Thursday, March 23, 2017

The President who ordered West Virginia to be bombed by the US Air Force, September 1921


I am going to have to visit West Virginia. Read more here about The Battle of Blair Mountain, Logan County, 1921. It lasted for 10 days, a million rounds were fired, and in the end President Warren Harding authorised the Air Force to bomb the miners –

"... Private planes were hired to drop homemade bombs on the miners. A combination of gas and explosive bombs left over from World War I were dropped in several locations near the towns of Jeffery, Sharples and Blair. At least one did not explode and was recovered by the miners; it was used months later to great effect during treason and murder trials following the battle. On orders from General Billy Mitchell, Army bombers from Maryland were also used for aerial surveillance. One Martin bomber crashed on its return flight, killing the three members of the crew..."

The Library of Congress has a section about this story in their Chronicling America website - click here.

"... The Logan County Sheriff’s Office even hired multiple private airplanes that dropped homemade bombs onto the marching miners. A combination of gas and explosive bombs left over from World War I were dropped in several locations. At least one did not explode and was recovered by the miners; it was used months later to great effect during treason and murder trials following the battle ..." - source here

Blaming the old, the poor and the 'poorly educated' - Appalachia as scapegoat

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The portrayal of Appalachia as a ‘place apart’ from mainstream America has its uses. Following the election of Donald Trump, Appalachia has been blamed by urban media élites desperately seeking a scapegoat. This new article in by Elizabeth Catte - Liberal shaming of Appalachia: Inside the media elite’s obsession with the “hillbilly problem” - is a tour de force in destroying this new mythology.

Every generation of politicians, writers, analysts, academics and economists believes it has discovered something unique or horrible or paradoxical about Appalachia. And members of each generation of these thinkers is at war with themselves to decide if we’re worthy enough for their solutions to our problems. These solutions, however, never work because they’re almost always premised on the belief that Appalachia is fundamentally different than the rest of the country, not part of it. And so we repeat a frustrating cycle: Our self-appointed social betters interpret our reluctance to embrace their solutions as an act of bad faith and we suffer economically from their withdrawn support.

A similar piece by Jeff Biggers of the Huffington Post can be read here.

In a similar way, the ‘blame game’ on our side of the Atlantic has pinned the ’shame’ of voting for Brexit on the old, the poor and the ‘less educated’. Even before the vote, the left-of-centre Independent was acknowledging this. After the result, analysis confirmed it.

Appalachia has been the American scapegoat for generations. Elizabeth Catte’s writing helps expose the prejudices of the commentariat. Here is another superb example from October 16. which I have posted here before.

“We know Appalachia exists because we need it to define what we are not. It is the “other America” because the very idea of Appalachia convinces us of the righteousness of our own lives.” - Ronald D Eller, Uneven Ground (2013)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Bradley Kincaid - marketing mountain ballads and 'Scotch' identity in Appalachia, 1920s


Some of my Scottish friends do these days take some offence at the term ‘Scotch’, saying for example that it only applies to products that can be bought, like beef, lamb or whisky. Historically though there was never offence intended; the trem ‘Braid Scotch’ was used even within Scotland to refer to the Lowland Scots language. As Robert Burns himself wrote, 'I'll pledge my aith in guid braid Scotch’. Our own James Orr, a contemporary of Burns, used the same term: "To quat braid Scotch, a task that foils their art”.

Therefore it should be no surprise that the term is used historically in Ulster and America. One man whose products sold like hot cakes was the 1920s Kentucky singer William Bradley Kincaid (1895–1989). His father William, a farmer who sang in the local church, swapped a hunting dog for a guitar and so began Bradley’s musical career.

His 1928 booklet My Favourite Mountain Ballads referred to him a number of times as ‘Scotch’, that his great-grandfather had been a ‘full-blooded Scotchman, coming to Virginia from Scotland’. The booklet gave the songs an identity which was more inclusive than solely ’Scotch' – “these mountain ballads are songs that grew out of the life and experiences of hardy Scotch, Irish, German, English and Dutch natives”. It sold over 500,000 copies. A few pics of my edition are below.

