Monday, December 09, 2019

Seamus Heaney and Burns's Art Speech


A few years ago I was honoured to create the naming and branding for what became Seamus Heaney HomePlace at Bellaghy. I was recently sent a copy of his 'Burns's Art Speech' which is thematically connected with - and in many ways a precursor to - the concepts he expressed in his magnificent A Birl With Burns poem. The speech was published within Robert Burns and Cultural Authority by Robert Crawford (1997).

The speech contains many glorious revelations, and an understanding of

"three languages – Irish, Elizabethan English and Ulster Scots".

Geographically, he perceived a cultural and linguistic region which straddles the North Channel -

"somewhere north of a line drawn between Berwick and Bundoran".

More thoughts to follow.


Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Language debates in the 'Derry Journal' 24 April 1950


Depending on your perspective, it will either be a source of reassurance or frustration to see that some of our present-day debates are nothing new. This cutting from the Derry Journal shows that the language and identity issues recur. The optimistic notion of seeing this place as one of intertwined traditions has in the past as much as the present been replaced with more barbed issues of legitimacy and perhaps even power.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

John Hewitt, Belfast Telegraph, 19 March 1955


Saturday, November 30, 2019

Sam Henry 'A Critic In The Candlelight' - Summer 1943


'My heart had a vision of Ulster the Land of the Free.
Our fathers shed their blood for the right to think.'


This is by the wonderful and globally-renowned folklorist and photographer Sam Henry, from Ulster Parade Number 5, a periodical that was published during the years of WW2, quarterly from 1942–1947, and which featured a variety of popular Ulster writers of the time. It was published by The Quota Press, which was an interesting and innovative imprint that produced a large amount of local material from around 1927–1952. There are quite a few Ulster-Scots kailyard stories in the editions of Ulster Parade I have.

The use of very natural Ulster-Scots in this story by Sam Henry is joyful, and it's especially interesting to see it in print in the 1940s, which is usually thought of as a period where Ulster-Scots had fallen out of fashion. The storyline, of the hassles of trade barriers and import taxes across the border, is very topical in our current Brexit context!







Monday, November 25, 2019

Bowmore - the most expensive Scotch whisky in the world? – and the Old Comber connection




This article (albeit from 2012) shows just how in-demand whisky from Bowmore Distillery on Islay is. £150,000 for a bottle of spirit is quite some price tag. It was bottled in 1957 when Bowmore was owned by William Grigor & Sons, from 1950–1961. As you can see from the clipping below, when the company's owner James Grigor died, he was the owner of both Bowmore and Old Comber.

A 1980s bottling of 1950s Old Comber is a relative bargain, at just over £500. On 27 October 2019 a bottle of Old Comber, which from the label design looks to date from around 1900, sold on Whiskyhammer.co.uk for £2750 (see photo below).


Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Rivers and Burns of Belfast: Town Burn, Pound Burn, Knockburn and Mary Burn



Intro: They say that history is written by the 'victors'. That's true in the aftermath of a war. But for the mundane normalities of everyday existence, in every society in the world, daily life is recorded by the dominant culture which has a kind of social power and 'majority privilege'. Ulster-Scots has never been dominant here – it was and is the speech of ordinary folk – and so much of it has gone unrecorded. So finding gold nuggets gleaming out of the dull silt is exciting.

There are still many very familiar 'burns' still today around greater Belfast, such as Minnowburn, Purdysburn, Tillysburn. Further out there are Muttonburn, Woodburn, Redburn, Crawfordsburn and maybe even Lisburn. I am sure there are more. These names reflect the parts of the Belfast hinterland where Lowland Scots settled over the centuries. Here are four more examples I recently came across which are new to me:

• The Presbyterian Banner of Ulster newspaper reported on 29 March 1860 that an old forgotten stone bridge had been discovered during works on High Street, referring to –

'... the turgid waters of the "Town Burn" from the Bank Buildings to the embouchure of the stream, opposite Queen's Square ... The "Town Burn" was perfectly opened down to the river, and navigable, at flood-tide, for very small craft and boats ... The "Town Burn" or "Belfast River" as it was sometimes called, had, it is supposed, an artificial course through the town – as would seem to be shown by its comparative straightness from the Belfast Flour Mills to its junction with the Lagan ...'

Today, that 'straightness' runs from Andrews Flour Mill down Divis Street into Castle Street and Castle Place and then into High Street – certainly the description sounds a lot like the famous final section of High Street which ships used to be able to sail into from the River Lagan, as depicted in the Carey illustration above. It was all culverted and built over in the later 1800s.

