Monday, August 05, 2019

Arthur Brooks - Disagree Better

This is really interesting, and is a brilliant articulation of a nagging thought I've had for a while. We've all been in discussions where everyone seems to feel the need to agree, to reach a visible consensus. But you know fine well that they don't really...

Arthur C. Brooks' new book is Love Your Enemies: How Decent People can Save America from a Culture of Contempt (link here)

Saturday, August 03, 2019

Groundshift – 'politics trumps faith' / 'I'm homesick for the home I've never had'

Things in Northern Ireland are changing fast, so the currently accepted wisdom says. But I disagree. Like with Ernest Hemingway's famous quote about bankruptcy – "slowly, then all at once" – that's actually a better description of what has happened here.

Crawford Gribben's stimulating piece in The Article - 'Behold, the end of Protestant Ulster' (link here) is worth a read, on the Westminster vote which has paved the way for the introduction of same-sex marriage and the legalisation of abortion law which took place just days before The Twelfth.

For the past 30 years or so, I've been back and forward to England and Scotland a few times every year to see family or to travel, and the 'Britishness' that exists there bears no resemblance to that which many in Northern Ireland imagine. But, ill-equipped for change and without the 'tools' to help them contemplate it, many traditionally-minded folk have retreated into their bunkers and have had their heads buried deep in the sand – trying to shut out the noise, and conjuring up in their imaginations some kind of utopian conservative world which had actually died a long time ago if it ever truly existed at all.

Widespread social change – on these two topical issues but also a huge raft of other ones – has been moving along here for decades, slowly and steadily and not attracting headlines. The barbarities of the Troubles took their bloody and psychological toll, as have all sorts of ongoing repercussions from the political and demographic aftermath of those violent, vulnerable years.

As just two simpler examples:

• Throughout the last 20 years of schooling, most of our childrens' friends come from what used to be called 'broken homes', now single parent families, or parents who never committed to a marriage in the first place – or else families with multiple biological parents. That's just how it is. The 'structural' family is a rarity for the forthcoming generation. It's a middle class luxury of a sort.

• A 'good turnout' at an old-fashioned event - whether religious or secular - is interpreted by its organisers as a great success, thereby staving off thoughts of decline for another day. They're good folk but they have no idea of how to grow, adapt, to release control, to do 'succession planning', to bring on a new generation. "Ach it'll do me my day" is a familiar defeatist drone. Or "we've always done it this way". Survival is seen as a mere numbers game, the emphasis on recruitment and 'bums on seats', rather than anything to do with purpose and meaning and relevance. Few ask themselves "Why do we do the things we do?", or "why should anyone care?".

Crawford's article is right on many levels. Old 'identitarian' Protestant Ulster is long-gone. I recall a story of a parade about 10 years ago, where a wee country accordion band was playing hymns, and they were verbally abused by red white and blue clad onlookers – "take your effing hymns to effing Cornmarket". The lazy public and voluntary sector shorthand of PUL (for 'Protestant, Unionist & Loyalist') makes no meaningful sense.

It has been "slowly, then all at once". The ground has shifted on this island. It will not shift back.

But the silver lining is that in doing so, if these shifts create space for a new and better articulation of what the Reformed faith is actually about, freed from perceptions of social 'power', that will be a good thing.


PS – Crawford's article could be considered an equivalent to his 'Catholic Ireland is Dead and Gone' from 2018, (link here).

PPS – American rock band Soul Asylum have a song called Homesick, with the line 'I'm homesick for the home I've never had'. It challenges notions of rose-tinted nostalgia, and also points us towards an eternal future. As CS Lewis famously wrote –
'If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.'


Tuesday, July 30, 2019

1561: Mary Queen of Scots's return to Edinburgh – presented with the Bible and Psalms 'in Scots language'?

The extract above is from John Maxwell, 4th Lord Herries (1512–83) renowned Historical Memoirs of the Reign of Mary Queen of Scots. These were written in the 1500s and the manuscripts were published in the 1830s. Other references to Mary's return to Edinburgh don't specify that the Bible and Psalms she was presented with were 'in Scots languadge'. She had been in exile in France, and returned to a Reformed Scotland. John Knox's account of the same event says:

When the queen’s hieness was coming through the said port, the cloud openit, and the bairn descended down as it had been ane angel, and deliverit to her hieness the keys of the town, together with ane Bible and ane Psalm-buik coverit with fine purpour velvet.
Domestic Annals of Scotland, Robert Chambers quoting John Knox

As far as I can see there is no reference to this potentially linguistically-significant event in Graham Tulloch's comprehensive A History of the Scots Bible (1989).

Dumfries-born Maxwell was pro-Reformation but yet loyal to Mary Queen of Scots throughout his life. She knighted him in 1567 and he fought for her cause at the Battle of Langside in 1568.

Perhaps Maxwell was mistaken about them being 'in Scots language', but given his devotion to his Queen, it's unlikely that he would have recorded that specific linguistic detail wrongly. So, perhaps there are two remarkable dusty old volumes in a cupboard somewhere in Scotland, awaiting discovery, like these which were found a few months ago.

– More info on Maxwell here.
'Historical Memoirs' online here.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Unusual voices

Many years ago I was introduced to the writings of Michael JF McCarthy (1864–1928); from memory I think somebody local to us was clearing out their books and I was given a clatter of them, some were big hefty volumes. McCarthy found himself on the wrong side of the religious-political establishment of his time and he became a prolific author. I think the ones I acquired are in a box in the roofspace.

