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 Her unpublished manuscripts in PRONI are a cultural goldmine - she could see that an understanding was being lost in the rush towards modernity.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

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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.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

All mixed up

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Culture is transmitted. People share things, adopt things, and (often unwittingly) absorb the community values that surround them. People change and adapt. New things come along, some old things endure, some are discarded. New people embrace those values and become part of the community. This is what makes life interesting, and Ulster is no different. In that regard culture is much more interesting to me than assumptions about ancestry. 

It’s maybe easier to observe in America, where for example the wonderful musical duo the Loudermilk / Louvin Brothers, of Dutch or German ancestry, lived in the very Scotch-Irish world of northern Alabama and the southern Appalachians. Their ancestry wasn’t defining, but their cultural setting was.

I only knew three of my grandparents - my paternal grandfather, the local poet and three field homestead farmer William Thompson, died a long time before I was born. The other three were solidly culturally Ulster-Scots in every imaginable way, and so I am sure that he was too.

Yet it is highly presumptious to think that that’s all they were comprised of. A peek into their ancestry reveals some interesting potential twists. My maternal grandmother was Mary-Ann (Molly) Hamill (1918-1982). My paternal grandmother was Maggie-Anne (Madge) Coffey (1911-1995). These two surnames, Hamill and Coffey, are pretty much as old as it gets round here - older than the Lowland Scottish surnames which arrived here post-1606 with Hamilton & Montgomery.

Both Coffey and Hamill can be found as surnames of the Irish tenants on James Hamilton’s east Down estates in the early 1600s. Neill and Manus O’Hamill lived at Ballyhalbert and Groomsport respectively, and Edward O’Coffie and his brother, whose first name is unrecorded, lived at Killyleagh. They weren't ‘driven out’ as the loaded stereotype would claim. These, and other Irish families, are referred to even in Sir James Hamilton’s will. It is entirely plausible that these are ancestors of my two grandmothers.

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Their names are among those catalogued in Rev David Stewart’s landmark 1950s research The Scots in Ulster - that’s where the images on this post come from. 

Ancestrally my grandmothers may well have had some pre-Plantation Irish elements, but culturally they were both Ulster-Scots. There’s a family tradition on the Hamill side, probably dating from the late 1800s or early 1900s, that a young Catholic girl from Donaghadee had fallen pregnant, was shunned by her family. A young Presbyterian man, a shopkeeper from Millisle, took pity on her, gave her a job and a room in his house, and eventually they got married. Surnames like Drennan and Carr/Kerr bubble around in that generation, I’m not precisely sure which apply to this - socially scandalous - couple. 

Most of us, ancestrally, are a mixed bag. But culturally, my lot have been Ulster-Scots for as far back as anyone can recall. Prior to that, my white eyebrows and haplogroup I-M253 suggest a bit of Viking or Anglo-Norman in there. 

Our actual lived experience, and the influence and values of our families and community, is what forms us culturally - not some imagined ancient past. We learn from our history but we live our culture, and our culture can take on new forms and be shared with others.

There’s a great letter from Rev Josias Welsh of Templepatrick in south Antrim who observed in 1632 that people recently arrived from England were quickly adopting Presbyterian culture. Shamrock, rose and thistle.

So when I was at a history talk event not that long ago, and not in my own locality - I was a bit shocked when the Q&A session at the end descended into a “they stole our land”.  What is meant by “they”? And what is meant by “our”? I know fine well what was implied, but when your ancestry is probably on both sides of the argument then you can see how pointless it is.

And does one historical moment matter more than all other moments? Do the eras of conflict assume more importance than the eras of co-operation? Does the present generation inherit the culpability for the social problems of the past, but gain none of the credit for historical social co-operations? And how is that responsibility or credit tangibly measured?

In a way we are all either editors or audiences - editors in that we choose what we decide to cherish, audiences in that someone else’s editorial decisions are served up to us. These choices are made for good or for ill. 

So where do you choose to draw the line?

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Ulster's three strands - shamrock, rose and thistle

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Three cultural traditions interwoven and overlapping, growing in the same soil. A 'triple blend'. To quote King Solomon, a 'threefold cord'. Others have spoken of a 'three-legged stool'.

Before the Troubles, but even into the mid 1970s, ‘shamrock rose and thistle’ can be seen to be frequently used as a literary, and often visual, motif as an idea to summarise Ulster’s cultural blend. It maps onto our faith communities (Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian), languages (Ulster Irish, Ulster English, Ulster Scots) and our peoples. Of course there are other groups, but these three are the main ones. Giants of Ulster folklife and traditions, like Sam Hanna Bell, often cited the idea.

So I was surprised recently to hear the concept outrightly dismissed by influential people who really should know better. There is an important task to be done in chronologically cataloguing the authentic usage of this historic concept - it might help our present, and our future. Some examples below.

