The only other possibility is an unthinkably massive east Ulster language population displacement, and then replacement, within just two generations. There are zero records of that ever happening.


It is time that our increasingly bilingual bureaucracy acknowledged our trilingual society. Perhaps the next census, which is scheduled for 21 March 2021, will address that properly. I am glad to see recent moves in Scotland towards a proper trilingual understanding there too (link here).

(PS - in The Laggan district of east Donegal, the census appears to have been pretty accurately completed - and it aligns almost perfectly with Gregg. I expect that this is because Ulster-Scots people there knew what Irish language was, and also knew that whilst their nearby neighbours spoke it, they themselves didn't.)

• There's a lot of enthusiasm, energy and activism around the Irish language these days. It's become fashionable and is part of the new 'progressive' package of values and interests here. I wish Ulster-Scots had a fraction of that. But there is also desire to airbrush the embarrassment and inconvenience of Ulster-Scots away. A proper understanding of the census results for the language traditions of east Ulster – given the vast scale and geography revealed by Barry's mapping – will bring any honest observer to Ulster-Scots as the natural conclusion.

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