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.

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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.

Ballad Singer

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.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Part 6: Ernest Henry Marcus Milligan (1879–1954), his pseudonym Will Carew, and his 'Up Bye Ballads' (1907)

(It is very possible that Ernest Milligan’s children, and certainly grandchildren, are still alive today. If so, I would be delighted to hear from them, especially to correct any errors in the attempted biography below, and indeed in this series of posts. This one has been assembled from two interviews Ernest gave in ‘Irish Freedom’ and a fairly thorough trawl through the British Newspaper Archive.)


Ernest Henry Marcus Milligan (1879–1954) was born in Belfast. He was educated at Methodist College Belfast, after which he went to Queen’s University to study medicine, passing his first medical examination there in July 1899. It seems that he also studied Law for a time at Trinity College Dublin.

In early 1897 his influential sister Alice Milligan (14 years older than Ernest) recommended that when he was next in Dublin he should meet with James Connolly, who had been contributing to her magazine Shan Van Vocht. Ernest also contributed to Shan Van Vocht. Ernest’s reminisces of his time with Connolly were published in June and July 1943 in a two part article in the pages of Irish Freedom magazine (PDFs are online here). A mixture of youthful exuberance and ideology would drive Ernest’s energies for a number of years.

Ernest Milligan and James Connolly
When he and Connolly first met in early 1897, Ernest was 18 and Connolly was 26. In that interview Ernest described himself as –

‘a member of the Gaelic League and an ardent Nationalist, with my head full of ’98 and its horrors … I was more or less a Socialist, of the Christian Socialist type … I could not understand why all true Christians were not communists!’.

Ernest echoed Alice’s activism, which he surely would have observed and learned from. Even though just 19 years old, he founded the Belfast Socialist Society in September 1898, with members such as Robert Lynd and Arthur Gaffikin, a former Salvation Army man. This book also refers to Samuel Porter and James Winders Good, and Milligan made efforts to recruit William Walker (Wikipedia link here; one interesting text of later dispute between Walker and Connolly is online here.). There was also a 'Christian Social Brotherhood' in Belfast at the time and Milligan joined it as well. Gaffikin and Milligan took to the streets, attracting crowds in Sandy Row (but they were soon chased out) and the poorer parts of the city. Milligan’s mother Charlotte came along too and supplied refreshments to the crowds.

Ernest Milligan and James Connolly were in regular contact through 1897 and 1898; Milligan sold The Workers' Republic newspaper around Belfast, but he said that the Catholic Church banned the paper and sales fell. In 1898 he was a committee member of the Belfast Gaelic League and also a key member of the Irish Socialist Republican Party.  His signature appears on an Irish Socialist Republican Party accounts book, from the years when he sold the newspaper on the streets.

Ernest Milligan

But in 1899 Ernest Milligan fell ill, he recalled that this happened just a few hours after a meeting with Connolly. It resulted in Milligan being bed-ridden for six months, with an enforced break from his university studies for a further 18 months, not fully recovering until 1902–3.

Less Radical
Perhaps this illness dulled some of his ardour for the ‘cause’, or at the very least took him away from revolutionary politics, as he appears to have settled down into comfortable Belfast and north Down life. In 1902 The Northern Whig printed a letter from Milligan as a member of Bangor Rugby Football Club, complaining about a technicality in the rules of the game. That same year he was a founder member of Ballyholme Sailing Club, and in 1903 was pictured at a club meeting, sitting right beside James Craig, the future first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.

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Ernest Milligan resumed his studies and passed his second medical examination at QUB in April 1902, his third in May 1903, then Trinity College final professional examinations in January 1906, for which he was congratulated by his fellow members of Ballyholme Sailing Club. He finally gained his Royal University of Ireland M.B. B.Ch. B.A.O. in May 1906. 

