Sunday, September 30, 2007

Football, Faith and Supporter Songs

I've been a long-distance Chelsea fan since 1985. Allegedly, recently-ousted manager Jose Mourinho once said "There is God, then Jesus, then me". Mourinho is a man with an awesome sense of his own worth.

"The Special One's" near-divinity aside, have you ever noticed how many football anthems are based on hymns or gospel songs? Here are a few:

1. "Follow Follow, We Will Follow Rangers" is of course a rewrite of "Follow Follow I Would Follow Jesus" by William Cushing (USA), around 1878. Robert Lowry wrote the tune.

2. "Stand Up for the Ulstermen" / "Stand Up if You Love Rangers" etc is a rewrite of "Give Thanks With a Grateful Heart" by Henry Smith (USA) around 1978. (Village People wrote a song to the same tune, entitled "Go West" which they released in 1979, and which was then covered by the Pet Shop Boys in 1993)

3. "There's not a team like the Glasgow Rangers" is the same as "There's not a Friend like the lowly Jesus" by Rev Johnson Oatman (USA) around 1895

4. "We're Not Brazil We're Northern Ireland" is of course "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" by Julia Ward Howe (USA) around 1861

5. And I'm sure most of you are well familiar with the version of "Away in a Manger" sung at Northern Ireland matches, with the superb line "...the stars in the bright sky looked down where HEAL-Y, HEAL-Y, HEAL-Y...!"

6. "Glasgow Rangers, Glasgow Rangers, We'll support you evermore" is of course from the hymn "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah" - the end of its first verse is "Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven, Feed me till I want no more".

And there are more. "Abide With Me" by Henry Lyte is still sung at every FA Cup Final in England.

Maybe this list of five is due to a fair proportion of Rangers and Northern Ireland fans having been sent to Sunday School, where they learned these choruses and hymns. The tunes are simple and memorable, they're easy to sing and sound great with hundreds or thousands of voices belting them out.

Back in July I took my oldest boy, Jacob (9), to see a pre-season friendly at Ibrox of Rangers v Chelsea. Rangers won 2-0. Jacob's now daft about Rangers and has a load of supporters songs on his MP3 player - so he's itching to sing "Follow Follow" in Carrowdore Mission Hall some Saturday or Sunday night! (Stephen are you listening?!!)

"...of the thirty seven clubs that have played in the English Premier League since its inception of the 92/93 season, twelve can trace their origin directly to a church...", quoted from the book "Thank God for Football"

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Fenians, Orangemen, Confederates and Ulster Scots.

Now if ever there was a controversial title for a blog posting, that's the one! But behind it lies a tale of propaganda and literature from the late 1800s. Allow me to explain…

Frank Roney (1841 - 1925) was a leading figure in the trade union movement in Belfast during the mid 1800s – he was an active member of the Friendly Society of Ironfounders, and was also a committed Irish nationalist and Fenian organiser. Roney’s family background was varied – he was a Catholic, but his mother had been raised as a Presbyterian, one of his uncles was an Orangeman, but his grandfather had been a committed United Irishman. Quite a cocktail of influences.

Roney was arrested in 1867 for his Fenian activities and, after a period in prison in Dublin, was allowed to emigrate to the USA on the condition that he never return to the UK or Ireland. He became heavily involved in the union movement in the USA, and died at Long Beach, California in 1925, aged 84.

A portion from his 1931 biography “Frank Roney, Irish Rebel and Labour Leader” (Univ. of California Press, 1931) was used by the renowned Sam Hanna Bell in his own compilation “Within Our Province – a Miscellany of Ulster Writing” (Blackstaff Press, Belfast 1972).

In the book, Roney describes the scene of the arrival in Belfast of the famous Confederate steamship the CSS Alabama, presumably at some point during the American Civil War (1861 – 1865). She was by far the most successful Confederate raider of the Civil War, sinking 58 Yankee ships. There is even a famous folk song about her history and exploits called "Roll Alabama Roll".

