Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Savage-Armstrong letters from the Easter Rising.

George-Francis Savage Armstrong is a favourite writer of mine, who I have blogged about here before and will again soon. He died in 1906; PRONI holds two letters which were sent to his widow Elizabeth Savage-Armstrong following the Easter Rising:


Letter from Raymond Savage-Armstrong, describing Dublin City after the Easter Rising in 1916.

'From Raymond describing the appearance of Dublin after the Sinn Fein rebellion (received May 7th 1916)' 'Addressed to Mrs Savage-Armstrong, Strangford House, Strangford, Co. Down'

'My dear ?,

I was not able to get on yesterday to Limerick so stayed the night here. The train which should have got in to ? St at 1pm got in at about 3pm and the train from Kingsbridge started at 3 we stopped at every station on the way down and went at Dublin Wicklow and Wexford speed. There were only two trains south from Kingsbridge yesterday but I hear all trains will be running today. I start by the 12.20. I saw ? who was very busy and had 4 nights without ?. ? was here on his way to Mesopotamia. I had not seen him for 10 years he had been at ? and had spent the week with the 3rd ? Rangers hunting rebels in Wexford who finally surrendered. Stephens Green closed to public. One hears odd shots at night still. They had not been able to keep up the 2nd Batt ? Rangers as there were so few recruits. ? Br only very slightly damaged and no visible damage along the line. Troops about ? and pickets lying about streets and patriots ? about constantly. There are a good many cyclist boys in the country I think for hunting down the rebels. Must stop now.

Ever your loving son.



A letter from Miss Julia Taylor (Dublin) to Mrs Savage-Armstrong of Strangford describing Dublin in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising:

May 14th 1916.

Dearest ?

I don't think I answered a nice long letter I had from you just before the rebellion. What a time we have had - here the roar of cannon of rebel and machine guns never ceased night or day only sometime the ? ? up and there we heard nothing else and out windless ? it was awful - the house lighted by night by fires and by day we looked ? into a church ? closed, in the night there ? to be a sea of fire - soldiers home from the Front say what was Sackville St, is now like Ypres. Bit not bricked ? today say that lazy ? a 'wait and see' policy broken ?. Such terrible loss of life and destruction of property. The soldiers were nearly dead from want of food - from Monday till Friday only a batch ? biscuits and some tea. We were better off than those in Dublin as we helped each other. The first floor ? got ?. ? in command ? I was with escort of troops and last Tuesday the military came to search the village with machine guns at tops of streets and ? cars in it too, I think 3 of them dessimated straight opposite is the ? ? the Pearses and the mother and sister are still there - where you stared on ? Bridge to beyond the pillar there is only a black, smoking stinking mass. The wall or front of a house standing like a skeleton and also down to ? House - Dr ? ? in to see ? was ? 3 or 4 days - he said. Bullets were falling like a hail shower and on Tuesday and Wed there was still a little sniping - ? and round St Bartholomews was very bad - there are some of the soldiers buried in the church grounds - there are many other things I heard but don't care to write.'


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sandy McClelland of Greyabbey - an Ulster-Scot in the 1916 Easter Rising

This gravestone in Greyabbey old grave yard has intrigued me for a while, of 18 year old Sandy McClelland who was killed in Dublin on 27th April during the 1916 'Easter Rising'. His father James McClelland died the next year aged 61, having also buried two other infant sons.

The 1911 Census of Ireland records a 55 year old James McClelland, of nearby Balligan, who was Church of Ireland by denomination and a stonemason by trade. His wife was Agnes, aged 53, and they had five children - Nellie (21), James (18), Mary (16), Alexander/Sandy (13) and Robert (10). 10 years earlier the 1901 Census also includes three odler daughters - Jane (19), Grace (13) and Ellen (11).

116 British soldiers were killed in the Easter Rising, with 368 wounded and 9 unaccounted for. Sandy had been a Rifleman in the 4th Extra Reserve Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, and was buried here in Greyabbey on 1st May 1916. The Newtownards Chronicle gave a short report, ending with 'Deeply regretted by the sorrowing Father, Mother, Brothers and Sisters'.

It is said that his mother Agnes took the rest of the family to America in the 1920s to make a fresh start.


