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

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

'A Carryin' Stream' - BBC iPlayer

(summer is over, maybe blogging will resume!) This new programme, 'A Carryin' Stream', was aired on Sunday night past, a delightful and authentic story from a 'wee country school' in Cullybackey, where creativity of word and art, of the verbal and the visual, was encouraged by a forward-thinking school 'maister'. It is presented by Alison Millar, whose father attended that school, and who herself is one of our most accomplished filmmaking creatives. I appear in it more than I expected to! Click here.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Henry Thomson, Newry MP and Distiller - Gravestone, Billhead and the Scarva 'Bush Man' advert

I have blogged about Henry Thomson a few times here. I was in Newry recently and managed to track down his grave, within the large Thomson family plot at St Patrick's Church of Ireland graveyard. His inscription is on the middle one of the three headstones, where he is described as

Henry Thomson D.L.
Scarvagh House, Scarva
Member of Parliament for Newry
From 1880 to 1885
Who died 30th December 1916
Aged 77 years

The choice of scripture text on the base plinth is interesting too.

Below is a billhead from 1896 which seems to have been issued to Scottish customers via the firm's Glasgow agent, Robert Brown.

Finally, the article below from the Belfast Telegraph on 14 July 1950 tells the story of how Henry Thomson actively advertised his whiskey brand at Scarva railway station, to those visiting the 13th July 'Sham Fight' at his Scarvagh House and Demesne.

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.