Monday, November 17, 2014

The Black North: '... They bordered on being black Protestants ...'

Black North blog 640


The quote in the title was used on Saturday in this article in the Irish Independent about the acclaimed Belfast-born poet Derek Mahon, the son of a flax mill worker mother and a shipyard fitter father. It caught my attention as just last week the old term 'The Black North' was deleted from a project I was working on for fear of causing offence.

It's a pejorative term. The Wikipedia entry places its first usage around 1911 but it's much earlier than that, it was well-known in 1859 so therefore in use before then.

Laying the ground
The theme pops up throughout the centuries, a negative reference to the Scottishness (and by usual implication the Protestant-ness) of Ulster. Take this example from The Wild Irish Girl (1806)

'... as we advance northward, we shall gradually lose sight of the genuine Irish character and those ancient manners, modes, customs and language with which it is inseparably connected... a Scottish colony,; and in fact, a Scotch dialect, Scotch manners, Scotch modes, and Scotch character, almost universally prevail... then in the name of all that is warm and cordial let us hasten back to the province of Connaught'.

The author, Sydney Owenson, goes on to attack the 'cold concerns of the counting-house and the bleach-green'  of Ulster and its lack of the bonhomie that is said to be found elsewhere on the island. We're different. Or to use an expression from the south of England, 'it's grim up north'.

The Dublin Evening Mail of 1 September 1826 wrote '... what he said there would be heard in the depths of the Black North; it would be heard all over Ireland ...'

'... Even in the "black north" in "Protestant Ulster" – Catholicity is progressing at a rate that must strike terror into its enemies ...' - source here.

'... Arrah! pray is this Ulster? is this the black North?...' - here's the source.

1880s & 1890s
In an interview of around 1890, Carrickfergus-born Gothic horror writer Charlotte Riddell said '... Yes, I am from the north — the black north ...'. In her 1885 novel Berna Boyle she wrote of 'the Presbyterians of the Black North'.

In 1903, Francis O'Neill's landmark Music of Ireland includes this reference to working with Banbridge man James O'Neill

'... an accomplished violinist, a namesake and fellow countryman from the “Black North” day after day as opportunity offered, memory recalled tune after tune and strain after strain until the number grew into hundreds ..".

In 1911 Stephen Gwynn's well-known little tourist book Ulster included a chapter entitled 'The Black North' (see here).

Typical of the time, Dubliner and Irish Unionist leader Edward Carson said this in a speech in May 1913:

'... To these men the Ulster Protestants stand for all that is stupid and obscurantist and "impossible," and they would very gladly see them taught a lesson. "Shoot them down like the traitors to Ireland that they are. That is the way to coerce the Black North." Such is the advice that is being assiduously whispered into the ears of the Government by the Nationalist leaders ...'

In 1943 Aodh de Blacam (a Hibernicisation of Hugh Saunders Blackham) published a 315 page book entitled The Black North. An Account of the Six Counties of Unrecovered Ireland: Their People, Their Treasures and Their History, with a foreword by Eamon De Valera. The Dictionary of Irish Biography describes the book as 'delusional on an epic scale'.

The former Ulster Presbyterian minister W.R. Rodgers wrote an article entitled 'Black North' in 1943 for the New Statesman; his The Ulstermen and their Country (1947) is a warm, yet in places self-critical, piece of writing. Rodgers had the ability to see both the light and shade of his own folk.

I don't think the term is as loaded any more. Certainly it carries a hint of ancient (regional/religious/quasi-ethnic) prejudice, but there have been endless actual events in the 20th century far worse than name-calling. At the cutting edge of 'New Belfast' there's an animation studio has reclaimed the term and is called Black North.

For it to appear in the Irish Independent on Saturday demonstrates that the term and concept is well-embedded, if not 'PC'. To give it context, here's a fuller extract:–

'...They bordered on being black Protestants. Derek's uncle, for example, was a B Special - the sort of person the IRA thought deserved murdering (in a non-sectarian way of course). Mahon despised both extremes, but his own peaceful republicanism was troublesome...'

I'd be very interested if any readers could point me towards an origin for the term.


Barry R McCain said...

I have seen the Black North in a north UK context, circa 1840s. I read a lot of primary sources circa 1400s to 1800s, I will be on the lookout for the term applied to Ulster. I just worked on the etymology of 'Cracker' and posted that on my Scots-Irish blog. These old words and terms are fascinating.

Daniel Seawright said...

The Irish novelist John Banim has a great quote from his "Bit o' Writin", which I think is 1838. One of the characters is described as follows (in Banim's Irish English):

"He was a sogering-man, a throoper, discharged from the wars, as it turned out to be afther ould Shamus ran from the Boyne, but still in his soger's clothes and carrying his long sword at his side, that clanked at every step he made across the flure, in his jack-boots and spurs. His tongue betokened that he came from the Black North, where they don't spake English, or Irish, or Scotch, but a kind of mixtrum gatherum of their own, made up of the three together, that's not like any dacent Christian speech - much good may it do them."