Ulster-Scots Text Base
A Talk for Ormeau Gallery, by Anne Smyth (continued)
This seems an appropriate stage of our look at Ulster-Scots to talk about the Text Base. The term 'Text Base' is simply shorthand for a computerised collection of texts containing Ulster-Scots writing. The published texts date from roughly 1700, when the Montgomery Manuscripts were written. The first published 'best-seller' was John Michelburne's Ireland Preserved: or, The Siege of Londonderry, first published in London in 1705, which ran to a huge number or editions and contained both Irish and 'Scots' dialect. Michelburne was, of course, an Englishman, but he managed to do a reasonable job on the Scots content.
There are, however, Ulster-Scots documents such as letters and wills dating from about a century earlier that are not readily available to the public. Philip Robinson goes into the subject in detail in 'The Scots Language in Seventeenth-Century Ulster' in Ulster Folklife vol. 35 (1989), but in essence almost all of the letters, wills, indentures and leases he mentions in that article were written between the late sixteenth century and the mid-seventeenth century in braid Scottis by noblemen of Scottish birth or descent, although the influence of English in most of the documents is seen to a greater or lesser degree. A letter written by Isobel Haldane from Ballycarry to her son Archibald Edmonstone, Laird of Duntreath, about 1630 contains some of the best examples of Ulster-Scots grammar and sentence construction. A few examples of Ulster-Scots writing have also been found in the Session records of Presbyterian churches.
It took only about a century for the speech and writing of people like Isobel Haldane to fall victim to the dubious attractions of Anglicisation, but Ulster-Scots continued as a spoken language in the homes, farmyards and workplaces of the ordinary folk. Over the succeeding years, these people 'rediscovered' their linguistic heritage from time to time and made strenuous efforts to commit their language to paper.
We can classify two of the main revivals in Ulster-Scots writing according to whether their content was poetry or prose. In poetry, the most prolific period was that of the weaver poets. John Hewitt's Rhyming Weavers and Other Country Poets of Antrim and Down (Belfast, Blackstaff, 1974), now reprinted with a new introduction by Tom Paulin (Belfast, Blackstaff, 2004), was the pioneering study, introducing and discussing the poets in their political, religious and social context. They wrote from roughly 1753 to about 1880. The text base as it presently exists (and it is continuously being augmented) contains the published work of all the weaver poets, and some of their work is available as modern reprints in the Folk Poets of Ulster series. Orr, of course, is widely acclaimed as the best of the weaver poets. They were Presbyterians, although some were 'Auld Licht' and some 'New Licht' (Huddleston's epic poem, 'Doddery Willowaim', is a satire on one of the Presbyterian General Assemblies of his day, although the satire defies modern understanding); they were Freemasons, virtually to a man (as is evidenced by the fact that a dozen Masonic Lodges contributed to Orr's monument in Templecorran Graveyard); and many of them were United Irishmen (see Orr's 'Donegore Hill'). Only two women poets have any claim to take their place within this tradition (Sarah Leech and Agnes Kerr). The main thing to note about these poets, however, is that they began to write as part of a virtually simultaneous flowering of interest in vernacular writing on both sides of the Irish Sea. They were not writing in imitation of Burns, but many of them did correspond with 'Rabbie' and held him in due deference.
The prose tradition is exemplified by the Kailyard novels, of which two writers are the most prominent. The first of these is Wesley G. Lyttle, who was born near Bangor in 1844 and whose first work was Robin's Readings, although he is also the author of Sons of the Sod, Daft Eddie, and Betsy Gray (perhaps his most widely acclaimed book). The other is Archibald McIlroy, whose works include When Lint was in the Bell, The Auld Meetin'-Hoose Green, and The Humour of Druid's Island. His publications started to appear in 1897, and although they are not particularly densely Ulster-Scots, they give the impression of an author who was very much at ease with the language.
The Ulster-Scots Language Society is dedicated to the preservation of as much of the Ulster-Scots writing of bygone days and of today as it can possibly manage. In addition to the publications that originally appeared in book form, we are doing our utmost to capture the more ephemeral material - for example, Ulster-Scots writing appearing in periodicals and so on. In this, the fact that we are an organisation in which the practitioners of the language play their full part is invaluable in seeking out texts known only to those with local knowledge. As a result of this local knowledge, we have been able to preserve, in electronic form, material from a number of the provincial papers - a rich source of Ulster-Scots writing. Of the publications in book form, we have also captured most of the writing up to and including the year 1924.