McCarthy's was a dissenting voice, and he is said to have inspired his contemporary Frank Hugh O'Donnell (1846-1916). Born either in Carndonagh in Donegal, or possibly in Devon, O'Donnell appears to have been a bit of a maverick but also a staunch Home Ruler, as the title page of his History of the Irish Parliamentary Party (1910; online here) shows. It lists his credentials as 'formerly MP for Galway and Dungarvan; ex-member of Council of Home Rule League of Ireland; ex-Vice-President of Home Rule Confederation in Great Britain; and ex-President of Glasgow Home Rule Association'. That's him below. He also features in the National Portrait Gallery (see here).

Surprisingly, O'Donnell was a fan of the victory of William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne, as his letters to various newspapers in Ireland show. Those which appeared in the Belfast News Letter in 1903 were later published as a booklet. More to follow.

Monday, July 22, 2019

"Isn't it all just sectarian?"

I froze in my seat momentarily but tried to not let it show. A while back I was in 'polite company' and one of the people who was there, who I'd never met before but who knew a bit about me, remarked "Ulster-Scots – isn't it all just sectarian?". You expect clever people to choose their words a bit more carefully, but it was in equal parts stupid and yet honest. That perception had been formed in the mind of an otherwise intelligent human being.

Its fellow-traveller remark is "it's all just political". These twin tracks have been relentlessly reinforced ever since the Belfast Agreement catapulted Ulster-Scots from the fringes into the middle of contentious public life in Northern Ireland. I remember life at those pre-1998 fringes. I remember someone back then saying to me something like "no matter what the political future holds, Ulster-Scots is about culture, and cultural confidence".

That was true then and it remains true today and tomorrow, from whatever the Brexit future will present.

Lazy minds in Northern Ireland resort to 'sectarian' and 'political' far too easily. Our past, our future and our complexity demands better.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Two views on the 'Glorious Revolution' in National Review


"...Ask a decently well-read conservative or classical liberal to put a starting date on modern government (meaning by “modern” something like free and fair, liberal and democratic, decent and respectable) and nine times out of ten he’ll tell you 1688. 
It was in the summer of that year that the Dutch prince William of Orange invaded England and took the throne from his uncle and father-in-law, King James II. Under William (to the extent that anything can be said to have been “under William”), Parliament claimed a near monopoly on governing authority and adopted the Bill of Rights 1689, establishing the system of effective non-monarchy that perdures in Britain to the present day — and, the revolution’s defenders say, laying the groundwork for all limited, democratic governments to follow, including that of the United States..."

These two articles from National Review have popped into my Twitter feed recently. Neither are in my view coherent summaries of the period. But that they have been published at all shows how formative a moment it was / is. It is an era that needs to be 'reimagined' for our present age.

James P Sutton  - In Defence of the Glorious Revolution - click here

Declan Leary - Conservatives should not celebrate Religious Tyranny and Coercionclick here


Friday, July 19, 2019

James Connolly, 12th July 1913

James Connolly2.jpg

A few months after the huge public events which saw the signing of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant in September 1912, James Connolly was in Belfast on 12 July 1913, watching what he called the 'Orange Walk' - a term less militaristic than 'march' or maybe even 'parade' – and 'walk' is the term still used in Scotland to this day.

He wrote a lengthy article about what he saw and his reflections upon it. The whole piece makes for fascinating reading and is online here. If you have an interest in such things I would strongly encourage you to read it.

It's not just about the 12th, but goes back to the Plantation era, the Glorious Revolution, and the experiences of the 1700s and 1800s. He was very obviously well-read - how many 'Ulster Prods' either back then or today know about Andrew Stewart's History? It's been reprinted and is available here.

I wonder how much of an influence the Milligan family had been on his thinking? Connolly met Alice Milligan in the mid 1890s and her brother Ernest - who would later publish a small collection of Ulster-Scots flavoured poems – helped Connolly set up socialist organisations in Belfast and sold copies of The Workers Republic for him. (back in early 2018 I posted a series of articles here about the Milligans – see here).

There are points in the article where I disagree with him, there are points where I think he misses key ideas, but overall there's a lot there that I do agree with. He can see the differences of social class between those who carried out the Plantation of Ulster, and those who migrated to people it. He can see the 'three cultural strands' of Irish, English and Scottish. Being Edinburgh-born, to County Monaghan parents, maybe his own circumstances enabled him to understand. He could express admiration for aspects of the 12th and also level criticism. He could see some of the contrasts and contradictions within Ulster Protestant Unionism. He had bothered to read, listen, learn and think.

... The reader should remember what is generally slurred over in narrating this part of Irish history, that when we are told that Ulster was planted by Scottish Presbyterians, it does not mean that the land was given to them. On the contrary, the vital fact was, and is, that the land was given to the English noblemen and to certain London companies of merchants who had lent money to the Crown, and that the Scottish planters were only introduced as tenants of these landlords ... 
... Nor did the victory at the Boyne mean Civil and Religious Liberty… In 1704 Derry was rewarded for its heroic defence by being compelled to submit to a Test Act, which shut out of all offices in the Law, the Army, the Navy, the Customs and Excise, and Municipal employment, all who would not conform to the Episcopalian Church. The alderman and fourteen burgesses are said to have been disfranchised in the Maiden City by this iniquitous Act, which was also enforced all over Ireland. Thus, at one stroke, Presbyterians, Quakers, and all other dissenters were deprived of that which they had imagined they were fighting for at “Derry, Aughrim, and the Boyne.” …

Less than six months after the article was published, by the end of 1913 Connolly had helped to found the Irish Citizen Army, and so began the road which would lead to the Easter Rising, and his death by firing squad. History is full of 'what if' scenarios...

Sunday, July 14, 2019

CS Lewis, Ulster-Scots, and Oxford

On a recent visit to Oxford a friend recommended we should go to see the pub called The Eagle and Child (Wikipedia here) where CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein frequently met, from 1933–1949, to discuss the deep-rooted craft of storytelling. Tolkien was convinced that there is only really one story, which he outlines in his 1939 essay On Fairy Stories. Lewis would propose to him that underlying every story is the one True story, a 'true myth'. When we got there it was packed with customers so photography opportunities were limited.

