Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Letter from Robert Burns Jr. – Belfast, 13 September 1845

Today is New Year's Eve and at midnight around the world crowds of well-liquored folk will blunder their way through a few lines of 'Auld Lang Syne', an old Scottish song collected by and usually attributed to Robert Burns.

This letter came into my possession during 2014. Written by Robert Burns Jr. from 2 York Road, Belfast to Miss Isabella Begg at Bridgehouse, Ayr. It's unspectacular in terms of content, but the date does not coincide with his other known visits to Belfast in 1844 - suggesting that he was a more regular visitor than is often thought. His daughter, Eliza (33 years old in 1845) and her daughter Martha (6 years old in 1845) moved to Belfast in the early 1840s having been in India and London. They lived in the city for about 25 years, mostly in the York Road district but later at Wilmont Terrace on the Lisburn Road.

Robert Burns Jr was born in 1787, the same year as the (second) Edinburgh edition and (third) Belfast edition of his father's poems. So the letter seems to be a 58 year old uncle getting his 39 year old niece to do a bit of travel arranging for him.


2 York Road, Belfast, Ireland
Saturday September 13th 1845

My dearest Isabella
If the weather should permit I shall leave Belfast for Ardrossan on the morning of the 23rd. As I am desirous of getting to Ayr the same evening for the purpose of avoiding passing the night at Ardrossan. I wish you to enquire at the Terminus as what hour the last train leaves Ardrossan and Kilwinning for Ayr. Please to let me know this as speedily as possible for should I set to Ayr that evening. I shall expect to have the pleasure of your company at breakfast at Mr. Johnston's on the morning of the 24th. 

Eliza and Patty are well and send you their love. My love to my Aunt, to Agnes and yourself.

Believe me,
My dearest Isabella
Yours ever and truly

Robert Burns 


Isabella Burns Begg Sr (photo here from around the same time as the above letter was written when she would have been 74 years old) was the youngest sister of the poet Robert Burns, and so was therefore Robert Burns Jr's aunt. She moved back to Ayr after her husband John Begg died in 1813, and was kept busy telling stories to visitors about her (late) famous brother. Two of her daughters were Agnes Brown Begg (1800–1883, presumably the Agnes mentioned in the letter) and her namesake Isabella Burns Begg Jr (1806–1886, presumably the Isabella the letter was written to).

So was 'Patty' a nickname for Martha? And who was Mr Johnston? 

Robert Burns Jr Letter 1Robert Burns Jr Letter 3

Robert Burns Jr Letter 2

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Dal-Araidhe and Dalriada / Ferdoman, King of the Ards

Before the Anglo-Normans arrived in the 1170s, Ulster was different. Dalriada connected today's North Antrim with Argyll in Scotland. Today's County Down was the confusingly-similarly-entitled Dal-Araidhe.  

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I had a great night just before Christmas in giving an illustrated talk to Upper Ards Historical Society in Portaferry. They have been very helpful and supportive over the years and it's always good to go and share information with like-minded neighbours. I'd like to get to more of their meetings but the busyness of life gets in the way. Their Journal is an exemplary production, and over the many years it has been published some of my late grandfather's poetry has featured in it.

On the afternoon before I went, I flicked through my copy of An Ards Farmer; or, an Account of the Life of James Shanks, Ballyfounder, Portaferry by James C Rutherford, published in 1913, the year after Shanks' death. Shanks was a renowned collector and antiquarian, fascinated by Ards Peninsula history from Stone Age artefacts to the 1798 Rebellion, with a love of Robert Burns and Presbyterian history. (oh to have a time machine...)

Shanks was a friend of G.F.Savage-Armstrong and they shared a love of ancient historical tales, G.F.S-A. providing Shanks with all of the inscriptions from Ardkeen graveyard. Shanks wrote a letter to the Belfast Morning News in 1908 in which he pointed out that an ancient urn, with human ashes, had been found near the pillar stone of Ballyrusley, said to be those of 'some Cuchullin warrior' who had been 'Chief of Tara'. Locals will know that Tara Hill on the Ards Peninsula is near Millin Bay, just south of Kearney village.

