Thursday, 19 May 2011

In Praise of Ulster-Scots Poetry

It would be wrong to say that the Ulster-Scots Agency has not engaged in republishing the dialect's poetic tradition. Not only was it the ultimate funder of Frank Ferguson's huge anthology of Ulster-Scots Writing, it also produced under its own auspices a volume collecting the verse of the tragically short-lived Donegal poet Sarah Leech. Prior to its establishment, there also appeared the three-volume Folk Poets of Ulster series, co-edited by future board member Philip Robinson and published by current board member Ian Adamson.

Excellent as these volumes are, they do not amount to an exhaustive effort at republication — a great shame, since there are only around 70 volumes of such verse. The absence of such an effort poses a set of problems and challenges that those who care for Ulster Scots might do well to address.

First, owing to the continued marginality of Ulster Scots ten years after the inception of the agency, there are, even today, those who make the astonishing claim that the variety does not exist. Many others, because of diglossia, wrongly believe it to be Mid Ulster English spoken with an Ulster-Scots accent.

Secondly, the relative unavailability of the oeuvre in question renders it almost impossible to codify Ulster Scots on the basis of its traditional literature. The later prose tradition often first published in newspapers, whose exponents included W. G. Lyttle, has strong elements of eye dialect that were quite obviously never intended to supply a written standard. Yet such literature may be easier to access nowadays, and, judging by the work of many of those who have tried their hand at writing Ulster Scots, has ironically achieved greater influence.

Thirdly, a recovered Ulster-Scots poetic tradition would act as a catalyst for research, whether the aim of that research be corpus linguistics or literary appreciation. Making the Ulster-Scots poetic tradition freely available on the Internet would herald a new birth for the variety, with researchers from across the world taking an interest and producing academic articles and monographs. It would also make it much easier for home-grown writers to reference and build upon a tradition from which they have been cut off by history.

Rather than press on with daft plans for an Ulster-Scots Academy, whose only supporters, apart from politicians, are the activists who look forward to employment within it, the new DCAL Minister should establish a time-bound commission to recover and digitise the full corpus of Ulster-Scots texts. As such an exercise would sensibly constitute almost the entire work of the early years of any Ulster-Scots Academy, those who advocate an additional Ulster-Scots body would have no reasonable cause for complaint, and would remain free to pursue their plans after the next Assembly election in five years' time. When the work of the commission came to an end, the digitised works would pass into the control of the Ulster-Scots Agency, which would be given the statutory duty to ensure their dissemination — probably through maintaining a website with downloads and an electronic corpus, and perhaps also through the production of an annual popular or academic volume.

It is a queer and tragic come-tae-pass that hundreds of thousands of pounds that might have been spent on recovery were instead wasted on a dead-end strategy for an academy — but it is not too late to inject a note of sense into plans for the future.

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