Carson’s cupla focail

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2020), Letters, Volume 28

Sir,—In relation to recent controversies about unionist attitudes to the Irish language, it may be interesting to note that there is evidence that Edward Carson could speak some Irish.

William Gibson, second Lord Ashbourne, was president of the Gaelic League 1928–33. In 1918 he delivered a speech in Irish and English in the House of Lords to rebut Lloyd George’s claim that the Irish differed from the Welsh in having no language of their own. He also spoke Welsh and several other languages; he was a Pan-Celt and Catholic Modernist, and always wore ‘traditional Gaelic dress’ of his own devising (brogues, heavy green stockings, bare legs partly covered by a saffron kilt, a long linen shirt and tweed jacket with a shawl over the shoulders, and a Scottish Highland bonnet). On one occasion when he went for a walk in St Stephen’s Green with the painter Sir Richard Ponsonby Staples, who always went barefoot for health reasons, a park attendant tried to have them arrested. Ashbourne’s sister, Violet Gibson, tried to assassinate Mussolini in 1926.

When doing some research on Lord Ashbourne recently, I came across the following in the Irish Times of 12 February 1929:

‘It is not generally known that Lord Carson numbers among his many accomplishments a knowledge of the Irish language, which, after all, is very natural, as he was born in Dublin and had friends in the West. This information was given to a startled audience of Gaelic Leaguers in Belfast during the week-end by Lord Ashbourne, who said that on one occasion, as he was passing through the lobby of the British House of Commons, he greeted Lord Carson—at that time Sir Edward—in Irish, and received a reply in the same language. It was also interesting to learn that, although Lord Carson had largely forgotten the Gaelic, he used to know it well, according to Lord Ashbourne. It may, therefore, be permitted to say “Slainte” to the old Ulster leader as he marches bravely towards the seventy-sixth milestone of life’s journey.’

There seems no particular reason to doubt this statement, which was made in public at a time when Carson was still alive. I wonder did anyone ever ask Carson to curry their yogurt?—Yours etc.,

PATRICK MAUME
Dictionary of Irish Biography

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