The Dialect Studies and Personalities of Belfast Naturalists Field Club

Author: Anne Smyth

Date: 2013

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 13 Hairst 2013

Anne Smyth


Readers of Ullans may not know of the existence of the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club (BNFC), but at a certain period it played an important part in the preservation of Ulster vernacular language generally. A small exhibition at the Belfast Room in the Ulster Museum (simultaneous with the launch of the Spelling and Pronunciation Guide and Glossary — see ‘Editorial’ — which was held in the same room) was mounted to give visitors to the museum an overview of the history of the Club, which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary.

The Club’s website ( tells us that it was formed as the first of a series of field clubs in response to the increasing interest in natural sciences in Victorian Ireland. It also explains that the Club is ‘an eclectic mix of amateurs and professionals who are interested (in) and enthusiastic about the natural sciences and the built environment’. Today, there are four sections: Archaeology and History, Botany, Geology and Zoology. There was, and continues to be, a strong link with the museum sector.

So far as activities are concerned, as one might expect, the predominant emphasis was on field trips, and that is still the case. Arranged for the summer months, these field trips range far and wide, not just within Northern Ireland but also occasionally into the south and across to Scotland. On the field trips, members are guided by experts with an in-depth knowledge of the areas visited and the local features relevant to the Clubs interests. The winter schedule is devoted mainly to lectures, although there is a two-yearly dinner. In October each year, there is a ‘Conversazione’, a term which is a throw-back to the early days of the Club. Members bring along artefacts in their possession, prepared to discuss them with other members.

However, we must go back to the 1950s for an indication of the Club’s involvement with Ulster language. There had been attempts to introduce folklore studies as early as the 1890s, but these had come to nothing. Then, in 1951, a Folklore and Dialect Section was formed, at the instigation of Richard Hayward (1892-1964) and his nephew, Brendan Adams (1917-1981), two multi-talented individuals who should not be forgotten.

Richard Hayward featured on many old 78 rpm and 45 rpm records as a performer of Orange balladry with a backing group of male vocalists, and as a participant with others (‘Jimmy O’Dea and Harry O’Donovan’) in ‘skits’ such as ‘The Derry Train’. He produced his own Orange song book comprising both lyrics and staff music. After working for a while at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, he had a hand in the creation of the Belfast Repertory Theatre Company; and he was a regular broadcaster on BBC radio in Northern Ireland. His film career was somewhat varied: perhaps the only one of these productions with local interest was ‘The Devil’s Rock’ (1938), a musical drama in which he starred and for which he wrote the screenplay. For Northern Ireland people watching this film, the principal pleasure is in spotting familiar scenes around Bangor and the County Down coast.

His other films are not particularly notable, although he did have a very minor role in ‘A Night to Remember’ (1958), the film about the sinking of the Titanic starring Kenneth More. His name is quite far down the credits, however: he was playing a ‘victualling officer’. It was as a songwriter and not an actor that he contributed to perhaps the most iconic film about Ireland ever screened: ‘The Quiet Man’. In a film packed with popular Irish music of its day, Richard Hayward’s song is the ‘wedding song’, ‘The Humour is on me Now’, for which he wrote both the words and music.

His keen sense of place also led Richard Hayward to write travel books on the Ireland that he loved, of which probably the best known to us today are In Praise of Ulster (1938) and Belfast through the Ages (1952). Throughout all these activities Richard Hayward was dealing with or in the spoken and written word, and his BNFC involvement reflected this interest. Having rejoined the Club after a prolonged period of lapsed membership, Hayward became its President in 1951-2, as well as regularly leading well-attended Club excursions to the south and west of Ireland, and it was during his period as President that the Folklore and Dialect Section was formed.

Hayward’s nephew, Brendan Adams, had a rather more specific interest in language. A large part of his working life had been spent in the linen industry. He was a talented natural linguist who had no ‘bits of paper’ to attest to his skills but seemed able to gain facility with languages without visible effort. Rather than engage with the performance arts favoured by his uncle, Brendan immersed himself in language study, to the extent that he was able to teach Irish and attain a thorough knowledge of Hebrew and Chinese. He also made a study of the origins of these languages, and was adept at drawing out their etymological connections. Another passion was the study of minority religious groupings, such as the Moravians and Huguenots. He took up the post of Curator of Language at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in 1964, following four years as its honorary dialect archivist. That same year, the first research volume of the Ulster Folk Museum, Ulster Dialects: An Introductory Symposium, was published, with Brendan Adams as its editor. During his years at the Museum, Adams wrote a large number of academic papers, some of which unfortunately remain unpublished.

