Rathlin Island and the Gaelic Language
Language and placenames on the island since 3 AD
Gaelic has been on Rathlin from the earliest times. The island had a pivotal role in the ancient kingdom of Dalriada, which stretched from Glen Ravel in Co Antrim across the sea to Argyll in Scotland.
The Dal Reti people, who initially inhabited the northern part of Co Antrim began to colonise the west of Scotland from the third century AD onwards. They took their Gaelic language, customs and traditions with them, and eventually established their capital at Dunadd, in Kintyre. It was here that they crowned their first king Fergus, and it is from him that the Scottish king lists start, and so through the succeeding centuries Scotland became Gaelic. The name is derived from Scotti, the ancient name for Ireland.
Rathlin was a halfway house in all of these developments, and continued in that role up until the 18th century. The place names of Rathlin were part of everyday conversation through the generations. Every field, hill, stream, lough, bogland and cliff had its own individual name, which described its physical features, and so these names were just as important as the names of people in daily life.
In some instances nowadays the meaning is not always obvious, as the land has been altered by agriculture, drainage or road building. I can think of a few instances of this. One is in the district known as Shandragh (old site). There were two stone structures which were called cashels by my great grandmother’s generation.
However, in the course of road building by the island landlord for access to his grazing land in Kilpatrick townland in the 19th century, the cashels were demolished and the stone used in the new road, and so the evidence for a place name has disappeared. The name of our own farm is Garvagh in the townland of Ballygill South. Every field has its name.
For example, on any given day the cattle might have been in Lag na Beinne, and the horse in Pairc Beag. There are many more names on our farm. One is Glac an Toigh Allias, (the hollow of the sweathouse). There were a number of these sweathouses (saunas) in Rathlin and throughout Ireland. They date from the early Christian period, and were used as a cure for many ailments. The names are not so much in use nowadays, as many islanders do not know them. Farming has changed from arable to general grazing of animals and so the old field boundaries are ignored. Another factor is that newer residents have less interest in the traditions.
Fortunately, many of these old names are recorded in a publication by the Dept of Celtic Studies, at Queens University, Belfast . The book is entitled “Ainm vol. 1V “, with names having been supplied by Alex Morrison of Rathlin. The townland names are still in use, as a part of postal addresses. Gaelic was the first language of the island people, a mixture of the Irish and Scots dialects. Scots Gaelic was brought by various Scottish settlers, either through marriage or migration. After significant events, such as the Battle of Culloden in 1745 and the defeat of “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, many Highlanders were driven out in the persecution’s which followed. They settled wherever they could, including the Hebridean islands and Rathlin. This influx of new settlers brought variations in the language, which were enduring.
In the early years of the last century, there was a great revival movement for the language in Ireland, but particularly in the Northern counties. This was spearheaded by the Gaelic League. There were many prominent Presbyterians involved, people such as Belfast lawyer Frances Joseph Bigger, Margaret Dobbs, Ida McNeill and many more.
The first Glens of Antrim Feis was organised by them in 1904. Apart from the cultural aspect, there was the home industries side. This had the objective of creating employment in the rural areas, through crafts and toy making. Many Rathlin people took part in the various competitions at the Feis.
In 1914 St. Malachy’s school of Irish was set up on Rathlin. Courses were held in the newly built Parish hall throughout the summer. Gaelic was still widely spoken on the island at this time. The census of 1910 lists about 220 fluent Gaelic speakers out of a population of 350. The school of Irish was very successful for a few years, but events like the First World War and political instability in Ireland, diverted people’s energies and attention to other things.
Many of the younger men went away to work in places like the Clyde shipyards in Scotland, and settled there. In 1938 a study was carried out on the Rathlin Irish language, by Swedish linguist Nils Holmer, under the auspices of The Royal Irish Acadamy. He spent three months on the island, talking to those who still had a command of Gaelic. This study was later published by the RIA. It runs to 247 pages and copies are in most libraries.
When this study was done there were about 19 fluent speakers out of a population of less than 250. By the 1960s the language was pretty well defunct as a living entity. More recently, in 2002, I was involved in setting up a weekly Irish language class, which is still flourishing.
By Augustine (Gusty) McCurdy