Sunday, November 01, 2020

1952 Language Survey - George Brendan Adams in 'Belfast in its Regional Setting' – Ulster-Scots and Irish usage.

This is an important, often overlooked, essay by George Brendan Adams (1917–1981). He was a member of the Royal Irish Academy, he worked at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum where he became Curator of Language in 1962. He was a nephew of Richard Hayward, with whom he founded the folklore and dialect section of the Belfast Naturalists Field Club.

Here he is in 1952 using the term 'Ulster Scots' quite naturally. Adams' map of Irish language usage is also as would be expected; no usage in the east of Ulster apart from a tiny pocket up near Rathlin Island and the facing coast - and he had taught Irish to adult learners so he wasn't an outsider looking in.

(I have no particular axe to grind on this; my grandmothers' surnames were Hamill and Coffey - two of the five Irish family names on the James Hamilton estates in the 1620s. Yet both were solid formerly Presbyterian Ulster-Scots speaking matriarchs, as was their linguistic and religious lineage as far back as anybody can trace). Adams states that in the 'first few decades' of the 1900s, the last remnants of the language were in specific localities, each about 50 miles away from Belfast - thereby underlining the valid doubts many have about the vast anomaly of the language aspect of those infamous 1911 Census returns that I have mentioned here before.

He makes multiple important observations throughout this piece. Bear in mind that this also predates the celebrated field research on Ulster-Scots by his contemporary Robert J Gregg by about a decade. Their joint work on 'The Orthography of Ulster-Scots', and three of G. Brendan Adams' previously unpublished papers on Ulster-Scots, are included in the essential 2006 volume The Academic Study of Ulster-Scots; Essays for and by Robert J Gregg, edited by Anne Smyth, Michael Montgomery and Philip Robinson.

I had the pleasure of speaking (very briefly) at the launch of that volume at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, back in 2008. Yes those dates are correct, there was a gap of well over a year between the publication in November 2006 and the launch on 28 February 2008. A hallmark of devolution. I've pasted some of my edited, Departmentally-approved for press release purposes, informal and unscripted remarks below.

John Hewitt dedicated his seminal Rhyming Weavers to G. Brendan Adams (listen to BBC Radio Ulster clip here) – "that we may learn respect for the rich colours of each dialect ... this might teach our tense minds to unclench".

• An Irish language bio of G. Brendan Adams is online here.


Mark Thompson:
Thank you, Dan.  I don’t know the work of John O’Donohue, but the one word that stood out for me in Paul’s address there was the word wee, because regardless of who you are in the nine counties of Ulster and maybe even further afield, we all say wee instead of little except if we are trying to be fancy or polite.  We all know what thrawn means.  We all know these words that we grew up with. 

The Gregg volume stands once and for all to give Ulster-Scots the credibility and authority that it has needed for many, many generations, never mind the last ten years or so that the revival has taken place.

But I want to cast your mind back a bit further than that because three hundred and seventy years ago today, this very day, the twenty-eighth of February sixteen thirty-eight (and I see some people smiling already), there was a gathering in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh of thousands and thousands of people.  The great and the good were there.  Nobles were there, lords were there and the ordinary folk were there forby, signing what was known as Scotland’s National Covenant.  It was one of the great moments in establishing the psyche of the Scottish Lowland people, but eventually the Ulster-Scots as well.  The stories that we share across the narrow stretch of water are not limited to simply history and language, which are of course a massive component in that.

A wee bit more recently, in autumn 1994, I was here at this very institution. I arrived here for a Countryside Fair with my then fiancee, who is now my wife and mother of our three children, and we were late.  We missed the event, so with nothing else to do but go to the shop and go to the coffeeshop for a drop o tay, in the bookshop I picked up this, Ullans, the publication of the Ulster-Scots Language Society.  It was the first time in my life, having grown up near an Ards Peninsula village, that I had seen Ulster-Scots in print.  For me this was the epiphany moment of discovering my roots and my own heritage that I had been through grammar school education and had never known anything about.  Ullans is a wonderful publication, and I would suggest that anyone here who is not a member of the Language Society should sign up today -  I’m not on commission - because for me this was the turning point.

Having said that, Gregg, as Paul has already outlined, has to be the culmination or fulfilment of the work of people who are instrumental in the work of the Language Society.  It brings the academic rigour, the respect, the credibility that Ulster-Scots has required.  I wish that the volume has the greatest of successes.

I cannot thank Michael (Montgomery) enough for making the effort to come across from the USA.  The last time he was here he had a terrible load of soda bread with Richard MacMaster in our kitchen, and I think Philip has some kind of hospitality lined up for later on this evening.

So thanks to everyone for inviting me to say a few words at the launch today.  We are really only the funders.  Now, Permanent Secretary, close your ears at this point, please.  In one sense it’s easy to write a cheque.  The important work has been the intellectual work and research that’s gone into publishing such an important volume of scholarship.  Thank you very much and well done.