Ernest Milligan’s Ulster-Scots influenced Up Bye Ballads (December 1907)
I don’t yet know when he began to write the poems which would eventually form Up Bye Ballads, but some began to appear in the Northern Whig. 'The Braw Whin Bush' appeared in the Whig on 22 June 1907, openly attributed to Ernest Milligan, composed in praise of the humblest of all hedgerow flowers, with the final line urging ‘Men of Ulster, let your token be the braw whin bush!’ A few weeks later on 6 July, 'The Auld Red Cart' appeared in the same paper, again with Ernest Milligan named as the writer. There may have been more in the Whig, but it was December 1907 when a 54 page collection entitled Up Bye Ballads was published, printed by W&G Baird, under the pseudonym 'Will Carew', with a cover price just one shilling. I’ll work through them in the next, final, post in this series.

What the significance of ‘Will Carew’ was as a choice of name, I’ve yet to discover, and it's all the more odd given that Ernest Milligan had already been named in the Whig as the author of some of the individual poems. There had been a character of that name in a boys' adventure story from 1884 entitled Charlie Asgarde: The Story of a Friendship.

Media Reviews
Press reviews were positive. The Tyrone Constitution reproduced a few verses of ‘The Braw Whin Bush’ and said it was a

’neat little volume … the majority of the poems are written in the County Down dialect, and it will be found that the author has been true to the characteristics of that county … delightfully characteristic ballads.

The Londonderry Sentinel said it was –

’… a collection of quaint Ulster verses, of tuneful rhythm and much readableness. The writer has a good style and tells his little rural stories well’.

The Irish News also reproduced some of ‘The Braw Whin Bush’ and said the collection was –

‘… sparkling … an Ulster work if ever one was published. The writer we believe knows and loves Co. Down best; though we venture the opinion that the “dialect” which he uses in many of these poems is more redolent of Ayrshire than of Banbridge … Carew’s “dialect” may be that of the Mourne Mountains or the Antrim Glens, or the “banks and braes of bonnie Doon” … Mr Carew’s printed speech of the North-East differs little from that of South-West Scotland; and Ayrshire recalls Robert Burns. The clever author of 'Up Bye Ballads' has read the immortal Ploughman, but he has not once consciously imitated him … charming little treasury of Ulster song ...'

By far the most interesting review I have found, yet again quoting ‘The Braw Whin Bush’,  appeared in the Dublin newspaper Freeman’s Journal and National Press on Burns Day 1908, which in many ways reinforces the ’three cultural strands’ concept, with Ulster-Scottishness a distinct element –

In these days, when the chief city of Ulster and many towns and country districts all over it are become working centres of the Gaelic revival, a book of verse like this will almost a shock to the Irish-Ireland reader. He has been busily working for the de-Anglicisation of the Irish nation, looking forward to an era when the West British shoneen will be extinct, end behold here is reminder that there exists within the borders of our island country population which is not West British nor shoneen, which has not got to be de-Anglicised, for the simple reason that its speech is not English, as we know it, but Lowland Scotch.

The people speaking tongue are to found mainly Antrim, Co. Down, but also on extensive tracts of land in the North-West, coming right against the Gaelic frontier of Tir-Conal, in the Laggan district, it is called, in Donegal. But let not the Irish-Irelander brand those survivors the Ulster Plantation as aliens and foreigners. This Scotch-Irish dialect, so ragged and almost distasteful to our hearing, was the speech of men who stood side by side with the Northern Catholic Gaels on the battlefields Antrim, who camped on the wooded height of Ednavady, and lined the ditch behind “Saintfield Hedge in the County Down.” was the mother tongue James Hope, and the congregations of those United Irish Presbyterian worthies, Porter, and Steele, Dickson, Kelburn, and Warwick.

It a pity that there is nothing in the little volume before us to recall the patriotism the men of Down, not a single verse echoing the spirit of fine old street-ballad that might well have served as a model:

All the same we welcome this volume as evidence of the fact that the Scotch-Irishman has not lost the gift of song. The subjects are homely and natural; the verses fluent and tuneful. The satire in “The Ministers Call” and “The Six Road Ends” will be appreciated in Presbyterian circles. There are local poems for many of the North Down villages – Carrowdore, Comber, Donaghadee, Ballylesson and Bangor.