I'm sure someone has done the research already, but it seems to me that four other Ulstermen serving with the RIR were killed during the Easter Rising. They were:

- C Duggan (Belfast)
- J Hanna (Belfast)
- LCN Morton (Belfast)
- J McCullough (Belfast)

Also killed while serving with the RIR were:

- J Coyle (Middlesborough)
- J Mulhern (Dublin)
- J Nolan (Dublin)
- D Wilson (Glasgow)

A J A Thompson from Enniskillen was killed (serving with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers) and a J Cullen from Belfast was killed (serving with the Royal Irish Fusiliers). A Constable Christopher Millar from Belfast was killed (he was in the Royal Irish Constabulary). A detailed list is available here and includes some pretty grim details of the killings of members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police Force.

Whilst this was going on in Ireland, 49,000 Irishmen lost their lives in the Great War. The records are now searchable online here.


Presumably the McClellands attended St Andrew's Parish Church at Balligan, one of the prettiest and most historic in the Ards Peninsula, built in 1704 from materials salvaged from three older medieval churches which had been restored in the 1620s by Sir James Hamilton from Scotland.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Ulster-Scots Writers of Castlereagh

This project launches later today. All are currently hosted on Vimeo but will be at from Monday - I'm posting them here this morning so that Google can have a few hours to index the page, in case anyone catches today's publicity and searches online for them. Thanks to the many, many people who contributed, I think these will be a huge boost to public awareness of all five writers.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Joseph Conrad's 'Typhoon' and Captain MacWhirr of Ballyhalbert (with thanks to Lindsay Young of Falkirk)

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) was born in Poland but moved to England and became a novelist, some would say he was one of the finest novelists of all time. His 1902 book Typhoon is the story of a Captain MacWhirr who sailed his ship into a typhoon in the Pacific Ocean. The original MacWhirrs were from near Ballyhalbert. The spelling varies.

McWhirk's Hill is not far from where I live (a local tradition verified by Griffiths Valuation) and my grandfather referred to it in one of his own poems.

'There is McWhirk’s Hill,
And it tops the bill
For a view, delightful and grand;
Its fine shady trees,
And its nice cooling breeze –
There’s no finer spot in the land.'

A gravestone in little Ballyhalbert graveyard where many of my Thompson ancestors are buried tells a bit about Captain MacWhirr. About a year ago Lindsay Young from Falkirk sent me this information for me to post here.


'... As I continually research my ancestors and their friends, the links between Ayrshire, Campbeltown Dumfries and Galloway the Solway and Cumbrian Coast, Liverpool and North Wales, the Isle of Man and of course County Down and Antrim always continue to intrigue and amaze me. In these days of a resurgence of the idea of national identity, many of our ancestors appear to be clearly British continually breaking the boundaries of being from just only one of the Countries or islands of the British Isles. No doubt they were proud of where they lived and where they came from, but they were not accepted as indigenous people where they lived, nor quite remembered from where they came from. We are the Ulster Scots and if you live in these areas you’re probably in the gene pool too!

A search though my photographic collection caused me to stumble on this Gravestone which is typical of Coastal towns and villages. This one is particularly tragic and full of historical information, particularly with the mention of Joseph Conrad who served under John McWhir whilst at sea and then used his character in the book “Typhoon”.

And of course there is a Troon connection. In 1896 my grandfather came to Troon as a baby with his parents and brothers and sisters from Cloughey/Ratalla, almost the next villages down from Ballyhalbert, where the McWhir’s lived.

Intrigued to know a bit more about the sinking of the “Lizzie” off Corsewell point in 1898 I had a look in the British Newspaper Archive to find another Troon Connection ...'


In his intro to Typhoon, Conrad gives this cryptic account:

'...What was needed of course was Captain MacWhirr. Directly I perceived him I could see that he was the man for the situation. I don't mean to say that I ever saw Captain MacWhirr in the flesh, or had ever come in contact with his literal mind and his dauntless temperament. MacWhirr is not an acquaintance of a few hours, or a few weeks, or a few months. He is the product of twenty years of life. My own life. Conscious invention had little to do with him. If it is true that Captain MacWhirr never walked and breathed on this earth (which I find for my part extremely difficult to believe) I can also assure my readers that he is perfectly authentic. I may venture to assert the same of every aspect of the story, while I confess that the particular typhoon of the tale was not a typhoon of my actual experience...'

