Thursday, July 27, 2017

"Us Boys"

Over the years various Co Antrim folk have told me of this film, shot in the late 1990s. I have found a version on YouTube, with German subtitles. Information from the production company is here

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Isabella Barber Ferguson of Ireland and South Carolina (1754–1823)



She was a Revolutionary heroine, whose story is featured in the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, Virginia.

A Presbyterian Covenanter, born to Samuel Barber and Isabella Starett, she had emigrated to America around 1773. She “sat under the preaching of a learned minister and had been regularly catechised and indoctrinated both in the Scriptures and the political creed of her people”. She married a Samuel Ferguson but Samuel’s sympathies were with the Crown and his brother, Colonel James Ferguson, led a troop of 150 men. The Colonel led his men past the Barber homestead, hoping to impress his brother into joining the British army. It failed. Isabella declared:

I am a rebel, glorying in the name. My brothers are rebels, and the dog Trip is a rebel too. Now, James, I would rather see you with a sheep on your back, than tricked out in all those fine clothes. Rebel and be free, that is my creed!

Samuel listened to his wife and then confirmed to his uniformed brother:

Could Isabella be convinced she might be able to turn the whole lot of Covenanters, for she is never afraid to speak her mind.

Samuel didn’t join up, and James was killed not long after. There are numerous heroines in popular Ulster-Scots history, such as Betsy Gray and Margaret Wilson. You can read more about Isabella Barber Ferguson in this reprinted edition which was originally published in 1848.

Take the Museum online quiz and see which Revolutionary era character is most like you. 

• Her gravestone can be seen here on

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Wayfaring Stranger - re-broadcast tonight, tomorrow, Thursday

For the next 3 nights on BBC2 Northern Ireland, ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ is being re-broadcast at 7pm. Set your digiboxes!

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Monday, July 24, 2017

The Ards - 'The Little Holland of the North'

Some photos here from recent drives around my home turf - the newly refurbished Ballycopeland Windmill near Millisle (which now features on a Royal Mail stamp) and the old windmill stump at Knockinelder. It seems from the Montgomery Manuscripts that it was Lady Elizabeth Montgomery who oversaw the construction of watermills in every parish of the Montgomery lands in the Ards in the early 1600s. Initially the Scots used the ‘quairn stones’ hand-ground technique commonly used by their Irish neighbours, but later a ‘Danish mill’ was introduced. There were of course water mills in Ireland prior to the arrival of the Scots - in fact, as the same Manuscripts say (on page 63) water mills can be traced to the 3rd Century:

... It is certain that mills driven by water were known in Ireland at a very early period, and appear to have been at least as generally used in ancient as in modern times. Irish authorities, and with them Irish traditions, are unanimous in representing that the first water-mill ever known in Ireland was introduced by Cormac Mac Art, who reigned during a part of the third century, and that the good king brought his millwright from Scotland ...

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Rev W. R. Megaw (1885–1953): From Carrowdore to Princeton to Ahoghill: minister, author and naturalist.



Rev R.T. Megaw was minister of Carrowdore Presbyterian Church in the 1880s. In 1885 his son, William Rutledge Megaw was born. He would have been knocking about Carrowdore in my great-grandparents’ time. He followed his father towards the Presbyterian ministry and after a childhood in Carrowdore he went to RBAI, then Queens University and finally to Princeton in the USA.

He returned to Ulster and took up the role of minister at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Ahoghill in County Antrim in 1910. A local poet wrote this quite superb Ulster-Scots poem just after hearing Megaw’s first sermon, on Sunday 10 April 1910: 

First impressions aft are lastin’

Whither bad ur whither guid,

Pardon, an’ I’ll tell ye my yins

In a simple bit o’ screed;

Born an’ broucht up in the district,

Niver bein’ far frae hame,

Sma’ wunner that my words are common,

An’ ideas awfoo tame

Foo dull this day.

Hooiver, freens, this peacefoo fixture

Minds me o’ lang years ago,

Whun the church wus mair auld-farrent

Baith inside an’ oot ye know;

What the venerable F. Buick

Preach’d the Word tae rich and poor;

Sacred be his name fur iver

Fur flingin’ wide the Gospel door

Foo guid that day.

Whas sturdy henchman an’ assistant,

Mr McConachie o’ fame;

A fearless, faithfoo Gospel preacher,

Regerdin’ whom we think nae shame,

Assisted an’ succeeded later

By him wha cud “catch-his-pals”;

Bit Mr Pyper did “surrender”

Tae the folk o’ “Derry Wal’s”

Foo firm this day.

Revertin’ mair til’ present moments,

Wae expecations reemin’,

Anent Trinity Church o’ hope,

Whar “Love” and’ faith are beamin’,

Becas his Mester sent alang,

His servant, young Mega’,

Noo weel ordain’d as pastor here

By Presbyterian la’,

Foo nice this day.

Son o’ the Manse, wae bright career,

He comes, we trust, fur guid,

Provin’ himself baith in an’ oot

A clargieman indeed;

We wish tae see the “B” degree

Knock’d oot by cubit’s darts,

An’ like the sang replaced ‘fore lang

By “M” atrimonial “A” rts

Foo gled some day.

The prayers an’ expositions, friens,

O’ Young Mr Mega’

Did me a world o’ lastin guid

Afore he preached ava’,

Although his sermon, weel got up,

Wus jist as weel laid doon,

He hurl’d the darts right at our hearts,

An’ no’ up at the moon

Foo heich this day.

