Friday, April 05, 2019

(Part Two) Barry Griffin, the Census of Ireland, and the mysterious long-lost Gaeltacht of Antrim and Down?

Barry Griffin's wonderful website / database mapping has been causing some excitement around the internet. In a Facebook group I am involved in, this map in particular has really fired the imagination. It confirms without a doubt my long-held hunch about the questionable reliability of the language question on the census forms as a measurement for Ulster-Scots cultural areas (see my previous post, and the 2017 post linked to within it).

Remember - the Census of Ireland form had only two language options that the respondent could choose - either English or Irish. And as you can see, Barry's mapping technology shows that according to those completed forms, County Antrim and the northern half of County Down had what at first glance looks like a Gaeltacht community, comparable to those of the west and south of the island - made up of people who completed that two-option question on the census form as 'Irish'.

Shown below is a section of the form as completed by my own ancestors - from my May 2017 post here. As you can see it had originally been completed as 'Irish' but this was then scored out, presumably by the official who visited the homes to collect the forms and who realised that this had been entered incorrectly. This scoring out of Irish is known to have been widespread in Antrim and Down. However, the digitised Census, compiled by the National Archives of Ireland which is online here, and which Barry Griffin's mapping is based upon, has disregarded the scoring out.

This example isn't unique to my family or my immediate area. I know people in other parts of the Peninsula and around Newtownards who have found the same thing when researching their family trees. Similarly around villages in South Antrim. But it had never been fully measured until Barry's amazing maps appeared last week - these now show the full extent of the phenomenon for the first time.

Of course there were definitely some Irish speakers in Belfast due to the rapid growth of the city, and I expect that more reliable stats or estimates for those exist – but thickly spread across the enormous hinterland that runs from Ballymoney to Ballynahinch to Ballyhalbert and beyond? To this extent?

Additionally, Barry's Census language map corresponds pretty much identically to the other well-known Ulster-Scots language area maps - with the only exception being east Donegal. Perhaps the proximity of, and therefore familiarity with, the actual Irish language there is a factor.

As you know, my contention since I started looking into the issue in the census forms from my own backyard here on the Ards Peninsula, is that these folk weren't Irish speakers at all, even though they wrote that they were. And the discovery of a vast hidden Gaeltacht in the east of the province is literally in-credible, ie completely lacking in credibility. There is no way a vast phenomenon like that would have 'vanished' from popular awareness since 1911.

The key to understanding this is that these people knew that they weren't English speakers - so they chose 'Irish' on the form. However, it is beyond likely that in actual fact they were Ulster-Scots speakers.

A trilingual society (English/Irish/Ulster-Scots), with a bilingual bureaucracy (only English/Irish), leads to flawed results.

Bear in mind too that 1911 was something of a high water mark of Ulster-Scots publishing output within that same region. There's a long list of authors, poets and newspapers whose work incorporated Ulster-Scots at some level, and which was both popular and commercially successful within those exact same communities, in the c.1880–1910 era.

Barry Griffin has not only produced a remarkable piece of technology, but also a hitherto unparalleled evidence for the scale of Ulster-Scots language usage in that era - the era of my grandparents' childhoods.

• I have a number of friends who have a genuine love for, interest in, and commitment to, the preservation and promotion of the Irish language. So this observation is in no way any criticism of the Irish language on my part. But it is a 'plea' of a kind for the language promoters and commentators out there to come to terms with the fact that the Census language data is, for east Ulster at least, a highly unreliable starting point - and for recognition of the value, importance and historicity of the Ulster-Scots vernacular. It deserves its place.

• For a long time there has been an ongoing need to prove the historical veracity of Ulster-Scots, in the face of opposition and ignorance. This mapping helps with that. But today it is even more important to make it interesting and meaningful for the present generation. So what if somebody's great-grandparents were probably speakers? Today's generation have never met those people. What will make today's generation care?

•  A good example of the linguistic confusion is this extract from the 1844 collection by Robert Huddleston, the Ulster-Scots poet from Moneyreagh, County Down – which appears in the May 2017 post about the census digging I was doing at the time – in which he insists that the language he writes in is 'Ulster Irish' and not 'Scotch' at all)


Gerard Harbison said...

Hi Mark:

My name's Gerry Harbison. I'm currently living in the States, but both my parents were from Belfast, and I grew up Dublin. My great grandmother, Margaret Magill née McNeill was from Glenarm. She and her kids filled out the 1911 census in Irish, probably to annoy the census taker, but also because they were involved with the Gaelic League, And I think that might have been the cause of there being so many self-declared Irish speakers in 1911; it was an act of nationalist rebellion. My great grandmother might have spoken Irish -- there was some spoken in the glens of Antrim in the mid-19th century -- but she filled out the census in English in 1901, as did all but two of her children. All of them claimed to speak both languages.

I spent some time in Co. Down as a kid, and I completely agree with you about the Ards peninsula.