• The Northern Whig of 4 November 1902 refers to another, called the Pound Burn. According to Councillor J. N. M'Cammond surface water was 'running like a millrace from the Pound Burn' due to flooding problems in Belfast. It was located between Glengall Street and Grosvenor Street, eventually joining the Blackstaff River. The bad weather had resulted in the Pound Burn being 'in a filthy condition with two or three feet of mud, old tin cans, and refuse of all sorts ... had the Pound Burn and Blackstaff River beds been cleaned out there would not have been the flooding in this district to the same extent, and possibly none at all'. It is marked on the 1957–1986 OS map, close to the junction of the Grosvenor Road and Durham Street.

There was a street called Old Pound Loney there too (link here) - a familiar corruption of the Scots word loanen meaning lane. There is also a Pound Burn in Monkstown in Newtownabbey.

• The Belfast Telegraph of 28 December 1956 front page showed a photograph of houses being severely flooded around the Castleview Road area captioned as 'owing to the rain and thaw, the Knockburn River flooded houses and gardens in the area'. This is just directly across the road from the famous entrance to Parliament Buildings at Stormont. On OS maps it is called the Knock River, but yet must have been known locally as Knockburn – there is a street called Knockburn Park still there today.

• An old OS map I picked up a while ago in a second hand shop shows a Mary Burn in the countryside around Andersonstown which is now West Belfast, and which looks like it might have been a tributary of the Blackstaff River. It seems that a large house of the same name was nearby. The Kennedy Centre retail complex is on the site today.

These are just a few examples of once-familiar Ulster-Scots names in the landscape of Belfast which have fallen into disuse. Urban improvements, Anglicisation (both by officialdom, but also by gradual social erosion) and 'progress' have phased them out of usage. But just because they are not visible today doesn't mean that they never existed. It would be good to collate and record these in some way.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Old Comber Pure Pot Still Whiskey (1825–1961) - and the brief Scottish connection


(Just a few notes, not a comprehensive history)

This famous spirits brand was founded in 1825, but there were two distillery facilities in Comber - hence the company name 'Comber Distilleries Company Limited'. There was the Lower Distillery on the Newtownards Road, and the Upper Distillery on Killinchy Street. But 1825 wasn't the beginning of distilling in the town - there had been a malt kiln and distillery on the 'Upper' site since the 1700s, whose owner, a James Patterson, died in 1763. A William Murdock who died in 1805 is named on a local gravestone as 'the eminent distiller of Comber'.

• ORIGINS
But it was George Johnston and John Miller who set up what became the famous Upper Distillery in 1825, on a street near a ford on the Inver River, called Waterford Loney (later renamed Pot Ale Loney, but which is now unimaginatively called Park Way). It almost immediately came to an end, through an accidental fire in July 1832 – caused by a visiting excise officer, a dipping rod and a candle – in which John Miller was very seriously burned. The buildings were almost destroyed and were saved only through the efforts of "almost every one in Comber". The fertile farmland and extensive grain production of east County Down, dotted with windmills, meant that by 1830 Comber Distilleries was producing a reputed 80,000 gallons of whiskey a year.

• 1872: THE BRUCE ERA BEGINS
Samuel Bruce (1838–1922) of Belfast, and also of Norton Hall in Gloucestershire, bought Comber Distilleries from John Miller in 1872; his brother James Bruce (1835–1917) was a director of Royal Irish Distilleries in Belfast, the producers of the Dunville's whiskey brand. Both brothers had been born at the family home of Thorndale in Belfast, just off Duncairn Avenue - today the house is gone but the family is remembered by street names such as Brucevale Court, Kinnaird Place and Thorndale Avenue.


The Bruces claimed descent from the great royal Scottish dynasty of the same name, and also from Rev Michael Bruce, the Covenanter minister of Killinchy in the 1660s. During this era Samuel Bruce’s monogram 'SB' appeared on the brand's labelling; in his brother James Bruce's country mansion (which is today Benburb Priory - link here) a very similar 'JB' monogram can be seen on the entrance hallway in mosaic tiles.