Lewis of course understood that Ulster-Scots was and is a legitimate cultural thread within Ulster's fabric, and used the term himself in his writings. His maternal ancestors were Hamiltons after all. His father Albert Lewis famously encountered Ulster-Scots vernacular being used in a court cases which he acted as a solicitor in - photo attached of the surprising case of Ulster-Italian Maria Volento (sic). A search of the Census of Ireland 1911 shows three households of Valentes living in Belfast.

You'll find various CS Lewis references elsewhere on this blog.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Rev John White and the ‘Eagle Wing’ recce

While in England recently I visited the birthplace of Rev John White, a founder of the Massachusetts Bay Company and Puritan colony in 1628. Our own ‘Eagle Wing’ minister John Livingston of Killinchy, and his friend William Wallace, did a recce from Groomsport in 1634 and met with White in the south coast town of Dorchester to plan their ill-fated voyage which took place in 1636. Wikipedia here.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

County Cavan and 1641

I've been 'down south' a fair bit recently, in Cork and in County Cavan. The image here is from an interactive presentation which caught my eye in the multi-narratived excellent Cavan County Museum, about the 1641 massacres. It's not why I was there but it has triggered some thoughts.

Little is said or acknowledged about these events in 'the north' these days. The written eyewitness c. 8000 'depositions' were digitised a few years ago by Trinity College Dublin and are searchable online here. Credit to our southern neighbours for doing so.

Thousands of Protestants were murdered at that time (conservative estimates speculate 4,000–12,000; - some have exaggerated them upwards to over 200,000, whilst others have sought to mitigate and downplay them). The atrocities caused the Scottish Parliament to send a Presbyterian army over to Carrickfergus in 1642.

By that time, among the dead was the Essex-born Anglican, and former Provost of TCD, the Reformation-minded Bishop William Bedell (1571–1642; Wikipedia here), who had translated the Bible into Irish. From 1629 he had been based at Kilmore in County Cavan, and was involved in the layout of the small Cavan town of Virginia. It's an attractive lakeside settlement today. We stayed nearby last week.

• Rebellion and Imprisonment
When the Rebellion and massacres began on 23 October 1641, Bedell's home and property were initially spared from direct attack, but after about eight weeks he, his two sons William and Ambrose, and his Scottish son-in-law Alexander Clogy, were eventually seized. They were imprisoned in Cloughoughter Castle in County Cavan (as were many others, including a young Hugh Montgomery III of the Ards) for around three weeks, during which time Bedell was said to have been tortured.

• Release and Death by Fever
He and his children were released on 7 January 1642, but, weakened by his captivity, he succumbed to an 'ague' (a severe fever) and died exactly a month later on 7 February 1642. He was buried next to his wife in Kilmore graveyard, but only after first being rejected by the new Irish (Catholic) Bishop because he had been a (Protestant) 'heretic'. His life story was eventually written up by his son, and also by Clogy around 1660. Clogy's account was further developed and published in 1685 by Bishop Gilbert Burnet, another Scotsman and a close confidante of the future King William III of Orange (online here). The theology throughout is strong; pages 210–14 in particular are worth reading as these are Bedell's last recorded words.

• James Seaton Reid's accounts - 'pestilential fever'
In James Seaton Reid's monumental History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the detailed descriptions of the 1641 events which appear in Chapter 7 of Volume I (online here) also include an account of Bishop Bedell's imprisonment and death.

In addition to the deliberate killings by drowning, fire, sword and musket, Reid's account of the 'pestilential fever' which swept the war-torn regions of Ulster, due to the piles of unburied bodies, is pretty grim reading, suggesting well over 10,000 further deaths. Bedell's son later wrote that his father had died of a 'pestilential and deadly ague'. Another biography directly links this general disease and fever with the condition which killed Bedell –

"... the illness which carried off Bishop Bedell, it is to be inferred that it was a malignant typhus fever. This with other forms of pestilence prevailed in Ireland as an attendant on the political disasters in that country of 1641 and subsequent years ..." source here.

Reid called Bedell 'The Tyndale of Ireland' – an evangelist-pastor first and a translator because of those desires and convictions. Not only did he translate the Bible but also produced a Catechism in Irish. He was respected among the Irish community within which he lived and served, at least until the hostilities became widespread. Despite the sufferings he had endured at their hands, they formed a guard of honour at his funeral and fired a volley of shots - possibly with muskets which had been used for murderous purpose.

A quick speed-read through the biographies present a picture of Bedell as being similar to his contemporary Archbishop Ussher - evangelism-minded and, despite his Anglicanism and the high-level power-plays of denominational politics of the time, fair-minded towards those with Presbyterian convictions. He is also said to have been the actual author of an essay usually attributed to Ussher - a defence of the historicity of the theology of the Reformation - entitled “Where was your Church before Luther?”.

I am not sure if any museum in Northern Ireland goes near the 1641 events. Yet it is surely critical in our polarised society that we should understand as much of our history as possible. Yes it is complex, but that's what we need - airbrushed simplifications serve dangerous purpose.

(NB: A few years ago I suggested that a Blue Plaque be erected to Bedell. I'm not sure if that was ever progressed. It would be worth doing if permissions could be secured, and a simple but comprehensive biography could be published about his life and times.

His linguistic achievement was enormous, but it in itself is not his while story. His context and era were momentous. We have much to learn).

Memoir of the Life and Episcopate of Dr William Bedell by Clogie (c. 1660; 1862 ed) online here
Life of Bishop Bedell By His Son (c. 1670) online here
• Bishop Gilbert Burnet's The Life of William Bedell DD (1685) online here
Mary Hickson's 1884 volumes on the events of 1641 are online here.