His theme wus Christ the Crucified,

Nane else he wants til’ know,

Nur preach til’ plase himsel’ alane,

Nur heich, middle, ur low;

Yit varied as the rainbow’s hues

He show’d this theme til’ be

Heich as the sky, wide as the earth,

An’ like the michty sea

Foo deep this day.

The la’ the Prophets, big an’ wee,

An’ Gospels wur the same,

Epistles sweet, al’ pointed tae

The Crucified’s dear name;

Wae sic’ a theme an’ sic’ a place,

An’ sic’ a time as this,

An’ sic’ a school, an’ sic’ a church?

The hale thing jist means bliss

Foo great this day.

– Randerin’ Rhymer, Cullybackey, 11th April, 1910 (reproduced from this website)

Megaw published at least three books: Nature’s Speech (1930), Ulota (1934) and Carragloon: Tales of Our Townland (1935), and edited the second edition of A Flora of the North East of Ireland with R.L Praeger which was published in 1938. Megaw was a prominent member of Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club, as a specialist algae and moss collector. He became President of the Club, and also became a member of the Royal Irish Academy,

Despite all of his education and erudition, a Carrowdore childhood and an Ahoghill ministry means he would have understood the poem with nae bother.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Sankey's hymns - "Scottish and Irish in its construction"

Last week I was up at the annual Keswick at Portstewart convention, with about 1000 people in a big tent. The event has been going for over 100 years every summer. The bookstall people were doing a bargain offer on a book about the American evangelist DL Moody, for just £1. How could I resist?

Moody’s musical partner was Ira D Sankey, of Scotch-Irish ancestry, and their music made a vast impact worldwide. Here’s a few pics of pages from the book, recalling the observations of a Glasgow journalist on Moody & Sankey’s début in Scotland in the 1870s. Now bear in mind that Scotland had never heard this kind of sacred music before. And it was in its own way scandalous as it introduced a 'new' sacred musical style different from the Psalmody tradition. But, like the Wedderburns before in 1520s Scotland, Sankey’s hymnwriting bore the recognisable hallmarks of popular folk music:

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Monday, July 17, 2017

The Ancient Ards: Ballyhalbert motte & standing stone

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SAM 1666 The Anglo-Norman motte at Ballyhalbert probably dates from around the early 1200s; the megalithic standing stone further down the slope could date from around 2000BC. There was another similar stone about a mile away at Ballyhemlin until fairly recently, and some accounts say a third one nearby but I'm not sure of the location. Further down the coast at Millin Bay is a network of burial chambers which is even earlier, around 3000 – 2500BC. It's a great spot for a sunrise breakfast picnic. And near there is Tara Hill, an ancient earthwork. Some geologists have suggested there might have been a 'land bridge' connecting Ireland and Scotland, at around 6000BC (see here).

IrishSights Archaeology has some great drone footage of various local features; Ardquin Abbacy below was where an 'Inquisition' was held to pin down which parcels of land were owned/claimed by local landlords, before King James VI & I approved the Hamilton & Montgomery scheme of 1606.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

"The genetic make-up we see is really one of perhaps 1400 years ago"

According to this article from The Telegraph in March 2015, not much has changed since about 600AD:

The ‘People of the British Isles’ study analysed the DNA of 2,039 people from rural areas of the UK, whose four grandparents were all born within 80km of each other. Because a quarter of our genome comes from each of our grandparents, the researchers were effectively sampling DNA from these ancestors, allowing a snapshot of UK genetics in the late 19th Century before mass migration events caused by the industrial revolution.

I think I might have volunteered for this project, which (if I am right) I applied for in writing and was then invited to the Belfast City Hospital to give a blood sample for (at which I nearly fainted, which is why it sticks in my mind). It was somewhere around 2005 I think.

Below is the map from the Telegraph article showing the various peoples & regions at around 600AD (it’s not accurate for Ulster by the way - Dalriada was just one of the eastern ‘kingdoms’ - see previous post here), and then below it is the project’s genetic map from 2015.

There is a clear ‘genetic cluster’ of people with the same ancestry in Ulster and western Scotland. Genetically, people across Ireland and Scotland are not very different. Culturally of course there is much variation even within both. The Lowland Scots that Ayrshiremen Hamilton & Montgomery brought over to settle on the former O’Neill lands in 1606 were the direct descendants of those whom, 300 years before, earlier Ayrshiremen Edward Bruce and Robert the Bruce had brought over to form an alliance with those O’Neills in 1315.

And of course the links and two-way migrations go back much farther than that...

Project website is here
Project Wikipedia is here 


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Sunday, July 09, 2017

"Sacred Parodies of Secular Folk Songs"

I hope to be in Fife later in the summer, and am planning to visit Dundee to see not only Desperate Dan but also the plaque to the Wedderburn brothers. This 1938 article about them, by Anne Gilchrist in the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, provided the title for this post.

Soon after he became unintentionally famous in 1517, Martin Luther's writings travelled across the North Sea into the ports of Edinburgh and St Andrews, smuggled inside barrels as illegal contraband. The Wedderburn brothers became committed Lutherans, and spread the newly-Reformed Gospel through music and street theatre. They took the familiar folk songs of their day and wrote new, Reformed, lyrics. Some of their work has been recorded in recent years.

I also then remembered that earlier this year I heard a man at the People’s Hall in Portavogie sing a gospel song to the tune The Fields of Athenry. His version was much better than the YouTube one below! But you get the idea. 

Orange tunes are great for this, as are Irish tunes such as Galway Bay and The Wearing Of The Green, and Scottish tunes like The Rowan Tree and The Road and the Miles to Dundee.

