Saturday, October 14, 2017

Things that need to be done - reprint 'Poems on Different Subjects' by Francis Boyle (1812)

This letter in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of New York in 1916 refers to one poem (in standard English) from this almost-extinct edition. There is one copy in Belfast Central Library, or there was about 5 year ago. There had been one in Linen Hall Library but when I went looking back then it couldn’t be found. Over the years libraries have been the subject of ‘steal-to-order’ rumours but I have no evidence of that. Certainly there used to be books in libraries which now can’t be found. Hence the absolute urgency of getting them back into the public domain again.

I had a call from a reporter a few weeks ago, he wanted some comments for a piece he was writing. The question was “what needs to be done to support the language?”. Dead simple. Put the historic printed literature back into the hands and homes of the places it sprang from in the first place. In a form that people will find engaging, persuasive and relevant.

It’s not a hard thing to do. But it hasn’t been done.

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Friday, October 06, 2017

Early Bluegrass / Old-Time String Bands in Ulster, 1900?

This from The Northern Whig, Belfast, 1900. Fascinating, and maybe significant, selection of instruments.

Belfast 1900

Were there Pipe Bands in Ulster before the Great War?

There is a general assumption that pipe bands didn’t really exist here until thousands of soldiers returned from the Great War, where they had seen Highland Regiments being led into battle by pipers and with regimental pipe bands. I have blogged a bit about this before. Certainly there was an upsurge following the War, but it was not the beginning.

Thanks to the Aladdin’s Cave that is the British Newspaper Archive, it is now possible to peel back the layers of history to reveal much deeper stories. A number of Scottish pipe bands visited Ulster in the 1890s, such as Dumfries Pipe Band and the Black Watch Pipers’ Band, but there was also a movement to form local pipe bands, seemingly mostly in Belfast and County Tyrone in particular:

1893 : the Belfast City Pipe Band took part in a works excursion of the Brookfield and Agnes Street Weaving Factories in Belfast
1896 : the 13th Belfast Company Boys’ Brigade Pipe Band (Mountpottinger Presbyterian Church) played at a major BB event in the Ulster Hall
1897 : Fintona LOL 169 founded the Jubilee Pipe Band
1900 : the City Temperance Pipe Band played at half time in a Glentoran v Cliftonville match
1902 : Début concert by Castleton Pipe Band at the Parochial Hall, Greencastle
1902 : Fintona - Killaliss Coronation Temperance Pipe Band founded
1902 : Bushmills - report of a pipe band in the village
1904 : a ‘Band Promenade’ in Botanic Gardens, including Belfast Pipers’ Band 
1905 : Omagh Coronation Pipe Band
1905 : Pipe Band of the Portrush Company
1905 : Throne Pipe Band active in Belfast
1905 : Belfast Total Abstinence Pipe Band played at an Orange concert in the YMCA Hall
1906 : Magheracross Pipe Band parade in Trillick
1906 : Highland Games event in Newtownstewart, with unnamed Pipe Band
1907 : Advert in Belfast Telegraph for ‘instructor for pipe band’ for the east of the city 

These are just a result of a quick surface-skim, and are in addition to visits by regimental and Scottish bands. What they do show is that there appears to be a vibrant pipe band scene in Ulster for a full generation before the Great War.

There is also a reference to a solo piper walking on the 12th July demonstration of 1849 in Downpatrick.


Monday, October 02, 2017

Billy Caldwell, Alexander Robinson and the Treaty of Chicago (1833)


Two mixed race Ulster-Scots & Native Americans: Billy Caldwell (1782–1841) had an Ulster father and a Powatomi mother, and was known as Sauganash. Alexander Robinson (dates uncertain) also had an Ulster father and a Native American mother, joined the Powatomi tribe and was known as Che-che-pin-qua (‘Blinking Eyes’). They were both fur traders, and became the principal negotiators in the ceding of the last Native American lands in Illinois to the United States Government in 1833, known as the Treaty of Chicago. 

• A fuller story is available in this article and also in this one

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Murdoch Nisbet, Scotland's Forgotten Reformer and Linguist.

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

“Moonshine & Thunder – The Junior Johnson Story” - “moonshine and its Scotch-Irish history, and how NASCAR grew.”

This article from The Tribune of Wilkesboro, North Carolina, is interesting. More details here.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Ballyhalbert Orange Hall, 1972

Thanks to Jackie for sending this find! This is my dad, out fixing up the roof of the hall when I was about 3 months old!

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

What Is The Gospel? - Ray Cortese

I love this talk. He nails it every step of the way. Hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The 'Ulster Reunions' in Glasgow, 1882–1912 / Gustav Wolff and our three-stranded identity

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Around the same time of the annual Scotch-Irish Society of the USA gatherings in America, there were similar events in Glasgow. The first of these was in 1882 but the earliest record I can find is of the sixth one, held on Friday 9th December 1887 in the Grand Hall of the Waterloo Rooms (shown above), under the auspices of the Antrim and Down Benevolent Association. The Waterloo Rooms were the ‘re-brand’ for the former Wellington Church in Wellington Street; around 1910 the new Alhambra Theatre was built on the site.

