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.