BBC Northern Ireland - 'Links to the Past: Pioneers of Ulster Golf' - presented by Gerry Kelly

I had the opportunity to contribute a bit to this programme, presented by Gerry Kelly and made by Graham Little of NPE Media, which was broadcast last Sunday evening. It's on iPlayer here for the next three weeks. I did my usual in providing a bit of historical content, an old poem, and showed Gerry a few marketing items from the first Ulster Tourism Development Association campaign of 1925.

Golf - and especially depictions of ladies' golf - were a key element in promoting the new state of Northern Ireland to a global audience. Interestingly the newspaper accounts of the time show that a 'cross-border' combined tourism campaign was discussed by the two tourism authorities on the island, with billboards in Times Square in New York proposed.

The location of the 1620s 'green for recreation at goff' in Hugh Montgomery's Scottish town of Newtownards - where golf in Ireland is first recorded - is said to have been somewhere near today's Greenwell Street, which is close to the old Priory and bawn which for a time was his home.

Before the big land reclamation projects of the 1800s, Strangford Lough used to reach right up to that point - good, sandy, well-drained ground. I have seen a better map of the town from that era, than the one I've posted here.

• Go to BBC iPlayer 

Welcome to my new readers

A few weeks ago my page counter quadrupled. So 'hello' to all of the new readers who are now here. But don't expect too much, except for 'brain-dumps', fragments, ideas and hopefully a bit of progress and development from my discoveries and formulating of new thoughts.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Bad Religion / 'Get Right With God'

Early 90s American punk isn't everybody's thing but I re-listened to this track a few weeks ago, 'American Jesus' by a band called Bad Religion. The lyrics pack a serious punch.

There is a lot of bad religion in the world. As our pastor at Millisle Baptist, Andrew Roycroft, has often said, that kind of stuff makes a church service feel like yet another 'brick in the rucksack', another burden to bear.

Bad religion is advice about what you need to do, and demands that you get on with it. And if you do it well enough then you might just 'get right with God'. Its message is 'Do more, try harder'. The brilliant Lucinda Williams track below (thanks Sean!) explains it - a whole big list of stuff that various religious systems insist that you must do, from snake handling to fire walking to lying on beds of nails to even a warped kind of animal sacrifice. Add your own to the list - do this, don't do that. But none of it works.

Because there is this other thing called the Gospel.

The gospel is news about what Christ has already done for you. It firstly declares the impossible required standard – absolute perfection in deed, word, thought and motive. Nobody makes the cut and religious observance won't get you over the line. Plumb your own depths – ask yourself 'what's the worst thing I would do if I would be guaranteed to get away with it?'.  Any notions you have of self-righteousness are atomised when you are faced with just how bad you really are. The pretence you put on to function in public just disintegrates. But then comes the good news, for the gospel then tells you that Christ is the only one who has ever made the grade, and that he did so on your behalf. You have a Substitute.

But we all like to 'deserve' by our own efforts. It makes us feel good. Protestant churches who really should know better are rife with 'works religion' and 'self righteousness'. Or even worse, a polluted, contaminated cocktail of the bad stuff and some of the vocabulary from the good stuff. The actual pure, neat, single malt Gospel is a whole different operating system.

One insists that you behave. Even worse, it insists that everyone must behave. But 'behave' isn't the point. Respectability isn't the point. Perfection is the requirement.

The other implores you to believe. To come to terms with your own spectacular failure but to rest on the truth that all that is required has already been done for you by Christ - and in what Martin Luther called a 'great exchange' you receive the credit for it all, as an unearned, undeserved, gift.

Jean Calvin was a bright young lawyer from Noyon in 1500s France. His cousin, Pierre-Robert Olivétan, was working away on translating the Bible into French, from the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. The penny dropped and he rushed to Jean –

'.... "There are but two religions in the world," we hear Olivetan saying.
"The one class of religions are those which men have invented, in all of which man saves himself by ceremonies and good works.
The other is that one religion which is revealed in the Bible, and which teaches man to look for salvation solely from the free grace of God." 

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

What do you mean by 'Irish?' (defining your terminology)

I had a very stimulating conversation tonight. Maybe I will say more about that later. As always with a conversation like that I came away with ideas rattling about in my head on the road home.

I remembered a tv programme I appeared in called 'Twa Lads O Pairts' which I think was around 2003. In it I was asked a series of questions by the producer about culture and heritage, and was eventually asked if I was Irish. Now in context of the whole series of questions it was clear to me at the time that what was meant was 'Irish' in narrow cultural terms (ie, 'green', Nationalist, Gaelic, Catholic), not in broad geographical terms. There is nothing wrong with those things, and I have learned much from talking with friends for whom those things are very much them, but they are not me. So I said 'no'.

I don't believe it was a set-up or deliberate trick. I got on well with the producer and we stayed in touch for a good while afterwards. The programme was broadcast, but that one remark really stuck out to me.

Shortly after it aired I took a call that same evening from a prominent Ulster-Scots figure who was absolutely thrilled by this remark. I was a bit confused by the call, and their enthusiasm, as that person had never spoken to me before, and seldom spoke to me after. I expect I had served some kind of a purpose.

A wiser, older, me would be less inclined to assume what the questioner meant, and would ask for a definition of 'Irish'. Did they mean in a broad, inclusive and geographical sense? Or did they mean what a friend from County Wicklow called a narrowed exclusive cultural Irishness. Defining your terminology really matters.