The great and the good were there. Lord Kelvin had chaired the 1886 meeting; he spoke at the 1887 event, commenting on his ancestry and his childhood spent around Conlig and Bangor. Thomas Sinclair also gave a speech. There was a lot of Unionist sentiment in the few speeches I've seen, which of course was typical of the time. Psalms were sung, common ancestry and industrial interests were celebrated. Even W G Lyttle gave some performances. Rev Thomas Somerville, the minister of Dennistoun Blackfriars in Glasgow, commented that when on a visit "to a little place outside Ballymena, he was astonished to find Scotch spoken far more purely than they had it in Glasgow".

Gustav Wolff chaired the 1895 event - in his speech he recalled arriving at Ballymacarrett over 30 years before, remembering that 'the cottages were strawroofed, and there were handloom weavers in nearly every one of them', and so much praise given to the subsequent growth of Belfast, and the industrial success of Ulster in contrast to the rest of Ireland. He went on:

'... It is not any natural advantage we have; and the question must therefore be put, What is it? I think to a very great extent it is owing to the different races that inhabit the North of Ireland ... there is nothing like a Scotchman, there is nothing like an Irishman, there is nothing like an Englishman, but what I think is that there is nothing like a happy combination of all three. It is the combination of these three races which has produced one race in Ulster which has the hopefulness of the Irishman, the sturdy perseverance of the Englishman, tempered by, I think, the somewhat canny qualities of the Scotchman ... we are self-relying, and we feel that if we wish to succeed we ought to do it ourselves ...'

There you go, three-stranded identity again, the triple-blend. The newspapers of the time have long and detailed accounts of the Ulster Reunions. They ran for at least 30 years, maybe longer.

There’s a PhD in this for somebody. Or at the very least a good solid publication.

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

"Homely Words and Songs for Working Men and Women" - Rev Charles Marshall (1795–1882)

Marshall was Scottish, but this volume was published in both Edinburgh (by Constable & Co) and Belfast (by Shepherd & Aitchison) in late 1856. It was favourably reviewed in the Presbyterian newspaper The Banner of Ulster, who described the poems and songs as ‘an excellent little series’, with ‘each article preceded by a song chiefly in the Scotch dialect, in which we often meet with verses of which Burns need not have been ashamed’.

He was born in Paisley in 1795 and it is said that Robert Tannahill was a friend of the family’s. In 1856 Marshall was a Free Church of Scotland minister in Dunfermline; in 1853 he had published ‘Lays and Lectures for Scotia’s Daughters of Industry’, some of which also appeared in ‘Homely Words’. He died in 1882 and was buried at Grange Cemetery in Edinburgh.

Some of his poems are available online here in the Modern Scottish Minstrel (1857)

PS - what this also leads to is the need for someone to catalogue all of what might be called ‘Scottish Scots’ language books which were also printed in Belfast and Ulster generally. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

History of Mission Halls throughout Northern Ireland

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Remembering Betsy: the short-lived memorial to Betsy Gray, the Heroine of the 1798 Rebellion

Betsy 1939

Above: a newspaper photo from 1939, over 40 years after the memorial was destroyed.

Betsy Gray of Six Road Ends* is a heroine who keeps coming back - her name comes up all the time. Just last week an elderly farmer brought her up in conversation with me. WG Lyttle’s book Betsy Gray and the Hearts of Down (serialised in 1885; first compiled as a book in 1888, frequently reprinted ever since) was one of those handed down to me by my aunt. Tragically, Betsy's reputed homeplace at Six Road Ends, which is on private property, is today collapsing in on itself. Perhaps that is emblematic of how ill-fitting her tale became among the rapidly-changing Ulster politics of the 1800s and 1900s, yet it is also a tale which has remained deep in the hearts and minds of rural County Down folk ever since.

Her reputed burial place is at Ballycreen near Ballynahinch where she, her brother and her boyfriend were killed and buried on 13 June 1798. A tradition developed that each year locals would visit the grave and lay flowers. The site of the grave was just a field, which a century later in the 1890s was owned by a farmer called Samuel Armstrong, and of which a newspaper report said ‘has always been preserved and not put under cultivation both by the present owner of the farm and his predecessors’. These simple commemorations seem to have been low-key, as a local community thing, and with no issues.

• Plans for a Memorial
In September 1895, at Rosemary Street Lecture Hall in Belfast, Alice Milligan delivered a lecture for the Henry J McCracken Literary Society. In the audience was Rev Richard Lyttle of Moneyrea Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church who, in the remarks at the end of the lecture, proposed that a statue be erected in Betsy Gray’s memory.

