Thursday, November 07, 2019

Ulster 1921 - Leslie Montgomery's 'An Ulster Childhood'

The portrait of Montgomery is by William Conor (©NMNI).

As the centenary of the establishment of Northern Ireland approaches, I am pretty sure there will be two competing political histories presented to us all. I hope that through all of that murk, some solid cultural work can break through.

But what was normal daily life like in 1921? Three years after the end of the Great War how was bloody and bereaved Ulster coping? What was industry like? What were the big employers and brands? Who was thinking big new ideas? What was emigration like? How had agriculture been transformed by the tractor (the Fordson tractor production plant opened in Cork in 1919). How widespread was electricity and running water? Did we have celebrities in an era before mass media? What were the major sporting events and achievements? Who was living in Ulster in obscurity but who would go on to do great things? What music was popular?

Leslie Alexander Montgomery (a.k.a. Lynn C. Doyle) was in his professional life an employee of Northern Bank in Belfast, Lisburn, Bangor, Cushendall, Keady and Skerries in Co. Dublin. In his personal life he was an acute observer of rural life and consequently a writer. He published his famous An Ulster Childhood in 1921. Born in Downpatrick in 1873, his brief bio can be read here on the Dictionary of Ulster Biography. His references to Burns, Presbyterian cousins, Psalm tunes, Covenanter battles, Drums and Fifes, Christmas Rhymers and community relations all paint a superbly vivid picture.

He must have grown up in a fairly well-to-do farming family - however there are no Montgomerys listed as landowners in Downpatrick in Bassett's County Down Guide and Directory (1886), so they must have been a slightly higher class of tenant farmers. Montgomery refers, fondly, to servants who worked on the family farm, yet at the same time he contrasts the small size Ulster farms with the much bigger farms on the rest of the island, and stresses that in Ulster –

'farmers and hands sit at the same table, go afield together, and pick potatoes side by side in the same outhouse. In their working hours there is no social distinction between them, They will sit down amicable in the same ditch side to smoke a pipe together'.

An Ulster Childhood is online here, with illuminating perspectives on country life in the late 1800s, explaining Ulster's distinctiveness. He says in the chapter entitled 'Burns In Ulster' –

'I was reared in the Lowland Scottish tradition of homely realism ...'

and then goes on to tell the story of Paddy Haggarty, a Catholic farm worker to Montgomery's aunt, who was the man that introduced 'Lynn' to the works of Burns, and in particular 'The Twa Dogs'

'when the poem was finished I had become with Paddy a devotee in the worship of Rabbie Burns ... I was wrapt in the discovery that 'thole' and 'snash' were real words, and that I might use them in the future without shamefacedness'

Montgomery then started to read some of Robert Fergusson's poetry to Paddy, who was shaken by the similarities, and famously declared –

'Rabbie'll do for me. Rich or poor, drunk or sober, there's always somethin in him to suit a body. He'll last me my time'

Some of Montgomery's material was broadcast by the BBC in the 1930s; people like Richard Hayward acted in his plays. In 1935 he was appointed to the Eire Censorship Board but resigned after five weeks; living in Malahide he said he loved 'a good crack with old friends'. He died aged 87 in a Dublin nursing home in 1961.

• A sculpture named The Silent Dog in Scotch Street, Downpatrick, commemorates one of Montgomery's early and best-loved stories from his first collection Ballygullion (1908).