Here is the portion of Roney's book, quoted by Sam Hanna Bell:



The Confederate cruiser "Alabama" put into Belfast Lough ostensibly to get provisions, but really to create sympathy for the Southern cause. The aristocracy, Orange magistracy, and men of wealth, whom we classed as the natural enemies of the Irish people, hailed the coming of the vessel, knowing her mission, as an event by which to show, in the reception given her officers, how desirous they were to see the American Republic smashed to fragments.

The town put on its gala garb and with a band playing, and banners flying, the enemies of Ireland boarded a tugboat decorated with bunting, visited the ship and escorted the officers of the cruiser to the city. Carpets were laid from the gangplank of the tug to the carriages, and the sworn enemies of the American Republic were escorted to all points of interest in the city and vicinity, and feted at a banquet where every speaker delivered messages of comfort and encouragement to their Confederate guests. Bumpers were heartily drunk to the destruction of their common enemy, the United States.

No Irish Nationalist could complacently accept the compliments paid these officers as the expression of Irish opinion, and when in after years many of us were forced to leave our country, we naturally attached ourselves to the Republican Party, principally because the South, whose representatives were thus feted by our enemies, was the dominating power of the Democratic Party.


It’s certainly a very romantic story, and heavily loaded with political allegations. The claimed allegiances between Orangemen and the Confederates will confirm the prejudices and suspicions of some readers, and the hopes and dreams of others!

But, the story is utter fiction. Roney invented the whole story, perhaps to try to stimulate pro-Irish nationalist sympathy in the USA in the early years that followed the defeat of the Confederates during the American Civil War. Equating the Confederate foe with the Orange foe in the minds of the American public would be a useful propaganda victory for him, and might secure American support for the Irish republican cause.

The truth of the story is:

1) The man who commissioned the Alabama to be built was Admiral James Bulloch, Confederate Purchasing Agent based in England. For a time the British government seemed to support the Confederate effort. Bulloch's nephew was the future US President, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt later persuaded Bulloch to write “The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe”. The Bullochs had emigrated to the New World from Glenoe in County Antrim in 1729.

In the book, Bulloch wrote:

… At 2.30 a.m. (31st), we got under weigh, and stood out of the bay under steam alone. At 8 a.m. the ship was off the Calf of Man, the sky clearing and wind dropping. We set all sail to a middling fresh breeze, and bowled along 13 knots, good. By 11 a.m. the wind fell light, and we lost the effect of the sails; at noon passed South Rock**, and steered along the coast of Ireland. At 6 p.m. entered between Rathlin Island and Fair Head. At 8 p.m. stopped the engines off the Giant's Causeway, hailed a fishing-boat, and (George) Bond and I went ashore in a pelting rain, leaving Captain Butcher to proceed with the Enrica, in accordance with his instructions.

During the evening it rained incessantly, and the wind skirled and snifted about the gables of the hotel in fitful squalls. Bond and I sat comfortably enough in the snug dining-room after dinner, and sipped our toddy, of the best Coleraine malt ; but my heart was with the little ship buffeting her way around that rugged north coast of Ireland. I felt sure that Butcher would
keep his weather-eye open, and once clear of Innistrahull, there would be plenty of sea-room ; but I could not wholly shake off an occasional sense of uneasiness. Bond gave me the exact distances from point to point, from light to light, and having been taught at school to work up all sums to very close results, I made the average speed of the Enrica to have been 12*89 from Moelfra to the Giants' Causeway, and felt well satisfied with the performance.

The next morning, August 1st, Bond and I took a boat and pulled along the coast to Port Rush. The weather was beautifully fine, and the effect of the bright sun and the gentle west wind was so exhilarating that I felt no further solicitude about the Enrica. From Port Rush we took rail to Belfast, and then steamer and rail via Fleetwood to Liverpool…

2) The ship that sailed from Liverpool wasn't even called the CSS Alabama. She was built by John Laird and Sons of Birkenhead in Liverpool under the codename Vessel 290, and at the time of her launch had been renamed as Enrica. Enrica was launched on 28th July 1862.

