Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Official Tourist Guide to County Down and the Mourne Mountains, 1924

Image above - ©NITB

I picked up a great 89-year-old book for a few pounds recently. It begins with this -

"The delightful air and scenery of the County of Down, and the retention within its boundaries of so many remains from Pre-Christian, Early Christian, and Norman times, and by its people of so many characteristics of speech and manners from Plantation days, make this territory, for the tourist, one of the most interesting in Northern Ireland..."

and goes on:

"... One thing which will be apparent to even an unobservant tourist is the Scottish character of the people over large area; indeed until recent times, when school attendance was enforced, the language of the people in large parts of the north and east was purely lowland Scotch. The reason for this is that among the early acts of James I were the grants of large areas of land to his Scottish favourites, James Hamilton and Hugh Montgomery. Both these adventurous spirits were first knighted, and later both attained the rank of Viscount. Hamilton made his headquarters at Bangor, then a little village on the southern shore of Belfast Lough. Montgomery settled a few miles further south at Newtownards. Both men were followed by a number of their relations from Scotland, and both brought over large numbers of settlers; and all the Ards area, or say the upper half of the county to the eastward, may be said now to be peopled by the descendants of those settlers, who, as stated above, spoke, until very recently, the Scottish tongue of their forefathers ..."

It is always remarkable how mainstream and understood our connections with Scotland were to previous generations. Today you'd be hard pressed to find a history teacher in a secondary or grammar school in the area who could give such a succinct and accurate account. And we wonder why Irish history is sometimes a 'battlefield' - it must be because so few really know it today. It is selectively deployed for devious reasons.

"... GOLFING - County Down is one of the most important centres of the ancient and royal game of golf outside Scotland..."

The descriptions of the towns and villages are packed with references to Hamilton and Montgomery, and an account of the Con O'Neill escape from Carrickfergus is included too - sitting comfortably within information about local landmarks, hotels, and recreation facilities, painting an overall picture of the places. It mentions the Bible texts which Montgomery had carved into the entrance of Newtownards Priory (the originals are long eroded, and the 1988 reproduction did not include the original texts, probably an editorial decision by some anonymous bureaucrat). The insert map as well as the text refer to St Patrick's Well at Templepatrick, south of Donaghadee, where "we get pretty views of the coast and of the Copeland Islands with the Scotch hills beyond".

Bear in mind that this isn't a 400 year old document - this was published just about a decade before my parents were born - and yet popular awareness of the knowledge it contains has been almost completely lost over the past two generations!

As high-level political discussions continue here in Northern Ireland which seek an agreement on 'the past' - the question arises, "What version of the past?". The one which is reduced to nothing but a "them against us" two-tribes political stereotype - or the fuller, more accurate, cultural past from which this generation and the next generation can learn so much?