Other people were having similar thoughts; a John Clarke regularly gave a lecture at the time entitled ‘The Neglected Graves of the ’98 Ulster Patriots’. Rev Lyttle and some ladies from Moneyrea, on behalf of the Charles J Kickham Society, laid a floral cross on Betsy’s grave in June 1896. That same month the ‘Moneyrea Irish Women’s Association’ organised three car loads of their members to place wreaths on 1798 graves at Saintfield, Ballynahinch, Castlereagh and Moneyreagh. When they arrived at Ballycreen Mr Armstrong ‘received them with sympathetic courtesy’. They installed eight wooden stakes around the reputed grave location, to which they fixed light wire, and then added flowers and garlands. On the grave were laid: a wreath of pansies (by a Miss Macauley), a cross (from Misses Milligan and Johnston), and a wreath and a cross of unusually large dimensions made of blue and white flowers (from Moneyrea Irish Women’s Association). Mr Armstrong was thanked by Mrs McCullough of Moneyrea and Mrs Murray:

‘for his goodness and that of his family in guarding the grave so well for 98 years, and for his kindness in permitting the decorations. He replied that any man, no matter what his politics might be, who could not honour such heroism and unsullied patriotism as that displayed by the victims who fell and were buried on his farm would be dead to all sense of humanity and nobility’. – Newry Telegraph, 4 July 1896

• Memorial Installed
In the middle of August 1896 a formal memorial stone was installed on the site, which was paid for by a James Gray from London. This was described as ‘native granite, a polished oblong block, with margined sides resting on a chamfered plinth, and surmounted with peaked terminal’. The inscription read ‘Elizabeth Gray, George Gray, William Boal, 13th June 1798’ and on the back ‘Erected by James Gray, grand-nephew of Elizabeth and George Gray, 1896’. Wrought-iron railings were also installed. The work was carried out by S & T Hastings of Downpatrick and Newtownards Monumental Works, costing £50. Some pics are shown below.

This new landmark attracted wider attention to the site - it was said to have been ‘visited by a good many people out of curiosity’. In September 1897, another group of visitors including James Murray and Mrs Murray, Rev Lyttle and Alice Milligan were once again at Ballycreen to pay their respects. A gap had been made in the hedge to facilitate access, and at this gathering it was resolved to fund the installation of a turnstile.

• Memorial Destroyed
Momentum was building on the run-in to the 1798 centenary. Ballycreen seems to have become a focus for visits by increasingly large groups of Nationalist-minded visitors who ‘placed on the grave a number of wreaths and emblems bearing offensive and seditious mottoes’. Eventually a large gathering was advertised in the Nationalist-inclined Belfast newspapers, to take place on a Sunday afternoon, 1st May 1898, under the auspices of the Henry J McCracken Literary Society. The first that Mr Armstrong knew about this proposed gathering was when the police sergeant from Ballynahinch called up to the farm to let him know; Armstrong was concerned that a large visit was to take place at all, but especially on the Sabbath Day. He decided to refuse permission for the proposed meeting. There are competing accounts of what actually took place, which vary depending on the editorial stance of the newspapers. You can imagine.

After the gathering had laid floral wreaths and had dispersed, such was the stir in the Ballycreen community that that same night a group of local men visited Armstrong’s farm, equipped with sledgehammers, and smashed the granite memorial to pieces. 

The Irish Independent summarised the events as 'Decorated by Nationalists, and Desecrated by Orange Scoundrels’. The Ballymena Weekly Telegraph said that the police had allowed ‘Armstrong’s rights to be trampled upon, the law broken, and the law breakers protected and encouraged’.

Willie Redmond asked questions in the House of Commons about the incident, which was widely reported in newspapers across Ireland.


* there is a competing claim that Betsy was from Tullyniskey near Dromore.



Betsy memorial

Monday, September 11, 2017

"Live Free or Die" - John Stark's signoff which became the motto for New Hampshire

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An earlier generation of Starks had been Presbyterian Covenanters, who fled to Ulster for a time for refuge. Archibald Stark arrived at Londonderry as a young boy with his family, having been born in Glasgow in 1697. Archibald married Eleanor Nichols in Ulster in 1714. Around 1720, having watched the successful migrations of 1718, Archibald and Eleanor boarded a ship and sailed for New England.

They settled in the new Ulster-Scots settlement of Nutfield (later Londonderry) where their son, and future General, John Stark was born on 28 August 1728. Eight years later in 1736 the family moved to another Ulster-Scots settlement at Derryfield (later Manchester) where John remained until he was 27 years old. When he grew up he became one of Ulsterman Robert RogersRangers, and when revolution was in the air Stark sided with Washington, becoming a military hero of some renown.

After the war he sent a message to a reunion event which famously said ‘Live free or die; Death is not the worst of evils'. New Hampshire adopted this as its official motto in 1945.

• 1949 biography by Howard Parker Moore is online here
• an earlier memoir is online here


Sunday, September 10, 2017

"Twa Hours at Hame" David Kennedy & Family, Ulster Hall, April 1877

David Kennedy

The Kennedy family toured the world with a show which celebrated Scottish culture and music. David Kennedy (1825–86) has been described here as ‘a concert singer who combined traditional Scots song with oratorio and sacred music’. Here is a report of one of their shows, at the Ulster Hall in 1877, one of at least three nights they performed in Belfast on this particular tour.

His daughter Marjory published this biography in 1887, detailing the family’s Perthshire and Presbyterian origins, as well as page after page of Scots language dialogue. It would be interesting to chart all of their appearances in Belfast, as 1877 was around the time of a fresh upsurge in local Ulster-Scots creative writing and publishing.

