Sunday, June 17, 2018

Henry Thomson & Co - Old Irish Whisky, Newry Ireland

Henry Thomson Bottles

This firm was a big brand in its day, seemingly advertising itself heavily in Scotland. Henry Thomson senior is a bit of an unknown; he died in 1859 and must have made a vast fortune from whisky. The distillery seems to have been on Trevor Hill in Newry. However his obituaries make no mention of this. He lived from 1797-1859 (see grave reference here), but the brand claimed an origin date of 1816, when Henry senior was just 19 years old. Perhaps a previous generation of Thomsons were also in the Newry drink trade.

Interestingly, just a few miles away, Dundalk County Museum has in its collection a buffalo skin coat, worn by William of Orange at the Boyne, which was owned by a Robert Thomson of Ravensdale, a large estate just a few miles south of Newry.

Henry's second son, also Henry Thomson (1840-1916), took over the business and in the 1880s became Unionist MP for Newry (Wikipedia here). During his lifetime the family owned an impressive number of properties - Scarvagh House (best known as the location for the annual ’Sham Fight’ on 13th July), Altnaveigh HouseDownshire House and Ballyedmond House. They gave land for the building of Scarvagh Orange Hall (opened in 1908).

When Henry Thomson junior died in 1916, the local community set about establishing the Henry Thomson Memorial Orange Hall which was opened in June 1921. The opening event included a presentation of a portrait of Thomson and his Orange sash. A Royal Black Preceptory Henry Thomson Memorial RBP No 1000 was also established. To clear the debts from the building of the Hall, a two day bazaar was held in November 1923 which was opened by Lady Craig, the wife of Sir James Craig who had of course been involved in the Dunville’s Whisky empire. When you also consider the drinks empire of Lyle & Kinahan, and the Orange connections of the Kinahan family, an unexpected picture emerges of the spirits industry in Victorian Ulster in which, like many industries of the time, senior Unionists and Orangemen played a leading role. Presumably they were mostly ‘temperance’ people rather than ‘total abstinence’.

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Thomson’s quality must have been good as they secured the ‘By Royal Appointment’ status, and supplied Parliament.

Henry Thomson & Co seem to have had a particularly energetic agent in Scotland - Robert Brown & Co of Glasgow. They even had a brand of Scotch, and a ‘Fine Old Demerara Rum’. Their advertising in the early 20th century is as strong as many of the big brands of that era. Some examples are below, a few of which are from ‘Burns Chronicle’ publications.

I am not clear on when the brand went into decline. The ‘Ulster Pavilion’ at the British Empire Exhibition in London in 1925 had an area devoted to promoting Ulster whiskies, but perhaps the Prohibition era in the USA from 1920-33 had an impact on the global market. A search of the British Newspaper Archive shows no adverts for the brand beyond 1929.

 • Some more Thomson items are online here at

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Greater Britian Sat Feb 15 18901940s HENRY THOMSONS LTD NEWRY SCOTLAND SCOTCH WHISKEYBL 0000563 19241127 111 00111903 6Henry Thomson 1908 v2Henry Thomson 1908

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Monday, June 11, 2018

Ulster 71 exhibition

Various Ulster-American figures featured here:

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Before The Throne of God Above - the 'sympathy marriage' of Charitie Smith / Charitie Lee Bancroft De Cheney

It’s become one of the most popular hymns of recent years. Before The Throne of God Above was originally written by a teenage girl from County Fermanagh around 1860 which she then published in a collection of poems in 1867. It lay pretty much in obscurity until it was recovered around 1997 by American songwriter Vikki Cook of Sovereign Grace Music, who composed a new tune. It has since become a worldwide favourite.

The quality and simplicity of the words have brought wide acclaim from seasoned theologians, an excellent summary of the basics of the Reformed faith. It is remarkable that a teenager had such understanding and expressive skills.

• Charitie Smith
The writer was Charitie Smith (1841-1923; Wikipedia here). She was born in Dublin, the daughter of a Scottish-born Church of Ireland rector called Sidney Smith who ministered at Colebrooke and later Drumragh near Omagh. So Charitie’s childhood and early life was spent in the rural west of Ulster within the communities of these two churches. There is a memorial stained glass window to Sidney in one of them. She married former Royal Navy man Arthur E. Bancroft from Liverpool on 21 October 1869 at St Thomas Episcopal Church in Corstorphine, Edinburgh. His father was Peter Bancroft (1809–97), a prominent merchant. However, Arthur Bancroft died some time in the 1880s.

A dig around reveals more detail...

• Prison Philanthropy
Charitie went to America, possibly with her doctor brother Thomas. In newspaper records from California she was described as ‘a woman of considerable means’ who became involved in philanthropic prison reform work in the famed penitentiaries of San Quentin and Folsom. She didn’t only invest her time and goodwill there -  ‘a large part of her personal fortune was spent in the reformation of former inmates’. 

• Marriage
She married Frank Lees De Cheney. He was 27 years younger than her, a ‘mining man and rancher’. Some accounts date the marriage at 1891 when she would have been 50 and he 23. Other accounts say 1901, when she would have been 60 and he 33. It was definitely 1901 when the marriage broke down.

• Divorce
On April 17 1915, aged 75, Charitie, described as ‘a familiar figure in the exclusive set’, was served with divorce papers. They were pushed through an open window by Sheriff Michael Sheehan while she was asleep on the front porch of her summer home at Moss Beach in San Francisco.

