Monday, October 21, 2019

"Made In Ulster - Mountain Dew" - 1946 Poteen for the future Queen

When Princess Elizabeth - as she then was - visited Ulster in March 1946 her itinerary included Enniskillen where the local RUC Head Constable David Murray presented her with an unusual gift - as the caption above says it was "a bottle labelled mountain dew after her inspection of an illicit still in operation at a police depot in Enniskillen". One of the articles below says it was in a special box labelled "Made In Ulster - Mountain Dew". 

At first glance I thought this meant that a rogue remote police station was distilling its own spirits, but a visit to the British Newspaper Archive showed that "in a corner of the depot the police had constructed a typical hideout of heather, gorse, moss and turf to give the Royal visitor an idea of the kind of place in which illicit stills were concealed" (The Scotsman, 22 March 1946).

The report also said that, to add a bit of drama to the occasion, some policemen had dressed up as "mountain bandits".

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Blue Rhythmaires from Ballymena

I picked up this old dance card recently, for the annual dance of Ballykeel LOL No 472 at the Protestant Hall in Ballymena. Two years after World War 2 you can see signs of the world changing - I am pretty sure that the band 'The Blue Rhythmaires' weren't playing fiddles and accordions for traditional country dancing! More likely to have been Glenn Miller style 'big band' sound with jazz, blues and ragtime influences.

A dig through the British Newspaper Archive shows that they were kept very busy in the late 1940s, at Ahoghill Orange Hall and Craigywarren Orange Hall - with the dancing from 9pm till 2am! I wonder how that was regarded in conservative mid Antrim in that era?

According to the Ballymena Observer report of the event - a week later on 28 March - "so large was the attendance that at the traditional opening there was scarcely enough room for the participating members". The band leader of The Blue Rhythmaires was a Wilson Gordon and "dancing continued to a late hour and the ball was voted one of the best this season".

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Temperance, bagpipes, fifes and drums - John Edgar (1798–1866)

John Edgar (1798–1866) was born somewhere around the Saintfield and Ballynahinch area of County Down in the historic year of 1798 – on the cusp of the famed rebellion, and in between two of the renowned battle sites of that rebellion.

His father was the Secession minister of a congregation at Ballynahinch and also ran a school, an 'academy', where a local youth called James Thomson assisted him. Thomson's son William would become world famous as Lord Kelvin. John Edgar's life story is told in this Memoir by WD Killen, published in 1869 (online here). A short bio can be found on the Dictionary of Ulster Biography here.

Edgar was theologically orthodox, a member of the Reformation Society, also strongly supportive of the Irish language and of evangelism across the entire island. He was also famous as a pioneer of Temperance in Europe, beginning what is thought to have been the very first such campaign on the entire continent, in 1829. It held its first meeting at 5pm on Sunday 4th October 1829 in Donegall Square Methodist Church in Belfast, the building too small to hold the crowd who has gathered. Edgar is said to have 'delivered an impressive discourse ... an energetic appeal to all the feelings of duty'. There were even centenary celebrations in 1929.

Yet Edgar is not well-known today, in contrast to his Catholic counterpart Father Theobald Matthew (1790–1856) who founded the Cork Total Abstinence Society in 1838, and to whom there are statues in various towns in Ireland.

The pages below describe a large pro-Temperance rally in 1837 in Clones in County Monaghan, cross-community in nature, and with bagpipes, fifes and drums.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

A Quare Tongue with Damian Gorman

I enjoyed talking with Damian Gorman by phone around a year ago, and eventually we met up for a chat in person with a crew from Tern Television recording it. I haven't seen the programme yet but I am sure it's going to be of high quality. Tune in on Sunday evening or catch it on iPlayer for 30 days afterwards.

Monday, October 07, 2019

When "fight the power" becomes "shoot the neighbours"

[This post isn't a balanced or authoritative history, it's just a mop-up of things I have happened upon over the last while.]

I try to keep things positive and constructive here. But of late I've been stumbling into some very dark stuff, but it is material which needs to be owned up to and acknowledged. Over recent months, in the Brexit context, and a potential 'border poll' in the years ahead, there has been much talk of a 'new Ireland'. So, almost exactly 100 years on from 'partition' - when the border was created - it is instructive to look back and see what happened then. But I've been pretty shocked at what has unexpectedly landed into my awareness over the past while. It is a period I previously knew little or nothing about.

