Saturday, August 30, 2014

"... what the H**l am I doing here? I don't belong here ..."

Granda Wilson LR 7

[Above: my highly privileged Wilson ancestors, my grandfather in the middle, probably around 13 years old. Three others - George, Agnes and Sarah - had already died as infants. Marvel at their wealth and power. From left to right: Hugh, Rhoda, Henry, William, Lizzie, May, Maggie and Sandy.]

"... what the H**l am I doing here? I don't belong here ..."

So sang Radiohead in their début single Creep back in 1992, which when re-released in 1993 became a worldwide hit. They've since sold about 30 million records worldwide. Last weekend at the Ardoyne Fleadh in Belfast, a different band had a message which took the theme a step further and are now being investigated for 'hate speech'. 'F*** off back home to England' was the core of it, aimed at soldiers and Orangemen.

In Northern Ireland, the inference of 'you don't belong here' still bubbles away under the surface. Scots / English / Protestants / Unionists are perceived and portrayed as being 'invaders'. But who is this separate 'you' anyway - most people's ancestry is a fairly mixed bag, we are mostly just different branches of the same tree. 'Did you steal my land?' is a purposely loaded question which has been fired at me on-camera or on-mike a few times, in a joke-with-a-jag kind of way, by Tim McGarry, one of our top comedian/actors and a man who has a genuine interest in history. He does it with panache; the concept itself is deep-rooted. Who perpetuates it? And for what purpose?

Until the Tenant Right Act, no ordinary people owned any land, we were all tenant farmers under the landlords. In most cases the 'Ulster Custom' saw that this was a fair arrangement between both parties, but everyone was struggling to extract a living from the land, dying of tuberculosis (if you managed to live that long, having avoided the high rate of infant mortality). Hard winters, occasional dry summers, resultant famines, disease and crop failures are no respector of persons. However, exploitation of the tenantry by some landlords was a major factor in the vast emigration of around 250,000 Ulster-Scots to America in the 1700s. But plenty stayed here and endured the conditions. 1798 might have turned out differently had Wexford not descended into a 'Murder without Sin' pogrom, not of gentry and landlords, but of Protestant families. ('you don't belong here'?) By the mid 1800s, land ownership and tenant rights were on the agenda but it took almost a century for the issue to be fully resolved.

My grandfather William James Wilson (1906-1982) bought the first wholly-owned property in the family's history, a former pig shed, on 24th April 1940. He turned it into a three room cottage and he and my grandmother raised 9 children there. They had been tenants of the De La Cherois / Crommelins at the townland of Ballyrawer / Ballyraer outside Carrowdore; previously it had been part of the Montgomery estate right back to 1606. My other grandfather, William Thompson (or, as he sometimes referred to himself, 'Big Bill Tamson', 1901-1957) lived at Ballyfrench, where I still live, and where his ancestors had been tenants since at least 1750. Old deeds from the early 1900s show his father, Robert Thompson, bought the house and 3 fields from the Allens who were the major landlords; prior to the Allens it was the Blackwoods, and prior to them the Hamiltons again right back to 1606. So, after say 400 years of living here, only in the past 70 or 80 years have we actually owned any land. And anyway, as regular readers here will know, the 1606 settlement of Scots here was as a result of the O'Neills offering the land to Montgomery. The wily Hamilton muscled in and got some for himself. The rest is history.

300 years before that, in 1315, the O'Neills had invited their cousins-by-marriage the Scottish Bruces to come across the sea, with a total of around 15,000 men. They only stayed for just over 3 years, but 300 years later their descendants came back, and stayed. Scots were invited to Ulster. This is our home. If you're uptight about people of Scottish descent living here, take it out on the O'Neills - they invited us - twice. 

The (Conservative Unionist) landlords had held political sway for centuries, but were finally voted out in the elections of the early 1900s - the 1902 election victory of (Liberal Unionist) Monaghan-born Presbyterian James Wood in East Down is worth looking up, itself the subject of a long poem in Ulster-Scots by Robert Brown the Railway Lad. It's a complex story, but a new wave of self-made men were voted in to political office, and as the landlords' hold on the land was weakened, both Unionists and Nationalists joined together in pursuit of this bigger principle, and were eventually enabled to legally purchase the fields they had been working for generations. For my ancestors, it was the 1930s and 1940s before we were able to do so.

'Did you steal my land' was not my grandparents' experience. They worked hard to purchase what they had, and many centuries before, their ancestors had been invited to live here in the first place.

Ireland is an island, life did not originate here, everyone arrived from somewhere else. The propagandist of today is only interested in radicalising impressionable youths to his cause, by cynically cherrypicking a version of history that suits his poisonous agenda. By blaming someone else for his problems. He carefully avoids the many instances where people worked together for common cause, leapfrogging over these and choosing instead to wallow in moments of strife - either real or imagined.

Propaganda is not the preserve of one community, and neither is justified grievance. There is no shortage of either. Some of these will warrant remembrance and suitable commemoration. But difference does not need to inevitably lead to conflict.

Northern Ireland needs to decide what sort of future we want, because that future will be informed by the version of our past that we choose to bring with us.  


NB - Fermanagh-born Rev Mark Chartres (1761-1834), Rector of Ferns in County Wexford, wrote a long poem about the Wexford events in 1798 entitled Vinegar Hill. Chartres' 70 year old predecessor Rev Samuel Haydon was one of those murdered. The footnotes give remarkable anecdotal detail. It can be read online here, from pages 203 - 208, and continues on pages 300 - 310.


Thanks to Darren Gibson for the cutting below.