The Wedderburns were at it in the 1520s, and it’s still being done today. Luther said he had nearly killed himself with religious devotions, confessions:

"I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I.  All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out.  If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work."

And then he opened the Bible and began to read what it said. The message he found there? No-one can make themselves right with God. Jesus Christ came to do that job, and He has done it all. 'It is Finished’.

It’s an offer that’s open to all who will receive it. Luther didn’t invent it, it had been there all along. It can be traced right back from 1500s Luther to the New Testament churches of the first century. He was just in the right place and the right time, with new technology - the printing press - to take it to the world in a simple and relevant format. Religion as control was replaced by a liberating faith. Read more about Luther’s world-changing discovery and influence with these free PDFs.

(UPDATE: this week only, renowned US Presbyterian R.C. Sproul is giving away a FREE 10-part download about Luther and the Reformation - click here

Outside the city wall 
I heard a large crowd calling, 
Mocking, scorning those who suffered there 
As they hoisted up on high 
Three more men condemned to die 
The voice of one man echoed through the air 

“Eli lama sabachthani 
My God why have you turned your back on me”? 
“It is finished,” then he cried 
As he hung his head and died, 
Messiah crucified for you and me 

Outside the city wall 
I watched the darkness falling 
As the power  of sin and death had done their worst 
And the one who made the light 
Hung abandoned in the night 
And he who made the oceans said “I thirst” 

Outside the city wall 
I heard a young man calling 
“Woman, take this man to be your son” 
And he turned his face to see 
One who said “Remember me” 
And said, “ with me to paradise you’ll come” 

Outside the city wall 
I heard a young man calling 
“Forgive them Father, they don’t understand 
For the man was God’s own son 
And His work on earth was done 
And then he placed his spirit in Gods hand



Thursday, July 06, 2017

“American ancestry” = Scots-Irish ancestry?



I’ve had to abbreviate that title from a longer quote in this very interesting article:

... Areas with a high prevalence of “American ancestry” also tend to have a prevalence of Scots-Irish ancestry, which was a large cohort of Protestant immigrants in the 1700s who arrived in the U.S. from northern Ireland and southern Scotland with few resources and wound up settling predominantly in the uplands, partly because the fertile lowlands were already occupied and partly because the emptiness of the hills was more amenable to their anti-establishment leanings. “American ancestry” may function something of a stand-in for having Scots-Irish or “borderer" ancestry ...

I've been to the one which comes out top of the league table, Virginia's 9th District, twice or maybe even three times. I remember remarking to our kids when were in Bristol last July (on the Virginia / Tennessee state line), buying a burger in the café where Hank Williams was last seen alive, that from looking at the people around us - the other customers and the staff - their shape, their faces, their complexions, that we could have been in Newtownards or Ballywalter.

Last November Virginia's 9th voted 68.8% for Trump.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

“an American eagle on the wing and rising”

This is how Maghera-born Charles Thomson described in heraldic terms his sketch for the proposed Great Seal of the United States of America, in which he had been assisted by William Barton, the son of a Monaghan minister Rev Thomas Barton.

The similarity with the name of the 1636 emigrant ship ‘Eagle Wing’ is tantalising.

President Seal Gold HR

US Great Seal Charles Thomson Preliminary Design

Happy 4th July - Pittsburg Dispatch 12 February 1889

Pittsburg Dispatch 12 02 1889

Monday, July 03, 2017

Every story!

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"If defeated everywhere else..." that Washington quote, 1890

I have found it, in the speech given by Mayor Henry Irvin Gourley at the opening session of the Second Congress of the Scotch-Irish Society which was held at Pittsburg in May 1890, given as:

“If defeated everywhere else, I will make my last stand for liberty among the Scotch-Irish of Virginia”. 

But no primary source cited. This then predates the William McKinley paraphrase of 1893. Gourley was born in 1838, ‘to a peasant family’ at Thompsontown in Juniata County in mid-Pennsylvania. His father was Joseph Gourley, but he died when Henry was just five years old, leaving his widow to raise the family. A full biography is online here.

In the 1700s there was a Fermanagh township in Juniata County, and by the 1776 revolution around 1/3 of the population of the whole state was Scotch-Irish.

• My previous post about the 1890 Pittsburg Congress is here. Gourley is shown below.

Henry I Gourley

USA 2018?

We are thinking about another family visit to the USA next year. So, as you do, I’ve been Googling places like New England and Philadelphia. On the website of the Philadelphia Museum of Art I found an etched glass goblet in honour of William of Orange (web page here). There is an identical one in the collection of the Corning Museum of Glass in New York (see web page here).

That then set me looking for Orange toasts, which is how I found this 29 point toast from 1821, which includes a verse to ‘our Roman Catholic countrymen;– may they love us as fellow Christians, and assist us as fellow subjects’.

The newly-opened $150m Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia looks like a must-see (see here) and this New York Times review makes it sound very good.

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Friday, June 30, 2017

A sense of identity: Ulster-Scots is not 'national'.

I should probably stop listening to local radio phone-in shows. The drama and outrage and the pitting of two views against each other is very tiresome. There has been much talk about a potential Irish Language Act here over the past week. I am supportive of Irish being conserved and available to folk who are interested and enthusiastic about it. I have seen it described this week as ‘an expression of the Irish national identity’. That may be the case for some, but in general as I get older I am nervous of local variations being ironed away in pursuit of a national anything, in any region or country. As some ‘foodies’ now insist, national is just the best of local.

