The following quotations illustrate some of the history of the language in the parish.
"... In Clonduff, where information is fullest, it is clear that children born before 1840 were generally raised with Irish; Irish was still quite widely used in the 1880s; fluent speakers were not difficult to find in the 1890s, and at least one man knowing some words of native County Down Irish was living as late as 1945."
The Gaelic language could still be heard in Hilltown in the late nineteenth century, and the last native speakers, as distinct from those who have learnt Gaelic in the schools, have only recently died out.
Eymrs Evans, ‘Mourne Country’ 1951.
“There a good many Irish speaking people in the neighbourhood of Hilltown though I think nearly all of them can speak English; when, however they frequent fairs in the upper parts of county Armagh, for instance they met with people who speak English very imperfectly: and with these people the Down men converse altogether in Irish.”
A correspondent of W.H Patterson, 1880.
‘Half a century ago, when I first knew it, it was a “backward” place—one might still hear Irish spoken by the old people, who were full of old tales.’
R.L. Praeger 1937.
The Way That I Went (Dublin and London, 1937), p 127
‘When I first knew Hilltown, fifty years ago, you could still hear Irish spoken if you knew where to find it.’
R.L. Praeger 1941 .
A Populous Solitude (Dublin, 1941), p 63.
An Dr. Ciarán Ó Duibhín
More notes from Ciarán Ó Duibhín ...
John McLindon a farmer gave O’Donovan (1834) a list of the Irish names of the mountains of Clonduff.[i]
"Peannaire" (Tarlach Ó hUid) writes of his friend Séimí Mac Riabhaigh of Ballyweely, Cabragh, whose grandmother was a native Irish speaker. Mac Riabhaigh was probably born around 1920.[iv]
Manuscripts of Francis McPolin from 1943-45 contain mention of Irish speakers in the Clonduff area.[v] On 14 November 1943, McPolin writes of Ann Savage, aged 95, of Goward: ‘Ann can still bless herself in Irish. Her father and mother always gave out the Rosary in Irish at night, and often spoke Irish to each other. If the young ones wanted to go out on their céilidhe at night the old pair always spoke a few words together in Irish before letting them go.’[vi] Michael J. Murphy obtained folklore in English from Ann Savage.[vii]
Murphy met Ann Savage through Patrick Rooney, who was out looking for sheep near the Spelga Pass around 1944 when Murphy encountered him: ‘when he found out what I was after he began to fling phrases in Gaelic at me’.[viii] McPolin states that Rooney lived with Ann Savage in Goward, was aged 65 in 1945, and ‘belongs to the Mayobridge district’, but his grandmother was from Tamary, on the boundary of Clonduff and Drumgath parishes.[ix]
McPolin reports that ‘Mr Fitzpatrick (95) told me Nov 43 that in his boyhood days Mr and Mrs Stephen Gribben of Ballygorian could speak Irish. He well remembers calling in their house one day (doing a message, I presume). When he was there they began speaking Irish to each other, and he, thinking they were planning to murder him, ran out and away.’[x]
On 11 March 1945, McPolin re James Cowan, farmer, Stang, aged 60: ‘Traditional Irish: Cowan was able to repeat a number of phrases in Irish which his grandmother who knew the language taught him when he was a child, e.g. bless himself, count from one to ten, and such phrases as “shŏwitchshough”. At the same time he says his mother knew no Irish. She apparently was born about the transition period when parents did not wish their children to learn Irish. That would be about 1840-50 in this district. Cowan’s granny belonged to Drumboniff; she was born in the place where Barney Murnin now lives.’[xi]
McPolin gives the following cure for a stye, from Clonduff: pluck nine jags (spíon) of a gooseberry (spíonóg) and point each three times at the sufferer’s eye, saying ‘Speena, speena, huggarth (chugat) the cript; cript, cript, huggarth the speena’. Then throw the thorn over your right shoulder.[xii] McPolin gaelicises ‘cript’ as cruibh. O’Neill-Lane (1918 edition) gives craobh fhabhra for ‘stye’, with Oriel provenance. The word is also recorded from Tyrone, spelled cnuimh (Pádraig Ó Baoighill, Padaí Láidir Mac Culadh agus Gaeltacht Thír Eoghain, 2009, page 120).
Patrick McPolin of Ballykeel, aged 80, told Francis McPolin on 7 January 1946: ‘Yes, my father knew a great deal of Irish. He learned a lot from his mother, for she knew nothing else but Irish. I remember Fr Kearns speaking some words of Irish to him (wherever he learned it) but my father not only answered him but came out with some more. “Oh Pat” says Fr Kearns “that is going too far for me.”’[xiii] Fr Kearns was born in Seagoe in 1846 and was in Clonduff from 1881 until 1923, becoming parish priest in 1891.[xiv]
In June 1951, Michael J Murphy spoke to John Murphy, aged 88, of Goward, who told him about an old woman who formerly lived in Stang, called Mary McEvoy — "Crombie her name would be" — who had Gaelic. John Murphy related that "someone heard her talking once and said they thought she was astray in the head, that they didn't know a word she was saying. I was only a child at that time."[xv]
[i] O’Donovan, p 65
[ii] W.H. Patterson, A glossary of words in use in the counties of Antrim and Down (London, 1880), p x
[iii] R.L. Praeger, The Way That I Went (Dublin and London, 1937), p 127; id., A Populous Solitude (Dublin, 1941), p 63; Aodán Mac Póilín drew my attention to this
[iv] Peannaire, ‘Gaeilge fos fa na Beanna Boirche!’, Inniu, 9/9/1955, p ?
[v] I am grateful to Fintan Mussen, who has custody of the Francis McPolin manuscripts, for allowing me to examine them; the two copybooks here quoted from are identified by their types as ‘S.O. Book 127’ (SO) and ‘Educational Book-keeping Exercise Book’ (EB). McPolin (SO pp 112, 172) records an interesting tradition that Leitrim townland in Clonduff (not to be confused with Leitrim in Drumgooland parish) was settled by families from south Armagh and north Louth, who found a refuge there under O’Neill of Bannvale in the 18th century; he cites the surnames Carroll, Hanlon, Matthews and McAtee; on this, see also Michael J Murphy, Ulster Folk of Field and Fireside (Dundalk, 1983), pp 154–5, where he states that the families were driven out of north Armagh, and some went to Hilltown and others to south Armagh
[vi] McPolin, SO p 36
[vii] Murphy, Ulster Folk of Field and Fireside, p 17 and photograph opposite p 39
[viii] Murphy, p 17
[ix] McPolin, SO pp 119, 121
[x] ibid., p 47
[xi] ibid., pp 64-5
[xii] ibid., p 68
[xiii] McPolin, EB p 11; Patrick McPolin died c 1948 (Francis McPolin, writing in the Newry Reporter of 5 March 1953)
[xiv] Padraic Keenan, Brief historical sketch of the parish of Clonduff (Newry, 1941), pp 19-20; Campbell and Keenan, p 46
[xv] Roinn Bhéaloideas Éireann, UCD: MS1220, page 237