Sunday, January 26, 2020

Robert Burns and Portaferry - the friendship of James McManus and James Shanks






Patrick McManus
(1863–1886) was a poet from Kearney, a small clachan between Cloughey and Portaferry. He had attended Ballyphilip National School on the outskirts of the village. Politically speaking was an Irish Nationalist. His poems appeared under the pseudonym 'Slieve Donard', the highest mountain of the Mournes. Culturally though he had a strong Ulster-Scots influence from living in the Upper Ards. His father James McManus was described as 'the staunchest of Catholics' but was also huge Robert Burns fan, who once said that ‘had Burns been a Catholic, he would have been a saint’. This cultural overlap and intermingling is very reminiscent of the Lynn C Doyle story I posted here recently. Patrick arrived in Philadelphia in April 1886 but tragically he died there just a few months later in August of that same year, aged just 23.

This story was written down by another Portaferry man, John McGrath (1864–1956) in an 1890 article in The Irish Monthly of March 1890 (see below). McGrath was the literary editor of the Irish National Land League publication called United Ireland from 1891–1902 and a friend of WB Yeats.

Their contemporary, the Portaferry Presbyterian farmer, botanist, geologist and antiquarian James Shanks (1854–1912), was a close friend of James McManus. Shanks attended Portaferry National School in the village opposite the Presbyterian church (which in recent years has been refurbished and rebranded as Portico Ards). Like McManus and McGrath, Shanks was also in favour of land reform and he became a leading light in the local Tenant Right Association. In a biography written by James C Rutherford, this scene is recalled –

"... one day I spent several hours behind the quay were James McManus was repairing a boat, listening to his talk. He ranged over the whole gamut of knowledge from navigation to Bobby Burns; but he left on my mind the impression that if anything in the world were compared to Burns, it would be 'as moonlight unto sunlight and as water unto wine'... Burns threw light upon navigation, mathematics, classics, religion, everything. No matter what formed the body of a subject, Burns formed the tail, and the tail always wagged the body... in my boyish enthusiasm I believed that Burns was the short cut to everything, and the open sesame to the doors of knowledge..." 

James Shanks and James McManus were of different religious backgrounds but yet were in many ways cut from the same cloth, with similar convictions and interests. They are described in the Rutherford biography as "literary comrades", a David and Jonathan combination, who would spend hours talking to each other in the streets of Portaferry. When McManus died "Shanks was left for a time companionless and disconsolate". Rutherford quoted a verse of a poem that Shanks wrote for McManus, which was written in the 'standard habbie' format made famous by Burns.

• McGrath's entire article 'An Ulster Poet' on the life and writings of Patrick McManus can be read here


Thursday, January 09, 2020

Mr & Mrs Hall's account of the people of County Down, 1843

(Intro - in 1844 Mr & Mrs Hall visited Ayr to experience and record the events of the major Burns Festival which was held on 6 August - see their account and illustrations here from the Illustrated London News)

"...The people of the county Down as a whole are of Scotch origin. There are of course numerous exceptions but so small a proportion do they bear to the whole that the lowland or Ayrshire dialect was commonly spoken all over the county till about the middle or towards the end of the last century.

At this moment a sort of mongrel Scotch is spoken in and near Ballynahinch, Dromara, Saintfield, Comber, Killinchy, Holywood, Bangor, Newtownards, Donaghadee, Kirkcubbin, Portaferry &c. The nearness of this county to the Mull of Galloway has made the districts on the two sides scarcely distinguishable and the stream of Scottish population can be traced most distinctly from Donaghadee and Bangor upwards to the interior.

In the eastern part of the parish of Hillsborough the Scottish dialect and religion are still preserved its western extremity is among the colonists of James I where the dialect is much more interesting being a mixture of pure English with that of the olden time.




The eastern district of the county about Ardglass lies opposite to the Isle of Man and is one of the nearest points to any English sea port. Hence the settlers there at an early period as well as at present were English as its castles and towers amply prove. The remains of three or four are still in existence and it appears from Harris that they formed part of a long range of booths for the sale of merchandise open towards the land for the purposes of trade and having loopholes towards the sea with a view to defence. The English settlers spread to a little distance round hence in Downpatrick as well as in various other towns of Ireland the three leading streets are the English, Irish and Scotch quarters respectively.