Ulster-Scots (heritage, literature, migration, settlement, etc) is definitely not uniformly national – there are hints of it in most places, it is very strong and visible in particular localities of the province of Ulster, but pretty much non-existent in others. We talk of Antrim and Down and east Donegal a lot, but county boundaries are in a sense false cultural lines.

Topography and market towns and old roads reveal natural settlement patterns, and culture thrives where people are. It is more authentic to look at, for example, the Foyle Valley, the Bann Valley, the Sixmilewater Valley, the Braid Valley, etc. In County Down, the Ards is a natural shape all of its own, but further inland you really have to look towards the market towns like Comber, Saintfield, Dromore, Lisburn, Ballynahinch, Kilkeel, etc. In former times even Newry had a sizeable Presbyterian / Ulster-Scots population; books such as Alexander Peden's biography were printed there, and WG Lyttle’s famous stories were first printed in the Newry Telegraph. Newry's catchment area reaches far into Armagh and Louth, it's not restricted to County Down. All of Ulster should be re-imagined in this way.

The map below shows the road network of County Down in the mid 1800s. These are like the nervous system, the lifeblood circulation system, the veins and arteries and sinews of the communities where people would meet and trade and worship and marry and live and die and mourn and hope and yearn and leave … and return to. This is how to look at tradition and culture.

Co Down Map

Below is an image I made for a 2015 'Shared Heritage' presentation I gave at the Europa Hotel. This is what I believe Ulster to truly be like, a warp and weft of varieties, a patchwork quilt of different influences. Overlaying a national anything over this is I think fraught with pitfalls. I have no easy answers. There probably are none. It's all about conveying the complexity again. Ulster Quilt

Thursday, June 29, 2017

William Chapple MP - "Ulster should be ... tacked on to Scotland"


“W.A Chapple proposed that N.E. Ulster should be politically tacked on to Scotland, when a more proper suggestion would have been that Scotland should be politically tacked on to N.E. Ulster…"

William Allan Chapple was the New Zealand born Liberal Party MP for Stirlingshire, and later Dumfriesshire. He is said to have made these remarks in the House of Commons in a debate some time around June 1912, the extract above being from St John Ervine’s biography of Sir James Craig, entitled Craigavon (1949), a really interesting book with much Ulster-Scots cultural content and which also uses the term as well.  This story warrants further investigation and cross-checking. 

William Allan Chapple 1908

Discovering the Dictionary

I was well into my 20s before I knew the one on the left even existed. From that I then discovered centuries of local literature. Much of our problem is a lack of understanding.19467702 10155522165407878 3554944012027741096 o 1

The first to compile a dictionary of Scots is thought to be Rev John Jamieson who published his Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language in 1808. Here is a review of a recent edition. Burns had died just 12 years before, and of course some editions of his works had contained a glossary to explain some of the Scots terms for the unfamiliar reader, which are kind of mini-dictionaries in their own right. Ulster-Scots poets like Hugh Porter (published 1813) did the same.

There have been numerous Scots dictionaries since. Some of the Scots dictionaries use the abbreviation Uls when specifying that particular words are found in Ulster. And there are of course many examples of Ulster-Scots words being collected and published too, from William Hugh Patterson in the 1800s to James Fenton in our own day. There is also an extraordinary online project at which everyone should know about, a volunteer project every bit as impressive as the online Dictionary of the Scots Language. I'm pleased that some of my literary discoveries of recent years have contributed to the ongoing database for

As long as the Scots and Ulster-Scots literary tradition is kept in the dark, people will continue to live in ignorance. And make decisions with no understanding of context or pedigree.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

1826: Scotch Poems for 'the Poor of Belfast'

This advert, from the Belfast Commercial Chronicle newspaper of 4th November 1826 has a great bit of marketing ‘spin' in it, tantalising the reader with a tale of a mysterious anonymous visitor from Scotland, a will, and a bundle of documents including a collection of poems - ‘fugitive pieces, on various subjects, chiefly in the Scotch dialect’ including ‘On a Visit to Grey Abbey’, ‘Bonaparte’s Soliloquy at St Helena’, ‘To A Mountain’, ‘Farewell Verses’. The air of intrigue is upped even further at the end, discouraging the reader from enquiring as to the writer’s identity due to his request ’that his name might not be disclosed’. The philanthropic fund-raising aspect of this is also very interesting. 

I’ve made a few enquiries of people who are knowledgeable on these things, but this seems to be a new find. 

Poor of Belfast

Sunday, June 25, 2017

1690: The Stuart Kings were mostly Protestants

Charles I and James II

Above: a 1647 painting of the Protestant King Charles I and his son James II, who converted to Catholicism c. 1669.

There’s been a lot of fairly standard stereotype-reinforcing again in the past week in the news coverage about Northern Ireland. A BBC Newsnight piece was presented by someone parachuted in from England, and of course began at a King Billy mural on Sandy Row, and spoke of “the victory of a Protestant King over a Catholic King in the 17th century”. Sad voices, sad music, urchin-like children stacking up bonfires on wasteground etc. I’ve pasted it below.

So this got me thinking. Of course the statement is partially true, and a grain of truth is often all that’s needed to carry a narrative. But it’s very far from the whole story. Let’s take a quick look.