Shanks refers to 'Ferdoman, the Bloody-weaponed King of the Ards' who was involved in the Battle of Moira in AD637 and who is said to have escaped uninjured. Shanks believed that Ferdoman was King of Tara:

'... Is now held up by Congal. The standard of Suibhne, a yellow banner, The renowned King of Dal Araidhe, Yellow satin, over that mild man of hosts, The white- fingered stripling himself in the middle of them. The standard of Ferdoman of banquets, The red-weaponed King of the Ards of Ulster, White satin to the sun and wind displayed Over that mighty man without blemish ...'

– from Congal by Sir Samuel Ferguson

Ireland's history is far more divided and splintered than most people today are allowed to know. Just like in Scotland there have been multiple regional kings and clans and tribes and chieftains and kingdoms through the centuries, fighting with one another long before anyone from England got involved. Narrow nationalism, designed to inflame, aggrieve and 'radicalise' recent generations, is nonsense. The full story needs to be told and understood.

Click here for some brilliant information about Tara Hill / Tara Fort including a 360˚ panorama of the view from the top. (from the Voices of the Dawn - The Folklore of Ireland's Ancient Monuments website)

Thursday, December 25, 2014

"A tyranny of Like-mindedness ... a culture of forgetting, of wilful ingnorance"

 From Howard Jacobson in Spiked:

"... I’m not worried about a tyranny of the state like Nineteen Eighty-Four - I don’t think that will happen. But we’ve got the tyranny of like-mindedness. We’re living it.’

The creeping conformism of the present clearly bothers Jacobson. He frequently peppers our conversation with entertaining criticisms of today’s cultural recession, the absence of different voices, be they past or present. ‘Like-mindedness is the killer. Where ever three people agree, what they’re agreeing about will almost certainly be wrong. Agreement is terrifying.’ The reasons for this tyranny of like-mindedness are manifold for Jacobson, drawing as it does on the unifying nature of social media – ‘what happened, if it happened’ was partly facilitated by something he calls ‘Twitternacht’ – and a culture of forgetting, of wilful ignorance, of historical amnesia, of presentism. The past is a foreign country that more and more view with disdain.

‘I’m a visiting professor at AC Grayling’s New College of Humanities, and I was telling the students there about the programme I was making about Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer, Clive James and Barry Humphries, all of whom arrived in England at the time I went to Australia. And some of the girls had heard of Germaine Greer. But that was it. Major cultural figures. Forgotten. No one’s made them forget. There is a culture of forgetting to do with an absorption in now, a throwaway sense of now ..."

 Interview here

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Wexford 1798 numberplate

Photographed in Belfast the other day. 

Wexford 1798

Monday, December 22, 2014

'Yin Christmas Day', from Robin's Readings (1880)

Robins Readings

Friday, December 19, 2014

Of Ulster: shamrock, rose and thistle

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Glam Psalm - 'Lay Down' by The Strawbs

Back in 6th form (that's the early 1990s) some one of my friends introduced me to 'Lay Down' by The Strawbs, recorded in 1972. It has been in my head all week for some reason, a great tune but I was never able to work out the words. Google has supplied these, which it seems are based on Psalm 23.

By still waters I lay down with the lambs
In pastures green I made peace with my soul
And I cared not for the night
While my guiding star shone bright
By still waters I lay down
I lay down.

Lay down, I lay me down
Lay down, I lay me down
Lay down, I lay me down
For my soul.

At the roadside I took toll of my times
In dirty streets I found peace for my soul
May the merciful be right
Are you ready for the night
At the roadside I lay down
I lay down.

Lay down, I lay me down
Lay down, I lay me down
Lay down, I lay me down
For my soul.

In deep sorrow I took flight with the sun
From mountains high I gained strength for my soul
I proved stronger than the test
When my spirit came to rest
In deep sorrow I lay down
I lay down.

Lay down, I lay me down
Lay down, I lay me down
Lay down, I lay me down
For my soul.

The first single (that's a 45rpm vinyl record) I ever bought was Boney M's Brown Girl in the Ring with Rivers of Babylon on the B-side – bought at a stall in Newtownards Market one Saturday morning when I was about 9. Rivers of Babylon is based on verses 1 - 4 Psalm 137, the great Psalm of exile. Most people forget about the rest of that Psalm.

Steve Earle's acoustic version is great, but it uses the Rastafarian term 'King Alpha' rather than the Biblical term 'LORD'.