Kincaid was educated at Berea College (a place I revisited last year), where a large archive of his papers is kept. He also served in World War One in France. Kincaid himself was offended by the term ‘hillbilly’, saying in a newspaper interview in 1936 that –

‘when I say I was the first to give mountain songs in the public, I don't mean the Hill BIlly sort. These are the creation of the very ignorant class. The songs that I bring to the public are those that were taught me by my mother. I remember her singing them to us as children as long ago as I can remember anything. They have been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. They consist of English, Scotch and Irish ballads, brought over from the old countries by our ancestors … the mountain people, although uneducated, have a poetic strain and naturally express themselves in this way. To these I have added some of the old hymns they sing.

When I can get the time to spare I go back in the Cumberland mountains and dig up more old songs. Since I have taen up this research I have become interested in all American folksongs … it makes me wrathy to see some entertainers fitting the songs of bums into the music of dear old mountain songs. For example they stole one of our melodies ‘Down In The Valley’ for ‘Birmingham Jail’

The same article reinforced the classic narratives:

“Bradley Kincaid’s ancestors were among the early settlers of Kentucky who were too proud and independent to endure the domination of wealthy planters and moved back into the Cumberland mountains to get away from them. They saved their independence but lost their contact with the rest of the world".

Other articles would say things like “the songs were born and originated around the hearth stones of the poor though proud early settlers who braved their way and settled in the Kentucky mountains". Kincaid would regularly talk about his Scottish ancestry during his shows, joking that he was “Scotch, but was born in this country to save travelling costs”. 

So even the mountain balladeer himself sought to attach some social status to his work, compared to ‘hill billy’ songs. He was a smart, educated man. Radio was taking off, as was the recording of music and therefore the need to market it to customers. Overall, the terminologies and careful definitions bear the self-conscious hallmark of the marketing-aware. He knew his ‘product’, and who he was selling it to, and used terminology to appeal to them. The nostalgia, the pastoral scenes, the hints of faith, all hearkened back to a remembered or maybe imagined past.

BUT - it is too easy to be cynical from our modern-day standpoint. Perhaps what he and his marketing people were saying was in fact true.

The music is good, his voice more polished than others from that early era of recorded music. His guitar playing is simple and steady, and some recordings have crisp mandolin accompaniment, such as on The Miner’s Song, Who knows what collected treasures are within the various Kincaid archives? It seems like only the tip of the iceberg were ever published in books or recordings.

• there’s an analysis of the story and image making of Bradley Kincaid in this book by Erich Nunn. He has an interesting paper available online entitled ‘American Balladry and the Anxiety of Ancestry’. It covers some influential work by William Goodell Frost, a one-time Principal of Berea College. You can see in this 1899 paper ‘Our Contemporary Ancestors in the Southern Mountains' where the ‘branding’ of Appalachia in Frost’s thinking could well have influenced the likes of Bradley Kincaid.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"Scotch-Irish tradition, Baptist hymns and old Appalachian songs" - Frank Hutchison (1897–1945), the first white man to record the blues

Logan County, West Virginia. It was a place where white Scotch-Irish and black African-Americans mixed and worked together. The music blended, and one of those to popularise the fusion of styles, which came to be known as ‘country blues’, was Frank Hutchison. He picked up some tunes from black men like Henry Vaughan and Bill Hunt – “a repertoire of 19th century traditional tunes that blacks and whites had shared before the blues became fashionable”. In later years Hank Williams and Bill Monroe had similar formative influences from black musicians.

Hutchison was born in Beckley, Raleigh County, West Virginia (right in that region of mountains and valleys where West Virginia meets with Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina) on 20 March 1897. From school reports of the county in 1875 it seems to have been a pretty dysfunctional place (source here).

• Family Background
Frank’s ancestry is murky. His mother was 16 year old Louvina Hutchison and his father 18 year old Frank Mankin. There’s no evidence of a shotgun wedding. About 18 months later in some crazy debauch on 10 November 1899, Frank Mankin and Wood Hutchison died of poisoning while drinking 'cinnamon drops’ (probably mixed with home-brew alcohol) and two others who were with them – Jerry McGrady and E. L. Smith – were left in a critical condition ‘and will probably die’. Mankin’s death certificate gave his marital status as ‘unknown’. (There had been a similar incident at Mattoon, Illinois on 22 December 1896 when a group of young men died from drinking a cocktail of cinnamon drops and an industrial ‘wood alcohol’ which they had stolen from the local gas works).

