Sunday, May 11, 2008

Robert Burns and Belfast

Published in "Belfast In Your Pocket" in January 2006

Is there anyone reading this article who hasn’t heard of Scotland’s National Bard, Robert Burns? I doubt it! But how many of you are aware of his connections with Ulster?

Burns was born in Ayrshire in 1759, six years after the publication of “The Ulster Miscellany” one of the first Ulster publications in the Scots language. It had been published in Belfast in 1753 and included nine “Scotch Poems”.

So when Burns’ poems were first published in Kilmarnock in 1786, it should be no surprise to learn that the Belfast News Letter was the first newspaper in the British Isles to print extracts of his work. The Edinburgh edition of his poems was published in 1787, and the third printing was – you guessed it – in Belfast, in the same year.

History records that a number of Ulster folk, including Samuel Thomson, one of the most renowned Ulster-Scots poets of the era, travelled to Scotland to visit Burns. And there are at least two legends of Burns having visited Ulster - to County Antrim and also to Donaghadee in County Down - but sadly these can’t be confirmed.

The love of Burns’ poetry was demonstrated in the establishment of scores of “Burns Clubs” across Ulster; it was also said that every Ulster-Scots home had two books – a Bible and an edition of Burns! Burns’ son travelled to Belfast in August 1844 to attend a supper at the Burns Tavern in the city, and that his daughter, Eliza Burns Everitt, eventually came to live in Belfast – she passed her collection of “Burnsiana” to her own daughter who then in turn gave it to the Linenhall Library.

So, why not drop in to one of the hundreds of Burns Suppers you’ll find in hotels, restaurants and pubs across Ulster this January. And as you enjoy your haggis and “wee dram,” remember that Ulster and Scotland have had an “auld acquaintance” for many centuries. It’s an acquaintance which has never been more popular than it is today!

(Footnote: Just over the border, in Dundalk, County Louth, is a memorial to Burns. His sister, Agnes Burns Galt, lived at Stephenstown Pond from 1817 until her death in 1834. She was buried in St Nicholas Presbyterian Church.)