From a Kickstarter project last year.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Many Hands: Rebuilding Appalachia

<iframe src="//;portrait=0&amp;color=ffffff" width="640" height="360" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe> <p><a href="">Many Hands: Rebuilding Appalachia</a> from <a href="">Citygate Films</a> on <a href="">Vimeo</a>.</p>

Friday, December 12, 2014

The New Jack the Giant Killer, by Mrs Dorothea Lamont of Belfast

Chapbook Jack the Giant Killer

Mrs Lamont kept a 'juvenile school' at Donegall Street at the corner of Commercial Court. She was described by one of her pupils. Thomas McTear. as 'a remarkably fine lady, and a great favourite with children. She wrote amusing books for the young, such as Jack the Giant-killer, etc., and was very entertaining'. Her edition was advertised in the 1842 edition of The Edinburgh Review, and in the 1839 edition of the London Catalogue of Books

Who was Mrs Lamont?  It is likely that she was Dorothea Lamont, the wife of noted United Irishman and Belfast intellectual Aeneas Lamont. Aeneas Lamont had been the typesetter of The Northern Star, and corresponded with George Washington. Aeneas died in 1803 and his widow corresponded with Samuel Thomson, the 'Father of Ulster-Scots Poetry'. A Mrs Lamont of Belfast was a subscriber to Ulster-Scots poet Andrew M'Kenzie's 1810 collection of poems, and in 1818 a volume entitled Poems and Tales in Verse by Mrs Aeneas Lamont was published in London (link here). 

With a bit of research and untangling there could be a brilliant story here - linked to one of the most famous children's books ever written.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

'Thousands have been hacked to pieces'

A report from the Washington Times, 23 November 1894. I cam acros this while looking for something else. Given recent and ongoing atrocities commited by ISIS against Christian communities in the Middle East it is shocking to read of exactly the same things happening 120 years ago.

Armenia Washington Times 23 11 1894

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson (1867–1947) - now rests in Israel

Colonel Patterson first Tsavo Lion 631 jpg 800x600 q85 cropPic above from SmithsonianMag.comJohn Henry Patterson

John Henry Patterson was born in Forgney, Ballymahon, County Meath (now Longford), and is sometimes credited with giving the name 'Operation Lion' to the Ulster Gunrunning of 1914. In November Patterson's ashes, and those of his wife, were moved from Los Angeles and were buried by the Israeli government in an official state ceremony near Tel Aviv. Here is Patterson's entry on the Longford At War website.

Described in this article in The Independent as 'The Godfather of the Israeli Army' he had seen service in east Africa, and wrote a book of his adventure there entitled Man Eaters of Tsavo which was published in 1907. In 1996 a movie of the book, entitled The Ghost and the Darkness, starred Val Kilmer as Patterson. Here is a clip, ropey accent and all:

As Quincey Dougan writes here, Patterson (by now a celebrity soldier and author) was head of the West Belfast Ulster Volunteer Force from 1913 onwards - arousing suspicion in the House of Commons that there had been attempts to supply guns to the Ulster Volunteers for at least a year before the eventual Gunrunning night of 24/25 April 1914.

It was 1917 when he took control of a five-battalion Jewish volunteer force called the Jewish Legion within the British Army. As he said himself:

It was a complete change from the command of an Irish Battalion, but the Irishman and the Jew have much in common – temperament, generosity, love of children, devotion to parents, readiness to help those down on their luck, and , be it noted, great personal bravery. These qualities will probably not appear out of place to my readers so far as the Irishman is concerned, but I imagine many will be surprised to hear that they also apply to the Jew.


CHILDHOOD AND PATERNAL ANCESTRY Little is known of Patterson's childhood. It has been suggested that he was born to a maid who worked in the family home. It is said that his father, Henry Patterson, was an Irish Protestant clergyman (presumably Church of Ireland) who had 'intrigued him with Old Testament tales'.

MARRIAGE AND WIFE'S ANCESTRY In 1895 John Henry Patterson married a Belfast woman called Frances Helena Gray, whom he met in India. Her father was William Gray of 6 Mount Charles, Belfast – he was an architect, a member of the Royal Irish Academy and President of the Belfast Field Naturalists' Club. The Grays were Church of Ireland, and Frances had a degree in law - a portrait and biography can be found here. It was also reported in a newspaper of the time that '... the only other woman in Great Britain entitled to add "LL D." to her name is also a native of Belfast. Mrs. Lily Thompson who has applied for a place on the police force of Washington city, is a dress reformer and an athlete'. Late 1800s Belfast as a hotbed of female emancipation is an interesting thought.