Until about a century ago an extensive Irish speaking population existed near Downpatrick but they have all disappeared and the only traces of the language are to be found in the mountainous districts where the people are almost exclusively Irish or in the neighbourhood of Carlingford Bay at the south.

The English settlers under the various Knights of the Plantation of Ulster spread up the valley of the Lagan meeting the Scotch and Irish on the banks of the Lagan from Belfast to Lisburn then by Hillsborough formerly called Crommelin or the village of the crooked stream and changed by Sir Moyses Hill to Hillsborough, Druibh Mor Dromore, and the bridge of the Bann, Bannbridge.

At various points of this line the people are as distinct in religion dialect habits wealth and other characteristics as their respective nations are on the opposite sides of the border. It is even said that a Down farmer Scotch can be known from an Antrim one English in a fair or market by his hardness in driving a bargain..."

- from Ireland: Its Scenery, Character, &c, Volume 3, 1843

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

'The Irish Border as a Cultural Divide' - Max Heslinga (1962)

With all the clamour about Brexit's hard border, soft border, technological border, blah blah blah, I've heard nobody talking meaningfully about the cultural differences within the island of Ireland. It's all jurisdictions, administrations, bureaucracy, talks, parties, elections, border polls and politics.

But without an understanding of cultural values, traditions and their holistic expression within communities, all that politics and elections do is give those communities some little say once every four years or so as to who rules them and how they are ruled. Democracy isn't always empowering, or stabilising, for the demos.

The late Dutch academic geographer Dr Marcus Willem (Max) Heslinga's book was once well-known, but is hardly ever mentioned today. He travelled around Ireland from 1959–1961 - even the structure of the contents pages show a mastery of the subject. He saw the concept of the border as a reflection of cultural difference, a 1920s outworking of many centuries of cultural formation, but one which had broken the British Isles and not just Ireland.

He talks about the 'land boundary' and the 'sea boundary' - from the back cover blurb '...the Irish land boundary could be interpreted as a cross-channel extension of the Scottish border...'.

The foreword by Estyn Evans' is about as concise and clear as it's possible to be, and even though it's an academic publication this is 210 pages of accessible, well-reasoned and highly recommended reading, a fascinating pre-Troubles cultural study. And he uses the term Ulster Scots with ease.

Whatever the political future might be, culture and community matters more.

The legends of Robert Burns in Ulster

Many years ago the Director of a local museum recounted to me an oral tradition story which had been passed on to him by the late librarian Jack McCoy (1950–1987) of Ballynahinch. [ Jack McCoy was a renowned Local History Librarian and a collector of local folklore on a wide variety of subjects with a specific interest in County Down - his investigations into the Betsy Gray traditions, published in 1989 as Ulster's Joan of Arc, are exemplary]. The version I heard was of a Robert Burns visit to Donaghadee, via Portpatrick. I have now come across a very similar version of the same story in a book called Burns and Tradition by Mary Ellen Brown (Macmillan, 1984) which was evidently collected in Scotland.


From memory, the version I heard was:
I can tell by your claes
And the cut o your hair
You're the fam'd Rabbie Burns
Frae the auld toon o Ayr.

Sadly I can't remember the wording of the response, but it was very similar to the above.

Friday, January 03, 2020

Richard Hayward 'Border Foray' – green, blue and tartan

The famous cover of this 1957 book by Ulster author and broadcaster Richard Hayward is packed with details and stories. The book itself is a single narrative, not broken down into chapters. The front endpaper says that 'this book is written from the human, historical and topographical viewpoint rather than from the political angle, and for the most part it sheds a friendly and liberal-minded light on a highly controversial problem'. As Brexit looms, the border is more of an issue than ever, and it even has its own Twitter account with over 100,000 followers (click here). 

Hayward observed our three-stranded linguistic heritage, which he describes on page 97 as '... a piece of Irish tweed, woven of three predominant coloured strands – green, blue and tartan... green for Irish, blue for English and tartan for Scottish...'. He goes on to then describe how various regions within Ulster have differing proportions of these three, for example 'the southern Ulster dialect has more of the green and the blue than the tartan,', and so on. He understands our inherent complexity and variety.