Brendan Adams had succeeded Hayward as the BNFC President (1952-53). Almost immediately the Folklore and Dialect Section was formed, the group approached the Linguistic Survey of Scotland with a view to using its questionnaire to gather information about Ulster dialect. Dialectology as a study had begun in the latter half of the 19th century in Germany, and its methods were closely linked with the distribution of questionnaires and extrapolation of information from the responses. At about the same time as the BNFC and Scots surveys, the University of Leeds undertook the Survey of English Dialects, which examined the rural speech of England and the eastern areas of Wales.

During this time, the Royal Irish Academy published some of Brendan Adams’s work, and eventually he was elected to membership of the Academy, one of the few northerners who ever received that honour.

The other prominent men who assisted with the Ulster Dialect Survey were also remarkable people in their own right. Of these others, perhaps the most closely involved was Professor John Braidwood, who spent a year’s sabbatical from Queen’s on the project. John Braidwood was a native of Renfrewshire whose particular interest was in the Ulster dialect terms for flora and fauna. The writer remembers attending a lecture of John Braidwood’s in Londonderry more than thirty years ago, and being captivated by his obvious enthusiasm for the dialect words and phrases. Unfortunately, the lexical items collected by John Braidwood have never found their way into print for the benefit of students of dialect.

A further significant contribution to the work of the survey was made by Professor Robert J Gregg (1912-1998), whom the Ulster-Scots Language Society was honoured to have as its first Honorary President. Professor Gregg was the founder of the academic study of Ulster-Scots, and it was with him that the concept of an Ulster-Scots Academy originated. The Wunter 1999 issue of Ullans (vol. 7) contained an obituary for Robert Gregg written by our current Honorary President, Professor Michael Montgomery. In it he said:

‘Gregg’s principal achievements were to provide a comprehensive structural description of Ulster-Scots and a detailed mapping of where it was spoken’.

The mapping to which he refers was carried out for Robert Gregg’s PhD thesis. The main supervisor for this groundbreaking work was Professor Angus McIntosh, of the University of Edinburgh, the man who had been in charge of the Linguistic Survey of Scotland when the BNFC joined forces with it to include Northern Ireland in its coverage. Gregg and McIntosh had met in the course of the BNFC Survey work.

Another point to notice about Gregg’s participation in the survey is that he and Brendan Adams had together developed a consuming interest in orthography. In other words, they devised a spelling system for Ulster-Scots, over a considerable period of time, but mainly during the 1960s. Long-established readers of Ullans may remember that its early issues included examples of some of Robert Gregg’s orthographic transcriptions. Unfortunately, many of those who today talk about standardisation of spelling for Ulster-Scots are not even aware of any previous work on the subject, let alone work from fifty years ago. Modern activists may not accept the Gregg/Adams orthography, but it does a great disservice to all that has gone before if they do not even consider the spelling structure these two linguistically talented individuals decided upon.

Today, when few academically-inclined people in Northern Ireland seem interested in research into Ulster-Scots, it may seem to us that the numbers and quality of the BNFC members involved in the language survey are ‘an embarrassment of riches’. What would we not give for the emergence of such a goodly number of committed and skilled folk nowadays? In addition to those already mentioned, another personality also made a valuable contribution to the Field Club’s work: this was Estyn Evans, Professor of Geography at Queen’s, who is looked upon as the driving force behind the creation of the Ulster Folk Museum (as it was then). Those of our readers who have visited the Mournes House at the Folk Museum may know that it was erected as a tribute to him, to honour his great love for that part of the world.

Estyn Evans had been the Chairman of the Committee on Ulster Folklife and Traditions, itself formed in the early 1950s. He articulated its objective as that of ‘rescuing from oblivion those parts of our island story which have escaped the eye of the historian’. Those making up that committee were well aware that historians generally write books on battles and treaties, statesmen and kings. Conversely, the story of the ordinary folk and their old customs and beliefs was felt to be fast disappearing, and the task was considered urgent. Professor Evans believed it was ‘not merely a matter of saving the particular pattern of the regional tradition’. It was ‘that Ulster holds the key position in Atlantic Europe. … It is the meeting-place of Ireland and North Britain, and it can throw light on regions north and south. … From both sides, we in Ulster have been urged to do our part. It is as though one were trying to complete a jig-saw puzzle, knowing that the central pieces were missing’[1]. Here we are, more than 60 years on, wondering how much more of that jig-saw is missing, binned by the unknowing and uncaring of this Brave New World.