In the 2008 biographyThe Seven Lives of Colonel Patterson it says this – '... He had the gift of the gab, a lively sense of humour, a friendly and optimistic nature, and an air of command, reinforced perhaps by the Bible he sometimes carried in one hand and no doubt by the gun he held in the other'. Sadly there is no mention of his time in Ulster in this book.

Patterson was buried in Los Angeles in 1947, and his wife just 6 weeks later -  but he had wanted to be laid to rest with his soldiers in Israel. On 10th November, his birthday, he had his wish fulfilled in a ceremony which was overseen by Benjamin Netanyahu, whose late brother had been named after Patterson.

The surnames Patterson and Gray indicate Scottish ancestry for both John Henry and his wife Frances. This celebrity Ulster Volunteer Force leader, and his Belfast wife, now repose in the land of the original Covenants. Perhaps this is a story which deserves further research.

• Here is a BBC news story about Patterson's legacy


Friday, December 05, 2014

A man can't even go hoking round his ancestors' historic graveyard in peace...

It seems that George Francis Savage-Armstrong's wife, Marie Elizabeth (née Wrixon), accompanied him to ruined Ardkeen Church in the 1880s when he was almost literally digging up his ancestry – and brought her sketchbook with her. When he died he was buried on the other side of the wall with the three arched window openings.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Ballynahinch Lady who introduced Burns to Ulster?

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Men get all of the glory, at least in most histories until fairly recent times. I recently came into posession of a 1787 Edinburgh edition of Burns, the second edition in the world (Belfast was the third edition, later that same year – however, it was a 'bootleg' edition – the London edition formally claimed the title of being the third edition on its own title page). In an early form of 'crowdsourcing', people would place advance orders with the printer, and their names would appear in the eventual book as a subscribers list. In this Edinburgh edition there is just one name which is identifiably from Ireland - the Countess of Moira. Her address is given as 'Montalta, Ireland' - which is of course Montalto House in Ballynahinch.

Elizabeth rawdon hastings large 1Elizabeth Rawdon (1731–1808) had been born in England, had multiple titles, but came to Ulster in 1752 when she married John Rawdon, the 1st Earl of Moira, becoming his third wife. She was a literary patron and antiquarian. She ordered 6 copies of Burns' second edition.

11 years later in 1798, the Battle of Ballynahinch took place at Windmill Hill which (from memory) is within the grounds of or certainly very close to Montalto estate. Presumably the Countess watched from the safety of the big house, possibly reading one of her 1787 Burns volumes, probably struggling with unfamiliar vocabulary, while the muskets cracked, pikes clashed and blood flowed a few fields away. Earlier this year the estate hosted a Country Fair which included a re-enactment of the battle.

Others more knowledgable than I will know whether this is the first confirmed link between Burns and Ulster. The subscribers list shows just how much the 'Ploughman Poet' was admired, and supported, by the gentry. In the 1600s, George Rawdon was one of the most notorious opponents and persecutors of the Ulster-Scots Presbyterians.

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19 The last image is of the Country Fair & battle re-enactment publicity, and is from this website.

Monday, December 01, 2014

"a b*****d sort of Scottes"

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Above: detail of Baptista Boazio's sideways map of Ulster, c. 1599.

No, I am not referring to Gerry Adams' recent controversy, but this post has been influenced by it.  In his Description of Ulster, A.D. 1586, Henry Bagenal said this of the district of Dufferin (Killyleagh):

"... Diffrin, sometymes th' enheritance of the Mandevilles, and nowe apperteyninge to one White, who is not of power sufficient to defend and manure the same, therefore it is usurped and inhabited for the most parte, by a bastard sort of Scottes, who yield to the said White some small rent at their pleasure. The countrey is for the most parte wooday and lieth uppon the Loghe, which goeth out at the haven of Strangford, There are of these bastarde Scottes dwelling here some sixty bowmen and twenty shot, which lyve most upon the praie and spoile of their neigbours ..."

It seems to be a reference to a community who moved in after the MacDonnells (whose centre of power was mid and north Antrim) had murdered John White of Dufferin near Killyleagh around 1552 –

"... John White was landlord but was deceitfully murdered by M'Ranyll boy his sonne, a Scot; and since that murder he keepeth possession of the said lands, by mean whereof he is able to disturb the countries adjoining, on every side, which shortly by God's grace shall be redressed".