This would explain Frank Hutchison using his mother’s surname. Frank and his teenage mother decided to make a new start and moved to Logan County where she married Robert Lee Deskins, with whom she would have 10 children. Frank grew up and like so many men in that region he took a job in the coal mines. He also became a celebrated local musician and developed a slide guitar style, with the guitar across his lap and a pocket knife for a slide. 

• Recording Career
He recorded 32 songs for Okeh Records in the 1920s, becoming the first white guitarist to record the blues - a year earlier than Jimmie Rodgers. Hutchison was marketed as ‘The Pride of West Virginia’. One of his contemporaries, Ernest Stoneman, described him as ”a big red-headed Irishman” (source here).

However, in 1969 the Register and Post Herald from Beckley published a long genealogy of the Hutchisons of Raleigh County - saying they were probably English or Scottish. The first to settle in the county was Charles Hutchison (1795–1867) who arrived in 1829, and was a clerk in Coal Marsh Baptist Church, the first church in the county. His son A.J. was a Confederate soldier and a song leader at revival campaigns in the area.

In a later interview with Hutchison’s one-time fiancée, Jennie Wilson, she was asked “Was Frank very much interested in the old ballads, the English and Scottish songs?”, to which she replied “That was a strong interest that he had. Everybody around loved those songs like ‘Barbary Allen’ and he could really play them. He sang those songs as well as the ones he wrote”.

When he married Minnie Garrett in 1917, Frank gave his grandparents' names on the wedding certificate rather than his own biological parents. He and Minnie had two daughters, Louise and Kathleen. Frank Hutchison died in 1945 of liver cancer, his two daughters passed away in 2001 and 2006 respectively.

(NB the description in the post title comes from this book)

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Monday, March 20, 2017

The Stanley Brothers covering Horatius Bonar - "A Few More Years Shall Roll"

At first it might seem an unlikely combination, rural Virginia bluegrass legends the Stanley Brothers' recording of a hymn written in 1843 by the prolific Edinburgh-based Free Church minister Horatius Bonar whose own denomination wouldn't sing his compositions as they were a Psalms-only church. This was one of his first pieces, written while a 34 year old Sunday School teacher. Go to 6:57 –

A few more years shall roll, A few more seasons come, And we shall be with those that rest Asleep within the tomb; Then, O my Lord, prepare My soul for that great day.

Refrain O wash me in Thy precious blood, And take my sins away.

A few more suns shall set O’er these dark hills of time, And we shall be where suns are not A far serener clime: Then, O my Lord, prepare My soul for that blest day.


A few more storms shall beat On this wild rocky shore, And we shall be where tempests cease, And surges swell no more; Then, O my Lord, prepare My soul for that calm day.


A few more struggles here, A few more partings o’er, A few more toils, a few more tears, And we shall weep no more: Then, O my Lord, prepare My soul for that bright day.


A few more Sabbaths here Shall cheer us on our way, And we shall reach the endless rest, Th’eternal Sabbath day; Then, O my Lord, prepare My soul for that sweet day.


’Tis but a little while, And He shall come again Who died that we might live, who lives That we with Him may reign; Then, O my Lord, prepare My soul for that glad day.


Emo Phllips on Protestant denominational heresy

What make this funny is how tragically true it is.

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Original Muckraker? - Samuel Sidney McClure of Drumnaglea and New York (1857–1949)


Samuel Sidney McClure was born at Drumnaglea near Rasharkin. Generations of the family had lived there at the same farmstead. His father, Thomas McClure, took a job in the shipyards of Belfast and later Glasgow, where he tragically fell through an open trap door and later died in hospital.

Samuel was just nine, and he emigrated to the USA wih his mother and his three younger brothers. They went to Indiana, where two aunts and two uncles had already settled. They took a train from Glarryford to Londonderry where they caught the Mongolia, a ship sailing from Glasgow to Quebec.

His Autobiography, ghost written by Willa Cather, was originally published in 1914. It has some classic narrative material in it, told with the dramatic flair of a storyteller –

“… I WAS born in Ireland, fifty-six years ago. Antrim, the northeast county of the Province of Ulster, was my native county. My mother's maiden name was Elizabeth Gaston. Her people were descended from a French Huguenot family that came to Ireland after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and they still bore their French surname. My father's people, the McClures, were from Galloway, Scotland. The family had come across the North Channel about two hundred years ago and settled in Ulster.

