Sunday, January 26, 2020

Robert Burns and Portaferry - the friendship of James McManus and James Shanks

Patrick McManus (1863–1886) was a poet from Kearney, a small coastal clachan between Cloughey and Portaferry, shown in the pics above. It is now owned by the National Trust.

He had attended Ballyphilip National School on the outskirts of Portaferry. Politically speaking was an Irish Nationalist. His poems appeared under the pseudonym 'Slieve Donard', the highest mountain of the Mournes. Culturally though he had a strong Ulster-Scots influence from living in the Upper Ards. His father James McManus was described as 'the staunchest of Catholics' but was also huge Robert Burns fan, who once said that ‘had Burns been a Catholic, he would have been a saint’. This cultural overlap and intermingling is very reminiscent of the Lynn C Doyle story I posted here recently. Patrick arrived in Philadelphia in April 1886 but tragically he died there just a few months later in August of that same year, aged just 23.

This story was written down by another Portaferry man, John McGrath (1864–1956) in an 1890 article in The Irish Monthly of March 1890 (see below). McGrath was the literary editor of the Irish National Land League publication called United Ireland from 1891–1902 and a friend of WB Yeats.

Their contemporary, the Portaferry Presbyterian farmer, botanist, geologist and antiquarian James Shanks (1854–1912), was a close friend of James McManus. Shanks attended Portaferry National School in the village opposite the Presbyterian church (which in recent years has been refurbished and rebranded as Portico Ards). Like McManus and McGrath, Shanks was also in favour of land reform and he became a leading light in the local Tenant Right Association. In a biography written by James C Rutherford, this scene is recalled –

"... one day I spent several hours behind the quay were James McManus was repairing a boat, listening to his talk. He ranged over the whole gamut of knowledge from navigation to Bobby Burns; but he left on my mind the impression that if anything in the world were compared to Burns, it would be 'as moonlight unto sunlight and as water unto wine'... Burns threw light upon navigation, mathematics, classics, religion, everything. No matter what formed the body of a subject, Burns formed the tail, and the tail always wagged the body... in my boyish enthusiasm I believed that Burns was the short cut to everything, and the open sesame to the doors of knowledge..." 

James Shanks and James McManus were of different religious backgrounds but yet were in many ways cut from the same cloth, with similar convictions and interests. They are described in the Rutherford biography as "literary comrades", a David and Jonathan combination, who would spend hours talking to each other in the streets of Portaferry. When McManus died "Shanks was left for a time companionless and disconsolate". Rutherford quoted a verse of a poem that Shanks wrote for McManus, which was written in the 'standard habbie' format made famous by Burns.

• McGrath's entire article 'An Ulster Poet' on the life and writings of Patrick McManus can be read here


PS – In the weeks before 'Ulster Day' on Monday 9 September 1912, Portaferry witnessed a torch-lit procession through the town (featuring the Carraig-Ulaidh Flute Band from Portaferry, St Mary’s Band from Shrigley and five Highland pipers) to St Patrick's Hall where the prominent Nationalist and antiquarian F.J. Bigger spoke on the ‘Work and Progress of the Gael’. Though very much in favour of Home Rule, the meeting is reported to have attracted ‘a good few Protestants’ and to have been conducted in an amicable spirit. On the previous New Year’s Eve the Carraig-Ulaidh Flute Band and Portaferry Accordion Band jointly paraded the town, concluding by cheering each other and playing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ together.