Marriage in 1908 – departure for England 1911
In December 1908 he married Sara M’Mullan of Grange, Armagh, at Grange Parish Church. As a newly qualified doctor he was involved in the establishment of the new Belfast branch of the Womens' Health Association at a high society event in City Hall in October 1907. On 12 October 1909 the Irish News printed a poem he had written in praise of Queen’s University, entitled 'Welcome! Q.U.B.'. In 1910 he was a member of Royal Belfast Golf Club, among the cream of Belfast merchant wealth and gentry. In July 1911 he gained a Diploma in Public Health from Dublin University.

Medical career in England, 1911
Summer and studies over, he and his wife Sara moved to England. In September 1911 he was appointed as Certifying Surgeon for the Long Eaton district of Derbyshire. He was a medical officer in Bath from August 1917-1920 (there are suggestions that Alice and their brother William stayed in Bath around these years). In August 1920 he took what might have initially have been a part-time role in Glossop on the east side of Manchester, but eventually he moved back north permanently, becoming a well-loved figure in the Glossop community and medical professional circles in England for the rest of his life. You can read his biography here on, including an article about his invention of a toffee sweet, fortified with whey and peanuts, to give wartime children extra nutrition. Products like this are still used in Africa by aid agencies today. Here is a 1943 newspaper photograph:

Milligan Toffee

The Book of Irish Poetry, 1915
During all of this, his poem ‘Six Road Ends’ from Up Bye Ballads was selected for inclusion in The Book of Irish Poetry, a collection (online here) dedicated to Douglas Hyde, son of a Church of Ireland rector who became the first President of the Gaelic League, and first President of Ireland. Perhaps he and Ernest were friends.

July 1927: Letter for ‘improving partition relations between the North and South of Ireland’
This letter, to William X O’Brien, would be worth a read, written from Ernest’s home of Spire Hollin House in Glossop. 

1930s playwright and BBC Radio broadcasts
Even though now he was focussed on a busy medical career in Glossop, in the 1930s Ernest Milligan found the time to write a number of plays, some for BBC Radio - tantalisingly The Ballad Singer (June 1933; of which a Belfast News Letter review said that ’the majority of the songs in this play were collected and arranged by the author himself). Here’s an advert which lists some of the performers:

Ballad Singer

He also wrote Muggleston on the Map: A Municipal Mockery (1934), The Mayor Chooses A Wife (1935) and ’Twas In Old Ireland Somewhere (1936; said to be set in ‘an Ulster farmhouse not far from a thriving town on the evening of the monthly fair). Below is an extract of a Whig article from 24 April 1936.

Whig 24 April 1936

1938: ‘An Ulsterman’s Plea’
On 27 October 1938 a letter of this title from Milligan appeared in the Northern Whig, a powerful appeal to God’s providence, to prayer, and to the growing threat of Germany and Nazism, stating ‘these are grave times. The very fundamentals of religion as well as our liberties are in danger… Ulster can initiate a new and better epoch in a troubled world…’.

The deaths of Alice and Ernest Milligan
When Alice died on 13 April 1953, Ernest made contact with a well-known Irish Republican Brother W.P. Allen to ask him to write a biography of her. Allen collected all of her papers and stored them, but never wrote the biography. Apparently these archives are now in Omagh Library (see page 97 here).

Ernest died less than a year later, at Hadfield in Derbyshire on 21 March 1954, aged 75, and was buried at Glossop cemetery. You can read his obituary here on An obituary also appeared in the Belfast News Letter.

Final post to follow...

Monday, February 26, 2018

Part 5 - The Milligans in North Down

Hamilton Villas

Seaton F Milligan (1836 –1916) was a key figure in Ulster Victorian society. His father was Kennedy Milligan from Glencon near Dungannon, his mother was Sarah Ann Boyd, On 28 January 1862 he married Charlotte Elizabeth Burns from Omagh, in the ‘Wesleyan Chapel’ in the town. Her parents Samuel Burns (d. Feb 1860), and Letitia Burns (d. May 1858) had owned the Scotch Haberdashery Warehouse, Main Street, Omagh.

Seaton was a Sunday School teacher in the church and an insurance agent in the town. He and Charlotte went on to have a reported 11 children; they relocated to Belfast where he took the position of Managing Director of Hawkins, Robertson & Ferguson, of Bank Buildings in the city centre.