It is hard to know whether the 'B-word' was a reference to their parentage or ancestry, or was just an insult to express how the English overlords regarded them. The leader of this community is described elsewhere as Alexander Macranald Boy. The Whites were an old Anglo-Norman family; they must have reasserted their power in Dufferin, or at least retained the title to their estate, but it was sold to James Hamilton of Bangor in 1610. The map above (drawn in 1599 but showing information from the 1570s) shows 'Rowland Whit' as the landowner, and just below his name is 'Diffren / Killelagh'.

These Co Down MacDonnells seem to disappear as a distinct community from the historical records, and might have either moved back to Antrim, or become culturally absorbed into the incoming Lowland Scots population. In my school days in the 1980s I had a friend from the area whose surname was McDonnell, whose family had lived there for many generations. In the late 1800s a William M'Donnell and James M'Donnell were prominent Presbyterians in Portaferry. I would be interested to find out more if anyone has other references. 

• UJA article 'The Whites of Dufferin and their Connections' by Major R.G. Berry available online here which includes a reference to a 'Walter Whit' who fought in Edward Bruce's army. 

St Andrew in Belfast

I am a day late with this - St Andrew's Day was yesterday. As far as I know this is the only historic depiction of him in Belfast, surrounded by shamrocks, in the beautiful decorative masonry of the former 'Head Line Building' on Victoria Street and Waring Street.



Thursday, November 27, 2014

Hamilton, Montgomery and Robert the Bruce

Where do you draw the line with ancestry? How far back is far enough? Is the starting point an arbitrary decision? Asserting 1606, as I often do, has a certain logic to it – but what of those same families in earlier times?

The Hamiltons, the Montgomeries and the Bruces are all regarded as Scottish families, yet all three can be traced to William the Conqueror's France - but even earlier, to before the Viking invasion of Normandy of AD912. 

Normal Eglinton Castle2C KilwinningAbove: Eglinton Castle, Ayrshire. Built on the site of earlier Montgomery castles, the present ruins date from the 1790s.

It has been said (by generally well-regarded sources, like 1st century historian Josephus) that the ancient Gauls of France claimed descent from Gomer, the Biblical son of Japheth (Japheth was Noah's grandson), and they settled at a place they named Mons Gomeris or 'Gomer's Mount'. Whether that is true or not, a Roger de Montgomerie appears in the historical record in the early 900s. Around 1066, his descendant and namesake accompanied William the Conqueror from Normandy to England. A Robert de Mundegumbri then appears near Paisley in Scotland a century later in the 1160s.

His direct descendant, Sir John de Montgomerie (known as 'del Conte de Lanark') joined with Bruce in the early 1300s, having previously sworn fealty to Edward I of England in 1296. Fergus of Ardrossan was a close ally of Robert the Bruce, receiving land from him in a charter in the early 1300s – and who accompanied Edward Bruce to Ireland in 1315 – the Ardrossans were later absorbed into the Montgomeries by marriage when Sir Hugh Montgomery de Eglinton married Fergus of Ardrossan's daughter, who died soon after - he then married Egidia, daughter of Walter the High Steward, another of Bruce's closest generals. Walter the High Steward was married to Robert the Bruce's half-sister. 

81c415a04330c2d9818e028f25001104Above: Bothwell Castle, said to be Scotland's largest and finest 13th century castle. Begun in the 1200s, the original circular keep survives, but repeated sieges delayed the castle's completion until around 1400.

The Hamiltons are said to have originated in the Seine Valley in France. Arriving in Scotland some centuries later, today's Scottish and Ulster-Scots Hamiltons are descended from Sir Walter Fitz Gilbert de Hameldone. He  appears in a document of 1294, and like Sir John de Montgomerie, he also swore loyalty to Edward I in the 'Ragman Roll' of 1296.

Some sources say that his mother was Isabella Randolph, sister of Thomas Randolph, who was a nephew of Robert the Bruce and one of his right-hand-men, and a key figure in the later invasion of Ireland led by Edward Bruce.

Initially, Walter Fitz Gilbert de Hameldone stayed loyal to the English crown, becoming constable of Bothwell Castle on the banks of the River Clyde. After the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 many English knights took refuge here - until Edward Bruce laid siege to the castle and Fitz Gilbert surrendered - in return Bruce granted him lands at Dalserf and later Cadzow, including the title 1st Laird of Cadzow. There is a story of Walter Fitz Gilbert de Hameldone at the English court in 1323 where he expressed admiration for Robert the Bruce - upon which he was attacked by a John de Spencer, who de Hameldone killed, and then fled back to Scotland.