In 1881, three of his children, all members of the performing family, died in France when the Opera House in Nice was burned to the ground. Kennedy’s Wikipedia entry is here

Twa Hours at Hame 1877

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Friday, September 08, 2017

'The Gate, Newtownards' by Alicia Boyle (1908–97)


Sunday, September 03, 2017

Scotch Night, Bangor, 1938

Scotch Night Bangor 1938 copy

James Collins, the Blind County Down Fiddler (born 1841)

Article from the Irish News and Belfast Morning News, 26 August 1897. County Down born of Scottish parents, Collins found his way to Eastbourne where he sang Robert Burns songs and seems to have become a bit of a celebrity in his day.

James Collins 26 Aug 1897James Collins Fiddler

The inhaled 'aye'

I don't know how widespread this is, but older men, and younger men who are ‘old-school', around here will often inhale an ‘aye’ of approval during a preacher’s sermon. Does anybody else know about this?

Friday, September 01, 2017

Where are all the tourists?

Tourism is a massive subject in Northern Ireland. It’s a news topic almost every day. It’s our economic future and in a sense ‘saviour’. Public policy is geared towards it, bringing much needed inward investment. Hotels are growing up all over the place (well in greater Belfast at least). Which is why this YouGov poll took me by surprise.

From a sample of 8,000 people surveyed across the UK, Belfast is bottom of the list of UK cities they have visited, equal with Sunderland. Twice as many people have been to the hotspots of Leicester, Norwich and Coventry.

We do have the added disadvantage of people having to take a ferry or a flight to get here. And of course a generation or two of ‘bad news’. But it does make you wonder if the weekly diet of pro-tourism publicity is working out in reality.

(NB: It is a pity that the Republic of Ireland isn’t included in the survey, as the comparable stats for Dublin would be really interesting)


Cities visited map ALL GB 01

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Matt Kibbe on Liberty

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Dori Freeman, Galax, Virginia: "a lot of other people don't feel the same pride, don't know how rich culturally where we come from is"

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

'Orange Lily' by May Crommelin (1879) - now reprinted

It’s a real pleasure to see that, less than a year after I first ‘discovered’ May Crommelin (see previous post here), that her novel Orange Lily, set in Carrowdore here in the Ards Peninsula, has now been republished. I have a very short appendix in it which gives some of my family history and how it overlaps with the Crommelins. It’s an important wee book, and there are more stories by May Crommelin now being uncovered, so I’m pleased that she is back on the map and that the book is once again available. It has also now been added to the Ulster-Scots Academy online text base

• Order a copy on Amazon here.

Orange Lily

Orange Lily Orig Cover

Donaghadee Steam Crane / April 1914

I have gone sea-angling on boats from Donaghadee for about 30 years - and I've given talks to the local historical society quite a few times too. The steam crane is a local landmark that seems to have been removed in the 1930s or thereabouts - in the black and white pic below it's the box-like shape on the quayside. As you can see in the recent pics below, the other crane is still in place. There is a concrete shape still today on the harbour which I think might have been the original position for the steam crane.

It is said that it was the steam crane which was used on the night of the gunrunning in April 1914, from the boat Innismurray and not the Clyde Valley. (see this article). The old postcard below certainly shows the steam crane.

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Monday, August 14, 2017

"hippies with banjos in the meetings"

(a PS to this post from yesterday).

If the old man who railed against me around 1988 or so for daring to play a guitar had any understanding of his own traditions, he would have known that over the years his predecessors played stringed instruments in gospel meetings. Here’s a photo of the famous Scottish evangelist Jock Troup at Pickie Pool in Bangor, playing a banjo-mandolin. (from this September 2013 post).

Forget your own history and you end up in all sorts of contradictory places...

Jock Troup Screengrab 1

'Don't Let the Politics Make You Crazy' / 'Without knowledge of history we are condemned to perpetual childhood, endless darkness, collective blindness'

Although Dave Rubin is American, there is much in his video above that we in politics-obsessed Northern Ireland can learn from. Politics is important, but it is not of ultimate importance. Let's consider our own position, of Unionism v Nationalism. Earlier this year there was, according to some media outlets, a near-collapse of the Unionist political psyche in the Assembly Election in March when Sinn Fein came within less than 1200 votes of being the largest party. There were then months of panic and fear until the snap General Election in June which saw a huge subsequent upsurge in DUP votes, gaining their highest vote ever, over 50,000 ahead of Sinn Fein, and unprecedented influence within the UK Government. That electoral pendulum might well continue to swing back and forth. Who knows?

The lesson is that if a community's sense of its identity is solely political the community is therefore vulnerable – at the mercy of the wrong election result, or of a back-room deal made between politicians, or who is the First Minister, the Prime Minister or the President. As discussed on a Radio Ulster panel last week on a hypothetical future ‘United Ireland’, one respected commentator said that Unionism would be forever finished – “… give them a few stickers to put on their bicycles, but everything is gone, their constitutional identity is gone, their personal identity is gone, their political identity is gone … there is no way Unionists can ever get back into the United Kingdom again … all that is gone’.

Deep breath. Let’s rethink this pessimistic worldview. As the Sunday School chorus goes, ‘The foolish man built his house upon the sand...'

A cultural identity however is a much deeper and nuanced thing, and can withstand all sorts of setbacks and challenges. In previous generations, Ulster-Scots people who chose to emigrate took with them a clear *cultural* sense of who they were. Even though their *political* nationality and the flag they lived under would change due to emigration, or to their changed circumstances meaning that they were compelled to forge a revolution, their *cultural* identity remained clear.