The divorce was on the grounds of ‘desertion - the claimant is from San Francisco, and claims that his wife refused to live in San Francisco but preferred southern California’.

The divorce was granted in infamous Reno, Nevada (where the song famously says ‘romances bloom and fade') on 29 May 1915; newspaper reports reveal some context – 'there was a touch of religious difference between the two. Mrs De Cheney is a devout woman while he is a professed agnostic. Her nephew testified along this line saying that he did not think Mrs De Cheney had ever been in a theater in her life.' The wedding was described as ‘a sympathy affair; he had just emerged from a long illness at the time and she had been exceeding kind to him. After the wedding she thought that he would be better away from the temptations of a large city, but he did not agree to that. De Cheney went to Nevada shortly after they parted in 1901’.

She died on 20 January 1923, aged 82, and was buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.
Her brother Thomas Orde Smith also died in Oakland, California in 1931.



Before the throne of God above 
I have a strong and perfect plea 
A great High Priest whose name is love 
Who ever lives and pleads for me 
My name is graven on His hands 
My name is written on His heart 
I know that while in heav’n He stands 
No tongue can bid me thence depart 
No tongue can bid me thence depart 

When Satan tempts me to despair 
And tells me of the guilt within 
Upward I look and see Him there 
Who made an end of all my sin 
Because the sinless Savior died 
My sinful soul is counted free 
For God the Just is satisfied 
To look on Him and pardon me 
To look on Him and pardon me 

Behold Him there, the risen Lamb 
My perfect, spotless Righteousness 
The great unchangeable I AM 
The King of glory and of grace 
One with Himself, I cannot die 
My soul is purchased by His blood 
My life is hid with Christ on high 
With Christ my Savior and my God 
With Christ my Savior and my God

Monday, May 21, 2018

E. Estyn Evans on Ulster's three traditions (1951)

E. Estyn Evans (1905-1989; Wikipedia here) was one of the foremost figures of his time - I know some who studied under him at Queen’s University - he was a recognised authority on folklife and tradition, an academic and author. His Irish Folk Ways (1957) is a classic text. Here is his take on the three traditions concept, from a book published for the Festival of Britain in 1951. We might take a softer view, in that there are overlaps across all three, but you can see that he was aware of the 'model' as a way of explaining Ulster's story. It is interesting that the cobbled streets of Belfast were paved with Scottish stones.

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Nesca Robb on Ulster's three linguistic traditions

The family of Nesca Adeline Robb (1905–1976) ran the once-famous Robb's Department Store in Belfast city centre. She was a friend of the likes of John Hewitt and Sam Hanna Bell, and was effectively the founder of the National Trust in Northern Ireland, and an important figure in the arts community here, with international recognition for some of her writings. Her unpublished manuscripts in PRONI are a cultural goldmine - she could see that an understanding was being lost in the rush towards modernity. Here she is explaining our three traditions. Nesca Robb 3 traditions

Nesca Robb cover

The Scotch-Irish of Northampton County, Pennsylvania

Northampton County has a Belfast, a Bangor, a North Bangor, and not far beyond is Milford. This 1879 book is subtitled A Record of those Scotch-Irish Presbyterian Families who were the First Settlers in the Forks of Delaware. A quick flick through the text shows frequent usages of the term Scotch Irish and also one of Ulster Scot. So once again the terminological pedigree is evident.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Jason Isbell - 'If We Were Vampires"

Great artist (referred to in a recent post), great song, great aesthetic in these three videos.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

All mixed up

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Culture is transmitted. People share things, adopt things, and (often unwittingly) absorb the community values that surround them. People change and adapt. New things come along, some old things endure, some are discarded. New people embrace those values and become part of the community. This is what makes life interesting, and Ulster is no different. In that regard culture is much more interesting to me than assumptions about ancestry. 

It’s maybe easier to observe in America, where for example the wonderful musical duo the Loudermilk / Louvin Brothers, of Dutch or German ancestry, lived in the very Scotch-Irish world of northern Alabama and the southern Appalachians. Their ancestry wasn’t defining, but their cultural setting was.

I only knew three of my grandparents - my paternal grandfather, the local poet and three field homestead farmer William Thompson, died a long time before I was born. The other three were solidly culturally Ulster-Scots in every imaginable way, and so I am sure that he was too.

Yet it is highly presumptious to think that that’s all they were comprised of. A peek into their ancestry reveals some interesting potential twists. My maternal grandmother was Mary-Ann (Molly) Hamill (1918-1982). My paternal grandmother was Maggie-Anne (Madge) Coffey (1911-1995). These two surnames, Hamill and Coffey, are pretty much as old as it gets round here - older than the Lowland Scottish surnames which arrived here post-1606 with Hamilton & Montgomery.

Both Coffey and Hamill can be found as surnames of the Irish tenants on James Hamilton’s east Down estates in the early 1600s. Neill and Manus O’Hamill lived at Ballyhalbert and Groomsport respectively, and Edward O’Coffie and his brother, whose first name is unrecorded, lived at Killyleagh. They weren't ‘driven out’ as the loaded stereotype would claim. These, and other Irish families, are referred to even in Sir James Hamilton’s will. It is entirely plausible that these are ancestors of my two grandmothers.

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Their names are among those catalogued in Rev David Stewart’s landmark 1950s research The Scots in Ulster - that’s where the images on this post come from. 