After the battle of the Boyne, as for hundreds of years before, it was a common thing for the Protestant kings of England to make large grants of Irish land to Protestant colonists from England and Scotland. Ulster, lying across a narrow strip of water from the Scottish coast, was given over to colonists from the Lowlands until half her population was foreign. The injustice of this system of colonization, together with the fierce retaliation of the Irish, brought about the long list of reciprocal atrocities which are at the root of the Irish question to-day.

WITH such a dark historical background, the religious feeling on both sides was intense. There had been very few instances of intermarriage between the Scotch Protestant colonists and the Irish Catholics who were the original inhabitants of the Province of Ulster. Among both Protestants and Catholics the feeling against intermarriage was so strong that, when such a marriage occurred, even in my time, it was considered a terrible misfortune as well as a disgrace. This state of feeling had kept both races pure and unmodified, though they mingled together in the most friendly fashion in all the ordinary occupations of life. In Antrim the Scotch colonists had retained much of their Lowland speech. The dialect of Mr. Barrie's stories was familiar to my ears as a child …"

(Presumably he is referring here to the language and vocabulary used in the likes of Sentimental Tommy by JM Barrie, who is best known as the author of Peter Pan).

McClure's career was pretty impressive - from a childhood of poverty he set up the first newspaper syndicate which licensed novels to be serialised in newspapers. He then set up his own McClure’s Magazine in 1893. McClure made a return visit to Ulster, some photographs of him at the old homestead feature in his autobiography. 

In later life he became obsessed with politics and democracy, publishing a number of books on the subject such as Obstacles to Peace (1917), The Achievements of Liberty (1935), and What Freedom Means to Man (1938). He died in relative obscurity in New York in 1949 and was buried at Knox County, Illinois (grave details here).

His grandson wrote a biography in the 1970s which said that "McClure’s was “the most exciting, the liveliest, the best illustrated, the most handsomely dressed, the most interesting, and the most profitable” magazine of its day”. It has been described as "the premier muckraking magazine of its day”, exposing abuses of power in government, tackling the billionaire John D Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company, and the scandal of urban slums in America. One of his young staff members said he was “an uncivilized, immoral, untutored natural man with enough canniness to keep himself out of jails and asylums.”

It is probably unfair to use the term ‘muckraker’ in the modern sense, McClure’s seems to be effective investigative journalism, with Ida Tarbell’s work on the Rockefeller story recently described as a ‘journalistic masterpiece’.

McClure said this of his Antrim upbringing:

"... We were poor, but we were of the well-to-do poor. We were always properly dressed on Sundays. We always had hats and shoes and stockings and warm clothes in winter. We had plenty of fuel, too ... Our food, like that of our neighbors, was extremely simple. Potatoes were the staple, with a sparing use of bacon and plenty of butter-milk. We did not use bread, but oat-cakes, made of oatmeal and baked on a griddle. These were very crisp and tasty when they were well made. My mother occasionally varied them with fadge, a dough made of wheat flour with an infusion of potatoes and baked like pan-cakes. Fresh meat we seldom had, but we sometimes ate dried or fresh herrings, broiling them on the tongs over the peat fire. I can remember when the use of white bread and tea began to be general among the people, and I recall hearing the old people deplore the change in food and its effect upon the teeth of the people, which at once deteriorated ..."

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Friday, March 17, 2017

St Patrick's Day, New York, 1766 - A toast to the Sons of Liberty and William of Orange

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A friend sent me a link today to a long Facebook article about the origins of St Patricks Day. Some I was already familiar with, but this extract was interesting:

"In 1766 the New York Gazette reported on a notable March 17th celebration at the house of a gentleman by the name of Mr. Bardin. Among the toasts raised on the evening were; "the prosperity of Ireland", "Success to the Sons Of Liberty in America" and "The glorious memory of King William of Orange”."

The same extract is referred to in numerous other sources, like this one from 1902 which lists 20 resolutions, so it appears credible enough. I briefly blogged about the Sons of Liberty last year (post here), a pre-Revolution movement seemingly masterminded by a Thomas Young whose parents were from Donegal and who had arrived in America in 1718. It shouldn't be a surprise that families who had endured and survived the Siege of Derry, and later emigrated, brought their stories and memories with them. It is entirely credible that they would have commemorated William of Orange, although I would suggest for different reasons than we might assume today. There are numerous references during the 1700s and 1800s to the melody Boyne Water being played at St Patrick's Day events. 