The 1700s USA records have multiple references of Ulster people who had a clear understanding of the Reformation, Presbyterian history and the Covenanters, the Williamite Revolution, the Siege of Derry, their own exodus across the Atlantic and the 1798 rebellion. These themes were handed down for many generations, at firesides by people like Andrew Jackson’s mother Elizabeth (pictured below in an old book I have on the shelf). I’ll not repeat them all now, but if you’re in any doubt about that claim just trawl back through years of posts here to see acres of evidence for that.

Ulster-Scots history predates the Union, has mostly supported the Union but not entirely, has been compelled to rebel against the British Government in various ways throughout the centuries, and it might potentially outlast the Union. It is cross-border, it traverses seas and oceans. And flags. Whether Brexit is ‘hard' or ‘soft', whether it works out or is a disaster, if it happens at all or is smothered in fudge. Whether Scotland leaves the United Kingdom or remains.

Politics is ‘downstream’ from culture. Culture is more powerful, more international, more enduring, more open to others, and in many ways can be much more unifying.

“… Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s right-hand man and perhaps the Reformation’s most effective spokesman, was a revolutionary educational reformer, father of one of the movement’s many lasting legacies. Without knowledge of history, he wrote, we are condemned to perpetual childhood, endless darkness, collective blindness. There are none so blind as those who will not look at history, and it is time to open our eyes to the past, in order to face the future …”

– from this recent article in The Guardian

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PS - the post was rushed out just as I was heading off for a week's holiday. The obvious omission is the political border on our own island. When that political decision was taken, were those on the 'other' side of it suddenly any less culturally Ulster-Scots than the rest? Or those who have moved southwards from Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland, for reasons of work, family, education, etc?. Today, is the Ulster-Scots community in, for example, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, any less Ulster-Scots than those in Northern Ireland. Of course not.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Rodney McElrea, 1938-2017

Rodney McElrea

There are so many people that I wish I had met. One of these, Rodney McElrea, died just a few weeks ago, his funeral at Omagh Gospel Hall in County Tyrone. For the time being at least I’ll not be able to meet him. There are some excellent articles about him on Richard Hawkins' Bluegrass Ireland Blog (see here and also here), and a 2012 PhD thesis about his life as a collector, by Eve Olney (see here). Rodney’s name is inscribed across the ocean, on the gravestone of Charlie Poole. 

Rodney had been a member of the Hall in Omagh since 1966; for those of you who know, many Brethren Halls have no music at all, and some only at the evening service, and so this makes it even more interesting that music was such a major part of his life.

In my own experience, I can recall being challenged by an older man - via a sermon - at the Hall I grew up in when he discovered I was learning to play the guitar. Our family did the Gospel Hall on a Sunday morning (my father’s influence) and a Mission Hall in the evening (my mother’s influence) - and the Sunday School at each - four meetings every Sunday! The mission hall was where my own musical inspiration came from. My ‘crime’ was that I had been spotted playing the guitar at Frances Street Gospel Hall youth fellowship in Newtownards one Sunday night, and the following Sunday morning back in Portavogie the man launched a sermonette about “hippies with banjos in the meetings”. I kid you not. Words like that don’t get forgotten! I moved on a few years afterwards.

Here’s another post on Bluegrass Ireland which refers to my friend Andy Gordon, one of those people who has been a regular encouragement to me over the years, and who was a close friend of Rodney's). I managed to find Andy the music for the hymn which was sung at Rodney’s funeral, from the Redemption Songs hymn book, which is posted below.

As well as this hymn, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, and Amazing Grace were sung. The night before Rodney died, Andy and I met up at a coffee shop in Bangor to marvel at a lovely old Gibson mandolin, and I got glared at by another customer for daring to play it a bit. I’m hoping that it makes an appearance at one of our ‘open house’ music evenings later in the year.

Music is really important. So is being intentional with your time, to meet with new people and spend time with folk you know.  

"Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs” - Psalm 150v4

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PS - tonight at Carrowdore Mission Hall we finished the meeting with the Philip Bliss hymn Almost Persuaded. Written in 1871, it is one of many from the 1800s and early 1900s which were recorded by early country musicians. Bliss died trying to save his wife from a burning train wreck in 1876. Here is the Louvin Brothers' 1950s version

Friday, August 11, 2017

"the simplest hymn would give him the keenest pleasure and a psalm could move him to tears of joy"

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I’m grateful to a friend for sending this article to me, both because it’s about music and the tensions around its use in religious contexts, but also because it majors on Augustine of Hippo. He lived in today’s Algeria, and was one of the most influential early Christians, someone that Martin Luther and also Bangor’s own Robert Blair looked back to.

Increasingly it can be seen that the Reformation wasn’t about installing a new system, it was restoring the original factory default settings. 

Augustine’s famous book City of God is being cited again today by some Reformed theologians, as it was written at a time when the familiar world order (the Roman Empire) was falling apart, and there was a need to recalibrate exactly what Christianity meant while all around it crumbled. History just repeats itself. Keep calm and carry on...