The Hamiltons, Montgomeries and Bruces were 'inextricably linked'. As we approach May 2015, the 700th anniversary of Edward Bruce's arrival in Ireland in 1315 it will be important to highlight the families who were allied to the Bruces and who, 300 years later, would lead the successful Scottish settlement of Ulster.

Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton - and many other descendants of Bruce's men – succeeded from  1606 onwards to do what their ancestors had failed to do from 1315–18. Many of the other 'Plantation' era Scots in Ulster would have similar Bruce, and ultimately French-Norman, lineage. According to GWS Barrow's landmark Robert Bruce (1965) they would have spoken French and Latin for generations before they picked up Scots from the locals, as well as some Gaelic. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Richard Hayward and "Ulster Sails West"

Some weeks ago BBC Northern Ireland broadcast an excellent biographical documentary, presented by Dan Gordon, about Richard Hayward - actor, singer, writer, folklorist, recording artist - you name it and Hayward did it. His life has been wonderfully captured in Paul Clements' recent book Romancing Ireland, Richard Hayward, 1892–1964. An accompanying exhibition produced by BBC Northern Ireland has been touring local venues, the launch of which I attended at Larne Library earlier this year.

Below is a screenshot from the documentary, a frame from a short film where Hayward guides an American GI stationed in Northern Ireland in the 1940s through the history of the place. It shows Hayward's remarkable attention to detail - the placing of a copy of Rev W.F. Marshall's 1943 book Ulster Sails West in the window of a bookshop. This is one of the most distinctive Ulster book cover designs of the 20th century. None of Haywards image-making was accidental - all was carefully considered for optimum effect. I could go on at length here, but you can take it in for yourself in the YouTube version of the documentary, posted below. Hayward's comfort with Ulster's multiple cultural identities, and his joy for the place, is something which todays generation could learn from.

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Monday, November 24, 2014

Literature and the Scottish Reformation (edited by Crawford Gribben and David George Mullan), Ashgate Publishing, 2009.

Literature Scottish Reformation

This 2009 book caught my eye recently, as I've been reading a 2009 popular biography of Patrick Hamilton entitled Patrick Hamilton 1504-1528: The Stephen of Scotland: The First Preacher and Martyr of the Scottish Reformation. It was written by Brazilian Presbyterian minister Joe Carvalho who had been a minister in Scotland (at Cargill-Burrelton and Collace Church of Scotland, just north of Perth, where Andrew Bonar ministered) before returning to his homeland. Sometimes you need to go beyond your own usual bubble to get fresh perspectives, and the biography is very good, pulling together much information I hadn't seen elsewhere. 

The Preface makes mention of Rev Robert Bruce, a minister of the later Reformation period in Scotland who has interested me for years. I've gathered up most of the books about Bruce. Bruce famously preached in Scots, and when his sermons were published in the 1800s they were 'Englished' for wider readership. Bruce also was instrumental in taking the Gospel into the Highlands, where one of his converts was a Gaelic speaker, Alexander Munro of Durness, who then translated portions of the Bible into Gaelic as a means of evangelism. Bruce's biographies have some very interesting linguistic history and examples of vocabulary.

The languages of the 1600s Scots settlers in Ulster is often a subject of debate. Below is a page from the 1520s translation of the New Testament by Ayrshire Lollard Murdoch Nisbet, and below that is one of Samuel Rutherford's letters from the early 1600s - both are from early 1900s publications.

Literature and the Scottish Reformation looks excellent, one for the Christmas list. A popular edition of this would be worth producing and would provide a linguistic and literary context for the 1600s Lowland Scots settlements in Ulster.SAM 3470




Thursday, November 20, 2014

"The plain people … were earnest in their devotion to the cause of liberty"

"The plain people … were earnest in their devotion to the cause of liberty, and so also were their friends and relatives among the Ulster farmers. The classes of Queen's College had many members from among these enterprising, industrious, serious people, and Professor McCosh became deeply interested in them "
- The Life of James McCosh (1896) - link here

McCosh was of Ayrshire Covenanter descent, was a young minister at the 'Disruption' which founded the Free Church of Scotland, came to Belfast in 1850 to take a position at the new Queen's College and then went to America where he became President of Princeton College in 1868.

