Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A 65th birthday, Ballyfrenis, and the Scotch tongue doon oor road

My mother is 65 today. Sadly she will be 'celebrating' it in the Ulster Hospital where she has been encamped since early May almost uninterrupted, except for a few days out at the 12th of July and the odd day out every few weekends.

She was rared at Ballyfrenis, one of a batch of nine, the same place as my oul school freen Darren Gibson (who blogs here as the Low Country Lad). Writer, poet, accordion player and singer Wilbert Magill also grew up brave an nearhaun - he tells me that the specific part of Ballyfrenis where our folk lived - Islandhill townland - was also called Blacktoun or Blackstown, a name which was brought from Ayrshire in 1606 by one of the Montgomeries (Blackstown was said to have been a small estate adjacent to Sir Hugh Montgomery's Braidstane).

Wilbert once told me a great story about a relative of mine from nearby Ballyraer / Ballyrawer who I'll not name, who became a preacher and was invited to London to speak. When he came back home to tell stories of his trip he gathered Wilbert and co together and advised them - 'young men, there are two words you must never EVER use on the platform... fornenst and oxter.' Wilbert's two books - his self-published family history story Blood Ties of Craigboy (2007) and his poems collection Aboot tha Airds (2009) are worth getting hold of. Wilbert was good enough to ask Graeme and I to play a wee bit of music at the launch of his second book, so we asked him to recite a poem on our Thompson Brothers CD 'Soda Farls and Redemption Songs'.

Not far from here is Ballyhay, where writer, storyteller and broadcaster Hugh Robinson grew up. I designed the cover of his book Across the Fields of Yesterday (1999) which he dedicated as being 'For My Ain Folk'. It's a great book with yet more Ballyfrenis references in it, including twa mair far oot freens o' mine who were the local pig-killers. Darren knows them well! You can listen to a wide range of clips of Hugh on the BBC Ulster-Scots web portal.

It would be a mistake to assume that these Ulster-Scots language writers and bloggers are a new phenomenon in this wee corner of the Ards; remember this is the landscape which inspired W.G. Lyttle's Ulster-Scots kailyard classic 'Sons of the Sod' which he published in 1886. Ballyfrenis Presbyterian Church was where our folk all went on a Sabbath, it was once a United Free Church of Scotland congregation, connected to an Ayrshire presbytery up until the 1940s. It was at Ballyfrenis where my mother remembers that the visiting Rev Moses Thompson would explain the gospel by using the wee rhyme "Three in Yin and Yin in three, but the middle Yin, He dee'd for me!", which I put a tune to a few years ago.

Just outside Carrowdore is the former Ballyboley National School, now an outpost for the local further education college, where Philip Robinson held a successful Ulster-Scots OCN-accredited course for some years, a school where Sheena McCullough had been principal for more years than she will probably admit!

I still pick up wee stories and expressions from family who live around Carrowdore and Ballyfrenis - and Darren's blog is a great example of just how rich it still is in our generation. In just this one wee pocket of the Ards there's a midden of vocabulary, language, literature, history and talent.