Saturday, January 25, 2014

Chris Thile - Sweet Afton by Robert Burns

A beautiful rendition. The Scottish influence on Dundalk in County Louth is shown by the cigarette brand 'Sweet Afton' which was manufactured there for many years, and the packaging and advertising for which has images of Robert Burns. Some of this is in display in Dundalk County Museum. Burns' sister Agnes lived there, and her cottage still stands at Stephenstown Pond.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Robert Boyle - a biography (1914)

I came across this book the other day, available on here. It was written by Edinburgh author Flora Masson (1857-1937) who also wrote biographies of English writer Charles Lamb, of her friend Florence Nightingale, and the Bronte family, as well as guides to London, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

Boyle (1566 - 1643) was the 1st Earl of Cork, and Lord Treasurer of Ireland. He has a lengthy entry on Wikipedia here. This excerpt comes from page 300 of Masson's book:

'... Another proclamation in London, but this time of an Anglo-Dutch Prince, and a Princess who was not only the daughter of James II but the granddaughter of Hyde, Earl of Clarendon. Another bloody rebellion in Ireland, another chapter of massacre and terrorism ; but this time it was Ulster, and the Ulster Scots, who were fighting for Protestantism. Robert Boyle and Lady Ranelagh, growing old in the house in the Mall — two children of the great Elizabethan Puritan Earl of Cork — had watched Munster pass again into the hands of the Catholic Irish ; but they lived just long enough to see William and Mary Sovereigns of England, and to have the tidings of the Siege of Londonderry and the Battle of the  Boyne ...'

The context is stereotypical, but here is the term 'Ulster Scots' being used by an Edinburgh writer in 1914.

A letter from Robert Burns, 9th December 1789

To Robert Graham Esq. of Fintry

'... Forgive me, Sir, for the stupid length of this epistle. I pray Heaven it may find you in a humour to read The Belfast New Almanac ...'

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Scottish? British? Burns and Bruce

The repetitive old debate is back on again this week - was Robert Burns a Unionist or a Nationalist? I have mentioned it here before.

Like haggis with chilli flakes it has all been given a bit of extra spice this year with the forthcoming Scottish referendum - would Robert Burns vote 'yes' for Independence from Britain, or 'no' and remain in the United Kingdom? Even academics are weighing in on the debate, which seems to be getting pretty nasty.

The referendum has been timed to coincide with the 700th anniversary of King Robert the Bruce's victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Even the commemoration of this event - a huge battle re-enactment and a multi-million pound visitor centre at Bannockburn on the outskirts of Stirling, costing about £20 per person to attend - has been drawn into controversy as Stirling City Council have booked a completely free of charge British Armed Forces Day event for the very same weekend, and the two events may now be marketed together. There is a view that this has been done deliberately, to diminish the likely nationalist sentiment at Bannockburn.

As ever, history is not that simple. There is a view that the Bruce masterplan was to ultimately take control of all of what today we call Great Britain and also Ireland. I'll post a bit about this soon.

If that is what Bruce was at, then of course he (and his brother Edward) failed. But nearly 300 years later it was Robert the Bruce's successor, King James VI of Scotland, who succeeded in this mission. In July 1603 he was crowned as King of England and Ireland as well as Scotland. James created the United Kingdom. And a few years later, the disgruntled Englishman Guy Fawkes famously attempted, in his own words, 'to blow the Scots back to Scotland'.

Ambitious Scots were the first Unionists. James did what Bruce had failed to do. Historical events and commemorations do not easily fit onto today's simplistic political debates - and that applies in Northern Ireland just as much as Scotland.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


A lot of the time I find that cultural items which once were treasured here, have over time been discarded, thrown away, left to deteriorate - even quietly sold off out the back door - and then they turn up on the other side of the world, or have been found languishing in a store, or hanging in obscurity on a wall. And relationships which should be in place, aren't. When the fragments are reassembled and restored, when new connections are made between people, powerful things happen. Exciting times.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

All Made Up


On St Patrick's Day of 2006 I (then the fairly new Chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency) was invited to give a 20 minute talk at the IFEA (International Festivals and Events Association - website here) Conference which was being held at Belfast Waterfront Hall. It was quite a coup for a major annual business conference event to be held here, and the foyer of the venue was full of international visitors. I slipped through the crowd unnoticed, got my Powerpoint presentation to the technical people, tested that it was working, and then headed out to queue at the tea and coffee table. There was a sizeable crowd gathering, none of whom had ever set eyes on me before, and as I stood in line I overheard a conversation about myself. It went along the lines of:

'So who's on next?'