Back in December 1912, the minister of St Enoch's Presbyterian Church in Belfast (which was Ireland's largest Presbyterian congregation) Glasgow-born Rev John Pollock, visited Canada. He addressed a large audience in an Orange Hall in North James Street in Hamilton in Ontario. He confessed that he had changed his mind twice on the 'Home Rule' for Ireland issue. He said he was a

'Home Ruler on principle ... I have no objection to a free Parliament on College Green, but I do object to Italian rule ... Home Rule would be the end of liberalism and progress. I have nothing against the religion of St Peter, but I protest against the politics of the Vatican ... if Home Rule becomes law, persecution in its most insidious form could not be prevented'.

He was not wrong in his prediction...

The booklet 'Lest We Forget - an Irish Record of One Year' came up for sale online over the summer. I had never heard of it before. It is a pretty horrific contemporary diary of some events from June 1920 – July 1921, cataloguing a range of political and sectarian murders which were carried out in many parts of the south of Ireland, which would become the Irish Free State in 1922. For example the murder of a 79 year old retired Church of Ireland rector James Finlay who was dragged from his home at Bawnboy in County Cavan in the middle of the night by a crowd of up to 50 armed and masked men, was shot dead in the road, his head smashed in, and the house burned to the ground. A different house stands there today and is listed on the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, having been built in 1923.

In my time in Cork recently I came across this image from December 1920 which makes the city look like Dresden in WW2 - an event called the Burning of Cork (Wikipedia here), carried out by the British Army forces known as the 'Black and Tans'. How on earth that was sanctioned and enacted is beyond me, and its aftermath was in many ways inevitable. But 'fight the power' too easily became 'shoot the neighbours' - the Protestant neighbours.

The vicious, discriminatory, sectarianisation of both parts of this island was in so many ways institutionalised on both sides of the new border. It is wrong to pretend this only happened on one side or the other. Over the summer, yet another friend told me of his own grandparents having to flee 1920s south of Ireland for refuge in Northern Ireland, just because they were Protestants. I know many families who have told me of similar experiences.

James Craig became the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in June 1921, and whatever his achievements may have been during his life in modern times he is - dare I say it - inextricably linked to remarks he made in 1934 about Stormont being "a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State" (see previous post here). Newspaper reports as late as 1937 show the Presbyterian moderator and also Thomas Joseph Campbell taking Craig to task for these words. As an exact mirror image Eamon De Valera's speech from St Patrick's Day in 1935 said that "Ireland has been a Christian and Catholic nation ... she remains a Catholic nation, and her people will accept no system which denies or imperils that destiny". The 1937 constitution was supposedly developed jointly between church and state.

Earlier this year I saw a memorial plaque which included an Alexander Reid, who had been killed on 30 November 1921. A bit of research uncovered his story - he was a 50 year old shipyard worker, shot dead on his way to work simply because his assassins (correctly) assumed he was a Protestant. He lived at 33 Silvergrove Street just off the Donegall Pass - he was passing the corner of Catherine Street and Cromac Street at 7:20am when he was killed, leaving a widow and seven children. A William Burns was attacked in the same manner, on his way to work in the yard, as he passed the corner of Russell Street and Alfred Street also at 7:20am. Four shots were fired but he escaped and survived.

As I've posted here recently, both jurisdictions on the island are more or less fully secular nowadays. There are new gods. A truly 'new Ireland' must acknowledge, honestly and even-handedly, the full extent of the wrongs which have been carried out on people on both sides of the border.

We are very familiar with Northern Ireland relentlessly being cast as a 'sectarian statelet' and – let's be honest – there is plenty of evidence of that being true. But in Cork, as recently as 2012, another Church of Ireland clergyman Canon George Salter, then in his 90s, bravely gave an account in Irish of his own family's experiences in Cork in a documentary entitled An Tost Fada (The Long Silence). See review here. This 2017 article shows some of the reaction to the film. The film's producer compared this to a 'deep denial' he had encountered in eastern Europe when making a film about the ethnic cleansing of Jews (see article here).

During our most recent and enjoyable trip to County Cork, my 16 year old son and I had a friendly conversation with a middle class couple in a restaurant near where we were staying. I went to the bar to pay the bill, leaving him in their company; they continued talking, but they left before I returned to the table. In my absence they had told him in no uncertain terms that he didn't live in Northern Ireland, he lived in the north of Ireland.

I can understand an instinct to 'fight the power'. But maybe sometimes that is merely a disguise to hide or legitimise the radicalised bloodlust of 'shoot the neighbours', whether those neighbours live in the same townland, the same city, or the same island - and whatever their religious tradition or political persuasion might be.

I hope to go back to Cork again later this year. We met some really lovely people and saw fascinating places. There are more fish to catch, and there are some stories to uncover. There are always things to learn.