The expression "the cause of liberty" has many interpretations today, but for 2014, the growing authoritarianism of the state is an echo of former times. Here's how Spiked views modern authoritarianism in Scotland.

Alexander 'Eck' Robertson and Henry Gilliland - 'Masters of Southern Fiddling'.

Fiddling is not that common any more in the circles I move in and the community I live in. After nearly 15 years of travelling around playing music the fiddle is an instrument that rarely appears at the events we are asked to go to. 100 years ago it definitely was the most common instrument - and the same tuning meant that the mandolin was also quite common - but 'progress' means most folk would now rather watch a screen than learn a skill and modes of creative expression. Local County Down fiddle tradition has been magnificently captured in Nigel Boullier's book Handed Down which I had the privilege of designing with Nigel. Some photos are below.

Local fiddlers did not have the opportunity to be recorded, so much of the once-vibrant tradition has been more or less lost. The same applies to local songs - undervalued, and stylistically outdated, they have been lost and replaced by the pop music of the 20th century. Music sessions not far from here will see people arrive with electronic keyboards and electric guitars with mini-amps to play old 1960s hits, just as often as an accordion with a range of traditional tunes. Of course there are some exceptions, but in the main, globalised consumer culture has displaced local vernacular culture - musically, linguistically, architecturally, and so on. This can lead to people feeling 'rootless'. 

The lack of a defined, captured, recorded, published, marketed heritage is particularly acute in Ulster-Scots communities. It is not easy for the general public to access the old stuff. Finding Irish traditional material is a breeze - this might be a sweeping generalisation but, despite the awful 'Riverdance-ification' of aspects of Irish culture, the Irish community seems to me to have more regard for its traditions than the Ulster-Scots community does. So accessing Ulster-Scots material is like archaeology. It has always existed but it was seldom treasured, except by the few who appreciate its cultural importance and enjoy being part of it all.

There is a vast difference between somebody who lives a tradition, and somebody who just reads about it in a book or online. You cannot substitute a lifetime of understanding with half an hour on Google. I grew up around country men who exuded 'No Surrender' as a characteristic in every aspect of their lives - stoic, quiet men of deep resolve - whose lives did not need to shout 'No Surrender' as the antagonistic sloganeering the expression is sometimes reduced to. I am fortunate that people whose lives have been devoted to gathering up cultural remnants have been generous enough to share their knowledge and experiences with me. The characteristics you exude are more revealing than the words you use. 

One trend with the Ulster-Scots world of the past 15 years or so has been for some to 'over-claim' and exaggerate. I find this particularly the case with American connections - by people on both sides of the Atlantic. There is a fair degree of nonsense talked, written and broadcast (I will resist the temptation to cite examples!) and this tends to become high profile, easily accessed and therefore opinion-forming. The good stuff tends to not get noticed.

American fiddling is not the same as Ulster fiddling, although they are undoubtedly connected. Here's an historic tune by Alexander 'Eck' Robertson and Henry Gilliland from the 1920s, who featured in the eminent Scotch-Irish Society of the USA's bulletin of Winter 2012 in an article by Mike Scoggins. Robertson and Gilliland are said to have been the first country music recording artists in the world. The Society was founded in 1889, just two years after Robertson was born.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Belfast Music Hall

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The long-demolished Belfast Music Hall, on the corner of May Street and Montgomery Street, was the scene of a Robert Burns Centenary celebration on 26 January 1859. It was also the venue that year for inter-denominational prayer meetings every Wednesday from 1pm–2pm, organised by Rev james Morgan of Fisherwick Presbyterian Church and Rev Charles Seaver of St John's Parish Church. Businessmen like William Ewart and gentry like the Earl of Roden were known to have attended. 1859 was 'The Year of Grace' which saw religious revival sweep Ulster but also Scotland and parts of America.

The building was designed by architect Thomas Jackson, who also designed the Belfast Corn Exchange where the other Belfast Burns celebration took place that evening. There is a summary on This website gives further information on the musical heritage of the building, and some detail about Jackson:

Thomas Jackson (1807–90) designed the Old Museum in College Square North in partnership with Thomas Duff of Newry in 1830-31. Jackson eventually set up in business on his own and his work included the Music Hall, St Malachy’s Church, the Scottish Amicable Life Assurance Company’s building (later owned by G. Heyn & Sons), and many Victorian mansions including Wilmont House, Graymount House and Craigavon House.