He began to give historical lectures in the city, for Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, on exotic subjects such as Peruvian textiles (one of Charlotte’s Omagh cousins, named Alcorn, was a civil engineer working on railways in Peru - he came home with a pile of stuff from antiques and rugs to shrunken heads in jars) but mainly on Irish antiquities such as giant’s graves Seaton had visited in Sligo, standing stones and Irish mythology. He donated objects to the Royal Irish Academy such as an ancient cauldron he had found at Drumlane Lake in County Cavan. He gave many lectures, such as ‘The Forts of Erin, from the Firbolg to the Norman’, and ‘Ireland and the Scottish Isles: Ancient Connection’. He wrote a paper for the Ulster Journal of Archaeology about one of my interests, the Clandeboye O’Neills and their Coronation Chair. He led at least two steamship cruises around the entire coast of Ireland, for the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. He rubbed shoulders with the best historians and antiquarians of the day. So the children were raised in this environment – with a fascination and reverence for history and tradition.

He was a successful businessman, well used to the company of the gentry and entrepreneurial élite of the times, a respected antiquarian, a frequent public speaker at august gatherings around Ireland on antiquarian subjects, and well-regarded author.

16872sm1 98a7f61c16bd472551bf72344845a6ee 1In 1888 he and his daughter Alice Letitia Milligan (1865–1953; Wikipedia here) co-authored a book called Glimpses of Erin (online here). She went on to become a significant figure in the Irish nationalist and cultural movements. In 1896 she began to publish a magazine called Shan Van Vocht (online here). Another daughter, Charlotte Milligan Fox (1864–1916) was a trained classical singer. She authored Songs of the Irish Harpers (online here) and was highly influential in the preservation of Irish traditional music, founding the Irish Folk Song Society. Both are remembered on an Ulster History Circle blue plaque on Omagh Library (see here). One of the songs they published, around 1903, was written by another sister, Edith, and was entitled Ochanee: Ulster Folk Song. As far as I know, 'ochanee' is an Ulster-Scots term, one my mother used in short rhymes as various weans and grandweans were being bounced on her knee:

Ochanee when I was wee
I used tae sit on my grannie's knee
Her apron tore, I fell on the floor
Ochanee when I was wee 

It's also in the Dictionary of the Scots Language here, and on the Ulster-Scots Academy textbase here.

IMG 4299

• Holiday homes in north Down
The Milligans had a few different holiday properties around North Down, the first of which was ‘Angus Cottage’ in the countryside near Portavo north of Donaghadee in the 1870s and early 1880s. Next was ‘Hamilton Villa’, part of the ‘Dufferin Villas’ terrace along the seafront at Ballyholme (as described by Charles F Milligan (1883-1983) in his three memoir booklets: My Bangor from the 1890s, Second Thoughts and Bangor and Belfast Lough Yesterday and Today). The last was a house called ‘Eastward’, one of the 'Ward Villas' on the Clifton Road, overlooking Royal Ulster Yacht Club, which they bought around summer 1906. They are recorded as living there in the 1911 census. The Milligan parents both died at ‘Eastward’ in 1916.

All three were fairly prestigious addresses, suited to a wealthy Belfast merchant family. Back then Ballyholme was its own distinct community, not yet swallowed up by the expansion of Bangor. According to Charles they ‘came down about Easter and stayed until Halloween’, from their city addresses at 1 Royal Terrace, a 9-bed 3-reception property which they sold in August 1899, and later 1 Malone Road. But they mingled with County Down locals as well as the swish Belfast vacationing set. 

• A Bangor network of cultural writers
Even though Methodists, Charles recalled that the family had some involvement in the Parish Church and also Presbyterian Church in Groomsport, and various churches in Bangor. In October 1892, young Ernest Milligan is recorded as manning the ‘flower and candy stall' for Groomsport Presbyterian Church Bazaar, an event at which both Mr and Mrs W.G. Lyttle were on the ‘refreshment stall’. Whilst the Milligans summer residence was at the country end of the Ballyholme Road, Lyttle’s property ‘Mount Herald’, his home until his death in 1896, was at the town end, at the junction of Clifton Road. Sadly the building is long-gone, its site supposedly a car park today (see here).

