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’.

2018 02 23 18 50 122018 02 23 18 48 59

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...