Ancestrally my grandmothers may well have had some pre-Plantation Irish elements, but culturally they were both Ulster-Scots. There’s a family tradition on the Hamill side, probably dating from the late 1800s or early 1900s, that a young Catholic girl from Donaghadee had fallen pregnant, was shunned by her family. A young Presbyterian man, a shopkeeper from Millisle, took pity on her, gave her a job and a room in his house, and eventually they got married. Surnames like Drennan and Carr/Kerr bubble around in that generation, I’m not precisely sure which apply to this - socially scandalous - couple. 

Most of us, ancestrally, are a mixed bag. But culturally, my lot have been Ulster-Scots for as far back as anyone can recall. Prior to that, my white eyebrows and haplogroup I-M253 suggest a bit of Viking or Anglo-Norman in there. 

Our actual lived experience, and the influence and values of our families and community, is what forms us culturally - not some imagined ancient past. We learn from our history but we live our culture, and our culture can take on new forms and be shared with others.

There’s a great letter from Rev Josias Welsh of Templepatrick in south Antrim who observed in 1632 that people recently arrived from England were quickly adopting Presbyterian culture. Shamrock, rose and thistle.

So when I was at a history talk event not that long ago, and not in my own locality - I was a bit shocked when the Q&A session at the end descended into a “they stole our land”.  What is meant by “they”? And what is meant by “our”? I know fine well what was implied, but when your ancestry is probably on both sides of the argument then you can see how pointless it is.

And does one historical moment matter more than all other moments? Do the eras of conflict assume more importance than the eras of co-operation? Does the present generation inherit the culpability for the social problems of the past, but gain none of the credit for historical social co-operations? And how is that responsibility or credit tangibly measured?

In a way we are all either editors or audiences - editors in that we choose what we decide to cherish, audiences in that someone else’s editorial decisions are served up to us. These choices are made for good or for ill. 

So where do you choose to draw the line?

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Ulster's three strands - shamrock, rose and thistle

Shamrock Rose Thistle copy

Three cultural traditions interwoven and overlapping, growing in the same soil. A 'triple blend'. To quote King Solomon, a 'threefold cord'. Others have spoken of a 'three-legged stool'.

Before the Troubles, but even into the mid 1970s, ‘shamrock rose and thistle’ can be seen to be frequently used as a literary, and often visual, motif as an idea to summarise Ulster’s cultural blend. It maps onto our faith communities (Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian), languages (Ulster Irish, Ulster English, Ulster Scots) and our peoples. Of course there are other groups, but these three are the main ones. Giants of Ulster folklife and traditions, like Sam Hanna Bell, often cited the idea.

So I was surprised recently to hear the concept outrightly dismissed by influential people who really should know better. There is an important task to be done in chronologically cataloguing the authentic usage of this historic concept - it might help our present, and our future. Some examples below.

Traditional singer Eddie Butcher, 1976 Shamrockroseandthistle led2070

Derry Journal, 31 July 1850 Tenant Right Letterkenny

Belfast News Letter, 4 December 1914 Ulster linen 1914

Embroidery sampler, perhaps the one referred to above? Ulster Linen crop

Ulster Reform Club mosaic floor, built 1885 Image004

Monday, April 16, 2018

1606 - Ulster and Virginia


(The plaque above is at Historic Jamestown; an illustration of the plaque can be seen in Prof. Jordan B. Peterson’s bestselling recent book 12 Rules for Life).


On 10 April 1606, when his Ayrshire friends James Hamilton and Hugh Montgomery were preparing boats of Lowland Scots folk and supplies to sail from south west Scotland to County Down, King James VI & I signed the First Charter of Virginia, permitting Englishmen to establish a colony in Virginia. Hamilton & Montgomery’s families arrived at Donaghadee in May 1606; the Jamestown colony arrived in Virginia a year later in May 1607.

The full text of the Charter is online here at Yale Law School

King James promised these first American settlers:

"that all and every the Persons being our Subjects, which shall dwell and inhabit within every or any of the said several Colonies and Plantations, and every of their children, which shall happen to be born within any of the Limits and Precincts of the said several Colonies and Plantations, shall HAVE and enjoy all Liberties, Franchises, and Immunities, within any of our other Dominions, to all Intents and Purposes, as if they had been abiding and born, within this our Realm of England, or any other of our said Dominions”.

170 years later, the American Revolution would be fought against a Crown which was restricting those promised liberties, with Samuel Adams (a friend and occasional congregant of influential Donegal-born Ulsterman Francis Allison) restating in 1772 in his The Rights of the Colonists that:

"All persons born in the British American Colonies are, by the laws of God and nature and by the common law of England, exclusive of all charters from the Crown, well entitled, and by acts of the British Parliament are declared to be entitled, to all the natural, essential, inherent, and inseparable rights, liberties, and privileges of subjects born in Great Britain or within the realm."

Shortly after, this stance would famously become "all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”, reaching far beyond any earthly Crown, King or Kingdom - an appeal to the ultimate Throne, not one in London.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

William McEwan's Edison cylinders, 1912 - and a new 'anthology' box set.

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The William McEwan/ MacEwan story just won’t go away! In the past two weeks I’ve found that, before the legendary 78s for Columbia Phonograph Co., he issued four cylinders for Edison, one of which is winging its way across the Atlantic to me as we speak. These were issued in 1912:

‘Memories of Mother’ (12424) – March 1912
‘Gospel Bells’ (14122) – March 1912
‘The Broken Heart’ (14160) – August 1912
‘God Will Take Care of You’ (14163) – October 1912

There are varying accounts of when the Columbia recordings were made (most say November 1911) and issued (most say September 1913). But these 1912 Edison cylinders are a whole new discovery. They are listed here.