[In later years, both Sean Lester (1888–1959; a Carrickfergus-born Protestant who joined the Gaelic League, the IRB, and had a political career which took him to the position of Secretary General of the League of Nations) and Ernest William Blythe (1889–1975, a Lisburn-born Protestant Irish Nationalist, a one-time Orangeman, IRB member and eventually senior figure in the government of the Irish Free State) would both work for the late Lyttle’s North Down Herald newspaper.]

Another Bangorian at the time was Florence Mary Wilson (1870-1946, link here), best known as the author of the poem The Man From God Knows Where, a tale of the United Irishman Thomas Russell who was hanged in Downpatrick in 1803. It, and some of her other poems, include a sprinkling of Ulster-Scots vocabulary - the 1918 edition is online here. She lived in the same part of Bangor, on the Groomsport Road. In July 1907, Florence, Alice Milligan and Ernest Milligan are recorded as having worked together on a ‘Carnival and Fancy Fair’ bazaar handbook to fundraise for Bangor Endowed School, later Bangor Grammar. The venue was the grounds of Bangor Castle, with the ‘great and the good’ thronging the place. The school was also on the Clifton Road, just behind the Lyttle home.

This was an impressive network of north Down literary neighbours, and all with a deep interest in local history and traditional heritage, with what we would today regard as a culturally Irish nationalist perspective – yet also all with varying degrees of Ulster-Scots influence in their writings, with Lyttle’s of course the most important.

If you broaden the catchment area just a little more, it’s very likely that they would also have known William Hugh Patterson (1835-1918; previous post here), his 1880 Glossary of Words in Use in the Counties of Antrim and Down, and Patterson’s relatives by marriage, the Praegers. It’s not just the geography, it’s the social world of golf clubs, rugby clubs, sailing clubs and antiquarian societies.

• 12th July and the 1798 Rebellion
But the Milligan family must have a very broad range of cultural interests - Charles wrote fondly of his memories of the 12th July mornings:

“I have a very high regard for the people of Groomsport and for the Orangemen there, in fact as a very small boy the highlight of a summer holiday at Dufferin Villas was to go down to the end of the laneway joining the county road and watch LOL 589 pass by on its way to join the brethren at Bangor. I also remember a lady who marched with the lodge dressed for the occasion with a hat in the colours of the day and a blouse to match’.

Charles also visited, and photographed, the reputed home of 1798 heroine Betsy Gray at Six Road Ends, around the time that Lyttle had immortalised her story and Alice had been involved in centenary commemorations at Betsy’s grave site (previous post here). Here’s the photo and caption from Bangor and Belfast Lough Yesterday and Today:

Betsy Milligan

The caption above indicates that Charlotte Milligan knew W.G. Lyttle, who died when Charles was just six years old. However Charles here also repeats an error that W.G. was from Omagh - he definitely wasn’t.

• Military Service
In 1914, Charles joined the Royal Navy, following in the footsteps of his brother Captain William Hanna Milligan RGA (1872–1937) who had served in the Boer War in 1900 and had been stationed in Chicago for a time. William’s knowledge of the city led to the arrest and execution of a German spy in 1914; Carl Hans Lodz had been in Belfast, masquerading as an American called Charles Inglis, but was actually gathering intelligence on the city’s shipyards. Both Charles and William are named on the roll of honour in Wesley Centenary Methodist Church, Hamilton Road, Bangor.

In later years, Alice Milligan looked after William - that particular story is touched on here. They had lived in Dublin from 1917-1921, but had to flee within 24 hours due to William receiving a death threat from the IRA due to his earlier British Army career. They went to Bath in England where younger brother Ernest Milligan (1879–1954) worked as a School Medical Officer around the same time. Perhaps Ernest was the first safe haven that came to mind in this emergency. Alice, William, his wife and son later returned to Ulster and settled in Omagh. (A PDF of a biographical booklet by Dr Catherine Morris is online here).