Sometimes this wordplay can be sneakily sprung like a trap. You can hear it on phone-in debate shows now and again. It usually goes something like this:

Q: "So are you from Ireland?"
A: "Yes"
Q: "So you're Irish?" (there follows a silent "gotcha")

There's a kind of entrapment there, a kind of exclusion. But Ireland is an island of cultural variety. Every country on the planet has local and regional cultural variety. We are no different, and we would all be better neighbours to each other if we understood that better, and allowed each other to express that in our own way.

Instead of our 'three stranded identity' - of shamrock, rose and thistle - being three separate community threads, maybe every one of us has traces of all three.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

BBC Songs of Praise - Vote for the Nation's Favourite Hymn

This BBC online vote presents the voting public with 100 hymns, but you can only vote for one! The final results will be revealed in the Autumn. Quite a few have Northern Ireland / Ulster connections:

• Abide With Me
Written by Henry Lyte, whose Scottish parents separated and he was raised at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen where an Ulster History Circle blue plaque marks his time there.

• All Things Bright and Beautiful
Lyrically dubious on a number of levels! But famously written by Mrs C F Alexander of Londonderry

• Amazing Grace
Written by John Newton after seeking refuge from a hurricane in Lough Swilly, Donegal. The famous tune New Britain emerged from Scotch-Irish communities in Pennsylvania, as chronicled by the late musicologist Michael Scoggins, of the Scotch-Irish Society of America.

• Before The Throne of God Above
Written by Fermanagh teenager Charitie Smith around 1863; published by Charles Spurgeon. I have assembled fragments of her life story in this previous post.

• Be Thou My Vision
Thought to be Irish in origin, very very old!

• Great is Thy Faithfulness
Its author William Chisholm was, I have been told, from rural Kentucky. So potentially a connection there, research pending.

• Here Is Love, Vast As The Ocean
The anthem of the Welsh Revival; melody by the Pennsylvania Baptist writer and composer Robert Lowry whose parents were from Killinchy

• Praise My Soul The King of Heaven
Another by Henry Lyte of Enniskillen

• What A Friend We Have In Jesus
Writte by Joseph Scriven, born and raised in Banbridge. More on that soon....

The list also includes four contemporary hymns by Keith and Kristyn Getty, both from Northern Ireland and as far as I know now living in Nashville.

So out of the 100 there are around a dozen with plausible links to Ulster.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Flag Day USA - Charles Thomson signs the Stars and Stripes into effect

Flag Day has been an annual celebration in America since 1916 when it was instituted by President Woodrow Wilson. More info here.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

BBC 'Rock N Roll Highway' - Ralph McLean & Ricky Warwick

I had the very great pleasure of contributing to this programme which was broadcast recently, back in November 2018 when these two musical legends spent some time with me at home, talking, jamming, singing and revisiting old hymns & stories. It's still on BBC iPlayer here for a few days yet. Somewhere I have an iPhone clip of the three of us larking about with the old Johnny Cash song Cocaine Blues, after the 'proper' filming was done. I must try to upload it here.

Monday, June 03, 2019

The Armstrongs - from the Borders to Fermanagh to Pennsylvania to Hawaii to World War II

Armstrong. The name will for ever be synonymous with going to the Moon. But this story is less dramatic but perhaps just as interesting.

The Armstrongs were of course originally Border Reivers, deported to Fermanagh by King James VI & I in the early 1600s to clear them away from the 'debatable lands' on both sides of the Scottish/English border. James had united the two crowns and he needed to get rid of the troublemakers. So to Ulster they were sent. Armstrong remains one of the most common surnames in Fermanagh, and is in the top 50 surnames in all of Ulster.

The Armstrongs conducted themselves valiantly during the Williamite Revolution, in particular in the Inniskillings through their exploits at Lisnaskea and Newtownbutler in 1689. In the 'Address to Their Most Excellent Majesties King William and Queen Mary' which was issued from Enniskillen (online here) the list of signatories includes John, Martin, Thomas, Daniel and James Armstrong.

A later James Armstrong (1754–1829) was an Ulster-Scots Presbyterian, born in Enniskillen. He emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1786. He married an Eleanor Pollock there at the First Presbyterian Church in 1788 and they had a number of children. James became a teacher of mathematics at Carlisle High School, Pennsylvania.

Their youngest child Richard Armstrong (1805–1860) was educated at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and then Princeton. He and his new bride Clarissa were sent to Hawaii as  Presbyterian missionaries. They reached Honolulu in 1832 and headed southwards to the Marquesas Islands in Polynesia where they lived and worked among the cannibal Nuku Hiva tribe, alongside fellow Presbyterian Rev William Patterson Alexander who was also of Ulster-Scots parentage. They later moved to the island of Maui and then Wailuku. Richard founded churches and also a sugar company. He was appointed to a number of positions in the Hawaiian government by King Kamehameha III. One of those was President of the Board of Education, gaining him the title 'The Father of American Education in Hawaii'. Richard and Clarissa had ten children; he died following a horse riding accident in 1860.

Their son Samuel Chapman Armstrong (1839–1893) had been born in Hawaii. Following his father's wishes, Samuel went to Massachusetts to study at Williams College, during which time the Civil War broke out. Samuel joined the Union Army and became a captain in the 125ht New York Infantry. Later, on becoming a Lieutenant Colonel, he took charge of the 9th United States Colored Infantry in 1863, taking on the task of educating the men in his care. After the war. President Anrew Johnston made him a brigadier general in 1866. But Samuel concentrated the rest of his life on educating African Americans at Hampton University, one of whom was Booker T Washington (1856–1915, Wikipedia here), who said of Armstrong that he was "the most perfect specimen of man, physically, mentally and spiritually the most Christ-like…." and in his autobiography described him as "the noblest, rarest human being that it has ever been my privilege to meet." 

Samuel's son Daniel Armstrong became a US Navy Lieutenant Commander who, like his father, would train African American troops during World War II, at the Camp Robert Smalls Naval Training Station at Great Lakes Illinois. There is some black and white footage of him here.