3) The ship never came to Belfast. After leaving Liverpool Enrica did however anchor briefly at the Giant’s Causeway around July 31st, where Bulloch and the ship’s pilot disembarked, stayed a while in Ulster, and then went back to Liverpool.

4) Enrica then sailed round Ireland to the Azores, where she was renamed CSS Alabama on 24th August 1862.

5) When CSS Alabama left Liverpool, she had a civilian crew. Even if she had come to Belfast there would have been no Confederate officers onboard as Roney’s account alleges.



In the chapter “A Soldier of the Irish Republic”, Roney acknowledged the language spoken in the Ards.

…As an evidence of the principles actuating the Newtownards men, the following personal experience may be of interest. I started out with one of them, one lovely Saturday afternoon, to visit the “Greenboys of “Greba” as Grey Abbey was called in the Scotch dialect of that section…

(** - South Rock is just off the coast of the Low Country, near Cloughey)

10 Years Married

This is Hilary. We were 10 years married yesterday. She has survived me well thus far (and the three weans forbye!)

Isn't it amazing how quickly time flies by. We are so fixated by clocks, calendars, by growing up, and by getting old. What will it be like to live in a place where there is no such thing as time?

"When we've been there 10,000 years
Bright shining as the sun
We'll have no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we first begun"

Try to get your time-limited mind around that one!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Look Up!

(We've had 1100 visitors to the blog in the past month. Pretty good going methinks.)

A few years ago the very cool/trendy American gospel group Jars of Clay released an album of old gospel classics called Redemption Songs. Now the style in places is - for my taste - a wee bit overdone. The dancey tempo and drumbeats, the slightly off-key melodies, minor notes thrown in where you're not expecting them, strange instruments mixed in here and there - doesnt quite do it for me. Nothing that an old pump organ wouldnt fix!

Nevertheless, if you've got a spare tenner it's worth buying a copy. The words alone will lift your eyes to where they should be looking!

"On Jordan's stormy banks I stand
And cast a wistful eye
To Canaan's fair and happy land
Where my possessions lie

All o'er those wide, extended plains
Shines one eternal day
There God the Son forever reigns
And scatters night away

I am bound, I am bound, I am bound for the Promised Land..."

They say that the early Scots settlers coming to Ulster in the 1600s believed they were on their way to their Promised Land. Then a century later the Ulster-Scots thought the same when they emigrated to the New World (America) - there are 83 places called "Canaan" in the USA alone. They were either being optimistic or deluded. Our promised land is not on earth.

No. 160 in "The Believers Hymnbook" as used in Gospel Halls every Sunday morning sums it up beautifully:

"My rest is in heaven, my rest is not here
Then why should I murmur when trials are near?
Be hushed my sad spirit, the worst that can come
But shortens the journey and hastens me home

It is not for me to be seeking my bliss
And building my hopes in a region like this
I look for a city which hands have not piled
I long for a country by sin undefiled"

[by Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847) - he was born in Scotland, educated at Portora in Enniskillen and Trinity College Dublin. He also wrote "Abide with Me" and "Praise My Soul the King of Heaven".]

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Nae Prootas in Scotlann

Now there are some who say that the Ulster-Scots language doesn't exist, that it's just the Scots language spoken in Ulster.

The Low Country Boys have spent weekends over the last few years performing in Moniaive in Dumfries and Galloway, in Prestwick in Ayrshire, and in Fraserburgh up north of Aberdeen. And many of the folk we stayed with and got talking to were amazed by our Ulster-Scots songs and speech. Many of those same people dispute that there's even such a thing as a single "Scots" language anyway - there are significant regional differences within Scotland. There are many words and expressions used in Southern Scotland that aren't used in North East Scotland, and vice versa.

One of the arguments for the distinctiveness of Ulster-Scots (ie as separate from "mainland Scots") is that over many hundreds of years Ulster-Scots has had a strong influence from the Irish language. And the picture here is what has triggered this post.