Robin Bury's 2017 book 'Buried Lives, the Protestants of Southern Ireland' (review here) has been added to the pile I need to get round to reading, as has Gerard Murphy's 2010 book 'The Year of Disappearances: Political Killings in Cork, 1920–21'.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Ideas are big

Bigger than nationality, bigger than ethnicity, bigger than gender, bigger than class. The sharing of ideas is the biggest tool the human race has. Some photos here of Cork Baptist Church, built in 1892 – I've spent a bit of time in Cork this year and have learned a lot. Some posts may follow. Evangelical reformed faith is not 'owned' by a subculture or tribe in Northern Ireland. Ideas are bigger than borders. 'For God so loved the world...'

This wasn't the first Baptist place of worship in Cork, but it's a pretty quirky building and it has a good chippy next door which is a bonus.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

M'Connell's Whisky - Belfast and Stromness, Orkney

J&J McConnell Limited was founded in 1776, the year of the American Revolution. Based at the Cromac Distillery in Belfast, one of their brands was abbreviated as Old Cro' Irish Whisky. This is yet another Ulster whisky brand with a meaningful connection into Scotland – but this time not to the big cities in the mainland but, ironically, to the Orkney island which is itself called 'Mainland'. The firm was in liquidation in August 1931, but bottled products were still being sold for some years after. The Stromness distillery had closed around 1928 and the building was later demolished. However, the McConnell's brand is due to be revived in Belfast in the near future.

Companies do things for commercial reasons – but surely the geographical proximity with Scotland, and potentially the cultural connections and similarities – were additional factors in so many Ulster distilleries looking west for new business ventures.

BBC Scotland - 'The Last Explorers', David Livingstone - presented by Neil Oliver

This BBC Scotland documentary about the Scottish missionary/explorer Dr David Livingstone is brilliant, his is one of those names I grew up with, in Sunday School and from many books we had around home. Tremendous insight into the challenges he encountered in trying to end slavery in east Africa. Presented by Neil Oliver and on iPlayer now.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

George Washington and the obstinate, dastardly Scotch-Irish

Washington's famous, admiring, quote about the heroic Scotch-Irish of Virginia is often cited (see my July 2017 post here, tracing the earliest source I have ever found for it). If he said it, it was around the 1770s during the American Revolution. But here is an earlier one, from 1755, with a very different slant. Washington was just 33 years old, and a volunteer aide-de-camp to notorious General Edward Braddock.

"... After surviving the disastrous Braddock expedition, Washington was raised to the position of Colonel and commander in chief of Virginia forces on the western frontier in August 1755. He returned to Winchester to take command on October 10, and was not impressed, calling the town "this vile post" and complained of the "obstantcy and dastardliness" of the Scotch-Irish settlers of the area. Nevertheless, Winchester was a vital link in a defensive chain intended to counteract French forts like Duquesne and defend settlers from Native American raids ..."
This was the very same year that Winchester's Ulster-Scots emigrant population were described as 'a spurious race of mortals known by the appelation Scotch-Irish' (see previous post here). As more of George Washington's papers are researched and digitised, I expect that more and more Scotch-Irish / Ulster-Scots material will be unearthed.

Source here

A "company of Ulster-Scotch" - Northampton County, Pennsylvania, 1765

This extract is from the Founders.Archives.Gov website:

"... Capt. William Craig, the son of Thomas Craig, was a tavern keeper and the first elected sheriff of Northampton Co., 1752; commissioned by Hamilton, December 1755; passed through Nazareth on the 20th with his “company of Ulster-Scotch”; performed guard duty along the frontier, January–February 1756. He drew £256 13s. 3d. pay for himself and company March 15; thereafter was stationed at Fort Hamilton. There is no record of his service after mid-1756 ..."
It is within correspondences from the Benjamin Franklin papers, part of notes accompanying a letter from Pennsylvania Deputy Governor Robert Hunter Morris to Franklin, giving an account of events during the French and Indian War.

1700s Pennsylvania was of course overflowing with Ulster-Scots emigrants - to find the terminology 'Ulster-Scotch' documented is very important.

Source here.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Another Ulster-Scots distillery brand - Mitchell's of Belfast and Glasgow

There's an excellent blog devoted to Mitchell's here, so I'll not repeat all of the history.

They were two brothers, both Scots, one of whom, William Charles Mitchell (1834 – 22 July 1894), came to Belfast in 1863 to run Dunville's. He had previously worked in a distillery at Port Dundas near Glasgow, said to have been the biggest in Scotland. Eventually he left to do his own thing and around 1871 formed Mitchell & Co Ltd Belfast. He also teamed up cross-North Channel with his brother David Mitchell (1838– April 1917) who was back in Glasgow and they formed Mitchell Brothers Ltd. David also later became managing director of United Distillers Ltd of Belfast. The brothers took design 'inspiration' from the classic Dunville's VR label for some of their own products.