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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Masonic Theatre, Louisville, Kentucky - the 3rd Scotch-Irish Congress, May 1891

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One of the first things to do when planning an event is to make sure nothing clashes with it. This is where the Scotch-Irish Society of the USA went badly wrong for their third Congress. They chose Louisville, Kentucky (declining offers from San Francisco, Charlotte in North Carolina, and Atlanta) but seemingly might not have checked the city’s calendar.

In terms of population size, it was within the 20 biggest cities in the USA, with around 200,000 residents. That very same mid-May weekend there were, the Society later said, ‘several other public gatherings, whose dates had not been decided when ours was fixed’ - but one of these was the annual Kentucky Derby horse racing festival, a world-famous event which had happened for the past 16 consecutive years. The May Musical Festival was also on at the same time, as was the Democratic State Convention, and the annual reunion of the Elks fraternal society. The city had hosted World Fairs for the previous five consecutive years; Oscar Wilde had lectured there, its first skyscraper had just been built. It was a happening place.

Louisville was jam-packed with people, and the Society had difficulty in getting a suitable venue. In the end they used two - the Masonic Temple Theatre in the morning, and the Polytechnic Hall for the evenings. Both were plush venues, centrally located, and despite the shortage of hotel accommodation for visitors, all went pretty well.

Pre-event publicity invited the general public to attend - ‘the local population, without regard to race, will be cordially welcomed’. The Society had managed to secure 100 private rooms for its most important guests, but with just two weeks to go the Louisville newspapers printed ‘A Call For Hospitality’ on behalf of the Society, seeking AirBNB-style accommodation for visitors in spare rooms of private homes. In the published retrospective  Proceedings the Society thanked the citizens of Louisville for their assistance.

A swish reception was held at Galt House Hotel on the riverfront. There is a hotel there today of the same name, but it is a completely new building dating from 1972. Official headquarters was the Louisville Hotel. As had been the case at Pittsburgh, the Sunday evening event was a vast religious service, with Psalms sung and a sermon delivered, with ‘assembled thousands’ - also described as ‘an immense throng’ - present.

One of those present was Captain J.W. Crawford, a man recently honoured through an Ulster History Circle blue plaque.

What is apparent when you read the reports is that there was a more pronounced sense of ‘Ulsterness’ year-on-year, a specificity that was not so clear-cut in 1889. The organisation was now headed by Ulster-born men like Robert Bonner and Rev John Hall. The now-famous Society logo seems to have made its début in Louisville. A newspaper report said:

...The coat of arms of the society is the red hand of Ulster upon a shield of the Stars and Stripes of the United States. Most of the members have their coat of arms made into a gold badge, which they proudly wear on the lapel of their vests. There is an interesting legend attached to the emblem, which most of the Scotch-Irishmen tell without the least provocation… - The Courier-Journal, Louisville, 13 May 1891

Aaron Baxter, the Glasgow-born mayor of Londonderry had hoped to attend but was unable. Francis Ward of Belfast Chamber of Commerce had planned to be there but fell ill in New York and didn’t make it. Wallace Bruce, who had delivered a poem at Columbia two years before, was now US Consul in Edinburgh and sent his good wishes by telegram.

Inside just two years the Society now had eight State-level chapters. The growth was impressive, building a network of well-connected businessmen and civic leaders in common ancestral cause.

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Monday, March 13, 2017

William Kennedy (1799–1871) - from Antrim to the Alamo; defining an Independent Texas

"I could not understand how the settlers of Texas were enabled to repel the armies of Mexico and to found a Republic of their own"

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If you ever meet someone from Texas you will quickly see that their allegiance is to Texas first, and America second. As the t-shirt above shows.

The quote above was written by the Dublin-born, Belfast raised and educated, son of Ayrshire called William Kennedy (1799–1871). His father was working as a ‘manufacturer’ in Dublin which is where William was born on 26 December 1799. William trained as a journalist at Belfast Inst which he completed in 1819, and then went to Selkirk in the Scottish Borders to study at ‘Dr Lawson’s seminary for dissenting students’ - Lawson was a Seceder and a man of some renown (biography here). Presumably Kennedy was training to become a Presbyterian minister, however he actually became a writer for the Paisley Magazine, and published a volume of poems entitled Fitful Fancies in 1827 (online here).

