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 Her unpublished manuscripts in PRONI are a cultural goldmine - she could see that an understanding was being lost in the rush towards modernity.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

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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?