- full article here, on

Sunday, August 06, 2017

... on the other hand, progress is essential - Fordson Tractors Ards Peninsula advert, 1921

Here’s a 1921 advert for Fordson tractors, showing that horses were to become a thing of the past and a new Fordson would prove it. Why not book a demonstration on the Ards Peninsula? Even a young woman would be happy to operate it, neatly turned out in her Sunday clothes!  Other Fordson ads of the time claimed it could replace 4 horses, for a cost of £260 new.

Women worked the land just as hard as men did. In his 2016 book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, (on Amazon here) Sebastian Junger points out that the agri economy is/was the most gender-equal of any economic system. Everybody is/was being killed by hard work.

Fordson 1921

When did ordinary become 'artisan'?

Old kettles crop

I often feel like I grew up at a kind of social tipping point, overlapping two almost unbridgeable eras. It is easy to see that in terms of the ‘digital revolution’. About half way into my Art College years in Belfast, from 1990–1994, the new-fangled Apple Macintosh computer arrived. There was a room with about 20 ‘Classics’ in it, and - shock horror - an LCII with a colour screen. It was, suddenly, mind-bogglingly advanced. I had started my degree course learning the time-honoured disciplines of rub-down Letraset sheets, life-drawing classes and actual darkroom photography -  and finished it with full colour printouts, scanners, Photoshop image manipulation and the warped typography of Letrastudio software. What we gained in convenience was lost in craft. And those old crafts today cost a lot more to buy. (but of course, new skills come along)

Now if you want a photo of a warm sunset, take any old photo and just add a filter effect to it. Hey presto, instant warmth. Not warm enough? Easy, just alter the colour balances. Back in the day, that would have needed you to understand light, seasons, sunrise times, weather, and try to work with nature to capture its phenomena - at just the right millisecond-accurate moment of shutter opening and the workings of a mechanical camera and the varieties of physical film you could choose. 

Something similar has happened with food. I grew up on a wee farm with food merely as fuel or flavour, not as ‘expression’. Food has now taken on a social significance and aesthetic that I suspect would have been unimaginable not that long ago.

They say that in Ulster even city dwellers are only one or two generations away from the land. Our parents and grandparents would be astonished to find people today paying high prices for food which was once self-produced almost every day. Spuds from the garden, bread from the oven, eggs from the hens, bacon or beef or fish bartered with the neighbours, berries from the plants or hedges, coffee and tea from the corner shop as a swap for something you’d made or grown. Herring stored in big salted clay crocks all winter long. Salted ling hung in the stone shed at the foot of the garden. A pig you’d reared yourself, which had been killed and scalded in boiling water and then hung in that same stone shed.

The population move from working the land to ‘professional’ jobs in towns, and then mass-production and importation of food during the second half of the 20th century has once again, gained in convenience but lost in craft. And those food crafts now cost a lot more to buy - at modern-day Farmers’ Markets, which had been ordinary weekly events in every small town for centuries, up until say the 1960s. I go sea-angling for leisure, my grandfather’s generation did it for survival.

These changes have also brought with them an affluent snobbery. I like sourdough bread because it’s tough and chewy and tastes ‘real’, like the bread my mother and aunts used to make - and not like fluffy mass-produced ‘big brand’ rectangular pan loaves. However, a sourdough loaf in a bakery can cost 3 - 5 times more than a pan loaf. I remember when a ‘baguette’ was simply just a ‘crusty loaf’. I remember my mother making massive trays of jam & sponge which she’d knock out in 10 minutes and then cut up into squares. Now something similar to one of those squares might cost you £2.50 each in a coffee shop.

My granny Thompson flat refused to use tea bags. She was a strictly loose-leaf tea woman, served in her wee working kitchen and stewed all day in an enamel pot on the Doric stove. Today, some loose-leaf teas are luxuries, and sometimes expensive ones. Check this out - a new ‘Scots Breakfast’ tea in a chic new Glasgow tea bar. Or this one in Birmingham from Laura Ashley

The vocabulary that has grown up around these expensive choices is also socially exclusive. Here’s a really interesting article on a similar theme, by David Brooks in the New York Times. If you talk to people in the health service, they will cite lifestyle as one reason it is hard to get senior medics to move out of greater Belfast. And in some cases the same has been observed for ministers - a phenomenon the Church of England has experienced too.

Traditional food has a nostalgia for me, it takes me back 40 years to how life once was for everybody. But then it was ordinary, not artisan. It was completely democratic, of the people, and not elitist. I object to the chic guff that often surrounds it now. Today, to find what was once ordinary you need to either:
a) find people who haven’t lost those skills and traditions, or
b) be willing to pay relatively high prices to buy the closest modern equivalent.

Or else,
c) learn those things for yourself, and pass them on. 

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Rev John Wilson portrait, Boston and Charlestown (1588–1667)

This is the minister who came to Ulster along with John Winthrop Jr in 1635. Rev John Wilson’s 1846 biography is online here. He pinged back and forth across the Atlantic, during the era when the Anglican, and Head of the Church of England, Charles I, was persecuting non-conforming Protestants and Presbyterians. Even though Wilson was ‘officially’ minister of congregations at Boston and Charlestown, he also preached in Ipswich/Agawam in the early 1630s - the exact area that Eagle Wing was bound for. So it makes perfect sense that he would come to Antrim to meet with Blair, Livingstone and McLellan.

