The search for a lost language called Yola takes Shane Dunphy from a sunken island in Wexford harbour to the heart of rural Dorset and the ancient pathways of Cornwall.
'Yola: Lost for Words' tells the story of Shane, a Wexford native, and his fascination with Yola, a lost dialect which was spoken in the isolated baronies of Forth and Bargy, arriving with the very first Norman landings, and finally disappearing, literally, in a freak storm on the Wexford coast in 1922.
Shane's journey to discover if any last speakers of this strange tongue still exist takes him from a sunken island in Wexford bay to ancient villages in Dorset. He discusses pagan rituals with witches in Cornwall and witnesses the archaic customs of Mumming in Baldwinstown, deep in the heart of what was once Yola country.
Along the way, Shane hunts for some sense of who the Yoles were. Jacob Poole, a Quaker farmer and amateur anthropologist collected a glossary of their language and folk songs in 1867. Poole describes these people as being, even back then, out of their time, living lives of great isolation and abject poverty. It seems that they were very much second class citizens within the wider Wexford culture, treated with derision and superstition. Yet they clung to their language and their ways, stolidly refusing to change or move with the developments of the oncoming industrial age.
Reports of their lives on the island in Wexford bay, where the last Yola community lived in the early years of the 20th century, paint them as a kind of hunter-gatherer group, scratching a living from the sea and the surrounding salt marshes. They must have lived desperately harsh lives in that inhospitable place, a spot they were granted by the business interests who owned Rosslare port in a bid to utilise their sailing skills (they worked as pilots, guiding the ships through the treachorous harbour entrance).
Shane is amazed that, even in Wexford, where Yola remains a factor of daily speech, the people themselves are never spoken of, and there is a real sense of discomfort when they are mentioned. The only answer seems to be to seek out the root of the dialect. Where did it come from? The Yoles, according to Poole, arrived as footmen to Strongbow in the 12th century. Academics like Diarmuid O'Muirithe and Nicholas Furlong suggest that there are traces of their speech in both Dorset and Cornwall.
With Richie O'Hara, a native Irish speaker interested in the links between Yola and Wexford Gaelic, Shane travels to England, where he finds remarkable similarities, not just with the dialects, but also the personalities and cultures of both groups. Songs and folk customs resonate, and the general state of mind seems almost like a shared consciousness.
The only living Wexford person who still uses the dialect is folk singer Paddy Berry, who freely admits that his singing of 'A Yola Zong' may not be an accurate rendition of how it was actually sang by true speakers, but Shane feels, at the end of his voyage, that he did find the Yoles. They survive in folk memory as a strong, single-minded, deeply spiritual people, who deserve not to be forgotten.
Compiled and narrated by Shane Dunphy.
Produced by Orla Rapple
Production supervision by Sarah Blake.
Sound supervision by Anton Timoney.
This documentary was funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland through their Sound and Vision Scheme.
First broadcast Saturday 20th November, 6pm
An Irish radio documentary from RTÉ Radio 1, Ireland - Documentary on One - the home of Irish radio documentaries.