Thursday, July 19, 2018

Northern Visions TV interview, summer 2009

Here’s an interview that Pete Bleakley of Northern Visions TV did with me back in summer 2009, just after I had finished my term as Chair of Ulster-Scots Agency. How time flies.

Monday, June 25, 2018

'There my burdened soul found liberty - at Calvary' - William Reed Newell

This is an old hymn I’ve known forever, one that’s deeply embedded in small evangelical halls around the country. It’s a classic of the genre, its words written by William Reed Newell (1868–1956). So, having noticed the potential in his name, I started digging for his ancestry.

He was born in Savannah in Ashland County in Ohio, the son of David Ayers Newell and Elizabeth Reed Newell. William went to Princeton and became the assistant superintendent of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and later the minister of a Presbyterian church in Leesburg, Florida where he died in 1956 aged 87. He also wrote a number of Bible commentaries. His son - the significantly-named David McCheyne Newell - died in 1986. As you can see here in David’s obituary it confirms that ‘his father’s family is of Scotch-Irish blood’.

Elizabeth’s brother, Congressman Joseph Rea Reed (1835-1925) was a figure of some repute as his Wikipedia entry explains; he was also a member of the Scotch-Irish Society of the USA (see page 296 here).

Scotch-Irish people don’t ‘own’ the gospel, but as with most other subjects it’s becoming increasingly clear that their influence in many walks of life has been vast.

Years I spent in vanity and pride,
Caring not my Lord was crucified,
Knowing not it was for me He died
On Calvary.
Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty,
At Calvary.

By God’s Word at last my sin I learned;
Then I trembled at the Law I’d spurned,
Till my guilty soul imploring turned
To Calvary.

Now I’ve giv’n to Jesus everything,
Now I gladly own Him as my King,
Now my raptured soul can only sing
Of Calvary.

Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan!
Oh, the grace that brought it down to man!
Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span
At Calvary!


And - so many of the old gospel songs of the late 1800s were written for ordinary folk to easily remember and sing along with - as 3 chord wonders, in 4/4 time - so it's dead easy do this kind of thing with them... Simple words, repeated choruses, and 'hooky' melodies that stick in your head for a lifetime.

They say that this kind of hymn started to appear in the 1850s. It's no wonder then that 100 years later in the 1950s when singers like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and even Elvis Presley came along, who were all reared in the kind of churches where these 3 chord hymns had been sung for a century - that many of their own songs followed a similar format. Here's my brother and I having a bit of fun with it, and below that, a Mennonite choir.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Henry Thomson & Co - Old Irish Whisky, Newry, Ireland

Henry Thomson Bottles

This firm was a big brand in its day, seemingly advertising itself heavily in Scotland. Henry Thomson senior is a bit of an unknown; he died in 1859 and must have made a vast fortune from whisky. The distillery seems to have been on Trevor Hill in Newry. However his obituaries make no mention of this. He lived from 1797-1859 (see grave reference here), but the brand claimed an origin date of 1816, when Henry senior was just 19 years old. Perhaps a previous generation of Thomsons were also in the Newry drink trade.

Interestingly, just a few miles away, Dundalk County Museum has in its collection a buffalo skin coat, worn by William of Orange at the Boyne, which was owned by a Robert Thomson of Ravensdale, a large estate just a few miles south of Newry.

Henry's second son, also Henry Thomson (1840-1916), took over the business and in the 1880s became Unionist MP for Newry (Wikipedia here). During his lifetime the family owned an impressive number of properties - Scarvagh House (best known as the location for the annual ’Sham Fight’ on 13th July), Altnaveigh HouseDownshire House and Ballyedmond House. They gave land for the building of Scarvagh Orange Hall (opened in 1908).

When Henry Thomson junior died in 1916, the local community set about establishing the Henry Thomson Memorial Orange Hall which was opened in June 1921. The opening event included a presentation of a portrait of Thomson and his Orange sash. A Royal Black Preceptory Henry Thomson Memorial RBP No 1000 was also established. To clear the debts from the building of the Hall, a two day bazaar was held in November 1923 which was opened by Lady Craig, the wife of Sir James Craig who had of course been involved in the Dunville’s Whisky empire. When you also consider the drinks empire of Lyle & Kinahan, and the Orange connections of the Kinahan family, an unexpected picture emerges of the spirits industry in Victorian Ulster in which, like many industries of the time, senior Unionists and Orangemen played a leading role. Presumably they were mostly ‘temperance’ people rather than ‘total abstinence’.

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Thomson’s quality must have been good as they secured the ‘By Royal Appointment’ status, and supplied Parliament.

Henry Thomson & Co seem to have had a particularly energetic agent in Scotland - Robert Brown & Co of Glasgow. They even had a brand of Scotch, and a ‘Fine Old Demerara Rum’. Their advertising in the early 20th century is as strong as many of the big brands of that era. Some examples are below, a few of which are from ‘Burns Chronicle’ publications.

I am not clear on when the brand went into decline. The ‘Ulster Pavilion’ at the British Empire Exhibition in London in 1925 had an area devoted to promoting Ulster whiskies, but perhaps the Prohibition era in the USA from 1920-33 had an impact on the global market. A search of the British Newspaper Archive shows no adverts for the brand beyond 1929.

 • Some more Thomson items are online here at

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Greater Britian Sat Feb 15 18901940s HENRY THOMSONS LTD NEWRY SCOTLAND SCOTCH WHISKEYBL 0000563 19241127 111 00111903 6Henry Thomson 1908 v2Henry Thomson 1908

12 10 framed advertising print hen 360 c8f62c2274581aa386295c57e95dcf38

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Monday, June 11, 2018

Ulster 71 exhibition

Various Ulster-American figures featured here:

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Before The Throne of God Above - the 'sympathy marriage' of Charitie Smith / Charitie Lee Bancroft De Cheney

It’s become one of the most popular hymns of recent years. Before The Throne of God Above was originally written by a teenage girl from County Fermanagh around 1860 which she then published in a collection of poems in 1867. It lay pretty much in obscurity until it was recovered around 1997 by American songwriter Vikki Cook of Sovereign Grace Music, who composed a new tune. It has since become a worldwide favourite.