• Ernest Milligan
So Ernest Milligan had also grown up in the midst of all of this cultural milieu. He was a bright young man, like the other Milligans he had been educated at Methodist College Belfast, and then studied medicine at Queen’s. He had passed his First Examination in July 1899 – and around that time he was introduced to an emerging radical political movement through his increasingly activist older sister Alice...



Friday, February 23, 2018

Part 4: Ernest Milligan, aka 'Will Carew', and his Ulster-Scots influenced 'Up Bye Ballads', 1907

IMG 4282• Introduction: A search for a song
In the 1940s, Burma-based Ulster soldier Signalman Eric Clark from Ormiston Drive in Belfast, while convalescing in a hospital tent and ‘in a beleaguered jungle-box on the Assam-Burma border’, wrote and later published three little pocket-sized Ulster Quizbooks. I bought them all in a second hand shop about 20 years ago, fascinated by what must have then been regarded as general local knowledge. A fair amount of it is today knowledge which has long-faded and is no longer in our ‘head space’.

In the first booklet, quiz 45 question 4 asks:
There’s a song about a Carrowdore lady – what is it called?’.

The answer, given in the back pages, is:
‘Kate of Carrowdore’. 

A fair bit of my life is still spent around Carrowdore, through my family involvement in founding, and still running, the mission hall there. My mother's family are all originally Carrowdore and Ballyfrenis folk, as regular readers here will know. My brother lives just on the outskirts, as does one elderly aunt. Many friends and family live in the general area. But nobody I knew had ever heard of the song. Even a now-deceased, but once-renowned, Carrowdore traditional ballad singer, who used to be visited by music students and of whom tape recordings are believed to exist somewhere, wasn’t known to have sung it.

• Discovering ‘Will Carew’, Ernest Milligan’s pseudonym
But then, about a year ago, I encountered a 1907 publication entitled Up Bye Ballads, all written by a 'Will Carew'. It’s a collection of north Down and Ards Peninsula themed ballads, with good authentic Ulster-Scots vocabulary and expressions throughout. And there within its pages was ‘Carrowdore Kate'. So, therefore, for nearly 40 years ‘Kate of Carrowdore’ or ‘Carrowdore Kate' was well enough known that a soldier in the sweaty fearful jungles of Burma recalled it when thinking of home.

It turns out that 'Will Carew' was a pseudonym - a name adopted by the 28-year-old Ernest Henry Marcus Milligan (1879–1954) – a younger brother of Alice Milligan. Like Alice, he was a close friend of James Connolly, with whom Ernest was a founder of the Irish Socialist Republican Party and Belfast Socialist Society, and on behalf of whom Ernest did a fair bit of street activism in areas of working class Belfast around the turn of the century.

Yet here he was, comfortably and confidently, using lovely touches of Ulster-Scots in a collection of very good poems and ballads - and in doing so, challenging a lot of present-day perceptions.

Ernest Milligan's use of vocabulary in the two verses shown below isn’t perfect. You can tell he was ‘learning’, rather than had grown up with, the language. The same verses written by a ‘native speaker’ would have used different words - ‘tae’ or ’til’ instead of ‘to’, ‘ain’ instead of ‘own’, ‘whaur’ instead of ‘where’, etc. Yet in the subsequent verses he does get some of these important subtleties right - ‘sae’ is used instead of ‘so’, but then falls back into rhyming ‘hold’ and ‘cold’ where it really should have been ‘haud’ and ‘cauld’, or possibly ‘houl’ and ‘coul’.

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But as a collection the poems are really very strong, lyrical, and full of empathy. He must have spent a lot of time observing and absorbing the world of his rural north Down neighbours, a world which - through his writing at least - he briefly became part of. Perhaps Ernest had been influenced by the Ulster-Scots literature of family friend WG Lyttle who had died in 1896; and maybe also George Francis Savage-Armstrong, author of Ballads of Down (1901) who had died in July 1906. In many ways, Ernest Milligan’s modest 1907 collection Up Bye Ballads deserves to be placed alongside them.

More to follow...