• The Stuarts in Scotland: 1371–1567
The Stuart monarchy had ruled Scotland from 1371, and up until the Scottish Reformation they like everyone else were Catholics. The Stuarts remained Catholic up until Mary Queen of Scots. She had become Queen at just six days old, and spent much of her young life in France, with Scotland run by ‘regents’. She came back to a reforming Scotland in 1561 but was forced to abdicate in 1567 in favour of her infant son, King James VI. James had been baptised in a Catholic ceremony but was raised under tutors such as Presbyterian George Buchanan. John Knox preached at James’ coronation in 1567. James was now head of the country, but most definitely not head of the Church - as ministers like Andrew Melville and Robert Bruce famously told him to his face.

• The Stuarts in England and Ireland: 1603–1688 
When this Presbyterian-influenced James VI became King James I of England and Ireland in 1603, he was fond of the new Church of England role which came with the new job, making him Head of the Church as well as of the State. And this is where the problems began, as he set his sights on (potentially) troublesome fellow Protestants. James commissioned a new Bible; one reason for doing so was to get rid of the marginal notes of the existing Geneva Bibles which equated ‘King' with ‘Tyrant'. Conflicts began to open up between King and Parliament. James began to flex his muscles upon the Church back in Scotland. ‘Non-Conformist’ English Puritans began an exodus to New England fleeing persecution. His son Charles I was even worse, and who was famously seized and beheaded in 1649. His son, the eventual Charles II, fled to France, but he deceived Scotland’s Covenanter Presbyterians that he was in fact one of theirs, and they crowned him King of Scotland in 1651. But despite this titular coronation, for 10 years there was no monarchy - the Interregnum - with Cromwell in charge. Charles II was back in England by 1660, was crowned King of England and Ireland at the ‘Restoration' in 1661. He iimmediately began deposing Presbyterian ministers in Ulster and Scotland, and eventually rounding up Presbyterian people in both places too. It was with his dying breaths that Charles converted to Catholicism, in 1685 (so throughout his reign he was Protestant). His brother, now James II, had converted to Catholicism during a time in France around 1669. James reigned until 1688 when William of Orange showed up. (Technically, William, his wife Mary and also Anne were Stuarts. But we’re looking at William v James so let’s stop there for simplicity’s sake).

So, in a nutshell, here are the Stuart kings and their religious backgrounds:

James VI & I  /  reign 1603–1625  /  Church of Scotland & Church of England
Charles I   /   reign 1625–1649  /  Church of England
Charles II  /  reign (Scotland 1651) 1661–1685  /  Church of England
James II  /  reign 1685–1688  /  Roman Catholic 

As Facebook relationship statuses worldwide declare, it’s complicated, but as this quick overview shows, the Stuarts had been increasingly tyrannical and undemocratic Protestant monarchs for a lot longer than they were Catholics - excluding the Interregnum, they had roughly 72 years as a Protestant monarchy v 3 years as a Catholic monarchy. The ratio is 24:1. 

• ‘The Liberties of England and the Protestant Religion I Will Maintain'
This was reputedly the motto on the banner which accompanied William from Holland to England. The Glorious/Williamite Revolution was therefore as much about civil liberty and Parliamentary authority as it was theology. And of course various individuals and groupings seeking to either maintain or acquire power and control … and the universal human conditions of greed and ambition and all that goes with them.

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Stereotypes and sad music depress the viewing audience. But we can’t just blame broadcasters and ‘outsiders’ for this, there are plenty here at home who don’t understand or explain the broader context and who selectively use history to fuel present-day fires. Inform and educate matters as much as entertain. Let’s not perpetuate things which are only partly true. The fuller story is much more compelling.

(PS, the presenter needs to visit Lewes in east Sussex on 5th November)


Saturday, June 24, 2017

An Ulster-Scots Gospel Conversion, James Meikle, Killinchy, 1839


"It is a new secular religion"

Go to 13 minutes. Outstanding. Peter Boghossian is an atheist academic and Dave Rubin a gay, married, non-religious Jew. Alliances of liberty are emerging across the western world, and across people who aren't 'on the same page' on every issue, but who see common purpose on some big important universal themes. Interesting times. (choice language here and there)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

"a hearty Irish Roman Catholic" and "a gentle Scotch-Irish Protestant"

Ronald Wilson Reagan’s parents were described as such in this New York Times obituary (click here).


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

John Knox in 'The Orthodox Presbyterian', 1832

Two thistles, a rose and some shamrock. This periodical was published by William M’Comb - known in his day as ‘The Laureate of Presbyterianism’ - for about 10 years.

Knox Orthodox Presb 1832

Monday, June 19, 2017

Multic-Ulster-al (1956) – "the lallans of Antrim and Down"

Sam Hanna Bell (1909–90) was one of our greatest writers, thinkers, folklorist, collector and broadcasters of the 20th century. To understand an Ulster which few today can remember, Sam Hanna Bell’s writing will take you there with a clarity and authenticity that’s hard to find now.

Glasgow-born but reared near Raffrey in County Down before moving to Belfast, I would encourage everyone to get hold of his work and visit a different world. His début collection Summer Loanen (1943) has lovely natural touches of Ulster-Scots vocabulary. The world he presents was not idyllic, but which culturally speaking was far more nuanced and whole than the political perspectives which have come to dominate. An Ulster which seemed to better understand its multiple cultural strands than most do today.

If there is to be a holistic 'Culture Act' in Northern Ireland then Sam Hanna Bell had at least some of the vision for how it could be. He envisaged a ‘Folklore Commission’ and soon after the 'Committee on Ulster Folklife and Traditions’ was set up. It is easy to pass laws. But where are the minds, the hearts, the eyes, the ears, the voices and the pens? Where is today’s “body of trained folklorists”?




Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Fine Gael badge, 1930s?

