Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Mississippians speaking Gaelic

Mississippians speaking Gaelic…

… when pigs fly, you say. You don’t normally associate Mississippi with the Irish speaking world. I mean the words Mississippi and Gaeilge do not often appear in the same sentence. But history is full of odd misconceptions, like horns and wings on Viking helmets (they had none). Early Mississippi was settled by an assortment of mixed Celts, Irish, Hebrideans, west Highlanders, Scots-Irish, etc., and Gaelic was a language heard often in Mississippi in antebellum days.

In the mid 1840s John Claiborne, a prominent Mississippi attorney and member of the US Congress, wrote in his journal, ‘there is yet living in Greene (County) some of the original immigrants who speak nothing but the Gallic.’ By this he meant the Gaelic language. There was even a need for Gaelic speaking post masters in Mississippi in those days. The Greene County comment was of great interest to me personally, as the first McCains to enter Mississippi were in this community described by John Claiborne.

It is interesting to see Gaelic in use in Mississippi into the 1840s and 1850s. My own grandfather, who was born in 1890, used certain Gaelic works in his speech: brogan (bróga) for shoe, or slew (slua) to mean a lot of something. I found a humorous comment about language made by an English Crown official that visited the Marsh Creek Settlement in the Pennsylvania Colony, where the McCains were living in the 1740s. The Crown official complained that these settlers spoke ‘bad English and bad Irish.’ That was my immigrant, Hugh McKean, he was speaking about and it was his son, Hance Hamilton McCain, who brought my
wing on the family into Mississippi.

Now you would think that by the 21st Century we Mississippi McCains would have lost our Gaelic, wouldn’t you? Not so. Last fall you would have heard a curious conversation in Oxford, Mississippi, from two men heading into the Ajax Pub. My cousin, Rankin Sherling, a native Greenwood, his mother a McCain, and I met at the Pub to have a visit. Rankin is working on his Phd in Irish history at Queens University, Ontario, Canada and was just back from Donegal, where he had been studying Ulster Irish. My Irish is fair to middlin’ these days, and despite my caigheán oifigiúil and his bona fide Ulster dialect, we managed to greet and speak in Irish to each other there in the middle of Oxford,Mississippi. So pigs do fly.

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