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Part 3: Alice Milligan and Ulster-Scots in 'Shan Van Vocht', 1898

Untitled 3

There are two plausible origins for influential Irish Republicans Alice Milligan (1866–1953, shown above) and her brother Ernest Milligan (1879–1954) being interested in Ulster-Scots. It is possible that their mother, Charlotte Elizabeth Burns, who was the daughter of a Samuel Burns (who ran the ‘Scotch Haberdashery Warehouse’ in Main Street, Omagh) may have been of Ulster-Scots or Scots origin themselves. Charlotte married Seaton Milligan on 28 January 1862 at Omagh Wesleyan Chapel. If there’s a biographer out there somewhere who knows I’d appreciate being corrected on this.

The more likely connection is that their County Down summer homes – seaside escapes from their moneyed Belfast lifestyle thanks to their father’s 50-year career with the linen firm Hawkins, Robertson & Ferguson, later renamed Robertson, Ledlie, Ferguson & Co in the city centre – brought them into close contact with Ulster-Scots speaking locals. The first of these was described by another brother, Charles Forest Milligan (1883–1983) who served in the Royal Navy during the Great War, later became a Councillor and Alderman for Bangor Council from 1934–1973, and was awarded an OBE in 1966. In his 1975 memoir booklet entitled My Bangor from the 1890s he said it was:

‘a cottage at Donaghadee known as Angus’s Cottage on the Warren Road near the standing stone’.

The standing stone was at the junction of the Warren Road and the Stockbridge Road. Here's an 1800s map of the area, with the stone in the top left corner. A development called ‘Rock Hill’ is there today.Ballywilliam

This is exactly the geography and scenario described by Alice in her tale The True Story of a Grey Mare of Ballywalter, and a member of the Royal Irish Academy - the ‘member' being the Milligans’ father, Seaton Forest Milligan. It was first published in Alice’s periodical Shan Van Vocht on 12 December 1898, which is online here.

She begins with a description of the cottage, confirming Charles’ account –

“Along the coast of North Down there runs a road skirting the sea, from Bangor, past Groomsport, past Donaghadee, and away round to Ballywalter, at the head of the Ards Peninsula. For many summers the chosen sea-side residence of my people was a picturesque cottage a mile or so beyond Donaghadee. It was separated from the road merely by a walled garden, beyond the road was a low wall, and over that wall you could roll into the waves when the tide was in. Honeysuckle and roses grew up the walls and peeped in at the sky-light windows. It was a delightful little cottage, and how we all fitted into it I have often wondered since."

The story continues that one summer evening Seaton was outside reading the newspaper on a garden bench; a horse-drawn cart stopped outside their house; stopped for a while but the people - a red-bearded man and a very old woman all dressed in black - didn’t get out. Seaton was concerned and went to see if something was wrong. 

“Something is wrong with the cart, thought our practical man, and jumping from his seat, he asked if he could be of any assistance. The red-bearded man was gathering words to answer when the old woman got ahead of him and in shrill brisk accents of broadest Co. Down Scotch, gave the following amazing explanation:

“We’re no botherin oursels tae hurry, mon dear. The mare has jist stappit, and I wudnae hae John whup her on. She’s an unco wise beast an’ kens there’s some ill afore us, so we’ll e’en bide here till she gangs on o’ her ain free wull"

She spoke so rapidly there was no chance of interruption, and our practical man fumed with indignation at the idea of anyone delaying by the roadside to humour the vagaries of an old grey mare. He scorned to address himself to the woman who was the victim of so crazy a delusion.

“Good gracious man,” he said, shouting at the son, “How far have you to drive?"

“We hae tae mak Ballywalter the nicht"

And so on. The tension rises, Seaton intervenes, the horse gets cross and bares its teeth

“Obstinate brute,’ said her foe, “Does she bite?"

“I hae never kent her tae bite onybody, but nae doot she wad bite you, guid mon, afore she’d gang on frae here, supposin she kens there’s some danger lourin’.

By this stage a crowd had gathered, both of Milligan family members and ‘some country neighbours’ who ‘shook their heads and advised no interference with the mare, whilst they recounted similar supernatural occurrences and gave instances of the prophetic instincts of sundry collie dogs, cows and ganders’.