So the Republic of Ireland has a new man at the helm, Leo Varadkar from the political party Fine Gael. The badge below is an interesting design choice, as is this flag. I know next to nothing about politics in the south, so other smarter people than I might be able to add comments below to explain this one.



"A Great American Tapestry, The Many Strands of Mountain Music"

A new film by David Weintraub is about to premiere from the wonderfully-titled Centre for Cultural Preservation. It will also be available on DVD soon.

I have written here before on the many positive interactions between Scotch-Irish and African Americans, and music is an arena where this is particularly identifiable - the musical origins of Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe and Hank Williams to name just three have famously strong black influences. It's also excellent to see that the recent BBC Wayfaring Stranger series was tapping in to some of the same contributors, who are therefore recognised and credible practitioners from a US perspective. Many of them were new to me, it is reassuring, but not surprising, that the producers of Wayfaring Stranger were so well-informed in their selecting! This bodes very well for any potential US broadcasts of Wayfaring Stranger in the future. 

Here is the full story, reproduced here from the website Mountain Xpress from Asheville, North Carolina (online here).


New Mountain Music Documentary’s World Premiere in June
The Center for Cultural Preservation is pleased to announce the world premiere of David Weintraub’s new film on the history of Appalachian Music titled, A Great American Tapestry, The Many Strands of Mountain Music screening at three venues in WNC in June. The documentary tells the story of the southern mountain’s musical birth and evolution through the strands of the Scots-Irish legacy, oft-overlooked African-American tradition and through the longest lived music in the Americas, the indigenous tradition. 

According to Director/Producer David Weintraub,

“Mountain music is often discussed as a Scots-Irish tradition that came over here by the Ulster-Scots and that’s true. It is a fascinating story.  But what often gets overlooked is that the West African banjo was played in this country by blacks for nearly 100 years before it was ever picked up by white musicians. African-Americans also played a key role in developing the syncopated and rhythmic fiddle styles that symbolic of old time and bluegrass music. The blended cultural result is exactly what makes mountain music as beautiful and captivating as it is.”

The film features the leading luminaries of the ballad tradition including balladeer extraordinaires Sheila Kay Adams, Joe Penland and Bobby McMillon as well as Grammy Award winning founders of the world renowned black string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops including Rhiannon Giddens, members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, David Holt, and musicologists and historians who tell the story of the great melting pot that became Appalachian music.

According to Phil Jamison, professor of Appalachian Music at Warren Wilson College and a participant in the film, “The reality of the southern backcountry was a diverse mix of Europeans, African-American and indigenous native peoples. Not racially, culturally or economically homogeneous, it was home to wealthy landowners, poor tenant farmers, sharecroppers, merchants, subsistence farms and enslaved African-Americans.” All of them shaped the music and made it special.

In addition to a film screening, several musicians participating in the film will perform at the start of each program. A brief discussion with the filmmaker and participants follows the screenings. Hendersonville’s world premiere will feature performances by Sheila Kay Adams, local old time band Rhiannon and the Relics and rising star Amythyst Kiah.

The world premiere of A Great American Tapestry will be held at the following locations/date/times:
• Blue Ridge Community College, Bo Thomas Auditorium at 7:00 pm on Thursday, June 22nd
• Fine Arts Theatre, Asheville at 7:30 pm on Thursday, June 29th
• White Horse, Black Mountain at 7:30 pm on Saturday, June 30th

Tickets are $10 and $15. Tickets are expected to sell out quickly so it is highly recommended that they be ordered soon on the Center for Cultural Preservation’s website at For more information about the program and for group sales call the Center at (828) 692-8062.  For more information about future film screenings, online purchases of the DVD and more information about the film, contact the Center for Cultural Preservation at (828) 692-8062 or


Somebody should bring this film to our side of the Atlantic. In fact there should perhaps be a film festival...

Monday, June 12, 2017

"Convey the complexity"

May Hate DUP

It has been a very odd 48 hours here in Northern Ireland, with the London-centric media in a frenzied state of simultaneous amnesia and horror at the possibility of the weakened Conservative Party striking an arrangement with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party. (I have to declare an interest here for those who are unaware, they've been a regular client of mine for 20 years). The DUP have just won 10 seats in Westminster, their highest-ever total, and the Conservatives now need them onside.

Amnesia because numerous previous Labour administrations have approached the DUP with similar overtures, horror because Northern Ireland is meant to be kept in the back room like the crazy elderly relative that nobody wants to admit is part of the family but who they’re forced to put up with at occasional awkward gatherings. To the GB population, Northern Ireland is thought to be ‘fixed’ and so has therefore ‘gone away’. Yet here the DUP are, thrust centre stage, in an unprecedented position and with significant influence. Cue outrage from the self-proclaimed ‘progressive’ media talking heads.

The reaction by some mainstream journalists has been pretty appalling. A glance through Twitter will show that. Some whose views I don’t always agree with, but whose professionalism up until now I have admired, have gone far beyond acceptable limits to smear and blacken not only the DUP but by implication the DUP electorate. It is a hairsbreadth from Hillary Clinton’s infamous ‘basket of deplorables’ remarks of last year. And even plenty of non-DUP, and even anti-DUP, folk I know have been taken aback by the barrage. Meanwhile my GB relatives are swallowing all of this up and are messaging my wife with well-meaning expressions of concern!