The Mitchells were Liberal Unionists; David chaired public meetings in 1891 in Falkirk for Polmont Liberal Unionist Association.

Their Irish brand was Cruiskeen Lawn (the name of an old traditional song), their Scotch brand was Greybeard Heather Dew. Their famous printed ceramic/stoneware jars are still pretty easy to get hold of today. As you can see below they even produced a pocket encyclopedia - a 'Dictionary, Atlas and Gazetteer' - among their range of promotional items.

As well as multiple commercial and civic roles in Belfast, William Charles was a founder of the Ulster Reform Club, a founder of the Belfast Benevolent Society of St Andrew, President of the Belfast Scottish Association, a member of Belfast Burns Club and a member of Belmont Presbyterian Church in the east of the city. He died in London on 22 July 1894. Almost a decade later, a grand organ in his memory was presented by the Mitchell family to Queen's University Belfast in 1903 and was installed in the Great Hall, with an inscription in his memory. The Northern Whig account of the presentation said that he was 'one of those Scotsmen to whom Belfast owed so much', and that he had been a champion within the Presbyterian Church for the introduction of organs - 'one of those who stood in the forefront of the long fight for liberty to use the aid of musical instruments in the worship of the Irish Presbyterian Church'.

 His son, Robert Armstrong Mitchell (1868–1950), seems to have taken over the Belfast business and was also a director of the Glasgow one. In 1886 he purchased a house called Marmont in Strandtown, East Belfast. In 1961 it became Mitchell House School, offering specialist education for children with physical disabilities - its website is here. Robert's son, and namesake, died in 1982 aged 80.

(PS these Mitchells are not the same as the Mitchell & Son of Dublin who sell famous whiskeys such as Green Spot still today.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

"The best Ulster-Scots television programme ever"

So I was told at the weekend, by someone who is generally a bit 'cool' on these things and hard to please. Another man, from that part of the country, messaged me to say "thon programme o Alison's had me greetin like a bairn'.

I was involved a wee bit, but the story lives and breathes through Alison Millar's upbringing, her early film of two local elderly brothers, and the community that she and her family are drawn from. Tullygrawley school had a 'beloved maister', Mr R. L. Russell, who was a figure of some renown in his day. Once again my pal Sean Maguire has delivered a programme of depth, sensitivity and authenticity. Watch it on BBC iPlayer here.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

More Belfast Spirit – William Cowan & Co Ltd – “The whisky of your forefathers”.

Sir Edward Porter Cowan D.L. (1842 – 24 March 1890) was one of Belfast’s giants of the Victorian era. He was an only child, his father was Samuel Cowan of Cromac House in Belfast. As a young man some time around 1864 Edward inherited his uncle William Cowan’s spirits business (which had been founded in 1829 and was initially located in Lower Church Lane, moving to Upper Church Lane in 1859). He married his cousin Agnes in 1866.

Edward’s commercial achievements included becoming chairman of the Ulster Bank and a director of the Great Northern Railway Company. Like so many entrepreneurs in the city at that time, he was active politically. He was a Liberal, twice became Mayor of Belfast, and was knighted in 1881. He was appointed Deputy Lieutenant for County Down and later Lord Lieutenant for County Antrim.

The Illustrated London News article shown above said that:
‘the family of the new knight is of Scottish origin, and settled in the county of Down early in the seventeenth century’.
His home was a mansion at Craig-a-vad. Rich and poor alike come to the same end, and in March 1890 he was buried at the City Cemetery. In 1892 his widow, Lady Agnes Cowan, installed a stained glass window in his memory at Holywood Parish Church.

The company appointed new directors, including the linen thread barons James Barbour J.P. and John D Barbour, in 1893. Success continued and the firm opened new bonded warehouses at Great Patrick’s Street and Academy Street in 1897, said to have been the first in Belfast with electric lights. The firm and brand seems to have continued well into the 1920s - but perhaps, like so many distilleries in Ireland, partition and prohibition took their toll. 

As I’ve mentioned here before, Cowan’s was yet another of those Ulster spirit businesses who sold both Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky under their brand name – their Irish was ‘Cowan’s No. 4’ and their Scotch was ‘Loch Lomond’, as shown by the first image on this post, of one of their adverts reproduced on one of the tiles of the 'Big Fish' in Belfast