Just as much of a surprise was an email from someone I’ve known a long time who, it turns out, is also a McEwan fan, and who intends to release an ‘anthology' box set of all of the recordings later this year. More on this to follow.

WilliamMcEwan Graphic

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Kinahan's 'Glenisle' and Lyle & Kinahan's 'Scotch Malt Very Old' - Scotch Whisky from Ireland, late 1800s?


I have been learning more recently about whisky. It’s not a specialist subject of mine but I do remember my mother keeping a bottle of Bushmills at the back of the cupboard to make up some whisky punch as a pacifier for my younger siblings. Maybe that’s illegal now!

Anyway, I have found that the Dublin-based Irish spirits producer Kinahan’s had a brand of Scotch whisky called Glenisle. Their Belfast rival with the ‘confusingly-similar’ name of Lyle & Kinahan, had a Scotch Malt called Very Old. Some adverts showing these are below.

The Dublin firm dates from the 1770s. Belfast’s Lyle & Kinahan was founded in 1850 by Samuel Lyle and Frederick Kinahan (1830-1902) of Lowwood, north Belfast, when they bought out William McClure & Son. He was the son of Rev John Kinahan, Rector of Knockbreda, and seemingly a nephew of the then-owners of the Dublin brand.

(Samuel Lyle lived at 23 University Square and was an elder of Fisherwick Place Presbyterian Church. He seems to have been a good deal older than Kinahan, and was a friend his rector father. Lyle and Rev Kinahan were committee members of the Ulster Society for Promoting the Education of the Deaf, Dumb and Blind. Lyle was also a donor to the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, and an office-bearer in both the Belfast Town Mission and Belfast General Hospital. There are hints that Lyle may have become uncomfortable with the firm selling alcohol, but when Lyle died on 24 December 1856, Kinahan was very happy to scale it up).

The two companies got into a major legal tangle over trademarks and copyrights in 1906 (see documentation here). The Belfast firm was the winner, having been able to prove continuous use of the name since 1867.

As yet I don't know if these whiskies were distilled in Scotland, or here in Ulster/Ireland, but it’s an interesting geographical and branding overlap that would probably be impossible today given how regulated and protected the definitions of Scotch and Irish whiskys/whiskeys have become.

Kinahan’s was revived a few years ago and its ‘LL’ brand is back on the market again. As far as I know Lyle & Kinahan died out in the late twentieth century and its plant was bought over by Bass Ireland. (photo below from Facebook)

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Sunday, April 08, 2018

The Gospel origins of country music ... and rock 'n' roll?

I was recently invited to have a conversation about this topic for a forthcoming radio broadcast. More on that to follow.

It’s a subject that’s been been in the back of my head for a long time, absorbed over maybe 30+ years of reading, listening, observing and researching. Fragments have been posted here too.

With the huge upsurge of popular hymnwriting which seems to have followed the revivals of the 1850s in particular* (in Scotland, Ulster and America pretty much simultaneously), a new ‘template’ for hymnwriting emerged. Simple tunes, easily singable. Repeated choruses. 4/4 time and 3 chords. Big ‘hook’ melodies. Easy to harmonise with. Written by skilled songwriters, many of whom were already successful in the secular mainstream. A little faster and suddenly you’re starting to sound like Lynyrd Skynyrd unplugged. I can remember a piano player in a hall I used to go to in my teens, not much older than me, who, when he got the chance, would sprinkle in a bit of honky-tonk when he thought the hymn warranted it. It was magic.

These hymns were massively popular - and at the same time somewhat controversial for the more traditionally-minded churches. It brought the format of secular pop songs and folk songs into the churches - and when you grasp that, then you can see more clearly the case for exclusive Psalms-only worship.

Yet the Wedderburn brothers in 1500s Scotland had done just the same thing with their Luther-inspired Gude and Godlie Ballads (see previous post here). Never underestimate the power of songs -  the Ballads ‘… did more for the spread of reformation doctrines than any other book published in Scotland …’ but soon it would be John Calvin’s Psalms-only approach which would come to dominate the country. Fast forward 300+ years and when Moody & Sankey arrived in Psalms-only Scotland in the 1870s, and Ireland shortly after, the Glasgow press wrote that the hymns sounded like Scottish and Irish folk music (see previous post here). So what Moody & Sankey did wasn’t ‘new’, they were in fact just turning the clock back.

Many famous singers emerged from the world of popular hymns. It’s a big subject for another post. We’re not just talking about the Carter Family of the 1920s, it carries on right up to the present day. The wonderful 4-times Grammy winner Jason Isbell - a native of Alabama and 7 years younger than me - recently spoke of his grandfather teaching him to play the guitar, starting with gospel standards. 

And of his father’s 6 day working week in the local hospital meaning he was sad to be too tired to go to church some Sundays, which inspired his song Something More Than Free.

Sunday morning I'm too tired to go to church
But I thank God for the work
When I get my reward my work will all be done
And I will sit back in my chair beside the Father and the Son

From 1850 to now is about 170 years of unbroken tradition. The quality of the songs is so good that they have endured.