The humble spud. My parents, my grandparents, and probably their ancestors for generations before them, always called "potatoes" "prootas". There was the occasional reference to "tatties" (which is of course Scots), but 95% of the time it was "prootas".

So just today I decided to look up "prootas" in the 6 or 7 Scots language dictionaries I have. Wee yins and big brutes o yins. And not a single mention of "prootas" anywhere!!!

So I did an online search. It turns out that the Irish word for "potato" is "práta" - which sounds a lot like "proota" tae me, and gives more support to the claim of the Irish language influence. Here's a wee wheen mair:

- I will always call a potato a "proota" and not a "tattie".
- I also call children "weans" and not "bairns".
- I say "yin" but never "ane".
- I never say "fit like" (which is a very popular figure of speech in NE Scotland).

Any of you have similar examples of words that are used here and not in "mainland Scots"? It would be interesting for someone, or some organisation, to do a project on the differences and on the Irish influence. I wonder which organisation...

God's Gonna Cut You Down

This is an experiment to see if I can post audio files to the blog. May as well use a superb song for you to enjoy - it's an old traditional Gospel song. Elvis recorded a fairly upbeat version on his 1966 gospel album "How Great Thou Art"with the name "Run On". This version was recorded by Johnny Cash just before he died on Sept 12 2003, and is featured on his final album "American V: A Hundred Highways". It's not far short of terrifying.

"...You can run on for a long time.. but sooner or later God's gonna cut you down..."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Oh how awful the cost...

Thankfully not everyone is like "Person X". This wee chorus was recently sent to me by "Mr H", who like me sang it in Sunday School many many years ago. I had forgotten about it until it landed in my inbox last week.

"I've a soul to saved,
May this truth be engraved,
On my heart and my mind
While I'm young,
Oh how awful the cost,
If my soul should be lost,
And I die in my sins as I am
Die as I am,
Yes die as I am
All hope gone for ever
If I die as I am..."

Today's stats

Visits to the blog seem to have doubled today. Must be Person X and his/her network of upset friends ;-)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Ulster and Appalachia

Ok, back to the usual stuff.

Ulster and Appalachia. 3500 miles apart, yet so similar – in landscape, in culture, in people.

This shot of bluegrass banjo legend Dr Ralph Stanley is in the booklet to his self-titled 2002 cd. The cover and most of the rest of the booklet features black and white documentary-style photography (by Mary Ellen Mark) of Ralph outside the church - a little wooden building propped up on blocks, out in the middle of nowhere. Ralph is wearing a suit and is by himself. It looks like the heart of the Appalachian mountains. The CD has eleven tracks, four are gospel. It’s a superb album, recorded in the afterglow of his Grammy for the awesome “O Death” that appeared on the soundtrack to "O Brother Where Art Thou?", the movie that brought bluegrass to the masses worldwide.

The pic of Ralph inside the church – possibly the Primitive Baptist Universalist Church that he is still a member of in Dickenson County, Virginia – astounded me when I bought the cd. Because the design of the interior is virtually identical to the interior of Ebenezer Gospel Hall, at the Pink Brae outside Portavogie, where I attended until I was about 21 and also Ballyhalbert Gospel Hall too. Virtually identical! Here it is:

Maybe theologically the Primitive Baptists and the (Plymouth) Brethren here in the UK are similar, I don’t know for sure. (see here and here.

Primitive Baptists have no instruments in their churches. For the Brethren, some gospel halls have an organ or piano which is used in gospel/evangelical meetings (its sometimes jokingly referred to as “the wooden brother”) – but never used on a Sunday morning for the “breaking of bread”. Acapella singing only. A strong preference for the King James Version. No salaried ministers, but voluntary elders appointed from the membership. And, importantly, no centralised organisation. Everything is local. Everything is independent.

But what really struck me is that rural Scotch-Irish/Ulster-Scots communities, thousands of miles apart, in a quest for authentic, simple, New Testament worship have used the same style of building. Wooden floor. Single door at the back, right in the middle of the main room. Wooden “forms” (not pews) on either side of a central strip of carpet which leads up to the platform. No curtains (sometimes just simple roller blinds). Praying, preaching and singing. No art. No decoration. Just the people and the Word.