He later went to London and worked for the Earl of Durham, an opening which took Kennedy to Canada and the USA. He went to Texas in 1839 and after two years of researches in 1841 he published The Rise, Progress and Prospects of Texas (online here) - which has been described as “the most thorough, comprehensive account of Texas history up to that time, one that set a standard for years to come”. As a result, the year after, he became the Texas Consul in London, and shortly after that he swapped responsibilities and became British Consul to Texas at Galveston.

So enthused was Kennedy that he obtained a grant to settle a colony of 600 families in Texas, "along the Rio Grande and another west of San Antonio, of the Frio and Nueces Rivers”. Sam Houston, President of Texas, signed contracts with Kennedy to form the colony on 5 February 1842.

Kennedy argued that Texas should be independent – neither Mexican nor American. His motive may well have been the protection of British trade in the Caribbean. The Rise, Progress and Prospects of Texas was lauded – “a fuller and more satisfactory answer is given by Mr Kennedy, in the work whose title we have just cited, than in any one which has come to our knowledge.” It included an account of the Battle of the Alamo of 1836 and a poetic description of Davy Crockett, including Crockett’s refusal to swear the citizenship oath of Texas – 

Crockett was not a man to make a solemn declaration without scrutinizing its import. He refused to take the oath … as the ‘future’ government might be despotic (see here)

Some of Kennedy’s bureaucratic correspondences were also published. He protested that ships were being built in Liverpool shipyards for the Mexican government, and he clashed with Daniel O’Connell over the role Mexico should have regarding any future independent Texas state. Texas was of course annexed by the United States during Kennedy’s time, in 1845. He came back to England in 1847 where he lived until his death in 1871.


Back in his earlier life, Kennedy had written other books, including a fictional biography set in County Antrim. Written by Kennedy, My Early Days claims to be the story of a Walter Ferguson, the son of Allan Ferguson, “a Scottish clergyman, a dissenter from the established form of his country’s faith. Devoted, heart and soul, to the cause in which he had engaged, he bid adieu to his native land, for the purpose of aiding the faithful few, that, amidst danger and privation, caused the seeds of the Gospel to rise and ripen on the shore of Ireland”.

Initially settled as an assistant minister in Belfast, he married Mary Maxwell, the daughter of a rich merchant named Walter Maxwell. Some years later the family moved to Gleno in south Antrim where Allan Ferguson ministered to “about a hundred and twenty families” in a “plain patriarchal looking building”. Walter remembered an old local farmer who played the fiddle, for whom the family would dance. The local schoolmaster was also a Scot in Ulster.

Fortunately for Walter, aged 44, he inherited a huge sum of money - £60,000 – and travelled around Europe.

• My Early Days – was published a number of times – the Edinburgh first edition appeared in 1826 and by 1831 three American editions had appeared. The Boston 1831 edition is online here. It’s a bit of an oddity, but seems to have been popular in its day and does provide some insight into rural Ulster life in the early 1800s. It also suggests that, despite being Dublin-born, Kennedy must have spent his formative years in the country districts around Belfast.

Wikipedia entry here

• a very interesting modern-day account of Kennedy’s influence upon Texas can be found here.


PS: Update

• the Belfast Mercury of 29 April 1856 said that Kennedy’s father was a ‘dissenting minister’ and the family lived in Aughnacloy, and speculated that he had died.

• Poets of Ireland by DJ O’Donoghue (1912) also links Kennedy to Aughnacloy (see here).

• County Tyrone historian John J Marshall published a biography of Kennedy in 1920 (see here for reference).

• Kennedy’s friend William Bollaert collected biographical notes which he planned to publish, but which remain just as manuscripts

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Mechanical Hall, Pittsburgh - venue for the 2nd Scotch-Irish Congress, May 1890

ExpmechThe Mechanical Hall (sometimes called the Machinery Hall) was built in 1889 by the Pittsburgh Exposition Society. The contract to build it was awarded in May 1889 on the condition that it would be finished by September, for a cost of $130,000. In 1890 it was the venue for the second Scotch-Irish Congress, building on the popularity of the first one which had been held the year before in Columbia, Tennessee.