A friend often comments to me about our tragic lack of a Seamus Heaney figure, someone who can see and articulate beyond the stereotypes, a vision that we badly need today. We also lack a Sam Hanna Bell, and we also lack a Richard Hayward. 

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Foy Vance - from Bangor to Memphis and Muscle Shoals

Friday, December 20, 2019

Preserve, Demolish, Restore?


I was down at Sketrick Castle again a few days ago, tucked away on the sheltered side of one of the islands on Strangford Lough. It's been there for about 500 years. Today it's the worse for wear - a shadow of what it was in its heyday, now eroded by the forces of nature and also neglect. In our post-Troubles era, ambitious developers have flattened many an important building to make way for something flashier and more profitable. Some old buildings in prime locations have mysteriously, conveniently, burned down over the years.

But Sketrick is culturally important for many reasons, and so it has been shored up by specialist building conservationists over the years, to maintain it for the public to appreciate, and to pass on to future generations. It would even be possible for experts to produce an artistic impression, or digital reconstruction, to show what it was like at its proudest moment. The remains bear enough evidence, the printed records have enough description. In theory the missing walls could be authentically rebuilt.

In many ways, buildings like this across Ulster can be seen as a metaphor for Ulster-Scots language. Centuries old, certainly not what it once was, today very eroded – but with tonnes of published literature, still culturally and linguistically evident, and still important.

The recent - and inaugural - Ulster-Scots Language Week at the end of November was inspiring and thought-provoking in many ways. The speakers and contributors from Scotland were superb. Making meaningful connections across the water could bring us all sorts of fresh momentum.

Our choice now is do we merely preserve it? Or do we let the ambitious new generation of cultural developers demolish it to make way for something new? Or do we actually restore it, renew it. revitalise it?





Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Adam Lynn's Linguistic Fusion - Ulster-Scots, Orange and Irish


Adam Lynn (1866–1956) seems to me to be underrated as a writer, not just for his rich Ulster-Scots but for the world that it describes. His collection Random Rhymes Frae Cullybackey was published in 1911* and is online here. We filmed a segment about him for one of the Hame BBCNI episodes, but there was no room for it in the final edit.

In recent years much attention has been focussed upon the famous Irish language expression Erin Go Bragh being used prominently at a huge Unionist convention in 1892. Lynn uses the term as well, in his Ulster-Scots poem Ireland for Me on page 146.



He also uses another famous Irish language expression - Cead Mile Failte - in a poem of that title which celebrates the 12th July demonstration in Cullybackey in 1910.




The world as understood by Adam Lynn was linguistically overwhelmingly Ulster-Scots, and culturally one where Presbyterians, Church of Ireland, Faith Mission and Orange lodges co-existed, and within which the occasional use of commonly-known Irish language expressions was natural.

That was 100 years ago, a very different time. Pre Partition and pre Troubles. Pre our institutionalised polarisation. This balance and blend was, and still is, different in other parts of Ulster - and that is why notions of a flat cultural and linguistic uniformity are a huge mistake. It is essential to reflect the variety.

His poem Liberty on page 169 is worth a spin through.

* Coincidentally, 1911 was also one of the years of the Census of Ireland. So of course I had to look at the forms online. Adam Lynn lived in Galgorm, and on his form the language column is left blank. Three other families in Galgorm - the Church of Ireland McMeekins, the Presbyterian Stockmans and the 'English Church' Crawfords - had written 'Irish' in their forms, but in all cases the enumerator who did the checking scored that out. So, a famous and published Ulster-Scots language poet with no means of officially recording himself as such - and three families whose linguistic lack of self-understanding had got it wrong.

PS: The 30-something female poet Agnes Kerr of Ahoghill whose important Ulster-Scots collection was published in 1913, also left the language column in her form blank. In Ahoghill only the Brethren McMeekin family, the Church of Ireland Marks family, the Catholic Letters family and the Presbyterian Mark family were those who filled in 'Irish', and again in every case the enumerator scored that out.

There is a need - or opportunity - for an academic re-assessment of the Census, which takes into account all other existing evidences of cultural and linguistic life.

Ulster is complicated and surprising. 
Reject the two-tribes false simplicity.
Reflect the interesting true variety.