When you grow up in an environment of that type of songwriting, the basic template is only a whisker away from what would become known as 12 bar blues. And the hymns were used in both white and black churches. And mixed ones too. Music gets shared. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, Thomas Dorsey would all sing these and compose similar ones of their own. Go to 9 minutes here to see Thomas Dorsey and Sallie Martin. Just wonderful!

Gospel is a message before it’s a genre. The life-changing message of being made right with God by faith alone through grace alone - a gift received, not a reward earned. Christ not merely as a good example or wise moral teacher, but as our Substitute, Mediator, Advocate. What Luther described as ‘The Great Exchange’ takes place - Christ took upon Himself what we deserve, and we receive what He deserves. Whether it’s through the grandeur of Handel’s Messiah, a plaintive ancient Psalm, or an irresistible foot-tapping gem like Would You Be Free from your Burden of Sin?, it's good news worth singing about. This isn’t religion as control, this is faith as liberty. As Philip Bliss wrote around 1870, “Free from the Law, Oh happy condition!"

Elvis’ only Grammys were for his gospel albums. And so many of the writers of those old hymns were of Ulster descent. It’s not an American importation, it’s a genuinely transatlantic tradition. Moody, Sankey, Chapman and Alexander came over here; many of ours went over there. James Martin Gray, whose parents emigrated from Gray’s Hill in Bangor, became one of Moody’s right hand men and wrote the hymn Only A Sinner Saved By GraceCharles Hutchison Gabriel is said to have sold 17 million copies of the sheet music for his 1900 composition Oh That Will Be Glory For Me. That’s as many sales as Hotel California by The Eagles, one of the biggest-selling albums of all time.

Just before Christmas, Mojo magazine had a free cover CD entitled True Faith. So many great tracks on it, including Johnny Cash’s 1959 version of Lead Me Gently Home Father.

It was written by William L. Thompson, who is said to have been America’s first million dollar songwriter. His grandparents had been Ballymena emigrants. Thompson had a massive musical instrument mail order business, selling everything from harmonium pump-organs to fiddles, guitars, mandolins and banjos. Here’s one of his hymnals which he edited and published around 1904, featuring Where He May Lead Me I Will Go, Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown, I Surrender All, Sunshine In The Soul, all just in the first few pages. Classics every one.

The great evangelist Dwight L. Moody, on his death bed, turned to his friend Will L. Thompson and said, 'I would rather have written “Softly and Tenderly” than anything I have been able to do in my whole life!'

* there were of course many hymnwriters before 1850, but it’s a useful date in terms of the scale of output and the arising publishing industry.

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Friday, April 06, 2018

Elizabeth Catte - "What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia"

Elizabeth Catte writes some great stuff. She's Appalachian, and wisely rebutts all of the easy clichés and stereotypes, including Hillbilly Elegy. But not through academic knowledge alone, through actual lived experience. Check out her website here.

At first I was excited about Hillbilly Elegy and the re-emergence of the Scotch-Irish/Scots-Irish 'nation' in the American consciousness. But then I read it and was disappointed. It became the easy 'go-to' for the urban media class scrambling for explanations for the Trump victory. The Scotch-Irish story is far broader, deeper and more important than that.

Rev Robert Fishburne Campbell (1858-1947) of First Presbyterian Church, Asheville, North Carolina, also had some interesting things to say about Appalachian stereotypes, almost 120 years ago. Some he refutes, but others he confirms.

• Here’s a 1901 booklet entitled Classification of Mountain Whites. He suggests that there are three classes of people in the mountains, with the Scotch-Irish being the virtuous and industrious ones. Make of that what you will. 

• Here’s another by Campbell on Mission Work among the Mountain Whites (1899)

• here’s one entitled Some Aspects of the Race Problem in the South from the same year.

There are a few biographies of Campbell online. Like us all, a man of his time, but he seems to have been prominent and influential. Here’s one on It’s important to consider all of the angles, and to be honest about the biases and contexts of the past. We today all have our own biases, even subconscious. As does the media.

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Some Aspects of the Race Problem in the South Blog

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

From Cavan to Canada - the Ulster-Scots origins of Canada Dry Ginger Ale

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Canada dry label 1906

Canada Dry is one of the world’s biggest soft drink brands. Ginger ale is now enjoying a resurgence, largely thanks to the rapid growth of the gin industry worldwide and in particular here in Northern Ireland. A number of successful local gins, such as Jawbox, recommend mixing the spirit with ginger ale. Ginger ale is said to have been invented in Belfast, perhaps as early as the 1830s.

Canada Dry was founded in 1904 by John James McLauglin (1865-1914), who had set up a drinks company in 1890 having spent time in New York working for a similar firm. McLaughlin's family roots were Ulster-Scots.

His grandfather, also called John (1811-1893), had been born in Knockbride in County Cavan and was baptised at Corraneary Presbyterian Church. He and Eliza Rusk were betrothed and they were among a group of Ulster emigrants who left in 1832. They married in 1834. Their grandson Sam McLaughlin later wrote this account (the two Tyrone references are potentially confusing) –

… Grandfather John McLaughlin came to Canada from County Tyrone on a sailing ship in 1832. He and the 140 other Irish men, women and children on the ship were not "potato famine" immigrants but had been persuaded to come to Canada by an agent for a scheme to populate the Peterborough area. I don't think Grandfather McLaughlin required much persuasion; he was eager for the opportunities offered to an energetic young man by the big new country across the Atlantic,

At Montreal John McLaughlin and his companions transferred to river boats for the hazardous trip up to Lake Ontario. It proved so hazardous that Grandfather nearly did not survive it. His boat was swamped in rough water and all his possessions were lost. When he landed at Cobourg for the overland journey to Peterborough he had only the contents of a thin wallet between himself and destitution.

