The Decline of the Irish Language in Lislea

Hugh A Murphy notes Irish leaving South Armagh with Sally Humphreys

Some years ago I came across a document which contained significant information concerning the status of Irish in Lislea in the early 1830’s. It was brought to my attention by a fellow past pupil of the Abbey. Where he got it from I do not know.

This document was written in the year 1925 by a man called Nugent, a Gaelic scholar of the period and a schoolteacher, and it was still in its original manuscript form. Amongst other information, it stated that in the year 1833, the year in which the first 'National' School was opened in Lislea, Irish was spoken as widely in this area as it then was (i.e. in 1925) in Rannafast.

As most people know Rannafast was, and still is, the dominant Gaelic speaking area in the North. When I myself first began to frequent this part of Donegal in the late 1950s, it would be very seldom that one would hear a word of English there. This would have been much more so the case in 1925.

Allowing for even a very large amount of exaggeration on the part of the writer, this is still a very striking claim and it would suggest that when Lislea National School was first opened, the language that was carried through its doors would have been predominantly Irish.

Lislea National School, reproduced by kind permission of RoSA. All rights reservedThat situation was to change utterly before the end of that same century, due in some part, perhaps, to the system of National School education itself, but much more so to the very traumatic years that were soon to follow. Years of famine, emigration and mass extinction during the mid 1840s, were destined to have a devastating effect on the social, economic and cultural history of Ireland as a whole.

A clear sign of this effect in Lislea, can be seen in the demographic changes in the area, after this traumatic period. As revealed by Mr T Keane in his book Lislea Church And Community, the number of children of school-going age in Lislea in the year 1831 was estimated at 200. Just thirty years later, in 1861, this number had dropped to '100 or less'.

Equally revealing, as regards the changes in the financial fortunes of the people, is the fact that, since a small school fee had to be paid, the actual average number of pupils attending the school 'was a mere 30!'

It would appear that the decline of the Irish language in this area, as in most other areas throughout South Armagh, matched these significant demographic changes. My own father was born in the year 1897 and he knew only three people in the Lislea area who could speak Irish, only one of whom, Sally Humphreys, was a native speaker. The language had been almost completely wiped out in Lislea in the space of some sixty years.

A hundred years prior to this, such a linguistic change would have been unimaginable. During the eighteenth century, the last great Gaelic literary age in Ireland, normally referred to as the golden age of Irish literature, all the major poets of Ulster came from the South East Ulster area, and predominantly from the South Armagh/North Louth region, the territory traditionally known as the Fews. Men such as Peadar Ó Doirnín, Pádraig McAlinden, Art Mc Cooey, Séamas Dall MacCuarta.

In addition to these there were a host of lesser poets such as Randal Dall MacDónaill, Fergus Mac a’Bheatha, Séamas MacGiolla Choille, Muiris Ó Gormáin. As a result, this area was referred to as Ceantar Na bhFilí, the land of the poets, and also Ceantar Na n-Amhrán, the land of the songs.

Whatever changes might take place in other areas, one would have assumed that South Armagh would have been the last to forego its outstanding linguistic tradition. This, however, was not to be. Within a hundred years of the death of Art McCooey in 1773, the last of these major poets, the Irish language had virtually ceased to exist.

In many ways,  this great change was mirrored in the life of Sally Humphreys herself. When she was born in Levelamore in the first half of the nineteenth century, into a family called McGlade, Irish was the language of her household, as it was of the other households around her.

It was her natural mode of expression, something she would never have given any thought to. However, she lived long enough to see this change utterly, until in the years before her death she came to occupy the unenviable position of being the last native Irish speaker in the area, an object of curiosity and of some interest.

Sally Humphries had been a noted Gaelic singer and she had a large repertoire of songs and airs, especially those from the eighteenth century. As a result, her house was visited often by song collectors and by a new breed of young Irish scholars who had started to take an interest in the language.

Ironically, perhaps, this house in which she spent her married life had formerly been occupied by the famous Gaelic Bishop, Dr. Pádraig Ó Donnghaile, whose memory is enshrined in the song The Bard of Armagh.

Sally Humphreys died in 1918, some twenty odd years before I was born, and with her died a linguistic tradition in Lislea which, subject only to its own natural changes, had stretched back in an unbroken line to the dawn of history.

Lasmuigh De Theach Shorcha

(An cainteoir dúchais deireanach i gceantar an Fheadha – D’éag 1918)

Hugh A Murphy, reproduced by kind permission of RoSA. All rights reserved.Is minic mé anseo os comhair do thí
Daichead bliain ó shin, ar thaobh na gcianta
De do ghuth, agus na línte filíochta úd
Á n-aithris agat do lucht an tsiúil
Is déistean id’ ghlór don leagan Béarla úr
A d’iompair siadsan leo, nár thug leis trasna
Ach rabhcán an phróis ó amhrán do mhuintire.
Is mairg gan mé sa tsiúl iarnóin sin na nduan
Faoi mhaidhm do ghutha anseo ag an fhoinse

Is fuarán ár sinsear ag sileadh trí do bhriathra,
Is chuirfinn do ghlór i dtaisce in idhre m’intinne
Is bheadh agam treoir maidin earraigh seaca
Is mé ar an éagmais seasta lasmuigh de do theachsa
Ag iarraidh eochair chasta a chur i nglas mo thosta.

Gan fágtha ansin romham ach ballóg liath do theanga,
Gan fágtha de d’amhrán ach curfá fann i mbriathra
A shíob mar shiorradh gaoithe trí chanúint mo dhaoine.
Gan de chaidreamh agam feasta le do dhúchas ná do smaointe
Ach comhfhuaim sin na mblianta ina rithimí gaothscríte
As a sníomhfainn friotal a d’oirfeadh do mo laethe,
Lena gcuirfinn forán ar na bánta is na sléibhte,
Mé im’ aonar seasta ag sníomh cheirtlín gaoithe.

Sally Humphreys

Often I have stood here before your house
Forty years ago on the leeside of your voice
As you sang your song to the worshipers
Who had come bearing gifts of verse
From a foreign tongue to incense your mind
With pride of place and heritage as you sang
The obsequies of your race, with disdain in your voice
For the raucous prose their version brought
From the bright rippling streams of your origins
Where your voice sourced deep in the limpid spring
Of your Gaelic past.

My great regret that I missed
The twilight of our song, as it fell
In the dying cascade of your words
So that the aimed current
Of your voice might have scored
In the target of my mind,
As well as heart,
As I stood here before your house
On your threshold of neglect
On a cold morning in spring
Trying to turn a twisted key
In the lock of our silence.

Nothing then before me
But the grey ruins of your tongue
Nothing of your song but assonance of years
Threading its refrain through my people’s words,
Nothing of your time or your heritage
From which I might weave a language for our days,
With which I might hail the wasteland and the hills
As I stood alone weaving rhythms from the wind.
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