• 1918: END OF THE BRUCE ERA
On the road towards the Great War, Samuel Bruce was Chairman of Comber Distilleries, and his son George Bruce (1880-1918) was Managing Director.  In the 'Home Rule' tumult of 1912, George commanded a company of Ulster Volunteers and drilled them in the Lower Distillery yard. In February 1914 he led 100 men of D Company as part of a 1000-strong demonstration in Newtownards. On the outbreak of war George became Captain of the 13th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles (County Down Volunteers). Even though he was the MD of a major company, George Bruce served in France throughout the War and was tragically killed in action on 2 October 1918 at Dadizelle in Flanders. Captain George James Bruce D.S.O. M.C. was only 38 years old, meeting his end just six weeks before the Armistice was signed. There is a tablet in Comber Parish Church to his memory. The portrait here is from his memorial page on the Winchester College At War website (link here).


• 1918-1925: SOLD TWICE, AND THE DEATH OF SAMUEL BRUCE
Comber Distilleries was then put up for sale and was bought on 12 December 1918 by the Old Bushmills Distillery Company. Samuel Bruce did well from the sale, buying Norton Hall and a London residence, spending the rest of his days in England. However within less than two years, newspaper adverts appeared on 24 September 1920 announcing the liquidation of The Old Bushmills Distillery Company and the sale as a going concern of The Comber Distilleries. In October 1920 it was confirmed that Hollywood and Donnelly had bought Comber. Two years later Samuel Bruce passed away at his home in England on 6 September 1922, aged 86.

• 1925 CENTENARY
The Upper Distillery was rebuilt in Scrabo stone in the early 1920s, at a cost of £50,000, becoming the most advanced distillery in Ireland. But the Lower Distillery closed in the 1930s and was demolished.

There were centenary celebrations in 1925 during which various artefacts were displayed including a letter praising the quality of ‘Old Comber’ from the Prince of Wales, which had been supplied to him via Lord Londonderry of Mount Stewart.

The partition of Ireland in 1921, and also the prohibition era in the USA from 1920–1933, undoubtedly had an impact. ‘Old Comber’ featured among the Ulster whiskies on display in the Ulster Pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition of 1924. Newspaper reports from 1934 show that the firm was once again taking on new employees, there was renewed demand from the United States.

• WORLD WAR TWO
News coverage about the company from the mid 1930s to the early 1950s is pretty scant, but there was a steady amount of display ads within the Northern Ireland newspapers right up to the end of 1939. Distilling in Ulster was suspended for two years in 1943 and 1944, due to barley rationing, but resumed on 1st January 1945. The Lower Distillery premises were sold off by public auction in April 1946; newspaper adverts endorsed by the company, encouraging local farmers to grow 'much more barley', were published throughout the late 1940s

• 1950s: PRODUCTION CEASES - SCOTTISH PURCHASE
Comber Presbyterian Hugh Patton, a Director of the company, died in January 1950 after 30 years of service. Comber Distilleries ceased production in 1953 but the premises and remaining stock of around 50,000 gallons were bought in 1957 by the ambitious Scottish distillers William Grigor & Sons Ltd of Inverness (founded 1846) who in 1950 had taken over the famous Bowmore Distillery on the island of Islay - one of the oldest in Scotland. The company's managing director was James Grigor (a former Provost, or Mayor, of Inverness) ; his brother William Grigor OBE was a county surveyor for County Antrim here in Northern Ireland from 1934–1962. Both men had served during the Great War. Here is a photo of James in his role as Provost, in 1953, inspecting the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders passing-out parade.




But William Grigor & Sons Ltd put Comber Distillery back on the market about four years later in October 1961; a Belfast Telegraph report from 5 October of that year said that James Grigor estimated that if they were to recommence distilling at Comber they could produce around 6,000 gallons a week. However he also said that –
'the main reason for selling the property was that its stocks ... do not qualify for a Scotch whisky certificate although the whisky itself is an excellent one'.
Shockingly, James Grigor possibly didn't live to see the sale through. Within six weeks he was found dead in his bed at Lentran House in Inverness (photo below) on 27 November 1961, aged 67, the owner of three famous spirit brands - William Grigor & Sons, Bowmore and Old Comber. His widow Kay Grigor is said to have sold Bowmore soon after James' death. His brother William died in Belfast in February 1969.

Image result for lentran house"

• Back in the 1890s, Old Comber had embraced its Ulster-Scots locality, and possibly the Ulster-Scots cultural understanding of its then owner Samuel Bruce, with a 15 year old release called Auld Cummer. 20-odd years ago I saw an original advert for it in an antique shop in Donegall Pass, but foolishly didn't buy it!
• Sources: A Taste of Old Comber (2002) by Len Ball and Desmond Rainey / The Story of Comber (1984) by Norman Nevin MBE is also very good

• Comber Historical Society have hosted my talks a few times over the years; their article on Old Comber Whiskey is here.
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