Below: Gilnockie Tower, the borders home of the Armstrongs and today the Clan Armstrong Centre.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Carter G Woodson - how Black slaves assisted the poor Scotch-Irish, 1919

"It is likely that in East Tennessee there was considerable prevalence of such amalgamation of African and Scotch-Irish race stocks, with white motherhood. The reasons were largely economic. 

Many of the whites who came to live in the lower farm lands down from their first holdings on the rocky slopes and unfertile soil, were driven from these more productive lowlands by the rich white land owners who preferred to have large plantations with great numbers of blacks to raise the crops, rather than to rent or sell to small farmers.

For these poorer white neighbors there was no recourse but to take to the mountains and to cultivate there the less desirable lands. The life they had to live was necessarily very rough and hard ; their principal diet was corn, and often the rocky soil only yielded them that grudgingly and scantily.

They frequently came in contact with the slaves, and the latter were known to steal provisions from their masters' storehouses and bring to these hill-country people appetizing additions to their meager provisions. And the slaves were also known to mingle with them in the quilting, husking, barn-raisings, and other rural festivities, being undoubtedly made welcome.

It requires no immoderate imagination to state here the likelihood of much racial intermixure, as we know, from testimony, of more than a few specific cases, and we have, in this rather strange way, the account of social intermingling and the secret gifts of the black men who visited these mountain homes."

– Article by Rev William Lloyd Imes, the Black Presbyterian minister of St James' Church of Harlem NYC, in Carter G Woodson's Journal of Negro History,  Volume IV, 1919. Imes was born in Memphis Tennessee, was educated at Fisk University in Nashville (which had developed from the work of Anahilt-born Rev Joseph McKee) and for a time was President of Knoxville College, a Presbyterian institution.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Racism, Satire and Scotch-Irish awareness in 1950s Mississippi

“I do not believe God wants us to mix with the Scotch-Irish, else why did he put them off on a little island by themselves?”

I have never been to Mississippi. It connects Tennessee to the Gulf Coast, a long vertical strip just to the west of Alabama. Its external reputation has been forged in movies such as Mississippi Burning, creating an image of racist discrimination and violence.

This is a pretty eye-opening article, on, cataloguing an anti-racist initiative on campus of the University of Mississippi in the town of Oxford in the north of the state, in the 1950s. These events were a precursor to the campus riots of 1962 when the university enrolled James H Meredith as its first African-American student.

As a method to counter the 1950s campus racism, a group of people led by former US Marine and Korean War veteran Jean Morrison published a newspaper. Also involved was the university Baptist chaplain Will D. Campbell. In later years renowned Nobel Prize winning writer William Faulkner took inspiration from their actions.

Morrison could be outspoken, and he was itching to make a public statement on race. He decided to create a fictitious, satirical newspaper warning of the dangers of allowing the “Scotch-Irish” into proper society. Of course, many white Mississippians are of Scotch-Irish descent.
Their satirical strategy was to take the slurs that Black people endured, and apply them to Scotch-Irish people instead. It was a clever and shocking idea, to provoke a response from the racist whites.

Some editions of the newspaper, called The Nigble Papers, (a combination of a racial slur word and 'Bible') are online along with a later publication which reprinted its content called The Southern Reposure. The psychology at work is fascinating; and if you're familiar with the authentic anti-Scotch-Irish commentary from 1700s New England, the language used by Morrison in his razor-sharp satire is in some ways similar to what the first waves of Scotch-Irish faced when they first arrived in America.

Only two editions of The Nigble Papers were ever published. The episode shows the awareness of a Scotch-Irish identity was in 1950s America. It is very possible that Faulkner, Campbell and Morrison may themselves have been of Scotch-Irish descent, but they certainly understood that it was a meaningful, effective term and concept to be deployed.

The Nigble Reposure blog reproduces some extracts
Digital scanned editions are online here in the University's Archives and Special Collections, which is where the two examples below are from

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

"Christianity, North Carolina, the Mecklenburg Resolves and freedom" - Rev Mark H Creech

This article by Rev Mark H. Creech on is worth reading for those of you who are interested in the fusion of faith with ideas of liberty.

I've covered the Mecklenburg 1775 story here before, but this source by Rev Benjamin Morris (1810-1897), entitled Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States was published in 1864 and is online here.

“Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, who formed so large a proportion of the people of North Carolina, and moulded its religious and political character… The religious creed of these Christian immigrants formed a part of their politics so far as to lead them to decide that no law of human government ought to be tolerated in opposition to the expressed will of God. Their ideas of religious liberty have given a colouring to their political notions on all subjects – have been, indeed, the foundation of their political creed. The Bible was their text-book on all subjects of importance, and their resistance to tyrants was inspired by the free principles which it taught and enforced.”

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Judas Fires of Liverpool, 1963

I came upon this while looking for something else. Here is a BBC article from 2006

Monday, May 13, 2019

Ulster's three-dimensional language combination

Some very interesting observations here from Tom Paulin, from a 1983 Field Day publication I picked up recently, in which he clearly understands our linguistic complexities and combinations far better than most today - "three fully-fledged languages " –  I recall that he presented an excellent documentary for BBCNI about Ulster-Scots around 2003-ish.


Friday, May 10, 2019

Name that tune – The Scottish Breakway

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Son Volt - Ballymena

This EP was released by iconic alt-country band Son Volt last year. The title track 'Ballymena' is very interesting. I don't know of any other songs that mention the Steelboys/Hearts of Steel.

