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.