I thoroughly enjoyed last night’s TG4 documentary The Hamely Tongue – Cultúr Ceilte, an intelligent, thoughtful and affectionate look at Ulster-Scots/Scots in Ulster. The programme makers certainly got a couple of very personable witnesses for the defence with Liam Logan – a nationalist supporter of the tongue – poet, Willie Drennan – with whom I did a very pleasurable trilingual poetry reading once – and writer James Fenton whose book, The Hamely Tongue, is undoubtedly one of the great literary gems to have been published in recent years.
Aye, if only we had all started our Ulster-Scots journey from such wisdom. However, there are two big problems that Ulster-Scots still has to negotiate: the political one and the actual question of whether there is even such a language.
As regards the politics, the ham-fisted efforts of political unionism to set up Ulster-Scots as a counterbalance to Irish did the cause no favours. The suspicion amongst many Irish speakers was – and probably still is – that Ulster-Scots is little more than an exercise in trying to hamstring the long-term development of Irish in the North. Indeed, their identification of Ulster-Scots with loyalism and Protestantism – a view not supported by every contributor to The Hamely Tongue – was off-putting, to say the least. (And yes, let us not forget, there were Irish speakers on the other side of the sheugh who were more than happy to identify Irish with the republican cause and violence.)
Still, who is to say that the true supporters of Ulster-Scots won’t yet succeed in renegotiating the terms of linguistic reference? There is, in my experience, a variety of opinions within the Ulster-Scots movement as to what it is or should be. That is probably no bad thing as it might well provide a little wriggle room for all with an interest in it.
Above that, then, is the question of whether it exists as language at all? Little that was spoken last night would have been beyond the ken – to lapse into Ulster-Scots – of anyone familiar with the area. That the programme makers felt the need to subtitle, in English, some of the contributors is, perhaps, understandable. North Antrim speech can be a wee bit difficult to follow – though was it that far removed from English?
The Hamely Tongue – Cultúr Ceilte asked some interesting questions, it was original, enjoyable, respectful and the beauty of
North Antrim – and the love its inhabitants have for the place – shone through. No mean place and no mean achievement.