The quality and simplicity of the words have brought wide acclaim from seasoned theologians, an excellent summary of the basics of the Reformed faith. It is remarkable that a teenager had such understanding and expressive skills.

• Charitie Smith
The writer was Charitie Smith (1841-1923; Wikipedia here). She was born in Dublin, the daughter of a Scottish-born Church of Ireland rector called Sidney Smith who ministered at Colebrooke and later Drumragh near Omagh. So Charitie’s childhood and early life was spent in the rural west of Ulster within the communities of these two churches. There is a memorial stained glass window to Sidney in one of them. She married former Royal Navy man Arthur E. Bancroft from Liverpool on 21 October 1869 at St Thomas Episcopal Church in Corstorphine, Edinburgh. His father was Peter Bancroft (1809–97), a prominent merchant. However, Arthur Bancroft died some time in the 1880s.

A dig around reveals more detail...

• Prison Philanthropy
Charitie went to America, possibly with her doctor brother Thomas. In newspaper records from California she was described as ‘a woman of considerable means’ who became involved in philanthropic prison reform work in the famed penitentiaries of San Quentin and Folsom. She didn’t only invest her time and goodwill there -  ‘a large part of her personal fortune was spent in the reformation of former inmates’. 

• Marriage
She married Frank Lees De Cheney. He was 27 years younger than her, a ‘mining man and rancher’. Some accounts date the marriage at 1891 when she would have been 50 and he 23. Other accounts say 1901, when she would have been 60 and he 33. It was definitely 1901 when the marriage broke down.

• Divorce
On April 17 1915, aged 75, Charitie, described as ‘a familiar figure in the exclusive set’, was served with divorce papers. They were pushed through an open window by Sheriff Michael Sheehan while she was asleep on the front porch of her summer home at Moss Beach in San Francisco.

The divorce was on the grounds of ‘desertion - the claimant is from San Francisco, and claims that his wife refused to live in San Francisco but preferred southern California’.

The divorce was granted in infamous Reno, Nevada (where the song famously says ‘romances bloom and fade') on 29 May 1915; newspaper reports reveal some context – 'there was a touch of religious difference between the two. Mrs De Cheney is a devout woman while he is a professed agnostic. Her nephew testified along this line saying that he did not think Mrs De Cheney had ever been in a theater in her life.' The wedding was described as ‘a sympathy affair; he had just emerged from a long illness at the time and she had been exceeding kind to him. After the wedding she thought that he would be better away from the temptations of a large city, but he did not agree to that. De Cheney went to Nevada shortly after they parted in 1901’.

She died on 20 January 1923, aged 82, and was buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.
Her brother Thomas Orde Smith also died in Oakland, California in 1931.



Before the throne of God above 
I have a strong and perfect plea 
A great High Priest whose name is love 
Who ever lives and pleads for me 
My name is graven on His hands 
My name is written on His heart 
I know that while in heav’n He stands 
No tongue can bid me thence depart 
No tongue can bid me thence depart 

When Satan tempts me to despair 
And tells me of the guilt within 
Upward I look and see Him there 
Who made an end of all my sin 
Because the sinless Savior died 
My sinful soul is counted free 
For God the Just is satisfied 
To look on Him and pardon me 
To look on Him and pardon me 

Behold Him there, the risen Lamb 
My perfect, spotless Righteousness 
The great unchangeable I AM 
The King of glory and of grace 
One with Himself, I cannot die 
My soul is purchased by His blood 
My life is hid with Christ on high 
With Christ my Savior and my God 
With Christ my Savior and my God

Monday, May 21, 2018

E. Estyn Evans on Ulster's three traditions (1951)

E. Estyn Evans (1905-1989; Wikipedia here) was one of the foremost figures of his time - I know some who studied under him at Queen’s University - he was a recognised authority on folklife and tradition, an academic and author. His Irish Folk Ways (1957) is a classic text. Here is his take on the three traditions concept, from a book published for the Festival of Britain in 1951. We might take a softer view, in that there are overlaps across all three, but you can see that he was aware of the 'model' as a way of explaining Ulster's story. It is interesting that the cobbled streets of Belfast were paved with Scottish stones.

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Nesca Robb on Ulster's three linguistic traditions

The family of Nesca Adeline Robb (1905–1976) ran the once-famous Robb's Department Store in Belfast city centre. She was a friend of the likes of John Hewitt and Sam Hanna Bell, and was effectively the founder of the National Trust in Northern Ireland, and an important figure in the arts community here, with international recognition for some of her writings. Her unpublished manuscripts in PRONI are a cultural goldmine - she could see that an understanding was being lost in the rush towards modernity. Here she is explaining our three traditions. Nesca Robb 3 traditions

Nesca Robb cover

The Scotch-Irish of Northampton County, Pennsylvania

Northampton County has a Belfast, a Bangor, a North Bangor, and not far beyond is Milford. This 1879 book is subtitled A Record of those Scotch-Irish Presbyterian Families who were the First Settlers in the Forks of Delaware. A quick flick through the text shows frequent usages of the term Scotch Irish and also one of Ulster Scot. So once again the terminological pedigree is evident.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Jason Isbell - 'If We Were Vampires"

Great artist (referred to in a recent post), great song, great aesthetic in these three videos.