'What's that?'

'Oh, that's the Protestants here pretending they have a culture. You're in for a laugh'.


Undeterred, I took to the stage with those pompous, arrogant and ignorant tones still ringing in my ears. I gave my presentation on the impending 400th anniversary of the Hamilton & Montgomery Settlement of 1606, our close proximity to Scotland (Belfast is closer to Scotland than to the Republic of Ireland), drew parallels with the Jamestown Settlement of Virginia in 1607, outlined the events, projects and activities which were planned for the commemoration, and made suggestions as to how it could become an annual event.

Mr Pompous and his guffawing mates did not come to speak to me at the end - but a number of international visitors did, speaking warmly of the similarity of experience with their own nations, especially seafaring ones, where migration and movement is acknowledged and understood.

I think - I hope - we have come a long way since 2006. The Waterfront Hall is, next weekend, the venue of a major Burns Night celebration, I think the second or third consecutive time it's been held there, having been at the Ulster Hall before that. Tickets are on sale here. But of course there are still a good few ignorant morons to contend with though - people with little knowledge or understanding, but huge opinions.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Real words

'... I was rapt in the discovery that "thole" and "snash" were real words, and that I might use them in future without shamefacedness ... the Gaelic Revival has repopulated the other three provinces, and then glens and mountains of Ulster, with fairies and leprechauns whose airy tongues syllable a new language that is also old.

But round about my part of the world we still people the dark hours with material and Gothic shapes, and call, in his own speech, on the great enchanter, Robert Burns ...'

 - from An Ulster Childhood by Lynn Doyle (1921), from the chapter entitled 'Burns in Ulster'.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Logan Braes - Robert Burns

The Logan Water runs through the hills in between Muirkirk, Strathaven and Lesmahagow. It's a rural and remote spot - when this was written in the early 1700s it must have been even more so. Burns wrote the adaptation below. A stirring and emotive account of a young wife and mother wishing for her conscripted husband to return.

O Logan, sweetly didst thou glide, 
That day I was my Willie's bride, 
And years sin syne hae o'er us run, 
Like Logan to the simmer sun: 
But now thy flowery banks appear 
Like drumlie Winter, dark and drear, 
While my dear lad maun face his faes, 
Far, far frae me and Logan braes. 

Again the merry month of May 
Has made our hills and valleys gay; 
The birds rejoice in leafy bowers, 
The bees hum round the breathing flowers; 
Blythe Morning lifts his rosy eye, 
And Evening's tears are tears o' joy: 
My soul, delightless a' surveys, 
While Willie's far frae Logan braes. 

Within yon milk-white hawthorn bush, 
Amang her nestlings sits the thrush: 
Her faithfu' mate will share her toil, 
Or wi' his song her cares beguile; 
But I wi' my sweet nurslings here, 
Nae mate to help, nae mate to cheer, 
Pass widow'd nights and joyless days, 
While Willie's far frae Logan braes. 

O wae be to you, Men o' State, 
That brethren rouse to deadly hate! 
As ye make mony a fond heart mourn, 
Sae may it on your heads return! 
How can your flinty hearts enjoy 
The widow's tear, the orphan's cry? 
But soon may peace bring happy days, 
And Willie hame to Logan braes!

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Shared Past


There is a lot of talk in Northern Ireland about a 'shared future'. The trouble with this term is that its repeated usage implies that there was never a shared past. Which there was, on many levels. I am often reminded of George Orwell's 1984, where the Ministry of Truth tells the population that they have always been at war with their latest enemy - '...Oceania was at war with Eurasia; therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia...'. Some people need to tell us this, in order to sustain their own present-day support base.

Anyway, here is a lighter example of a 'shared past'. The Newtownards Chronicle for 26 December 1936 has a brilliant story of (what I suspect was) cross-community co-operation:

Entitled 'Poteen in the Ards: Portavogie Man Charged', it is a long account of a trial at Greyabbey Petty Sessions where a potato farmer called William Piper from Portavogie got three months jail for having a large supply of poteen (illicit home-brewed alcohol) and a loaded 422 revolver and 81 rounds. Piper (its fair to guess he was a Protestant) claimed he'd been given the drink by a man called Samuel Doherty from Ballygelagh (its fair to guess he might not have been a Protestant), and that the gun had been brought from America by his uncle 40 years earlier, as a present for their father. Willam Piper said he'd been training his wife to shoot it as they kept 'a good deal of money in the house.'