From page 55 of the biography it seems that Winthrop and Wilson had been on a return voyage from America in Autumn 1634, bound for Barnstaple in Devon, when they were almost shipwrecked off the coast of Galway, but they managed to land. They then headed to Dublin. Wilson sailed for England but was driven back to Kinsale in yet another storm which sank a few other ships.

“... Being thus forced to make some stay in Ireland, both he and the governor’s worthy son exerted themselves strenuously to promote the interests of religion in New England, wherever they came … their travels extended into Scotland and the north of England; and wherever they went, they gave much satisfaction to Christian people about the prospects of New England, and stirred up many to make it their future home ...

The biography says that Winthrop and Wilson then sailed for New England around 10 August 1635, arriving in Boston on 3 October 1635. These dates vary a little from the Ulster accounts, but the overall narrative is exactly the same.


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Tuesday, August 01, 2017

John Winthrop Jr statue, New London, Connecticut

This is the guy that the ‘Eagle Wing’ ministers were corresponding with, and who visited them here in Ulster at least twice. It was installed in 1905.

John WInthrop Jr

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sweet Portaferry

In his seminal 1901 volume, Ballads of Down, George Francis Savage-Armstrong included his version of ‘Sweet Portaferry’.

As thy Castle's grey walls in the low sun are gleaming,
Sweet, sweet Portaferry, and the evening draws near,
And I drift on the tide to the ocean down-streaming,
And leave to the night-wind thy woodlands dear,
All, all the splendours of years gone over.
The glad bright life of thy halls of rest,
Like the spell of weird music when fairy-wings hover.
Sweet, sweet Portaferry, sink in on my breast !

Dear home of my sires by the blue waves of Cuan,
Sweet, sweet Portaferry of the ivy-clad towers.
Where in childhood I ranged every dell the ferns grew in,
And gathered in handfuls bluebell-flowers.
Farewell ! I leave thee, afar to wander,
Alone, alone, over land and sea ;
But wherever I roam, O, my heart will grow tender,
Sweet, sweet Portaferry, in dreaming of thee!

It is set to the tune of the same name which was part of Edward Bunting's famous collection The Ancient Music of Ireland, first published in 1796 – and therefore contemporary with the earliest Ulster-Scots 'Rhyming Weavers’. Their work also contains songs and airs but which have never been viewed from that perspective. Perhaps there is a project there for somebody to assemble a similar collection.

There are other, better-known, lyrics for 'Sweet Portaferry’. I am not sure which version came first, but I first heard them on a cassette given to me by the late George Holmes, which he had helped to produce, entitled 'Songs of the Ards', probably some time in the 1980s.

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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Preparing to Fly: 'Eagle Wing' in 1635 (from New England to Antrim)

Wintrhop Wilson copy

During 1635, two important figures in the fledgling New England Massachussetts Bay colony visited Ulster, to meet in person with the Ulster-Scots Presbyterian ministers who they had been corresponding with, and who were planning to sail across the Atlantic in pursuit of religious liberty.

In January 1635, John Winthrop the Younger (above left) visited Ulster to meet with the ministers; he “did earnestly invite and greatly encourage us”. He had founded an English Puritan colony at Agawam/Ipswich in 1633.

He was back in October 1635, this time with Rev John Wilson of Boston (above right). Both men visited Sir John Clotworthy in Antrim with the Ulster ministers again – where “divers godly persons were appointed to meet at his house to confer about their voyage to New England”.

Clotworthy's original castle is long-gone, but Antrim Castle Gardens still exist, on the banks of the Sixmilewater River. Perhaps there should be a plaque there to commemorate this important American link?

Thursday, July 27, 2017

"Us Boys"

Over the years various Co Antrim folk have told me of this film, shot in the late 1990s. I have found a version on YouTube, with German subtitles. Information from the production company is here

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Isabella Barber Ferguson of Ireland and South Carolina (1754–1823)



She was a Revolutionary heroine, whose story is featured in the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, Virginia.

A Presbyterian Covenanter, born to Samuel Barber and Isabella Starett, she had emigrated to America around 1773. She “sat under the preaching of a learned minister and had been regularly catechised and indoctrinated both in the Scriptures and the political creed of her people”. She married a Samuel Ferguson but Samuel’s sympathies were with the Crown and his brother, Colonel James Ferguson, led a troop of 150 men. The Colonel led his men past the Barber homestead, hoping to impress his brother into joining the British army. It failed. Isabella declared:

I am a rebel, glorying in the name. My brothers are rebels, and the dog Trip is a rebel too. Now, James, I would rather see you with a sheep on your back, than tricked out in all those fine clothes. Rebel and be free, that is my creed!

Samuel listened to his wife and then confirmed to his uniformed brother:

Could Isabella be convinced she might be able to turn the whole lot of Covenanters, for she is never afraid to speak her mind.

Samuel didn’t join up, and James was killed not long after. There are numerous heroines in popular Ulster-Scots history, such as Betsy Gray and Margaret Wilson. You can read more about Isabella Barber Ferguson in this reprinted edition which was originally published in 1848.