If Columbia had typified small-town gentrified Southern charm, all historical white columns and large leafy gardens, the city of Pittsburgh was the opposite in every imaginable way - the biggest steel production region in the world, and North of the Mason-Dixon Line, and the vast building little over six months old right beside the railway line. Pittsburgh was in the top ten biggest cities in America at the time, with a population of around 300,000.

The capacity of the Mechanical Hall was 6000, and 12,000 people showed up, as did President Benjamin Harrison. Professor McCloskie of Princeton declared that "Pittsburg was essentially a big Scotch-Irish city".

Another success, and momentum now gathering around the Society. You can’t help but look back and imagine that this was an America on the edge of a new century, on the brink of becoming a world power, with huge new waves of immigration lapping its shores. Perhaps, faced with the inevitable changes ahead, the fresh interest in Scotch-Irishness was about looking back, to re-root the attendees in a sense of who they were and where they had come from, of heroic deeds and time-honoured traditions and values which in their view had made their America great.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Columbia Athenaeum, Tennessee - Birthplace of the Scotch-Irish Society of the USA, 1889

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On Wednesday 8 May 1889, the inaugural Congress of the newly-founded Scotch-Irish Society of the United States of America commenced here – today, less than one hour south of Nashville, and half an hour north west of Belfast – in a huge marquee in the gardens which it was said could hold 5000 people. A newspaper report of the time wrote that the marquee might have been formerly used by the evangelist Sam Jones, the preacher who was at that point underway with the founding of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, also known as the Union Gospel Tabernacle but best known as the Grand Ole Opry. The Scotch-Irish Congress lasted until the evening of Saturday 11 May.

Columbia Athenaeum had been built in 1837, intended to be the home of Samuel Polk Walker, a relative of President James Polk who was of East Donegal ancestry. By the 1850s it was a ground-breaking girls’ school, run by the Episcopal Church, teaching art, music, history, science and business. It had capacity for 125 boarders, plus day students from the local area. The school complex is gone but the Rectory residence is still there today.

A thousand newspapers advertised the event. When the day arrived the town was jam-packed, the railways bringing people from far and wide - ‘a crowded mass of humanity’. The stage in the tent could seat 50 people, including a portrait of Polk and a ‘Harp of Erin’ which belonged to a Mrs Emma McKinney, the ‘instructress of music’ at the girls’ school which operated from the Athenaeum, and who would play it later that day, accompanied by a Hal P Seavy, Chairman of the Reception Committee, on the violin. Not the fiddle. The violin.

Later on, the personal harp of Thomas Moore put in an appearance, inside a glass case, described as ‘Tom Moore’s Harp’ - which is akin to the awful abbreviation of ‘Bobby Burns’ that you come across now and again. Moore’s harp was loaned by a George W Childs of Philadelphia, who had bought it from Moore’s family. It is now in the collection of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin - photo here. A poem in honour of the harp, but which tried to tell the story of the Scotch-Irish people, was delivered by the wonderfully-named Wallace Bruce, a writer from New York of some repute.

This occasion wasn’t for the hoi polloi, the people who would later be called “Our Southern Highlanders” (Kephart, 1913) or the “Plain Folk of the Old South” (Owsley, 1949). The event was characterised as being ‘free from all the rougher elements’, it had both ‘great dignity’ and ‘intellectuality’. By the time the band parade made its way through the town to the Athenaeum the crowd was estimated at 6000 – 10,000 people. During the afternoon breaks, the visitors ‘repaired to the fair grounds' where they were entertained by horse racing; others took driving tours of the area - presumably by horse and carriage as the motor car hadn’t yet been invented. Old soldiers of both the Union and Confederate armies compared reminiscences; Princeton College agreed to help collate information for future reference.

The newly inaugurated President Benjamin Harrison sent his apologies, too busy to attend, but appreciative of the invitation he had received. Previous President Grover Cleveland did likewise. Author Henry C McCook was in the same boat, but his reply was lengthy and gushed with ancestral pride - “the very backbone of these commonwealths has been drawn from the heathered hills of Scotland and the green hills of Ulster”. 

Emma McKinney later sang this Scots language song –

The puir auld folk at hame, ye mind,
Are frail and failing sair,
And weel I ken they'd miss me, lad,
Gin I cam' hame nae mair
The grist is out, the times are hard,
The kine are only three,
I canna leave the auld folk now,
We'd better bide a wee,
I canna leave the auld folk now,
We'd better bide a wee.

