Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Blurring the edges

There's an odd notion that the three main cultural communities in Ulster (English / Scottish / Irish) have hard defined edges which separate them. Whether language, cultural traditions, music, or landscape, this is nonsense. The edges are soft and blurred. One that I hear all the time, because of where I live, is that there's a hard cultural line that cuts across the bottom of the Ards Peninsula below Kir(k)cubbin and across to Cloughey/Kirkistown. Crudely put, the myth goes that around 1606, in an Ulsterised version of the "Operation Passage to Freedom" the incoming Scots struck an arrangement whereby the few resident Irish (that's polite code for Catholics) were moved south of this line to live on the Savage estates, and that all the incoming Scots (that's polite code for Protestants) settled north of this line. It's not true but it gets perpetuated all the time. There are concentrations of Ulster Scots above and Ulster Irish below, but there's not, and never has been, a hard division.

The Savages had arrived in Ireland as one of the new Anglo-Norman families in the late 1100s. Initially they had massive estates within the old Earldom of Ulster which more or less covered County Antrim and County Down, but as the centuries passed their lands were reduced to just the southern tip of the Peninsula and a bit of Lecale. Ongoing attacks from the Clandeboye O'Neills didn't help.

The truth is that there was a significant degree of co-operation between Hamilton and the Savages, and Montgomery and the Savages. In the 1640s a list of tenants on the Savage estates shows that between a half and a third had Scottish surnames. There are loads of examples of well-recorded overlaps and co-operation. The land boundaries of the Savage/Hamilton/Montgomery estates weren't even clearly defined (which is why Hamilton paid big money to get the Royal cartographer, Thomas Raven, onto the job in 1625. The original maps can be seen at North Down Museum in Bangor). And even where the boundaries were well understood, the three families exchanged and leased townlands with one another, with some Irish tenants on Scottish-owned estates, and as shown above, vice-versa. Henry Savage of Ardkeen gradually embraced the Protestant faith of his new neighbours - he was described as"...moderate in his Romish religion, and read the Holy Scriptures; and, on his death-bed, (whereon he lay long) assured me, that he trusted for his salvation only to the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ. He kept no images in his house, and if he had any picture (or such like) he said he would meditate on it, but not worship it. He used to say, that invocation of Saints was needless, although it were supposed they did hear us, or know our wants; because he was sure his Saviour was God all-sufficient..." (Montgomery MSS p 328). As the century drew to a close, in 1690 one branch of the Savages fought for King William III at the Boyne, while another branch fought on the other side for King James II - but some of this branch later changed their minds. Over the following centuries, many became famous high-ranking British military officers.

A while ago, over at Balmoral Perspective, Mark Anderson posted a clip of the slow Irish tune "Raglan Road". I posted a comment that there's a far faster, Ulster, version of the same tune which is used for the Belfast song "The Ballad of William Bloat". Renowned Scottish singer-songwriter Dick Gaughan points out here that the same tune might be Scottish in origin.

But it's easier to claim division and distinction, rather than to take time to explain the blurred edges. The result doesn't turn Northern Ireland into some bland whitewashed cross-community soup, but a place of interesting and myth-challenging contours. Some commentators need to stop pumping out dumbed-down lazy nonsense and take the time to read the early records for themselves. There's a far more interesting, and accurate, story just below the surface.


Philip Robinson said...

I agree about the blurred edges (or sometimes it's overlaps).

But the first step is to have the different cultures recognised and defined so that what doesn't happen is that the "elephant" in bed with the "mouse" doesn't re-define itself to include "mouse" within its own blurred edges.