Grandfather stayed in Peterborough only a short time, then took up a 160-acre grant of crown land in the virgin forest six miles north of Bowmanville. Some of the other Irish settlers took land nearby, and, nostalgically, they called the place Tyrone.

Granddad cut enough trees to build a log cabin and make a clearing to sow his first crop. In that log cabin was born his eldest child, my father Robert McLaughlin ... 

… Granddad was a devout man, and the only activity permitted on Sundays was church-going. But that in itself was an adventure, a complete change of scene, a transition from the "Little Ireland" atmosphere of Tyrone to the mixed Irish and Scottish settlement of Enniskillen, four miles away. For there was no Presbyterian church at Tyrone, and the good Ulstermen journeyed to the kirk at Enniskillen ...

Re: the Tyrone references, Sam is wrong in the first one - his grandfather John and grandmother Eliza were definitely from County Cavan in Ulster, but he is right in the second reference, that there was a Tyrone in Canada. Such was the concentration of Ulster settlement in this part of Canada that they did indeed settle at a place called Tyrone, in Cavan Township, near Enniskillen, in Durham County, Ontario. There were of course many Orange lodges in the district (see here for more details, in ‘Early Days in Enniskillen - Part 3').

Their son Robert Samuel (1836-1921) was born in Cavan Township. He became a wealthy industrialist, setting up the McLaughlin Carriage Company in 1867 which later collaborated with Buick and was eventually merged into General Motors Canada. Robert was also a Sunday School teacher in his father’s kirk - Enniskillen Presbyterian Church, Ontario.

… It was in the kirk that my father met Mary Smith, the daughter of Scottish settlers who had come to Enniskillen from Perthshire two or three years after the McLaughlins reached Tyrone. She was a bonnie lass, this Enniskillen girl who was to become my mother ...

John James, the founder of the Canada Dry brand, was born in Enniskillen in Ontario. He was a chemist. His two brothers joined the family car firm, but John established the J.J. McLaughlin Company Limited, Manufacturers of Hygeia Beverages in Toronto. He attended Rosedale Presbyterian Church in Toronto, a congregation which had been founded in 1907. After a lifetime of poor health, McLaughlin died in 1914 aged just 48. The company was sold in 1923 but the brand continues to sparkle today.

• His entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography is online here.

… the sweet, dark gold, Belfast-style ginger ale bottled and sold by McLaughlin, and patterned after a ginger ale long popular in Ireland and Canada, was changed to a less sugared substance of lighter colour. To market it, the slogan that would become known the world over, “The Champagne of Ginger Ales” ...

Images duckduckgo

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Monday, March 26, 2018

The folk aboot Hame

I’m happy - and relieved - at the response to Hame. I am so very much an amateur at all of this, but trusting the experience and skill of professionals who have proven themselves over and over again with the highest quality work. Friends and neighbours are talking to me, Portavogie folk are very happy with how the village was portrayed, and the early word on the Raphoe programme is full of the same positive ‘happy vibes’. I can’t list them all here. But here is just one.

On Saturday, a now-elderly gentleman, with flowing white beard, came up to me in Donaghadee. At first I didn’t recognise him. He’s 81 now but I remember him from when I was wee, as he was a builder by day but also a frequent, very powerful, preacher in the halls around here. In later years when I saw pictures of John Caldwell Calhoun, he reminded me of this man.

‘Are you that Thompson fellow?’ he said to me, introduced himself and then flowed into a few minutes of fond warm reminiscence. 

He spoke at my grandmother’s funeral, both up at the wee house at Ballyfrench and down at the graveside in Ballyhalbert after we had cairryt her doon tha brae. He also spoke at my aunt Doris’s funeral service at the People’s Hall in Portavogie. He was thrilled by the programme.

I am reassured that television professionals and culturally-minded people are happy with the series. I am humbled when local folk whose place and story we all sought to tell are happy with the end result.

But when a man like this, whose voice I sat under frequently on Sunday evenings for maybe 20 years, tells me with excitement how he sang along with Pull For The Shore, with a twinkle in his eyes and a big beaming smile on his elderly bearded face, I know we’ve done a good job.




Monday, March 19, 2018

"Scotch Irish ... heathen Republicans and Presbyterians"

Now that might look like a quote from a very long time ago, but in actual fact it’s from just a few days back. The remark was made by Phildadelphia Democratic State Rep Mike O’Brien, about the Irish-American ‘Caucus’ in Washington DC. The interviewer from The Inquirer newspaper asked him:

When I looked up the caucus, I couldn’t find any list of Republicans. Why’s that?
Because they’re ashamed of it. [Note to reader: There’s no indication this is true.] Because there’s Irish, which means they’re all Dems. But then there’s Scotch Irish, who are not God-fearing Democrats, but heathen Republicans and Presbyterians.

Make of that what you will! Full interview is here.


Saturday, March 17, 2018

'Hame' by John Stevenson, aka Pat M'Carty, Belfast (1903)

John Stevenson (1851-1931) is another of our under-appreciated writers. He was one of the partners of the renowned printing firm McCaw Stevenson & Orr, which still exists today as MSO Cleland and was fairly high profile in Ulster business and literary life.