When first we told our story, lad,
Their blessing fell sae free,

They gave no thought to self at all,
They did but think of me;

But, laddie, that's a time awa',
And mither's like to dee,

I canna leave the auld folk now,
We'd better bide a wee,

I canna leave the auld folk now,
We'd better bide a wee.

I fear me sair, they're failing baith,
For when I sit apart,

They talk o' heaven sae earnestly,
It weel nigh breaks my heart!

So laddie dinna ask me mair,
It surely winna be,

I canna leave the auld folk now,
We'd better bide a wee.

I canna leave the auld folk now,
We'd better bide a wee.

• Visit the Columbia Athenaeum website here. It's easy to imagine the Southern belles in their grandeur, and the wealthy businessmen, passing an afternoon here.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2017

When the Psalms are your life

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We learn the Psalms as words on pages, as songs, as memorised Scriptures. But when in 1740s Pennsylvania, having already crossed the Atlantic, you decide to pack up your family and meagre belongings and head south into the unknowns of the Shenandoah Valley, a place where no European had ever been before ... suddenly the words of Psalm 23, learned as a child and still as firm as granite in your memory, must have taken on a vast new weight and solemnity. 

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” – Psalm 23:4

Goodbye Fermanagh, 1912

So once again, politics is big news in Northern Ireland following last week’s election. I have long believed that politics is downstream from culture, and so I will leave the political analysis to those who obsess over statistics. We have a glut of commentators and talking heads to fill our airwaves.

A century ago, politics was to the fore with a variety of options being argued for. Here is a booklet anonymously authored by an ‘Ulster Presbyterian’ which argued for a 5-county solution, ie without Fermanagh.

“…plump for a Northern Parliament, and if Scotland, as is most probable, gains federal independence, the Blue Banner would float supreme over two of the five constituent parliaments of Great Britain … Presbyterian Ulster is at the parting of the ways … "

Ulster On Its Own

Monday, March 06, 2017

"Power In The Blood" / "Dust On The Bible"

Thanks to an invitation by two friends, I was at a rare screening of two remarkable films by John T Davis.

“Power In The Blood”, the story of country singer Vernon Oxford’s evangelism tour in Ulster in the mid to late 80s was amazing. When he joined in with a local mission hall's open air meeting at the intense heat of an 11th Night Sandy Row bonfire, the Atlantic Ocean just evaporated.

His visit to Mountain Lodge Pentecostal Church in Darkley (a place my brother and I have sung at) was deeply poignant – including a rendition of Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb, the hymn which was being sung when the bullets raked through the building that Sunday night in November 1983. The meeting was being taped, and audio clips of the singing being interrupted by gunfire were broadcast worldwide on news channels. Three men were killed, many more injured. Some of the congregation today were there that night.

“Dust on the Bible” is a wide selection of footage excerpts from evangelists in action, from Cornmarket street preachers to wee mission halls to a James McConnell rally at the King’s Hall, at around the same era. There was also a brief flash of the long-gone Fishermen's Hall on the Warnock's Road in Portavogie, a building I used to be able to see from my bedroom window as a wee boy.This page on the Queens Film Theatre website gives some info.

Below are two clips from “Power In The Blood” that I found on YouTube, of Vernon playing at the Prison Officer's Country & Western Music Club at the Maze Prison. Surreal as that concept is, it looks - and sounds - a lot like a tiny bar in Tennessee. His version of Where The Roses Never Fade was superb, but it's not on YouTube sadly. The other clip here is of an event on the Shankill Road.

One striking aspect of the films was the bleakness of Belfast, and the squalor of dereliction and bombed-out shells of buildings. We have come a long way.

These are, in my view, world-class art documentaries. They deserve a much wider audience, 20 years on. I am pretty sure that very few people in the world that the films capture even know they exist.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Westminster Seminary, California

Multi-national, multi-ethnic. Value, philosophy, belief transcend the usual human barriers.

A Presbyterian seminary on the west coast of the USA, with this clip fronted by an Asian-American professor. WTS was founded in the 1920s by a former Princeton academic, who believed that the famous university had lost its way. I am told he was in regular contact with people in Belfast. The Gospel isn't just another religious option, it's a whole new operating system.