The final contributor to the survey whom we are considering was T G F Paterson, then Curator at Armagh County Museum. Armagh County is a traditional ‘glass case’ museum, of a type that has been overtaken by museums containing all the electronic gismos that come under the title of ‘interactive displays’ and those that do most of their ‘interpreting’ through the internet. As such it is probably not fashionable, but certainly has its own integrity. In his day, however, Paterson had also made a special study of the Fews Dialect. The Fews, for those like the current writer whose geography is somewhat patchy, is in South Armagh, roughly in the direction of Newtownhamilton. Ultimately the fruits of Paterson’s research fed into the Concise Ulster Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1996).

So far, we have looked at the personalities involved in the linguistic survey, and must now turn to the fate of the data collected. The original idea had been to compile a dictionary of Ulster dialect. Anyone who knows a little about dictionary compilation will know that the initial stage, before the advent of the computer, was the excerption of lexical items and linked data onto slips from selected literary or spoken sources. The BNFC members were of course working from the completed questionnaires, about 900 of them, that had been sent out to teachers, retired civil servants, lighthouse keepers, fishermen and community organisations like the Womens Institute and Young Farmers’ Clubs.

Certain aspects of the work were meticulously done. The geographical spread of any particular linguistic variant, for instance, was recorded onto the slip for each one by means of a code. Unfortunately, those who came to the task later were unable to discover the key for this code, which resulted in the loss of much painstaking research. Although this was a big disappointment, it did teach a lesson that those currently working with the language do well to heed. Just as important as the accurate recording of the data itself is the formulation of a rigorous methodology, and an accurate description of it, so that those coming after will have the information they need to take the work further.

Often one encounters a lack of understanding in regard to the compilation of dictionaries, in that those involved in the decision to undertake this often fail to realise that they are very much a long-term project. Indeed, many of the major ones are the work of several generations. Also, the quality and commitment of workers in this field of interest are crucial: it is often said that it is necessary to be a ‘nit-picker’ to be a good lexicographer. Of the folk who were involved with the survey, the first to be lost to the project was Robert Gregg, who emigrated to Canada with his family in 1954. The group was later hit by tragedy when Richard Hayward was killed in a car accident near Ballymena in 1964.

Meanwhile, the questionnaire responses were carefully excerpted onto ‘slips’ and filed. The problem with this was that those doing the excerption just tended to replicate the spellings provided by the questionnaire respondents, without considering whether a particular variant differed in its development in any substantive way from the previously-recorded one. Looking back, we could be forgiven for thinking it would have taken them to be more selective. Occasionally, such as in the case of the term yoldring (a bird: the yellowhammer), they collected something approaching 90 different variants. This seems symptomatic of the extent of the detail overall and the work involved in handling it in those pre-electronic days, and it appears this was a major factor in the handing over of the slip archive to the newly-formed Ulster Folk Museum in the 1960s, rather than its use for its original purpose, the publication of a dictionary.

Despite the absence of the wished-for dictionary at that stage, some of the results of the research were incorporated in papers that in 1964 made up the Folk Museum’s first publication, already mentioned, and in other papers written by Brendan Adams. The slips sat in their small filing drawers, quite safe but unregarded, until 1990. In that year, the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, as it now was, with ‘ringfenced’ funding from the Department of Education, commenced the task of compiling A Concise Ulster Dictionary (already referred to). With Dr Caroline MacAfee, whose previous experience was with the Scottish National Dictionary, in the post of editor, this continued until the dictionary’s publication in 1996. The information on the ‘slips’ created by Brendan Adams and his colleagues in the BNFC at last was made available to the public, along with items of linguistic interest from other sources.

The dictionary thus created was not, and was never intended to be, a dictionary of Ulster-Scots, but rather of Ulster dialect. However, it contains much that is useful to the Ulster-Scots researcher. It must also be remembered that it is a concise dictionary originally intended for schools use, not a full historical dictionary which would give quotations from literary sources together with their dates to support the stated sense development of each entry. Furthermore, the dictionary has been out of print for a considerable time. The creation of a properly-resourced dictionary project for Ulster-Scots remains a primary objective for Ulster-Scots language enthusiasts, and the notion that one already exists is incorrect. Let us hope that if funding is ever available for such an essential educational resource, we have people of the calibre of the ‘band of brothers’ of the BNFC to do the needful when the time comes.


[1] Ulster Folklife (1955, vol. 1), p.3.



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