He was born in Rostrevor in 1851 ‘where his family were temporarily residing’. His father, also called John, had been the manager of Linfield Mill in Belfast, and the younger John took a job with Barbour’s Linen Mill at Hilden. He lived in Bangor briefly (the family had a property near the Dufferin Demesne called ‘Everton’ which was sold in 1874) but for most of his life he lived at a house named ‘Coolavin' on the Malone Road in Belfast. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, Chairman of the Board of the Ulster Hospital for Children and Women on Templemore Avenue, a member of the Kirk Session of May Street Presbyterian Church and later Fisherwick Presbyterian Church. He was also involved in the Belfast City Mission.

He died at ‘Coolavin' in early June 1931 and had an ‘eloquent tribute’ at Fisherwick by Rev John Waddell, and was buried at the City Cemetery. ‘Coolavin' had a summer-house decorated in scriptural and literary inscriptions. His wife Catherine died at Coolavin on 28 February 1954; the house was replaced by ‘Queen’s Elms’ in the 1960s.

He wrote the excellent popular history Two Centuries of Life In Down, 1600-1800, published in 1920 (online here) and a number of other books. His first was a collection of poems and short stories using an alter-ego character called Pat M’Carty. These had first appeared in a periodical called The Pen, and so impressed was the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava that he called at Stevenson’s office to find out who Pat M’Carty was!

The full volume appeared in 1903, entitled Pat M’Carty - His Rhymes, and included some Ulster-Scots translations of some of the Psalms. I have made good use of these over the years. An online edition is available here.

Some of the Rhymes were later set to melodies by Sir Charles Stanford, and sung by Harry Plunket-Greene - the British Newspaper Archive refers to ‘Cushendall', 'The Crow', ‘Night' and 'Daddy Long Legs' being performed in the Aeolian Hall in June 1910 as an 'Irish Song Cycle' - and also at Devonshire Park in September of the same year. Following a concert in the Free Trade Hall on 30 January 1911 a review in the Manchester Courier described them as ‘excellent examples of the peasant lore of the country’, giving special mention to pieces entitled 'Did You Ever’ and ‘How Does the Wind Blow?’.

Stevenson’s A Boy in the Country was published in 1912 and is online here. He also published his own 1917 translation of De Latocnaye's A Frenchman’s Walk Through Ireland, which dates from 1796-7 (online here). This includes the now almost immortal line ‘Belfast has almost entirely the look of a Scotch town and the character of the inhabitants has considerable resemblance to that of Glasgow’.

Prominent people of yesteryear were completely comfortable with all aspects of their Ulster-Scots heritage. Here is how John Stevenson / Pat M’Carty expressed the concept of ‘hame’. Really good stuff.

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Sunday, March 11, 2018

Welcome 'Hame'

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Well this week will be interesting! After many months of filming, working with really great people, travelling across Ulster to six places seldom seen on tv, ‘Hame’ will go on air next Sunday night, on BBC2 Northern Ireland, at 10pm. We recorded the promo adverts at our kitchen table last Friday so I think they’ll be broadcast over the next few days.

I like Belfast. I chose to stay here to study and work when many of my peers went to Scotland or England. There’s life beyond greater Belfast, but greater Belfast issues, voices and viewpoints tend to dominate our airwaves. It’s as much about the mindset as it is the geography. Ulster-Scots exists in the city too, but well below the usual media ‘radar’. It is indeed a ‘very Scottish city’.

But there’s another, rural, world here in which authentic Ulster-Scots lives and breathes. Ulster-Scots works best when it’s expressed at grassroots, even when those grassroots are imperfect and maybe not as knowledgeable as they might be, or as their grandparents were. But they are still the 'keepers of the flame'. You can’t invent authenticity and enthusiasm. The best thing to do is to meet those folk on their own terms and let them speak for themselves. And that’s pretty much what we did.

I am glad that Sean and Fiona and Michael coaxed me into doing it. I'm co-presenting with the very wonderful Ruth Sanderson, well-known to viewers of HomeGround already. I'm just the new boy! It’s been hard work, but an honour and pleasure to have been involved in. It’s taught me a lot about how tough it is to make a tv series. It’s shown me that within the broadcast sector there are people who care (my experience over the years of trying to engage with that world has been pretty mixed). I think that their professionalism, talent, care, attention to detail, empathy, and understanding of tradition, shines through.

But ultimately, Hame is about the people and the places that we visited and spent time with. Tune in and see for yourself.

As the old motto says, Gang East, Gang West – Hame's Best.

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Monday, March 05, 2018

Part 7: Ernest Milligan's 36 'Up Bye Ballads': review


Wrapping this story up. What we’ve seen in this series of posts is that the Milligan family as a whole - mainly through the influence of their antiquarian and wealthy father Seaton - had a very wide range of cultural interests and allegiances. The best known of these are Alice’s celebrated Irish nationalist cultural activities and sister Charlotte’s work on Irish traditional song. An Ulster History Circle blue plaque in Omagh Library recalls them (image here).