James Wood cutting

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

100 years ago... (and the morning after question)

Brit Cov for blog

...about 2 million people in Great Britain signed the British Covenant, to show their support for the 475,000 who had signed the Ulster Covenant (and the Women's Declaration) of 1912, and their support for the United Kingdom. A century on, what would an equivalent Covenant look like today? If one were announced the morning of Friday 19th September - the day after the Scottish Referendum (or as some have called it, the 'Neverendum' as it is unlikely to be the end of the issue) - what would it say? What would a positive, imaginative vision for a 21st century United Kingdom look like? How would it resolve the deep malaise mentioned in the Wed Aug 20 post below?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

La Touche Legacy: Festival of History - The Great War Roadshow

I am delighted to have been asked to take part in an event in Wicklow in late September. I will be speaking along with Rosemary Raughter who shares my interest in George Francis Savage-Armstrong (1845-1906), a writer and poet who I have blogged about before, a man with Ards roots who lived in and loved Wicklow. GFSA died in Strangford; his son Lieutenant Colonel Francis Savage Nesbitt Savage-Armstrong was killed in the Great War in 1917, aged 36. I hope that GFSA's profile will be raised later this year, more on that to follow. The venue for the event is Charlesland Golf Club, on the Wicklow coast just south of Greystones.

La touche legacy 1

La touche legacy 2

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Spiked Online: "The British establishment has failed to provide society with any sense of national purpose"

 In the wake of the recent James Wright Foley horror in Syria, SpikedOnline has again struck a chord:

 "...The British establishment has failed to provide society with any sense of national purpose. Any attempt to celebrate Britishness or advocate patriotic themes tends to be carried out with more than a hint of defensiveness and embarrassment. The political elites carefully avoid coming across as having any strong convictions about their Britishness. Their lack of conviction is most strikingly expressed through their virtual silence on the current debate about the future of the Union. None of the leaders of the main Westminster parties seems prepared to join the battle of ideas over Scotland’s future. Instead they outsource the campaign to defend the United Kingdom to retired parliamentarians and marginal political figures with little to lose...."

- full article here

Monday, August 18, 2014

Spiked Online: 'Scottish independence? Just say no!'

Spiked scottish

One of the news and commentary websites that I read regularly is SpikedOnline. Brendan O'Neill is a incisive, insightful writer, and 99% of the time I find myself in agreement with the Spiked position on most issues. This article - 'Scottish independence? Just say no!' - is one of the strongest pieces of analysis I have read on the malaise of the Union and the nature of Scottish nationalist sentiment.

We are two large-ish islands (surrounded by a collection of smaller ones) on the western edge of Europe. It makes sense for us to work together. I am glad that relations across Ireland are better than they have been in many generations - and I fully expect the Scots to vote to remain within the UK. Whatever the political structures, we all have more in common - and a far more intermingled population - than we are often allowed to acknowledge.

Metropolitan-centric governments have often neglected and even abused the rest of 'these islands'. A refreshed, re-invigorated set of relationships across our nations and regions would be best for all of us. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

NIGMA Traditional Group of the Year

We are astounded and delighted that the public voted for us and we won this category in last night's inaugural NIGMA awards ceremony, as part of the annual GospelFest event. Amazing! Just shows what can be done with two voices, a mandolin, guitar and a clatter of old old songs and hymns and the stories about them - and a message that is greater than anything ever heard.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Jennie Rosenzweig the Belfast Rabbi's daughter, the Belfast poet and the Ulster Covenant


Brookill Avenue in north Belfast is a special place. It is where the poet Louis MacNeice (1907–1963) was born, in house number 2 - the house is still there today, with an Ulster History Circle blue plaque. The MacNeices moved to Carrickfergus not long afterwards.

Just a few doors along, at number 5 Brookhill Avenue, lived the Rabbi of Belfast Synagogue, Jacob Rozenzweig, his wife Milly, and their six children. Rabbi Rosenzweig published a sermon in 1910 entitled 'The Soul and Its Destiny' which he had preached on the day of the funeral of King Edward Vii. And in 1912 his daughter Jennie Rosenzweig, aged around 16, was one of the 177 women who queued patiently to sign the Women's Declaration (the women's equivalent of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant) at Cliftonville Church Lecture Hall in Cliftonpark Avenue.

In 1948 the Belfast News Letter published the 378 page The Jewish Conception of Immortality and the Life Hereafter which included writings by Rabbi Rosenzweig apparently under the pen name J. Ross. The Ross-Rosenzweig Collection is held at Queens University, some 355 volumes of archival material.

The story of the Old Testament contains five Covenants between God and mankind (see here). How the Rabbi would have felt about his teenage daughter signing yet another one makes for interesting speculation!

My mother's family are from near Millisle where there was a refuge for Jews during and after WW2 called the Refugee Resettlement Farm (more information here and in this Belfast Telegrapharticle here). Donald Harman Akenson has written about the links between Jews and Ulster-Scots before - but I wonder if anyone out there can tell me more about Jennie Rosensweig and the Ulster Covenant?

In a final twist, Louis MacNeice's first wife was Jewish. He died in 1963 and was buried beside his mother at Christ Church in the countryside between Carrowdore and Millisle, literally a few fields from the Resettlement Farm, and close to the graves of many of my Wilson ancestors.

• Researching Jewish Families in Belfast




PS - Today saw the removal of an Ulster History Circle Blue Plaque in Belfast on the birthplace of Chaim Herzog, the 6th President of Israel who was born on Cliftonpark Avenue - just a few minutes' walk from Brookhill Avenue mentioned above. This was done because of anti-Semitic attacks - presumably by those with Irish Nationalist inclination in symbolic support for the people of Gaza - but had they consulted the oracle that is Wikipedia they would have found that Herzog's father was apparently a fluent Irish speaker and a supporter of Irish Republicanism. The series of videos above might be an eye-opener, with Herzog's Belfast accent coming through. The world is not simple.