Saturday, August 30, 2014

"... what the H**l am I doing here? I don't belong here ..."

Granda Wilson LR 7

[Above: my highly privileged Wilson ancestors, my grandfather in the middle, probably around 13 years old. Three others - George, Agnes and Sarah - had already died as infants. Marvel at their wealth and power. From left to right: Hugh, Rhoda, Henry, William, Lizzie, May, Maggie and Sandy.]

"... what the H**l am I doing here? I don't belong here ..."

So sang Radiohead in their d├ębut single Creep back in 1992, which when re-released in 1993 became a worldwide hit. They've since sold about 30 million records worldwide. Last weekend at the Ardoyne Fleadh in Belfast, a different band had a message which took the theme a step further and are now being investigated for 'hate speech'. 'F*** off back home to England' was the core of it, aimed at soldiers and Orangemen.

In Northern Ireland, the inference of 'you don't belong here' still bubbles away under the surface. Scots / English / Protestants / Unionists are perceived and portrayed as being 'invaders'. But who is this separate 'you' anyway - most people's ancestry is a fairly mixed bag, we are mostly just different branches of the same tree. 'Did you steal my land?' is a purposely loaded question which has been fired at me on-camera or on-mike a few times, in a joke-with-a-jag kind of way, by Tim McGarry, one of our top comedian/actors and a man who has a genuine interest in history. He does it with panache; the concept itself is deep-rooted. Who perpetuates it? And for what purpose?

Until the Tenant Right Act, no ordinary people owned any land, we were all tenant farmers under the landlords. In most cases the 'Ulster Custom' saw that this was a fair arrangement between both parties, but everyone was struggling to extract a living from the land, dying of tuberculosis (if you managed to live that long, having avoided the high rate of infant mortality). Hard winters, occasional dry summers, resultant famines, disease and crop failures are no respector of persons. However, exploitation of the tenantry by some landlords was a major factor in the vast emigration of around 250,000 Ulster-Scots to America in the 1700s. But plenty stayed here and endured the conditions. 1798 might have turned out differently had Wexford not descended into a 'Murder without Sin' pogrom, not of gentry and landlords, but of Protestant families. ('you don't belong here'?) By the mid 1800s, land ownership and tenant rights were on the agenda but it took almost a century for the issue to be fully resolved.

My grandfather William James Wilson (1906-1982) bought the first wholly-owned property in the family's history, a former pig shed, on 24th April 1940. He turned it into a three room cottage and he and my grandmother raised 9 children there. They had been tenants of the De La Cherois / Crommelins at the townland of Ballyrawer / Ballyraer outside Carrowdore; previously it had been part of the Montgomery estate right back to 1606. My other grandfather, William Thompson (or, as he sometimes referred to himself, 'Big Bill Tamson', 1901-1957) lived at Ballyfrench, where I still live, and where his ancestors had been tenants since at least 1750. Old deeds from the early 1900s show his father, Robert Thompson, bought the house and 3 fields from the Allens who were the major landlords; prior to the Allens it was the Blackwoods, and prior to them the Hamiltons again right back to 1606. So, after say 400 years of living here, only in the past 70 or 80 years have we actually owned any land. And anyway, as regular readers here will know, the 1606 settlement of Scots here was as a result of the O'Neills offering the land to Montgomery. The wily Hamilton muscled in and got some for himself. The rest is history.

300 years before that, in 1315, the O'Neills had invited their cousins-by-marriage the Scottish Bruces to come across the sea, with a total of around 15,000 men. They only stayed for just over 3 years, but 300 years later their descendants came back, and stayed. Scots were invited to Ulster. This is our home. If you're uptight about people of Scottish descent living here, take it out on the O'Neills - they invited us - twice. 

The (Conservative Unionist) landlords had held political sway for centuries, but were finally voted out in the elections of the early 1900s - the 1902 election victory of (Liberal Unionist) Monaghan-born Presbyterian James Wood in East Down is worth looking up, itself the subject of a long poem in Ulster-Scots by Robert Brown the Railway Lad. It's a complex story, but a new wave of self-made men were voted in to political office, and as the landlords' hold on the land was weakened, both Unionists and Nationalists joined together in pursuit of this bigger principle, and were eventually enabled to legally purchase the fields they had been working for generations. For my ancestors, it was the 1930s and 1940s before we were able to do so.

'Did you steal my land' was not my grandparents' experience. They worked hard to purchase what they had, and many centuries before, their ancestors had been invited to live here in the first place.

Ireland is an island, life did not originate here, everyone arrived from somewhere else. The propagandist of today is only interested in radicalising impressionable youths to his cause, by cynically cherrypicking a version of history that suits his poisonous agenda. By blaming someone else for his problems. He carefully avoids the many instances where people worked together for common cause, leapfrogging over these and choosing instead to wallow in moments of strife - either real or imagined.

Propaganda is not the preserve of one community, and neither is justified grievance. There is no shortage of either. Some of these will warrant remembrance and suitable commemoration. But difference does not need to inevitably lead to conflict.

Northern Ireland needs to decide what sort of future we want, because that future will be informed by the version of our past that we choose to bring with us.  


NB - Fermanagh-born Rev Mark Chartres (1761-1834), Rector of Ferns in County Wexford, wrote a long poem about the Wexford events in 1798 entitled Vinegar Hill. Chartres' 70 year old predecessor Rev Samuel Haydon was one of those murdered. The footnotes give remarkable anecdotal detail. It can be read online here, from pages 203 - 208, and continues on pages 300 - 310.


Thanks to Darren Gibson for the cutting below.

James Wood cutting