Today there aren’t many of the original, traditional gospel halls or mission halls left in the Ards. Most have been replaced by (sometimes expensive) modern buildings - Killaughey Mission Hall (near Ballycopeland Windmill) and the People’s Hall (beside Portavogie Harbour) might be the only two old style ones left. But some of the newer buildings have also been designed simply and have much of the spirit of the older ones – Maranatha Hall in Carrowdore is a good example of this (top pic of the four below. The hall is run by my da, Ronnie Wilson and Stephen Jamison. Graeme teaches Sunday School here too) The second pic here is of the platform of the old Carrowdore Mission Hall.

The important thing of course is that whether the building is old or new, the message is still the old fashioned gospel.

I wonder if we could ever get Ralph to visit the Low Country? He’d feel right at home. (last two pics are of the People's Hall in Portavogie, run by my uncle John)

About Blogging

Blogs are funny.

I say that because every day the counter on this blog goes up by about 20-odd visits, but only the dedicated few actually post comments. Sometimes people will say to me in passing "oh, yes I saw such and such on your blog a few days ago", and it takes me by surprise because I never really thought that person would even be remotely interested in my ramblings.

So it probably pertains that there are people reading this who:

a) are more or less on the same wavelength as me (which is great)
b) others who are just curious and mildly intrigued (which is fine - I hope you're finding out about things), and
c) also others who are downright opposed and even hostile to my beliefs, views and interests. (I hope you're busy copying-and-pasting plenty of juicy stuff from here about rural mission halls to use against me in the future character assassination you're planning for me. Or maybe just to regurgitate in some tin-pot email forum)

Anyway, I had a conversation today with Person X. Person X was a bit sensitive to my last two posts - because I dared to use the word "Protestant". Person X thought that in our new shiny Northern Ireland, using the "P word" was rather indelicate, and that if I had any sense I should avoid referring to such things. So Person X's advice was for me to deny who I am. What a good idea.

Person X also flatly rejected the notion that there was an unspoken theme that Protestants have no culture. So, Person X, I refer you to Exhibit A - Edna Longley's essay entitled "Ulster Protestants and the Question of Culture" in the book Last Before America, published in 2001. In the very first sentence, she refers to "...the perceived culturelessness of Ulster Protestants..." and that in Northern Ireland there is a tendency to "...erase the cultural presence and cultural memory..."

Exhibit B proves that this is not a new idea, and it's not limited to Northern Ireland. John Fiske in his masterful 1900 book "Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America" he says:

"...The name Scotch-Irish is an awkward compound, and is in many quarters condemned. Curiously enough, there is no one who seems to object to it so strongly as the Irish Catholic. While his feelings toward the “Far-Downer” are certainly not affectionate, he is nevertheless anxious to claim him, with his deeds and trophies, as simply Irish, and grudges to Scotland the claim to any share in producing him. It must be admitted, however, that there is a point of view from which the Scotch-Irish may be regarded as more Scotch than Irish. The difficulty might be compromised by calling them Ulstermen, or Ulster Presbyterians..."

So no doubt Person X will be upset by this post too, but we have to stop walking on eggshells and recognise the reality we live in. There is a widespread view that Protestants have no culture, and there is a tendency, or maybe even an objective, to airbrush Ulster-Scots people away (as Fiske says) "as simply Irish". Neither situation is true, but both are prevalent and should be set straight.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Greatest Hillbilly Gospel Song of all time

In his great book on the subject, American musicologist Bill C Malone defines the core of old-time country music as "...rural folkways, evangelical Protestantism and political individualism..." Amen to all three!

He also writes about the American musical scholars and song collectors (he calls them "the apostles of high culture") of the late 1800s and early 1900s deliberately ignoring gospel music, and choosing to focus on secular ballads and instrumental tunes. Kinda reminds me of the notion that was dominant in Northern Ireland when I was growing up, which to put it bluntly was "Prods have no culture".

