Friday, September 23, 2016

Comber and Kircubbin, Carrowdore and Kentucky - a tune from the 1840s... or earlier?

MacNeice Comber


The renowned poet Louis MacNeice was buried at Christ Church, Carrowdore - or as the locals call it, Church Hill. Many generations of my Wilson and Kerr ancestors lie there, just a few yards away. Our Wilson homesteads lie in the low ground below the church. Here is MacNeice’s modest plot.

In 2010, Faber & Faber pubished the Selected Letters of Louis MacNeice, edited by Professor Jonathan Allison, an Ulsterman who is now Professor of English at the University of Kentucky. I have never met Professor Allison but he seems to return to Belfast from time to time.

There is an interesting footnote here, in Imagined Differences, which reproduces an Ards Peninsula song called The Bright Orange Heroes of Comber, (sometimes called The Bold Orange Heroes of Comber) which Dr Allison recalled from his Bangor childhood. It is a song which has long intrigued me, as its tune is so unlike other Orange songs which I grew up with. The phraseology of the song title can be found in local newspapers from the 1870s, it describes the period of Daniel O’Connell’s “monster meetings” of the early 1840s. So the words are old. 

I first heard the song in the late 70s or early 80s from one of those old Ulster loyalist LPs which were so common back then during the Troubles, but the lyrics were more strident and sectarian than the original Ards Peninsula version, with the storyline relocated to Portadown rather than Greyabbey. It has been recorded by a range of artists - Jackie O’Brien and the Pikemen around 1968 (see here), and by Liam Andrews for the BBC in 1952 (see here). Cathal O’Boyle has commented on the lyrical structure of the song (see here).

The melody sounds very old. It’s still part of the flute band repertoire today, you’ll see clips on YouTube, but played to a stiffer rhythm which kills a lot of the mood. However, played on a mandolin, which of course is tuned the same as a fiddle, it sounds haunting, in D minor, and positively Appalachian. If the song does indeed date from the 1840s, it is perhaps a glimpse of a tune from a time even earlier than that. Perhaps the type of tune which was exported to New England, Pennsylvania and Appalachia…  and beyond.

• Ards version of The Bright Orange Heroes of Comber is here on YouTube
• Later Portadown version of The Bright Orange Heroes of Comber is here on YouTube 

The Bright Orange Heroes of Comber
On the twelfth of July last as Greyabbey town we passed
to Kircubbin where we did assemble
the rebels they did pray for a curse on us that day
and their hearts within them did tremble

As we passed down Shuttle Row, that's a rebel place you know
thinking we were useless lumber,
they swore they'd break our drum if we up to them did come
but we're the bright Orange heroes of Comber.

O'Connell he does boast of his great big rebel host
He says they are ten thousand in number.
But half of them, you'll find they are both lame and blind
but we're the bright Orange heroes of Comber.

So here's a loyal toast may all base traitors roast!
Confound the foes of the Orange Order!
For we'll give blow for blow while swift Boyne waters flow
for we're the bright Orange heroes of Comber

<< I'll try to upload an audio clip of the tune here >>


In the late Grady McWhiney and Forrest McDonald's much-debated 1989 book Cracker Culture, they wrote that a tune called ‘The Battle of the Boyne’ travelled to the USA where it became ‘Buffalo Gal’ or ‘Nashville Gal’ (see here).

I’m not knowledgable enough to know if any overtly Orange tunes made their way to America. The timelines don’t really fit. The demographics don’t really fit either. Orangeism only developed in the late 1700s and early 1800s, just as the massive wave of 1700s Ulster-Scots migration to America was slowing down. It was in Canada where, in the later 1800s, a large Orange publishing output emerged, such as this from 1876. But this section from the classic Gone With The Wind shows that there was at least a degree of awareness, with one tune featuring:

"... Gerald had come to America from Ireland when he was twenty-one. He had come hastily, as many a better and worse Irishman before and since, with the clothes he had on his back, two shillings above his passage money and a price on his head that he felt was larger than his misdeed warranted. There was no Orangeman this side of hell worth a hundred pounds to the British government or to the devil himself; but if the government felt so strongly about the death of an English absentee landlord's rent agent, it was time for Gerald O'Hara to be leaving and leaving suddenly. True, he had called the rent agent "a bastard of an Orangeman," but that, according to Gerald's way of looking at it, did not give the man any right to insult him by whistling the opening bars of "The Boyne Water."

The Battle of the Boyne had been fought more than a hundred years before, but, to the O'Haras and their neighbors, it might have been yesterday when their hopes and their dreams, as well as their lands and wealth, went off in the same cloud of dust that enveloped a frightened and fleeing Stuart prince, leaving William of Orange and his hated troops with their orange cockades to cut down the Irish adherents of the Stuarts ..."

Rory Fitzpatrick famously complained in God's Frontiersmen that the lead characters in Gone With The Wind should have been emigrant Ulster-Scots Presbyterians rather than emigrant Irish Catholics, which would have been a more realistic portrayal of life in the American South at that time. Regardless, this world-famous 1936 novel refers to Orangemen. But what if there was an earlier one, say from 1817, published in Winchester, Virginia, which did as well?... that will be the subject of a future post.

P.S.: To bring this post full circle, Louis MacNeice’s father, Rev Frederick MacNeice (1866–1942), was an Orangeman, yet one who rejected the Ulster Covenant of 1912. It’s the complexities and overlaps which make this place so interesting.