Yet to us today it might be a surprise to find that there were also brothers, William and Charles, who served in the British Army and Royal Navy respectively. Charles lived until 1983, and served for over 40 years as an Alderman and Councillor in Bangor. Alice’s Shan Van Vocht magazine touched a little on what she called ‘broadest County Down Scotch’, and as a short-lived publication it deserves further investigation, as do her archives. But younger brother Ernest’s 1907 booklet Up Bye Ballads is the strongest example of Ulster-Scots awareness and appreciation within the family circle. As far as our understanding of ‘identity’ goes, the Milligan family pretty much has it all.

My take on the 36 poems and songs which make up Up Bye Ballads as a collection of poems is that they're a good quality appreciation of rural, Ulster-Scots tinged, life in Ards and North Down. I don’t think Ernest Milligan was setting out to be a major league poet, perhaps the collection was just intended for a fairly limited readership in the area. It’s interesting that they were widely reviewed but that could have been as a result of the Milligan family’s wider social influence. It would be particularly interesting to see if the North Down Herald reviewed it. So it’s unwise to retrospectively invest Up Bye Ballads with huge literary or cultural significance. It’s also a shame that Ernest's 2 or 3 youthful years of socialist activism with James Connolly add an extra reason for interest, because the poems themselves warrant their own attention.

They’re not great but they’re good and I enjoy them. They are a positive addition to the local ‘canon’ of Ulster-Scots creative writing from the late 1800s/early 1900s. I’ve read them through a few times, and at the moment the most interesting are:

• Gangin Up Bye – a romantic story of a young man helping a farmer’s daughter bring the kye hame, wooing and eventually marrying her. The story is set at ‘Portavoe wood’ which is where the Milligans’ first holiday home, called ‘Angus Cottage’, was situated. It has a chorus so was intended to be sung. Pretty good Ulster-Scots, with the possible hint of it being autobiographical of a teenage romance Ernest may have had, or observed.

The Whin Bush – Mostly standard English, making the case for the whin bush as the true emblem of Ulster - ‘Men of Ulster, let your token be the braw whin bush!’. Located in the Castlereagh hills, naming Ballylesson, Drum(beg), Purdysburn and ‘Minnieburn’ (Minnowburn)

• The Auld Red Cart – Farming reminiscence, reflecting on childhood around the farm and of how both things and people get old and worn out. A bit of anthropomorphism in the last verse - ‘for carts, with men an’ living things, then one down way must gang … I hae a corner in my memory for the auld red cart'

• Kate of Carrowdore – A standout piece, one I had been searching for for many years.

• M’Cready’s Call – A conversation of a much-loved minister accepting a call to move to a bigger, and more lucrative, congregation. Touches of the structure Robert Burns made famous, ‘standard habbie’. 

• Crossin' the Sound – A foreboding tale of a young man living with his widow mother on the Copeland Islands, who has promised to meet his true love in Donaghadee. His mother warns him not to go, he goes on regardless, and ends up lost at sea just as his father had been. 

• The Baker’s Man – A horse & cart bread delivery man’s story of his daily journeys, with a romance incorporated - ‘but de’il the bit she’ll stir, fu’ weel, she ken’s it’s nae her master’.

• Johnny Grumps – Meant to be a comedy piece, but from today’s perspective it could be about someone struggling with depression - ‘what’s gane wrang, what’s gane wrang, that makes yer face sae sour an’ lang, when ither folk make cheer?'

• Sing Bonnie Bird – A three verse song, more references to whin bushes, nice turn of phrase when he refers to ’the moss yestreen’.

• When Daddy to the Town has Gane – A girl’s romantic rendezvous with her boyfriend when her father is away. 

• Six Road Ends – Another standout piece, humourous and with a simple repeated rhythm. Packed with colour and similar to later local songs by other writers such as ‘The Harvest Fair’ and ‘The Big Stane’. You can see why it was later republished in The Book of Irish Poetry in 1915

• Christmas Eve – An interesting one, 11 verses long, blending Biblical references with local tradition and social reunion. References to parlour games.

• The Bonnie Birdie – Simple, with some light touches of real wordcraft - ‘Me heart’s sae sair and’ lonesome now, mair mournfu’ tune were fitter’.


The Ulster-Scots is pretty good, although inconsistent. You can tell he was learning, rather than had grown up with, the words and expressions. He uses English words in places where a ’native speaker’ just wouldn’t, for example ‘own’ instead of ‘ain’. But he deserves full credit for them.

And it is tantalising that in the 1930s, as an England-based doctor and occasional playwright and broadcaster, his radio programme The Ballad Singer was made up of songs that he had written. Perhaps some of the Up Bye Ballads were used. The performers were of a credible standard - Charlotte Tedlie would appear alongside Richard Hayward in the 1936 film The Luck of the Irish. Hilda Johnston, James Stewart, J.R. Mageean and the others listed in the radio schedule below were all frequently featured on BBC programmes of the era.

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I’ve wondered what the tunes might have been, and until some ancient recording surfaces we’ll never know. So for now I have begun to compose simple melodies and have performed ‘Kate of Carrowdore’ and ‘Six Road Ends’ at a few local events, where they’ve gone down really well. It’s a joy to take Ernest Milligan’s Up Bye Ballads back to the people and places they were first inspired by, and intended for. 

They work well as songs for a present-day audience, whose Ulster-Scots is light-touch, and a kind of speckle of words within their everyday speech. That being said, the words are an audible enough kenspeckle (definition here) to be noticed as unique local Ulster-Scots landmarks in their own right. There is still enough of what Alice called 'broadest County Down Scotch' to make the poems, or songs, special, and to stamp them with rich local provenance.