My mother worked in a factory, my father has worked two jobs his whole life, their parents lived off the land and from their grandparents back all of their ancestors had been tenant farmers for as many centuries as we know about. So I have a fair streak of working class in my bones and my sense of identity. Yes I am now 'white collar' and ‘creative industry’, but I can handle a clawhammer, a handsaw, a shovel and a cement mixer. But this new metropolitan authoritarian Left is a vicious beast - as shown by Emily Thornberry in 2014 and prior to that by Gordon Brown in 2010. Owen Jones, once the defender of England’s underclass in his 2012 book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, and who was in 2015 pro-Brexit, has now turned against both.

Nobody is perfect. Everybody's history will throw up something which today seems at best distasteful. As I type some header on the BBC NI Talkback phone-in programme has alleged the DUP to be anti-Black racists. The madness is contagious.

Ulster is not the only place to suffer from convenient stereotyping. Appalachia is very much the same. Here is an excellent article, by Tom Porter of Bowdoin College in Maine, outlining the endless challenge for Appalachians to present themselves and their region in an authentic manner, and in so doing debunking the metropolitan stereotypes.

… The most important consideration though, said McCarroll, is not whether a film portrays the region she’s from in a positive light, but whether it’s able to convey the complexity of Appalachia and offer a true context...

• PS the excellent Brendan O’Neill, the self-described ‘Libertarian Marxist’ editor of Spiked Online, has just posted this excellent article on the subject. The image above is from that article. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Imaging Billy - William III of Orange in bronze, paint and glass around the British Isles

London uk 30th march 2017 conservators work to restore greenwichs HXTB4N

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It is always healthy to look back into the Northern Ireland 'goldfish bowl' from a wider, external perspective. Generally, this helps to expand understanding and challenge existing perceptions.

July is only a few weeks away - a period which has become known as the 'marching season' and in recent years in Belfast, OrangeFest. For me throughout my childhood it was just called 'the bands' and of course 'the Twelfth', and in Scotland is generally the 'Orange Walk' - none of which have the militaristic connotation of 'marching’. King Billy has adorned gable walls and huge Orange banners for maybe 150 - 200 years, with various degrees of artistic skill, some brilliant, some very crude and almost ‘folk art’ in style. There’s a hand-painted wooden example at the Museum of Orange Heritage in Belfast which looks almost like a piece of ancient Shaker furniture.

I remembered that a while ago I looked into the locations of various statues of William of Orange around the UK and Republic of Ireland. There seem to have been 14 in total, most of which still exist, and are listed here in chronological order:

1692 - Preston - Hoghton Tower - unknown if still exists
1701 - Dublin - Dame Street / College Green - blown up 1929, fragments still exist
1718 - Portsmouth - Historic Dockyard - still there
1734 - Hull - Market place - still there
1735 - Glasgow - Cathedral - still there
1736 - Bristol - Queen Square - still there
1754 - Boyle, Co Roscommon - bridge, then ‘Pleasure Grounds' - destroyed 1945 (base still there)
1757 - Petersfield, Hampshire - Market Square - still there
1808 - London - St James's Square - still there
1889 - Belfast - Clifton Street Orange Hall - still there
1889 - Brixham, Devon - quayside - still there
1907 - London - Kensington Palace - still there
1930 - Belfast - King William Park, Lisburn Road - plaque still there
1990 - Carrickfergus - Castle Green - still there

There may be more. And perhaps even further afield there are others, such as the one I tried to locate at William and Mary College in Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia last summer.

So what did William represent or signify to those who decided to commission and install these statues? Some show him on horseback, some are just figures. Some are bronze, whereas the Portsmouth and Hull statues are painted gold. In some he is depicted in classical toga and laurel wreath, Others are the famous long-haired pose with wide brimmed hat and sword. The inscriptions on each tell us something. Maybe some research into the social context, the funders and the sculptors would reveal an interesting story. 

How many art collections include portraits of him? Below is one I photographed at Castle Ward back in Easter of this year, hung high on a staircase wall, directly above Sir James Hamilton. Below this is a photo of the 'William III' stained glass window from the Great Hall of Belfast City Hall

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Below: a few publicity images from the Greenwich Painted Hall, showing a detail of William and Mary from the painting The Triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny by Sir James Thornhill, which was painted from 1708–14. It is currently undergoing major refurbishment. NewImage

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Monday, June 05, 2017

Ards Peninsula tuberculosis 'experiment', 1951

This took place within my parents' lifetime. My father's parents' generation suffered very badly from T.B.. So much for all that supposed privilege eh?. In my generation, there has been a particular effort by SureStart and HomeStart in the Peninsula, I have been told a few times that this was due to 'genetic deficiencies' down here. Of course they'll never say that officially...

The Northern Ireland Tuberculosis Authority was established after WW2, with a reported 14,235 sufferers, 20 dying every week and 60 new cases appearing every week. By 1958 the Authority was deemed to have been a success and its functions distributed to the hospitals and local health committees.

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Moana - "We Were Voyagers"

Moana is one of the better Disney animated movies of recent years. Here’s the scene where she realises that her people - now timid, fearful and detached from their proud history - once had endless vision, ambition, and determination. She finds their long-lost ships and artefacts, buried deep in a cave. She strikes the ancient drum and the cave comes alive with scenes of the past.

We were voyagers. Why'd we stop?

Sunday, June 04, 2017

'The Ulster Scots, unbending as the oak of Britain' (1834)

And this one from the Northern Whig, 4th September 1834, an extract of a poem by Presbyterian minister Rev William Kennedy M’Kay of Portglenone. Again an early use of the term Ulster Scots as a community identifier.