So far as contemporary writing is concerned, the only periodical in Northern Ireland today that encourages and showcases writing in the Ulster-Scots language is the Society's magazine Ullans, which is free to all our members. We also have a fairly sizeable list of publications, produced under the banner of Ullans Press. Our two best-sellers are actually Jim Fenton's Hamely Tongue, now in its third edition, and Philip Robinson's Ulster-Scots grammar, a revised edition of which is in preparation. However, the rest of our publications list comprises material that is more light-hearted. More recently, we were able to publish six titles in the 'Ulster-Scots Living Writers' series, and the last of Philip Robinson's modern 'kailyard' trilogy. Philip has been running a class at Ballyboley, from which we have 'discovered' a whole new generation of Ulster-Scots writers. This is a great encouragement, and bodes well for the future.
Naturally, all the publications of Ullans Press will also take their place in the electronic Text Base, ensuring that this generation too is represented in the historical sweep of Ulster-Scots writing. The hostility towards Ulster-Scots through the years (and perhaps even the centuries), and just plain everyday carelessness and apathy, has resulted in the loss of a number of texts in their original form. Our Text Base has already rescued a few of these from oblivion. The next stage, of course, is the handling of this electronic resource so that the interests of the language and of its practitioners are protected, while also providing interested members of the public and academic researchers with access for study and for inspiration, and for the satisfaction of a healthy curiosity about the development of the language.
Many considerations have to be borne in mind. Modern copyright law is a minefield, as anyone who has strayed into this area can testify. We also have a moral duty to protect the intellectual property rights of those who engage their creative energies and time in the service of Ulster-Scots. Then there is the huge problem of the built-in obsolescence of the electronic media (both hardware and software) used to store the material. Those of you who have home computers only need to think about the speed at which the very latest software rapidly becomes a heap of scrap, and how reliant we are on the system continuing to operate. Then again, I work in the UFTM, and our sound archive is full of tapes, including those of the Hiberno-English Tape Recorded Survey. Great effort goes into providing protection, particularly against fire and against 'sticky tape syndrome'. Whatever the technology, there will always have to be consideration given to protection against natural disaster and natural deterioration. Good electronic archival systems are hugely expensive, and the Ulster-Scots Language Society, despite the perceptions that may be put about, operates on a shoestring.
Despite the complications, the creation and augmentation of the electronic Text Base have been, and continue to be, an essential element in our language development programme.
This discussion of the Text Base has brought us from the historical perspective to consideration of modern developments in regard to Ulster-Scots. The Language Society was formed in 1992, and has battled on in the face of tremendous odds, achieving much more than could be expected from a small voluntary society with little in the way of resources. Two developments in particular gave us some hope that help might be on the way. One was the Belfast Agreement on 10 April 1998. For the first time, official recognition was given to the language, and we thought that at last government assistance might be given to the introduction of measures to contribute to the language's survival and wellbeing. However, the very format of the structures put in place for the two main minority languages, Ulster-Scots and Irish, proved to enshrine inequality. (Expand - culture etc.)
The other development was the ratification in March 2001 by the United Kingdom Government of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages - in the case of Ulster-Scots, giving it Stage 2 status. As required by the Charter, two reports on its implementation of the Charter have been submitted by the UK government. The first of these was submitted in July 2002, and the second was dated June 2005. These submissions are framed by DCAL, although the legal responsibility for supplying them rests with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at Westminster. The first report was a farrago of half-truths, misrepresentations and claims of credit for the unassisted actions of the voluntary sector. With two days to go until the due date, the USHC was permitted sight of the draft report, but all its representations with a view to turning it into an accurate account were ignored. The 'Committee of Experts' then visited Northern Ireland, and met a strong deputation from the Language Society which informed the committee that the wool had been pulled over its eyes, but needless to say no action was taken. It appears that there are no sanctions to enforce compliance with the UK government's legal obligations. We have just been informed that the 'Committee of Experts' is due to visit Northern Ireland again, pursuant to the second submission, in early December and again in late January or early February [now out of date]. The Society will no doubt want to make its case, but as usual this takes up the time and energy of our members, and involves loss of work time, and we wouldn't be human if we didn't ask what the point of it is.