The rents have all risen, wages are low
If there’s wages to be found any more
There’s a challenge in the air to the powers that be
We’re Steelboys forever from now on

Tales of the troubles, sails against the tide
In the old songs of Ballymena
Tales of the troubles, sails against time
In the old songs of Ballymena

The gentry in the castles will hear the people’s words
There’s fire, the cause will not be stained
Days filled with hunger turn thoughts to America
In America we’ll live and celebrate

With the Hearts of Steel, we’re everyone you know
Without bread the castles will come down
Days filled with hunger turn thoughts to America
To America in the boats of Belfast town

Thursday, May 02, 2019

The Holestones of Ulster and Scotland

The top colour image is the Holestone near Doagh in south Antrim. The bottom black and white image is from near Kirkcowan in south west Scotland. Ancient stanes made by ancient folk. One who was fascinated by ancient traditions was historian and writer Sir Samuel Ferguson, whose grandfather lived at 'Standing Stone', ie the Antrim Holestone.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Land Purchase Commission and the Ballyfrench Thompsons, 1929

This document surfaced recently, in a set of photocopies given to me by a late aunt. This is my great-grandfather Robert Thompson finally having the opportunity to buy the six acre farm in 1929. Other documents are dated 1933 so I'm not sure of the precise date that it was all finalised.

He was 71 in 1929. His son William, my grandfather, was 18. An older son, John, had emigrated to Canada in 1925 (previous post here). The Thompsons had farmed these fields as far back as records go - 1750s - and probably back even further than that, but for almost 200 years they had been tenants of the landlord. Francis Heron Scott was the last one they served (partial estate listed here). I wonder what it felt like to finally own the ground that they had sweated over all those generations?

Scott was a GP in Saintfield, who had inherited his estate from his own ancestors back to a Francis Heron of Killyleagh.

Six acres. My father, his two brothers and his two sisters were all raised on this. Self-sufficient with no other income apart from labouring to the local neighbours, the Ralstons and Johnstons. Hard work during every hour of daylight. They say that the agrarian economy was the most gender-equal, because everybody worked themselves to death.

This isn't ancient history, it's a whisker away from living memory. What a different world.

Monday, April 29, 2019

"the Scotch-Irish, Ulster Scotch, or Presbyterian Irish" - John C. Campbell's 'The Southern Highlander and His Homeland' (1921)

Image result for "john charles campbell" "wisconsin"Image result for "olive dame campbell"

"the Scotch-Irish, Ulster Scotch, or Presbyterian Irish" – All three terms were used together in one sentence by John Charles Campbell (1867-1919, Wikipedia entry here) in his seminal The Southern Highlander and His Homeland (1921).

He was born in LaPorte, Indiana. His mother was German and his father was of Scottish descent. He was a graduate of Andover Theological Seminary in Newton, Massachusetts, and applied to become a Presbyterian minister. Instead he became a teacher – first in Alabama, then Tennessee, and then Georgia. Later he was Secretary of the Southern Highland Division of the Russell Sage Foundation of New York City.

John's first wife died and it was on a trip to Glasgow that he met his second, who was also from Massachusetts, Olive Dame (Wikipedia entry here). They married in 1908 and in October of that year they began to live among and study the mountain people. It was Olive who found a particularly unusual version of the ballad Barbara Allen, which she sent to noted English folklore collector Cecil Sharp (Wikipedia entry here). Sharp then came to America to spend time in the mountains with the Campbells, specifically in what Sharp called 'Presbyterian Missionary Settlements... charged with Calvinism... the majority we met were Baptists, but we met Methodists also and a few Presbyterians', from which Sharp and Olive co-authored the famous 1917 collection of English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (online here).

There have been discussions on the book title's presumption that the songs they collected were all 'English' - Sharp was from England and perhaps commercial considerations had a bearing. But it is curious that he did not acknowledge an Ulster origin. This example shows our own Sam Henry locating the song 'The Rambling Sailor' back to Ulster. The Campbells certainly understood the complexity of Appalachia, and Scotch-Irish settlement in the region, to an extent that Sharp appears to not have.

• A 'Folk School' in Campbell's honour was established at Brasstown in the far west of North Carolina (Wikipedia entry here).

• A recent publication by the University Press of Kentucky, entitled The Life and Work of John C Campbell is online here.

• The Southern Highlander and His Homeland is an excellent book and is online at HathiTrust here. The statistical analysis tables in it are fascinating, including the one below which shows the proportion of African Americans who were living in the region in 1910 - solid evidence for the cross-cultural musical interactions which took place and continue to.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

John Beggs - from Fermanagh to Indiana - another Ulster-Scots distiller

The blog These Pre-Pro Whiskey Men by Jack Sullivan is a terrific resource (link here). John Beggs (1832–1904) was born in Ballinamallard in County Fermanagh, his parents Edward Beggs and Elizabeth Gibson.

John emigrated to Cincinatti aged just 10 years old. He learned the distillery business about 20 miles south in the river town of New Richmond, Ohio, under a David Gibson. This history of New Richmond says that Gibson owned a distillery there from 1842–1858, and later moved into the steamboat business.

John Beggs eventually ended up in Shelbyville in Indiana where he established a distilling empire which was continued by his sons after his death. At its peak, the business included the Commercial Distilling Company of Terre Haute, said to have been the largest in America at the time.

• All three of the Beggs men feature here in Men of Indiana (1901)
The Book O Beggs is an interesting genealogy from 1914, detailing a number of strands of the family including some in Indiana (online here)

Image result for terre haute distillery

Friday, April 26, 2019

You are what you eat

So they say. Recent events here have raised once again the radicalisation of young people. We can't  seriously be surprised at this. When a population is fed a daily diet of adversarial politics, both local and international, frequently fuelled by well-known media outlets, guess what the outcome is? In more recent years the advent of – often anonymous – social media mayhem has often made it even worse. Perhaps now is the moment to shift focus, onto the historically-authentic intertwined cultures, as with the famous shamrock/rose/thistle motif. Example below is the once-commonplace symbol in the mosaic at the entrance of the Ulster Reform Club in Belfast. The re-energising of the Red Hand as a symbol is particularly powerful and poignant - as you'll see on the left column here, from the Flickr gallery I set up a while ago, it is a shared emblem.