1834 extract

Tipperary Catholic and the Ulster Scot: 'pledged against a common enemy' (1847)

From the Dumfries & Galloway Standard newspaper, 13 October 1847, reporting on the Presbyterian General Assembly in Belfast and the tenant-right land issue of the time. Also another demonstration of the pedigree of the term ‘Ulster Scot’ as an understood description of a community

D G Standard

Friday, June 02, 2017

Mama's Opry - Iris DeMent

It’s two years today since my mother ‘went ahead’. This song by Iris Luella DeMent (a friend of Merle Haggard's; a huge talent and a Pentecostal-raised girl from Arkansas) has been a big favourite of mine for many years, and even so now. It’s almost autobiographical for me in so many ways. (She also recorded the old hymn Higher Ground as a duet with her mother, but it doesn’t seem to be on YouTube - seek it out, it’s magnificent).

She grew up plain and simple in a farming town

Her daddy played the fiddle and use to do the calling
 when they had hoedowns

She said the neighbours would come
 and they'd move all my grandma's furniture round

And there'd be twenty or more there on the old wooden floor 
dancing to a country sound

The Carters and Jimmie Rodgers played her favorite songs

And on Saturday nights there was a radio show
 and she would sing along

And I'll never forget her face when she revealed to me

That she'd dreamed about singing at The Grand Ol' Opry

Her eyes, oh how they sparkled when she sang those songs

While she was hanging the clothes on the line 
I was a kid just a humming along

Well, I'd be playing in the grass,
to her what might of seemed obliviously

But there ain't no doubt about it, she sure made her mark on me

She played old gospel records on the phonograph

She turned them up loud and we'd sing along
 but those days have passed

Just now that I am older it occurs to me

That I was singing in the grandest opry

And we sang Sweet Rose of Sharon, Abide With Me
Til I ride The Gospel Ship to Heaven's Jubilee

And In That Great Triumphant Morning my soul will be free

And My Burdens Will Be Lifted when my Saviour's face I see

So I Don't Want to Get Adjusted to this world below

But I know He'll Pilot Me when it comes time to go

Oh, nothing on this earth is half as dear to me

As the sound of my Mama's Opry


"another class of people put us somewhere just below"

So sang Merle Haggard in his classic track Hungry Eyes, recorded in 1969. Most music journalists don’t ‘get' Haggard because he could be both (small c) conservative and also working class, and in journalist-land these do not go together.

This might be because most journalists are middle-class, white collar and left-leaning. But not the old-time left, the new and supposedly improved version which is apparently ‘progressive’. But it is more likely because Haggard doesn’t fit easily into the pre-cooked ‘boxes’ that many writers come to any subject already armed with. Try this from Rolling Stone in 2016 just after Haggard’s death. And Slate ran this piece. Haggard could be many things to many people, just like Robert Burns had been. Most of the interesting people I have met don’t easily fit into boxes.

I’ve never been in a ‘canvass-covered cabin in a crowded labour camp’. But still sometimes I get a lump in my throat as Haggard unfolds the story of poverty and struggle, a mother’s sacrificial love and a father’s life of hard work to try to support the family. Of unfulfilled yet still faithful prayer, of parental age and decline, and of a child’s reflections and pained realisation that life had dealt them a tough hand, and there was absolutely nothing they could do about it.

'...I guess my opinion is all out of style
Don't get me started because I can get wild ...
We're just some of many that can't get no respect
Politically uncorrect ...'

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Crafts of the Ards - 16,000 'peasantry' women employed producing 'Scotch work' embroidery

Bro Kirkpatrick at Loughries Home  Oct 15

Above: William Kirkpatrick, his wife Mary and infant daughter Jane at their home at Cunningburn just south of Newtownards, around 1910. William was WM of the local Orange lodge, Loughries LOL 1948. Mary and an unidentified girl are pictured 'flowering'.


Excellent information here from the classic Ireland, its scenery, character by Mr & Mrs S C Hall, Vol III, London (1843) - online here.

“...Throughout the whole of this district - the Barony of Ards, and that of Castlereagh - a large proportion of the peasantry are employed in what is technically termed “flowering” - embroidering muslin, chiefly for the Glasgow manufacturers, who supply the unwrought material, and pay fixed sums for the workmanship… between 2000 and 3000 girls from five to twelve years of age employed at veining… sewers employed at needlework for Belfast houses, between 2000 and 3000... about 10,000 employed as needle-workers for Glasgow houses... nearly the whole of the work sent from Glasgow to London and other parts of England is produced in this district. It is bleached in Scotland, and sold as “Scotch work”..,

The people of County Down also had a visible appreciation for tartan clothing –

 ... soon after entering the county of Down, we began to feel we were in another country; in a district at least where the habits as well as the looks of the people were altogether different from those to which we had been accustomed... Both men and women wore neat and well-mended clothes. Tartan shawls, ribands and even waistcoats, intimated our close approximation to the Scottish coast...

...the nearness of this county to the Mull of Galloway has made the districts, on the two sides, scarcely distinguishable; and the stream of Scottish population can be traced most distinctly from Donaghadee and Bangor, upwards to the interior..."

 On page 24 there’s a brilliant description of how the people looked different, sandy-haired and blue eyed, spoke Scotch. They had very little furniture in their homes. Large Bibles, covered with green tartan, a few books, and 'the usual northern group of orange lilies’.


The Ulster Folk & Transport Museum has a pretty extensive collection of Ulster-made Ayrshire embroidery; on their website here they specify the Ards Peninsula as the main region where it was produced. The image below is of a christening gown from Maybole in Ayrshire. But it was maybe made in the Ards.

This Google image search will show you just how beautiful and intricate a craft this was.