What the people who spout such nonsense really meant was "Prods have no culture that suits my personal tastes or prejudices". These people would feel very comfortable supping a Guinness in the west of Ireland in some country pub, with an aran jumper and a copy of James Joyce. But can you imagine them in rural Ulster, neatly dressed in their Sunday best, with a worn Bible, and a well-thumbed oul hymnbook, and when the meetin is over enjoyin a cup o' tay and a wheen o' egg an onion pieces? (by the way, the egg and onion sandwich is Protestant Ulster's true national dish).

The mission hall / evangelical scene in Ulster even today still has some of the most brilliant gospel music you can experience. Not the U2/Snow Patrol - obsessed jangly over-amplified "praise and worship" bands living out a rock star fantasy, repeating the same phrase over and over and over and over and over again. No, the real mccoy, the "Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb" stuff where everybody of all ages is jammed into a simple wee hall, singing from their boots, with messages that leave you no millimetre of theological wriggle room and with tunes you'll have stuck in your head your whole life long.

The YouTube clip below shows the perfect example of this - "I Saw the Light" performed by Roy Acuff and Hank Williams. Superb archive footage. Hope you enjoy it.

Trust me, no one in Heaven is pondering the wooly sentimentality and false spiritualised intellectual guff of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For". They're far more likely to be singing with all their might - "Praise the Lord - I Saw the Light"!! And maybe Hank Williams is leading the chorus. (John Killian has a great post about Hank on his blog, here).

"...And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it..." Rev 21 v 23 and 24

Saturday, September 08, 2007

"The Protestant Revolution - BBC4"

This is a new 4 part series on the digital channel BBC4.

The four programmes are:
- The Politics Of Belief
- The Godly Family
- A Reformation Of The Mind
- No Rest For The Wicked

Worth watching. The presenter, Tristram Hunt, recently gave a lecture to the great and the good in Belfast City Hall entitled "Belfast - a Global City", encouraging the "new Belfast" to look back to its Victorian vision as a city of truly global significance.

More info on the series here.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Brian - the 3rd and final part (for the time being)

Brian's funeral was last Sunday, near Carndonagh in Donegal. It's a long story, but the good part is that I met his brother Bill, his friend Ivan and one of Brian's clients (incidentally also called Mark). All three confirmed to me that Brian had professed faith as a young man and took part in many beach missions and open air witnessing in his younger life. I had prayed that morning for some sort of confirmation of Brian's faith, and I got it three times over.

I was one of the four men who carried his coffin from the church and lowered him into the grave, watching the brass nameplate on the coffin lid getting ever smaller as it descended to the bottom. On the nameplate was the quote "I'm just a pilgrim on this road" - a quote from the beautiful Steve Earle song "Pilgrim" from his magnificent bluegrass album The Mountain.

Through the ten years of friendship I shared with Brian, I never once considered that I'd be one of the people to put him into the ground.

I wonder who will lower me into the earth when my time is done?


" know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away..." James 4 v 14


UPDATE - BBC Radio Five Live interview with Brian back in June, from his hospital bed, here

Here are the words for the Steve Earle song "Pilgrim":

I'm just a pilgrim on this road, boys
I'm just a pilgrim on this road, boys
I'm just a pilgrim on this road, boys
This ain't never been my home

Sometimes the road was rocky ‘long the way, boys
Sometimes the road was rocky ‘long the way, boys
Sometimes the road was rocky ‘long the way, boys
But I was never travelin' alone

We'll meet again on some bright highway
Songs to sing and tales to tell
But I'm just a pilgrim on this road, boys
Until I see you fare thee well

Ain't no need to cry for me, boys
Ain't no need to cry for me, boys
Ain't no need to cry for me, boys
Somewhere down the road you'll understand

‘Cause I expect to touch His hand, boys
‘Cause I expect to touch His hand, boys
‘Cause I expect to touch His hand, boys
I'll put a word in for you if I can

We'll meet again on some bright highway
Songs to sing and tales to tell
But I'm just a pilgrim on this road, boys
Until I see you fare thee well