Some people find purpose in conflict. Even the most comfortable and pampered appear to seek it out, and even invent it where it need not exist.

Some here are undoubtedly radicalising and have been radicalised. But I know others who have been, in a sense, neutralised - with no cultural understanding whatsoever in how they understand themselves and this place. Perhaps school curriculums are also part of the problem.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Where do you start?

As if I couldn't be less enamoured with aspects of academia than I already am, this corker comes along to put the cherry on top. 

It's akin to to sort of stuff that was being pumped out around the turn of the 20th century, like this one, to counter the growth in awareness of Scotch-Irishness which was developing on both sides of the Atlantic. The early publications of the American Irish Historical Society had that as a stated aim (see here and search for 'Scotch'). Theodore Roosevelt's very carefully worded letter on page 27 is worth reading.

Today, added to the old familiar prejudices which are all too common on the island of Ireland, are the new-fangled issues of 'intersectionality' and 'critical theory' which manifest themselves in what some have called the 'oppression Olympics' – a race to the top of a kind of victimhood tree. Because today, if you can show that the group you identify with has been historically denied power and influence and status, at the top of that tree all of these and more will now be granted. It's a social justice beanstalk with a great big golden egg laying goose at the top.

The piece is peppered with loaded terminologies - 'so-called "Scotch-Irish"', 'Scotch-Irish myth', 'whiteness', 'racial constructs', 'domination', 'exploitation', 'imperial expansion', 'conquer and colonize' - you get the picture.

It must come as a mighty shock to Appalachians of Scotch-Irish descent, having been scorned and marginalised by élite whites as an underclass for nearly three centuries, (as Meredith McCarroll's fascinating new book Unwhite explores in terms of stereotypical film portrayals - link here) – to suddenly now find that some of today's élite whites have decided to do a complete 180˚ turn and insist that in actual fact the Scotch-Irish have been mighty oppressors all along. Scotch-Irish identity is apparently a construct of 'English colonialism'. A stunning article. And not in a good way. Where do you start?

The common thread is that it in both cases it is the privileged élites that get to do the defining, and their subjects who get to say nothing about these newly-acquired labels. Suddenly it's Rev Charles Woodmason in 1766 all over again – "the most lowest vilest crew breathing, Scotch Irish Presbyterians from the North of Ireland".

It is impossible to keep on top of today's campus madnesses. Our middle son, aged 16, is keeping a watchful eye on university antics as he is potentially heading to one in two years' time. He asked me recently if, as well as getting good A level grades, he should also become a communist to be accepted into one.

Ulster-Scots / Scots-Irish / Scotch-Irish studies remain pretty much a hobbyist interest. There is no 'sector' as is normally defined, but a small number of people are doing the best they can with limited resources. There is no climate of mainstream institutional respect even within the natural Ulster-Scots areas of Northern Ireland. Many local Councils even in those areas avoid the subject or give it a merely tokenistic acknowledgement. You'll look long and hard to find any significant mention within museums here. There is certainly no global infrastructure of well-funded university staff capable of thinking, writing, publishing, and making the case. There aren't even authoritative core texts which summarise the overall story. Meanwhile this is a particularly bizarre example of how the story is being selectively mined and misrepresented.

Apportioning fashionable early 21st century notions of guilt and blame to a selectively caricatured presentation of some ‘other’ people group, who are conveniently voiceless (whilst one's own people group is only ever pure and noble) is in itself an ironically colonial and imperialist endeavour. Academic privilege writ large. Punching down.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Allan Ramsay (1684–1758) on snobbery and 'ignorance of native language'

The quote below, from Scottish and Scots language poet Allan Ramsay (1684–1758), is pretty spectacular. His works were reprinted numerous times in Belfast over the centuries; I have a copy that was passed down to me by an aunt some years ago.

"There is nothing can be heard more silly than one's expressing his ignorance of his native language, yet such there are who can vaunt of acquiring a tolerable perfection in the French or Italian tongues if they have been a fortnight in Paris or a month in Rome. 
But shew them the most elegant thoughts in a Scots dress they, as disdainfully as stupidly, condemn it as barbarous. But the true reason is obvious. 
Every one that is born never so little superior to the vulgar would fain distinguish themselves from them by some manner or other and such it would appear cannot arrive at a better method. 
But this affected class of fops give no uneasiness not being numerous for the most part of our gentlemen who are generally masters of the most useful and politest languages can take pleasure for a change to speak and read their own..."

- From the preface of The Ever Green, being a collection of Scots poems, wrote by the ingenious before 1600, Allan Ramsay (1724)

online here
• Excellent article by Philip Robinson on here


I am persuaded that the only way that there will ever be momentum around Ulster-Scots language will be in appropriate partnership with Scots language in Scotland. As you can see from the both barrels blast above, the issues of class, 'vulgar' speech and disdain for the 'native language' were the same 300 years ago as they still are today.  Ramsay also saw the need to reprint historical Scots language literature to help persuade his contemporary audience of its importance and veracity. And as you can see from the images here, from the 1728 edition of Poems by Allan Ramsay (online here),  Ramsay corresponded with William Starrat from Strabane.

William Starrat's poem to Allan Ramsay was dated 15th May 1722. Surely, almost three years from now and as the first Ulster-Scots language poet, this tercentenary is deserving of commemoration? Perhaps an Ulster History Circle blue plaque at a suitable location in Strabane or Lifford.

Co-operation across the North Channel is our past, and it is also our future.