Belfast Music Hall site 640

The site today is a car park. The photographs below are from and Geograph.ieNewImageNewImage

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Black North: '... They bordered on being black Protestants ...'

Black North blog 640


The quote in the title was used on Saturday in this article in the Irish Independent about the acclaimed Belfast-born poet Derek Mahon, the son of a flax mill worker mother and a shipyard fitter father. It caught my attention as just last week the old term 'The Black North' was deleted from a project I was working on for fear of causing offence.

It's a pejorative term. The Wikipedia entry places its first usage around 1911 but it's much earlier than that, it was well-known in 1859 so therefore in use before then.

Laying the ground
The theme pops up throughout the centuries, a negative reference to the Scottishness (and by usual implication the Protestant-ness) of Ulster. Take this example from The Wild Irish Girl (1806)

'... as we advance northward, we shall gradually lose sight of the genuine Irish character and those ancient manners, modes, customs and language with which it is inseparably connected... a Scottish colony,; and in fact, a Scotch dialect, Scotch manners, Scotch modes, and Scotch character, almost universally prevail... then in the name of all that is warm and cordial let us hasten back to the province of Connaught'.

The author, Sydney Owenson, goes on to attack the 'cold concerns of the counting-house and the bleach-green'  of Ulster and its lack of the bonhomie that is said to be found elsewhere on the island. We're different. Or to use an expression from the south of England, 'it's grim up north'.

The Dublin Evening Mail of 1 September 1826 wrote '... what he said there would be heard in the depths of the Black North; it would be heard all over Ireland ...'

'... Even in the "black north" in "Protestant Ulster" – Catholicity is progressing at a rate that must strike terror into its enemies ...' - source here.

'... Arrah! pray is this Ulster? is this the black North?...' - here's the source.

1880s & 1890s
In an interview of around 1890, Carrickfergus-born Gothic horror writer Charlotte Riddell said '... Yes, I am from the north — the black north ...'. In her 1885 novel Berna Boyle she wrote of 'the Presbyterians of the Black North'.

In 1903, Francis O'Neill's landmark Music of Ireland includes this reference to working with Banbridge man James O'Neill

'... an accomplished violinist, a namesake and fellow countryman from the “Black North” day after day as opportunity offered, memory recalled tune after tune and strain after strain until the number grew into hundreds ..".

In 1911 Stephen Gwynn's well-known little tourist book Ulster included a chapter entitled 'The Black North' (see here).

Typical of the time, Dubliner and Irish Unionist leader Edward Carson said this in a speech in May 1913:

'... To these men the Ulster Protestants stand for all that is stupid and obscurantist and "impossible," and they would very gladly see them taught a lesson. "Shoot them down like the traitors to Ireland that they are. That is the way to coerce the Black North." Such is the advice that is being assiduously whispered into the ears of the Government by the Nationalist leaders ...'

In 1943 Aodh de Blacam (a Hibernicisation of Hugh Saunders Blackham) published a 315 page book entitled The Black North. An Account of the Six Counties of Unrecovered Ireland: Their People, Their Treasures and Their History, with a foreword by Eamon De Valera. The Dictionary of Irish Biography describes the book as 'delusional on an epic scale'.

The former Ulster Presbyterian minister W.R. Rodgers wrote an article entitled 'Black North' in 1943 for the New Statesman; his The Ulstermen and their Country (1947) is a warm, yet in places self-critical, piece of writing. Rodgers had the ability to see both the light and shade of his own folk.

I don't think the term is as loaded any more. Certainly it carries a hint of ancient (regional/religious/quasi-ethnic) prejudice, but there have been endless actual events in the 20th century far worse than name-calling. At the cutting edge of 'New Belfast' there's an animation studio has reclaimed the term and is called Black North.

For it to appear in the Irish Independent on Saturday demonstrates that the term and concept is well-embedded, if not 'PC'. To give it context, here's a fuller extract:–

'...They bordered on being black Protestants. Derek's uncle, for example, was a B Special - the sort of person the IRA thought deserved murdering (in a non-sectarian way of course). Mahon despised both extremes, but his own peaceful republicanism was troublesome...'

I'd be very interested if any readers could point me towards an origin for the term.