Take the Museum online quiz and see which Revolutionary era character is most like you. 

• Her gravestone can be seen here on

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Wayfaring Stranger - re-broadcast tonight, tomorrow, Thursday

For the next 3 nights on BBC2 Northern Ireland, ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ is being re-broadcast at 7pm. Set your digiboxes!

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Monday, July 24, 2017

The Ards - 'The Little Holland of the North'

Some photos here from recent drives around my home turf - the newly refurbished Ballycopeland Windmill near Millisle (which now features on a Royal Mail stamp) and the old windmill stump at Knockinelder. It seems from the Montgomery Manuscripts that it was Lady Elizabeth Montgomery who oversaw the construction of watermills in every parish of the Montgomery lands in the Ards in the early 1600s. Initially the Scots used the ‘quairn stones’ hand-ground technique commonly used by their Irish neighbours, but later a ‘Danish mill’ was introduced. There were of course water mills in Ireland prior to the arrival of the Scots - in fact, as the same Manuscripts say (on page 63) water mills can be traced to the 3rd Century:

... It is certain that mills driven by water were known in Ireland at a very early period, and appear to have been at least as generally used in ancient as in modern times. Irish authorities, and with them Irish traditions, are unanimous in representing that the first water-mill ever known in Ireland was introduced by Cormac Mac Art, who reigned during a part of the third century, and that the good king brought his millwright from Scotland ...

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Rev W. R. Megaw (1885–1953): From Carrowdore to Princeton to Ahoghill: minister, author and naturalist.



Rev R.T. Megaw was minister of Carrowdore Presbyterian Church in the 1880s. In 1885 his son, William Rutledge Megaw was born. He would have been knocking about Carrowdore in my great-grandparents’ time. He followed his father towards the Presbyterian ministry and after a childhood in Carrowdore he went to RBAI, then Queens University and finally to Princeton in the USA.

He returned to Ulster and took up the role of minister at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Ahoghill in County Antrim in 1910. A local poet wrote this quite superb Ulster-Scots poem just after hearing Megaw’s first sermon, on Sunday 10 April 1910: 

First impressions aft are lastin’

Whither bad ur whither guid,

Pardon, an’ I’ll tell ye my yins

In a simple bit o’ screed;

Born an’ broucht up in the district,

Niver bein’ far frae hame,

Sma’ wunner that my words are common,

An’ ideas awfoo tame

Foo dull this day.

Hooiver, freens, this peacefoo fixture

Minds me o’ lang years ago,

Whun the church wus mair auld-farrent

Baith inside an’ oot ye know;

What the venerable F. Buick

Preach’d the Word tae rich and poor;

Sacred be his name fur iver

Fur flingin’ wide the Gospel door

Foo guid that day.

Whas sturdy henchman an’ assistant,

Mr McConachie o’ fame;

A fearless, faithfoo Gospel preacher,

Regerdin’ whom we think nae shame,

Assisted an’ succeeded later

By him wha cud “catch-his-pals”;

Bit Mr Pyper did “surrender”

Tae the folk o’ “Derry Wal’s”

Foo firm this day.

Revertin’ mair til’ present moments,

Wae expecations reemin’,

Anent Trinity Church o’ hope,

Whar “Love” and’ faith are beamin’,

Becas his Mester sent alang,

His servant, young Mega’,

Noo weel ordain’d as pastor here

By Presbyterian la’,

Foo nice this day.

Son o’ the Manse, wae bright career,

He comes, we trust, fur guid,

Provin’ himself baith in an’ oot

A clargieman indeed;

We wish tae see the “B” degree

Knock’d oot by cubit’s darts,

An’ like the sang replaced ‘fore lang

By “M” atrimonial “A” rts

Foo gled some day.

The prayers an’ expositions, friens,

O’ Young Mr Mega’

Did me a world o’ lastin guid

Afore he preached ava’,

Although his sermon, weel got up,

Wus jist as weel laid doon,

He hurl’d the darts right at our hearts,

An’ no’ up at the moon

Foo heich this day.

His theme wus Christ the Crucified,

Nane else he wants til’ know,

Nur preach til’ plase himsel’ alane,

Nur heich, middle, ur low;

Yit varied as the rainbow’s hues

He show’d this theme til’ be

Heich as the sky, wide as the earth,

An’ like the michty sea

Foo deep this day.

The la’ the Prophets, big an’ wee,

An’ Gospels wur the same,

Epistles sweet, al’ pointed tae

The Crucified’s dear name;

Wae sic’ a theme an’ sic’ a place,

An’ sic’ a time as this,

An’ sic’ a school, an’ sic’ a church?

The hale thing jist means bliss

Foo great this day.

– Randerin’ Rhymer, Cullybackey, 11th April, 1910 (reproduced from this website)

Megaw published at least three books: Nature’s Speech (1930), Ulota (1934) and Carragloon: Tales of Our Townland (1935), and edited the second edition of A Flora of the North East of Ireland with R.L Praeger which was published in 1938. Megaw was a prominent member of Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club, as a specialist algae and moss collector. He became President of the Club, and also became a member of the Royal Irish Academy,

Despite all of his education and erudition, a Carrowdore childhood and an Ahoghill ministry means he would have understood the poem with nae bother.

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