Enraged, Seaton then gathered up his sons, and returned with large buckets of water, and lashed them at the horse which took off in fright. The boys then turned the buckets into drums to make a lot of noise, which kept the horse going to escape the din.

The country folk shook their heads in awe and doubt, and which a self-satisfied smile the head of the house returned to the garden seat. Perhaps he drafted in his mind a lecture or paper for a learned society of which he was a member on the subject of ‘Some Surviving Ulster Superstitions’.

It’s a great wee story in itself – but it’s not over yet, because the same horse is back again later that day, with the same passengers, and the old woman speaking yet more Ulster-Scots… read it for yourself. (It was reproduced in the Cork Examiner on 28 April 1900).

The importance of all of this is Alice Milligan’s recognition, and respectful treatment, of the Ulster-Scots speech of her summer neighbours. She could easily have ‘Anglicised’ their words as so many writers of that period were prone to. But we know that the Milligans were friends of W.G. Lyttle, and so perhaps his influence and work had rubbed off on them too.

Tradition matters. Everybody who cares about tradition should value all forms of it, both their own and the traditions of others. Empowering one over another, advantaging one over another, legislating for one over another, is a road to nowhere. In former times, language and culture and politics did not align the way they are presented today. Sometimes it take an old wise grey mare to stop on the road to reflect before going any further.


• In 1888 Seaton Milligan and his daughter Alice co-authored a book called Glimpses of Erin (online here).
• Alice Milligan’s biography by the Royal Irish Academy is online here

UPDATE: Alice’s brother, Charles Forest Milligan, published a standard English version of the same story in his Bangor memoirs booklet Second Thoughts, published around 1980.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Part 2: Alice L Milligan and the Scottish St Patrick traditions

This from Alice L Milligan’s periodical Shan Van Vocht, 6 March 1896. I have tons of research and references to these Scottish traditions, once widely-known, now almost vanished. Another project… more Milligan material to follow.

Milligan Patrick

Monday, January 29, 2018

Part 1: Irish Republicans and 'broadest County Down Scotch' - the writings of Alice L. Milligan and Ernest Milligan

Major blog post brewing which might raise a few eyebrows.

In the recent, wonderful, Radio Ulster broadcast A Birl for Burns (online here) Seamus Heaney remarked in a 2012 interview that ‘the Nationalist side are identified with the Irish language, and the Unionists would be more inclined to Ulster-Scots. That’s a relatively recent development. For senior persons … there was no question of that, it was just part of their language’.

I recently found that the Milligan family, steeped in Irish history through their renowned antiquarian father, Seaton Forest Milligan, had a summer cottage on the shore of Ballywilliam townland just north of Donaghadee, along today’s exclusive Warren Road. His famous daughter Alice was at ease with including Ulster-Scots dialogue in some of her published stories; the less well-known son Ernest published a very strong collection of his own self-penned Ulster-Scots poems and ballads.

Both Alice and Ernest were close to James Connolly. Ernest was a founding member of the Irish Socialist Republican Party and its Belfast Socialist Society in 1898 - yet around the same time he was also a member of Ballyholme Sailing Club in Bangor where he was photographed sitting next to a young James Craig, future Unionist MP for East Down who would go on to become the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.

The Milligans were upper middle class, you might even say today that they were ‘champagne socialists’. Yet the usages of Ulster-Scots in their writings shows a pretty credible connection with the common folk, a mode of speech that Alice described as 'broadest County Down Scotch’, and the existence of which a 1908 Dublin review of Ernest’s collection said:

“… will come almost as a shock to the Irish-Ireland reader … there exists within the borders of our island a country population which is not West British or shoneen … its speech is not English, but Lowland Scotch … the mother tongue of James Hope and of the congregations of those United Irish Presbyterian worthies Porter, Steele-Dickson, Kelburn and Warwick … we welcome this volume as evidence that the Scotch-Irishman has not lost the gift of song. The subjects are homely and natural; the verses fluent and tuneful ...'.

More to follow...

2018 01 26 08 42 16Ernest Milligan