The Language of Division

It feels like ages since I’ve written anything, but I’ve had a well-earned holiday. First a few days in Barcelona, which is a fantastic vibrant city full of great sights and food, which is really all I ask for.

I arrived back in Dublin on Sunday evening, but I didn’t go straight back to Galway. Instead, I extended my holiday with a few days in Northern Ireland. Even though it’s ridiculously close, it was actually only the second time I’ve crossed the border. I think the main reason for that is because when I was young, there were regularly stories about the violence and terrorism taking place there. Even though the situation’s vastly improved now and it’s all very peaceful up there, I think I’ve still been influenced by the less-than-attractive image of the region’s past. I think before I continue, a (very!) brief history is in order.

Since 1800, Ireland had been ruled from London as part of the United Kingdom, but there was growing desire for independence among Irish people due to not being an equal partner in the Union, and feeling colonised and exploited by Britain. This culminated in the Irish War of Independence between 1919 and 1921, after which a peace treaty was signed, agreeing to the creation of the Irish Free State (with the country officially becoming a republic in 1949). The main problem with this was that the northeast of the island was home to a population which was largely Protestant and Unionist (wishing to remain in the UK, as they were descended from Scottish people sent to Ireland in the 17th century to settle land), in contrast to the largely Catholic and Republican (wanting to remain part of an independent Ireland) population of the rest of the country. So one of the stipulations was that the island be partitioned, with a border being drawn, and Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom. Despite the greater Unionist population in the North, there was still a sizeable Republican community. They were discriminated against in many ways, and this led to sectarianism, and a period of particularly concentrated violence and terrorism between the 60s and 90s known as The Troubles.

Things are much better there now, and among the younger generation especially, the old divisions have been largely set aside, though sectarian violence still rears its head from time to time. Just now I saw a news story about a former British soldier accused of Republican terrorist offences.

It’s fascinating to look at how politics affects the way we use language, often in very specific ways. For example, in most parts of the world, being a republican means supporting the idea of a democratic republic in contrast to, for example, a monarchy or a dictatorship. Or in the United States, it means you support the Republican party and are generally politically conservative. Yet in Northern Ireland, it means one is a strong supporter of Northern Ireland leaving the UK and becoming part of a united Ireland. Similarly, being a nationalist generally means feeling that your country is superior to others. But again, in Northern Ireland it’s almost synonymous with Republican, just generally not as strong.

Even people’s first names, something which we always seem to think of as a very individual, free choice on behalf of parents, can be affected by politics. Parents in either community have tended to choose particular names which they see as associated with their community. For example, Billy has always been a common first name in the Unionist community, in honour of “King Billy:” Prince William of Orange (later William III of England) and his defeat of Jacobite forces at The Battle of the Boyne in Co. Meath, Ireland, which led to the end of the Jacobite rebellion and helped to consolidate Protestant in Ireland. And if someone has a stereotypically English name like Nigel or Terry, their parents were probably Unionists.Equally, typically Irish names like Seán or Patrick, or Catholic names like Mary or Joseph, would be much more likely to be found within the Nationalist community.

Place names also become more complex. Even though Northern Ireland is part of the UK, many place names are quite old and based on the Irish language. Belfast, for example, the capital of Northern Ireland, gets its name from Béal Feirste, the Irish for (river)mouth of the sandbar/ford. And then there’s Derry. Or Londonderry. Or Doire. See, it is complicated. Originally named Doire, meaning oak grove in Irish, the word was anglicised to Derry. Then in 1613 it was granted a Royal Charter and the prefix London was attached to the name to indicate that its construction was aided by the London guilds. Now, whether someone says Londonderry or Derry is generally a quick indication of someone’s political sensibilities.

And of course, both sides can lay claim to a language, though perhaps surprisingly, the Irish language is not widely used among the Nationalist community, with only 4,130 people (0.002% of the population) claiming to use it as their everyday language. So while the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland speak English, the Unionist community can lay claim to Ulster Scots. Scots is a language of Germanic origin, which is still quite widely used in lowland Scotland, though largely mixed with English. Ulster Scots, or Ullans, is a variant of this language, brought to Northern Ireland by Scottish Protestants, though there is some debate as to whether it’s  dialect of English or truly  a form of Scots. The fact that the language was recognised as part of the culture and history of Ireland in the 1998 Peace Agreement aimed at ending the Troubles indicates just how much we associate our language with our political or cultural identity.

Even the word Ireland becomes complicated. First of all, the whole island, including Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, is called Ireland. But the country which I’ve just referred to as the Republic of Ireland (to avoid confusion) is also called Ireland. Or Éire, which is written on the back of our Euro coins, but no-one uses that. So you could say that someone from the island of Ireland is Irish, but imagine how a Northern Unionist, committed to remaining in the UK, would feel about that. Likewise, telling a Nationalist that they’re British. It’s also quite common for people from outside Ireland to refer to the Republic as Southern Ireland (because if the top part’s Northern Ireland, then logically the other part’s Southern Ireland, no?), but a lot of people south of the border don’t like that as they it seems to give equal status to both parts of the island. It also makes the counry sound like a region of a much larger country (which is also why a lot of people think that Northern Ireland refers to the northern region of the island of Ireland in general). And it also sounds strange because the Republic is a lot larger. And in fact, the most northerly point of the island is not in fact in Northern Ireland, but in Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland. Or Ireland if you prefer.

Now that I think of it, many Republicans don’t refer to Northern Ireland at all, instead referring to the region as the Six Counties, so as not to recognise its status and instead consider it as making up 6 of the 32 counties on the island. If they’re really hardcore, they’ll call it The Occupied Six Counties.

For an island of not much more than 6 million people, we’ve certainly made things complicated for ourselves. But like I said, things are much better now, and I think they’ll remain that way. Go to Northern Ireland today (and I recommend you do), and you’ll see some amazing scenery (see above), visit the vibrant city centre of Belfast, and the excellent Titanic museum (they built it there after all). And do lots of Game of Thrones tours. If you like Game of Thrones, Northern Ireland is the place for you. They film a lot of the programme there, and you can visit many of the filming locations. And dress in a cloak and carry a rubber sword. And isn’t it great that you’re now much more likely to see tourists running around pretending to be Stark soldiers or wildlings, rather than soldiers and the debris of bombings in the streets?

9 thoughts on “The Language of Division

    • Thanks, it’s great to hear form someone from Northern Ireland. Despite how close we are, I think we still don’t fully understand what life is like over the border sometimes. I loved my visit and can’t wait to get back, especially for the incredible scenery along the east coast :).


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