Sergeant B McFetridge said he raided the place on 16 November, and found a 10 glass bottle of poteen in the dining room, two more bottles with about 3 glasses each still in them, and an empty bottle on the scullery floor. Piper then dashed for the cattle shed where the Sergeant found him, between two cattle, with a large stone jar of the stuff wedged between his knees, trying to get the cork out. 29 empty bottles were also found.

Doherty had a track record for distilling his own stuff, and had been raided himself on 13 November. Doherty told the magistrate that he'd arrived at Piper's with 'a wheen of bottles of poteen'; and that Piper used to shoot the revolver at the pig-house door in the farm yard. Doherty also then squealed that Piper had a double barrelled shotgun as well, but had a licence for it. Full of wit and banter throughout the detailed report, Doherty then went on the claim that all of the bottles were only for lemonade and that they couldn't make him confess to any charge.

Piper got three months hard labour. The article went on to say that a neighbour of Samuel Doherty's, possibly a cousin, William Murphy of Ballycran, was also charged with 'having in his possession spirits for which duty had not been paid', which amounted to 3 bottles found in his house, 4 bottles hidden in a haystack, and 1 hidden in the hedge. Murphy's wife confessed that they'd had 2 more bottles which they used at their daughter's wedding. The bottles matched the ones Doherty had supplied to Piper.

I'm sure my grandfather would have known, or at least known of, these men!

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Duck Dynasty - the Ulster-Scots connection continues


Pictured here is Duck Dynasty's Willie Robertson... just before Christmas I had the privilege of taking part in the unveiling event for the Ulster History Circle's Blue Plaque to Ulster-Scots poet, novelist, story collector and newspaper man Wesley Greenhill Lyttle, in Bangor, County Down, at the original site of his newspaper offices. Following this I have been re-reading his 1886 novel Sons of the Sod (set in Carrowdore, where my mother's family are all from) and also his 1880 collection of humourous short stories, Robin's Readings. On page 27 of Robins Readings, Lyttle introduces a new character called... 'Wully Rabertson'. With all of the duck and pheasant hunters I know, as well as anglers (both freshwater and sea), I think the Ards Peninsula could be the venue for a special overseas edition of Duck Dynasty right here in Northern Ireland, overlooking the west coast of Scotland - a transatlantic Scotch-Irish kinsfolk extravaganza.

"The South's Scots-Irish Strike Again" - Duck Dynasty in the Washington Times


Richard G Williams Jr. of the Old Virginia Blog published the above-titled article a few days ago, based on one which appeared in the Washington Times on Boxing Day (see here). We love Duck Dynasty in our family, as do my brother's family, and many of our friends and neighbours as well. I put a short clip on the blog here back in March 2013. Since then the Robertson family of West Monroe, Louisiana, have more or less filled our Sky+ box (for U.S. readers, that's TiVo) and episodes are watched many times over.

I have not heard or read the Robertsons claim to be of Scots-Irish/Scotch-Irish descent, but a number of commentators say they are. Phil Robertson's autobiography says that his grandfather was Judge Euan Robertson of Vivian, Louisiana.

In an episode we watched recently, Jase Robertson confronted his posh neighbours (who objected to him burning the piles of dry leaves he'd raked up in his garden) by quoting the US Constitution and said that if his inalienable rights were to be suppressed he would have to move to "Scotland or China" - maybe the comment was about distance rather than places where pyrotechnic freedom would be assured.

There are lots of things to love about Duck Dynasty. Maybe some folk watch to feel superior and to laugh at the (multi-millionaire) redneck country folk with their rural ways which blend camouflage print and Jesus. But I think to really get the genius of Duck Dynasty, you have to be from the country yourself. My parents' generation was one without running water in the house, when the pig killer came round to slaughter one of your own animals in your own yard, when people ate what they could grow or barter, when family stuck together and worked together and fought together.

In our own context, Ulster-Scots heritage makes far more sense to country folk than it does to city dwellers. There are of course very important echoes in the city - and Ulster-Scots industry, entrepreneurial flair and philanthropy largely built Belfast and Londonderry anyway, never mind the market towns and villages across Ulster, and further south to the likes of Dundalk - but Ulster-Scots heritage is still best found among what W.G. Lyttle described in his intro to Humorous Readings by Robin (1880) as '... plain country workin men ...'.  And anyway, his alter-ego - Rabin Gordon of fictional Ballycuddy, shown below - looks like a Robertson himself.


Here are the Robertsons, intimately filmed as part of the 'I Am Second' project

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Seth Lakeman - Portrait of My Wife