Traditional singer Eddie Butcher, 1976 Shamrockroseandthistle led2070

Derry Journal, 31 July 1850 Tenant Right Letterkenny

Belfast News Letter, 4 December 1914 Ulster linen 1914

Embroidery sampler, perhaps the one referred to above? Ulster Linen crop

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Monday, April 16, 2018

1606 - Ulster and Virginia


(The plaque above is at Historic Jamestown; an illustration of the plaque can be seen in Prof. Jordan B. Peterson’s bestselling recent book 12 Rules for Life).


On 10 April 1606, when his Ayrshire friends James Hamilton and Hugh Montgomery were preparing boats of Lowland Scots folk and supplies to sail from south west Scotland to County Down, King James VI & I signed the First Charter of Virginia, permitting Englishmen to establish a colony in Virginia. Hamilton & Montgomery’s families arrived at Donaghadee in May 1606; the Jamestown colony arrived in Virginia a year later in May 1607.

The full text of the Charter is online here at Yale Law School

King James promised these first American settlers:

"that all and every the Persons being our Subjects, which shall dwell and inhabit within every or any of the said several Colonies and Plantations, and every of their children, which shall happen to be born within any of the Limits and Precincts of the said several Colonies and Plantations, shall HAVE and enjoy all Liberties, Franchises, and Immunities, within any of our other Dominions, to all Intents and Purposes, as if they had been abiding and born, within this our Realm of England, or any other of our said Dominions”.

170 years later, the American Revolution would be fought against a Crown which was restricting those promised liberties, with Samuel Adams (a friend and occasional congregant of influential Donegal-born Ulsterman Francis Allison) restating in 1772 in his The Rights of the Colonists that:

"All persons born in the British American Colonies are, by the laws of God and nature and by the common law of England, exclusive of all charters from the Crown, well entitled, and by acts of the British Parliament are declared to be entitled, to all the natural, essential, inherent, and inseparable rights, liberties, and privileges of subjects born in Great Britain or within the realm."

Shortly after, this stance would famously become "all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”, reaching far beyond any earthly Crown, King or Kingdom - an appeal to the ultimate Throne, not one in London.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

William McEwan's Edison cylinders, 1912 - and a new 'anthology' box set.

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The William McEwan/ MacEwan story just won’t go away! In the past two weeks I’ve found that, before the legendary 78s for Columbia Phonograph Co., he issued four cylinders for Edison, one of which is winging its way across the Atlantic to me as we speak. These were issued in 1912:

‘Memories of Mother’ (12424) – March 1912
‘Gospel Bells’ (14122) – March 1912
‘The Broken Heart’ (14160) – August 1912
‘God Will Take Care of You’ (14163) – October 1912

There are varying accounts of when the Columbia recordings were made (most say November 1911) and issued (most say September 1913). But these 1912 Edison cylinders are a whole new discovery. They are listed here.

Just as much of a surprise was an email from someone I’ve known a long time who, it turns out, is also a McEwan fan, and who intends to release an ‘anthology' box set of all of the recordings later this year. More on this to follow.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Kinahan's 'Glenisle' and Lyle & Kinahan's 'Scotch Malt Very Old' - Scotch Whisky from Ireland, late 1800s?


I have been learning more recently about whisky. It’s not a specialist subject of mine but I do remember my mother keeping a bottle of Bushmills at the back of the cupboard to make up some whisky punch as a pacifier for my younger siblings. Maybe that’s illegal now!

Anyway, I have found that the Dublin-based Irish spirits producer Kinahan’s had a brand of Scotch whisky called Glenisle. Their Belfast rival with the ‘confusingly-similar’ name of Lyle & Kinahan, had a Scotch Malt called Very Old. Some adverts showing these are below.

The Dublin firm dates from the 1770s. Belfast’s Lyle & Kinahan was founded in 1850 by Samuel Lyle and Frederick Kinahan (1830-1902) of Lowwood, north Belfast, when they bought out William McClure & Son. He was the son of Rev John Kinahan, Rector of Knockbreda, and seemingly a nephew of the then-owners of the Dublin brand.

(Samuel Lyle lived at 23 University Square and was an elder of Fisherwick Place Presbyterian Church. He seems to have been a good deal older than Kinahan, and was a friend his rector father. Lyle and Rev Kinahan were committee members of the Ulster Society for Promoting the Education of the Deaf, Dumb and Blind. Lyle was also a donor to the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, and an office-bearer in both the Belfast Town Mission and Belfast General Hospital. There are hints that Lyle may have become uncomfortable with the firm selling alcohol, but when Lyle died on 24 December 1856, Kinahan was very happy to scale it up).

The two companies got into a major legal tangle over trademarks and copyrights in 1906 (see documentation here). The Belfast firm was the winner, having been able to prove continuous use of the name since 1867.

As yet I don't know if these whiskies were distilled in Scotland, or here in Ulster/Ireland, but it’s an interesting geographical and branding overlap that would probably be impossible today given how regulated and protected the definitions of Scotch and Irish whiskys/whiskeys have become.

Kinahan’s was revived a few years ago and its ‘LL’ brand is back on the market again. As far as I know Lyle & Kinahan died out in the late twentieth century and its plant was bought over by Bass Ireland. (photo below from Facebook)

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