In 1887 Conrad is believed to have sailed under a Captain John McWhir of Ballyhalbert, no doubt the inspiration for the book. John went down with his ship in November 1895. Three years later in November 1898 his brother David went down with his ship, the Lizzie of Kircubbin, in a storm - she is thought to have been blown across the North Channel and sank at the north tip of Scotland's Mull of Galloway, at Corsewall Point. Conrad began writing Typhoon, perhaps as a memorial to the seafaring brothers McWhirr, the next year, 1899, and it was finally published in 1902.

Conrad relocated his fictional MacWhirr from Ballyhalbert to Belfast - '...It was impossible in Captain MacWhirr's case, for instance, to understand what under heaven could have induced that perfectly satisfactory son of a petty grocer in Belfast to run away to sea. And yet he had done that very thing at the age of fifteen ...'

And on it goes.

A Samuel M'Whirr of nearby Balligan was a subscriber to the Bard of Dunover Andrew McKenzie's 1810 book 'Poems and Songs on Different Subjects'. Agnes McWhirk signed the Ulster Covenant in Ballyhalbert Orange Hall in 1912. The Ballyhalbert McWhirr's are almost forgotten, so it was great to see that a descendant, David Harvey McWhir, had this memorial erected in 2006.

Strangford Lough is over-rated

Photo above - Belfast Lough (source)

A deliberately provocative title for this blog post. Strangford Lough in County Down is endlessly admired as a natural habitat, but Belfast Lough is seldom acknowledged for its wildlife and is thought of mostly as a commercial sea route for trade and tourism. Back in 1880, Robert Lloyd Patterson published a book entitled The Birds, Fishes and Cetacea commonly frequenting Belfast Lough. It's a lovely read and is online here. His brother, William Hugh Patterson, has featured on this blog a few times before. Hope you enjoy the read. I am jealous of some of his fishing exploits.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Dear independent television companies...

... it must be funding round time again, and you've found this blog. Well done - Google is amazing. Well, don't assume that the many folk like me who know a few things about Ulster-Scots heritage (and others know loads more than I do) are sitting here full of excitement awaiting a phone call or email from a junior researcher so we can have our 'brains picked'. That's got very tiresome.

Most of us know by now you're only looking for us because of the money, it's like the smell of blood in the water and the sharks are circling again. I'm picky about who I waste my time with. If you're serious about doing a good job, about treating the subject with respect, and about presenting it with some empathy then maybe I'm interested. But otherwise, believe me, I'm not interested in being pillaged for knowledge which you won't understand and which you'll then probably butcher and mangle and pump into the public domain.

This knowledge is our cultural crown jewels. You wouldn't hand your car keys to a monkey, would you? So just pause for thought. If you want to pump out the same-old same-old then fire away and get on with it. But if you're genuine, then take some interest outside of the commissioning and funding round deadlines. Invest time to understand what you're seeking to portray,  and we might invest some time with you in return.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Plandáil 1606 - 1640: Settlement to Covenant

The three-part series Plandáil was produced in 2011 for BBC Northern Ireland, backed by the Irish Language Broadcast Fund, and was presented by Neil Martin. It is one of the best televisual accounts of the Scots' arrival in Ulster in the early 1600s that I have seen in recent years  - and importantly, it explains the differences between what Hamilton & Montgomery did in east Ulster, in contrast to how events unfolded in west Ulster.

I have been invited to give a talk next Wednesday evening at the AGM of the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland, on the subject of Rev James Hamilton of Ballywalter (1600-1666), one of the first ministers to come across. One of the events that Hamilton is renowned for was a public debate with the Bishops in Belfast which was dramatised in Plandáil - you can see at around 29 minutes in to the clip below.

Hamilton's story is one which has interested me for many years, given that he was the first minister in the area where I live, and that - unlike his contemporaries Robert Blair, John Livingstone and Robert Cunningham, nothing has been written about him. The talk will be general, not drilling down into the obscure details, but I hope it will be interesting to the audience. I need to get the full version published and out of my system!

Monday, March 03, 2014

How Can I Keep From Singing? by Robert Lowry

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

I lift mine eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smoothes
Since first I learned to love it:
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing:
All things are mine since I am His—
How can I keep from singing?

This was first published in the 1860s by 'son of Ulster' Robert Wadsworth Lowry, who wrote the words and the tune. I am in touch with one of his descendants who hopes to visit Northern Ireland this summer to visit the townlands and villages of Killinchy and Crossgar where the Lowrys lived before emigrating. Over the years it has been recorded (and its lyrics altered to be more secular) by artists like Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Eva Cassidy and Enya.