Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Pikemen - A Romance of the Ards of Down, by S.R. Keightley (published 1903)


I recently got hold of a copy of 'The Pikemen - A Romance of the Ards of Down', published in 1903, written by Samuel Robert Keightley (1859-1949, pictured here) of Lisburn. I had been trying to get a copy of this for a while, and when it arrived I wasn't disappointed. It's a classic 'kailyard' format novel, set around the time of the Battle of Ballynahinch, and purports to be a first-hand account of the events as told by a Rev Patrick Stirling who had fled Ulster for the USA (Sangamon County, Illinois to be precise - click here to read the History of Early Settlers of Sangamon County published in 1876 and you'll find plenty of references to Ulster emigrants). Keightley had previously published 'The Crimson Sign', a novel about the Siege of Derry, and other books as well. You can read more about him here. Here are some excerpts:

"...there was a fever in my own blood. My hands were shaking and my heart was beating like a sea in storm. I hardly knew myself. My forefathers had marched to the lilt of the Psalms under the blue banner of the Covenant, and had laid down their lives like men at Drumclog and Bothwell Bridge on the other side of the narrow sea...

... he turned suddenly and stood staring up the road toward Kircubbin as you go to Newton... 'Archie Spence gave a hunted man twa nichts' lodgin' - his guid woman is a kin' ov cousin ov my ain - an' noo they're payin' him fur the kindness that he showed me - harberin' rebels they ca' it. The white-heidit bairns are oot on the roadside noo, an' the bonny roof-tree that shud be as sacred as the wa's ov a palace are jist a wheen ov charred sticks... before ye gang tae bed this nicht ye'll see how Britain trates the honest men ov Ards, shud I hae tae carry ye ivery fut ov the road mysel...

...Here on this night of June burned the watchfires of liberty where eight thousand men of Down were gathered... It was a great and inspiring sight - great not in the pomp and splendour of war, but in heroic courage and noble self-sacrifice. Here were men from Killyleagh and Strangford shore, from hilly Dromara and Rathfriland, and the sweet valley of the Lagan; hardy fishermen from Portavogie and Ardglass; weavers from Lisburn and Newtownards and Bangor, all dressed in decent Sunday wear like men going to the last communion of death... here and there a Psalm tune was being sung by many voices to the tune of 'Martyrdom' or the 'Old Hundred'..."

I'm looking forward to reading it. For a Belfast-born academic living in Lisburn, with a Bangor JP for a father, Keightley has a brave hannlin' of the hamely tongue throughout the book, and as the excerpts above show he also had a firm grasp of cultural identity and history. Ask any of his present-day equivalents what happened at Drumclog and they'll struggle to tell you. 'The Pikemen - A Romance of the Ards of Down' might be another wee indicator of just how widespread Ulster-Scots speech was a century ago.

The Ulster Journal of Archaeology review of the book said:

The Pikemen. A romance of the Ards of Down. By S. R. Keightly
London: Hutchinson & Co. 1903.

This is a story of the year '98 in the county of Down, written in vivid and telling language by one who has an excellent knowledge of the period of which he writes, and a thorough grasp of local circumstances and the common dialect of the people. There is not a dry or uninteresting chapter throughout the hook, and it will afford ample pleasure to the general reader of romance, and more especially to those who are residing in the county in which the principal scenes described in the book are laid. We heartily recommend to the cultured author the desirability of a cheaper and more popular issue of this work, so as to make its pages accessible to everyone. The principal characters are painted with a decisive brush, but if anything, we consider the scene in the old meeting-house at Greyabbey a little over-drawn. Here we have the Rev. James Porter balloting in the communion cup for the name of him who was to do away with the informer Newell. We doubt the accuracy of this incident, and even the death of Newell at this place ; nor do we think this wretched man was such a character as is so skilfully portrayed by the writer. Be this as it may, it is ill to cavil with dry historical details in a work that has many charms, a store of information, and the deepest interest to even the most casual reader.

(PS - Here's another biography of Keightley - click here. A similarly-entitled novel about the events of 1798 in County Antrim is James McHenry's The Insurgent Chief, the Pikemen of '98 which you can read online here.)


An Aul Han said...

That sounds like a great read. Has it been reprinted?