Sunday, July 05, 2020

Steve Earle - 'Union, God and Country'

The expression 'a return to form' is a music reviewer's standard cliché. But for me Steve Earle had gone off the boil a little in recent years. He's one of my all-time favourite writers and performers, I've seen him solo at least twice, and one awesome night at the Ulster Hall with the Del McCoury Band in support of their 1999 joint Appalachian bluegrass album 'The Mountain', all in three piece suits and a single microphone. He's literally back in that territory again - musically, lyrically and geographically -  with his new album Ghosts of West Virginia.

I love Appalachia in so many ways, having been there four times, and am acutely aware of how the people there have so often been scapegoated, maligned and scorned by the 'metropolitan illiberal élites'. The introduction to this song is great - stoutly defending the ordinary people of West Virginia to his fashionable Californian audience. He says "We are not going to stop this nightmare by believing that everyone who voted for Donald Trump is an a****** or a racist - because it's simply not true." Earle's voice goes very much against the grain of the lazy, orthodox, élite media narratives. He sees the intrinsic value of the people.

The title and the lyrical content of this song are powerful representations of a worldview in which to be working class, to practice faith, and to love your country all sit very comfortably together - a combination which those élites (still) can't understand.


Here he is playing the 'hillbilly murder ballad' Carrie Brown with the Del McCoury Band in 1998 - this was on the soundtrack of our family Appalachian road trip in 2016. My sons and I play it on guitar, mandolin and six string banjo now and again. I can just about hit the high notes!

Whiskey, Temperance, FJ Bigger and the Ulster Public House Trust (1901-1930)

I grew up in a teetotal household (apart from a dusty bottle of Bushmills at the very back of the kitchen cupboard). In our wider family there has been alcoholism in living memory, including an uncle who inherited a farm and drank it all away. The more judgemental would criticise from a high horse. But self-medication takes many forms, as an attempt to find ease from many problems. 

The expansion of massive distilleries in Victorian Belfast also brought social damage. An architect friend who was involved in the regeneration of the Belfast Gasworks site told me a few times that when the Gasworks was operating, wives and mothers would congregate at the gates on a Friday afternoon to act as a human barricade to try to stop their men drinking their wages away at the pubs just across the road.

In 1901, renowned Belfast historian Francis Joseph Bigger was one of the founders of the Ulster Public House Trust Company, supported and funded by various prominent backers. As you can see from the photo above its logo was the Arms of the province of Ulster, with a five pointed Irish crown. The Trust had a number of Temperance aims for the improvement and reforming of the worst excesses of pub culture; its headquarters were at 109 Royal Avenue, Belfast and its Secretary was J. Pim Thompson. The article below explains more –

The famous Crown and Shamrock pub in Carnmoney seems to have been the first to adopt the experiment. A Belfast News-Letter article on 1 June 1901, about the opening, said that 'alcoholic drinks will be sold, but they will not form the main attraction of the establishment; on the contrary, while they will be of the best quality, the manager of the establishment will not profit by the turnover from them, but he will from the consumption of food and non-alcoholic beverages'.

Near me, the Trust bought a pub from William John Askin in Ballywalter, demolished it, and built a brand new Dunleath Arms which operated under the standards of the UPHT (it is currently for sale - estate agents website here). The Templetown Arms in Templepatrick was another, as was The Goat Inn at Milltown.

One year later the UPHT reported that 'the written opinions of local clergymen, magistrates, farmers, artisans and others have been received and they all speak in the highest possible terms of the lines on which the inn is now conducted'.

The 1903 Church of Ireland General Synod in Dublin commended the scheme – 'amid some laughter Bishop Crozier confessed he had been in the Company's public house at Glengormley a couple of weeks ago, and had tried first to get in by the back door because he did not wish it to be generally known that he had been in it'. The manager was amused, and produced a recent newspaper report of a visit to the pub by the Bishop of Down. Interestingly there were some critical voices from the 'total abstinence' lobby at the Synod.

Earl Albert Grey (Wikipedia here) had introduced the GB scheme, known as 'Gothenburg Experiments' based on an earlier success in Sweden, and 'Public House Trusts'. Similar initiatives were tried in Fife in Scotland (at the mining villages of Hill-of-Beath and Kelty)

The Ulster Public House Trust's work and admirable aims seem to have been caught in the crossfire between the opposite objectives of the drink trade and the hardcore 'total abstinence' teetotallers; Prohibition and a global decline in the legal production of spirits may also have had an effect. Perhaps the Great War, and Partition, also played a role. The UPHT was voluntarily liquidated in January 1930.

Love Thy Neighbour - again

In Matthew 22 v36-40, Jesus organises the unkeepable (yet which must be kept perfectly) Ten Commandments of Moses under two broad headings  – the second of which is "thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself". Love your neighbour okay fair enough, but as much as you love yourself? Good luck with that. Loving your neighbour goes further, it also means not believing lies about your neighbour.

But in the absence of relationship, the presence of ideology creates a fertile seed bed for lies to be sown and then flourish. YouTube's algorithms offered me this video during lockdown. I watched it late one night. The description of "Pentecostal cabins at the end of street corners" is beyond bizarre. Is the story true or is it mythical? The vocabulary used in that particular segment has a strong aroma of passed-down nonsense.

This cuts both ways across our traditional 'divide'. When you have no actual relationship with your neighbours, and your impression of them is shaped by untruths and devious ideologues, you can easily be persuaded to believe that those neighbours are emissaries of an Evil Empire.

You're a million times more likely to do so if you make the huge mistake of viewing everyone as a member of a 'group', and not as a sovereign individual with their own agency. 

Friday, July 03, 2020

The Union Foundry, Belfast

Some interesting insignia here - once again the 5 pointed Irish crown, as well as a creative usage of the harp. From the amazing shop called On The Square Emporium in Belfast (click here).

Jean or Jane Watson, the Covenanter widow from Killaughey, and William of Orange

A few years ago I was loaned a notebook containing a typescript of a brilliant story about Jean / Jane Watson from Killaughey (near Ballycopeland windmill). It had been written down by her great grandson, 'A.M.' from Greyabbey.

She was a Presbyterian Covenanter refugee from Scotland, fleeing the "Killing Times" from 1661-88. She was a 33 year old widow with six children. When the Duke of Schomberg arrived at Groomsport in 1689, his troops took horses from local farmsteads, including Jean's two which were her only source of income and survival.

Described as "intrepid in manner" the furious Jane pursued Schomberg all the way to Drogheda. She got an audience with William of Orange, who gave her 6 horses for her trouble, and two letters. One was on paper and guaranteed her safe passage home should any soldiers stop her. The other was on vellum and said –

"As a reward for perseverance and bravery I hereby confirm assign and make ever JANE WATSON widow her heirs male for ever free of rent all that parcel of land she now holds in KILLAUGHEY, DONAGHADEE.
Dated this 15th day of July 1690
William Rex.

Jane Watson was buried at Templepatrick graveyard on the shore between Millisle and Donaghadee. Her gravestone is still there today - "here lieth ye body of Jean Watson who died May ye 4th 1749 aged 92 years".

(PS Belfast historian Jason Burke also found the same story, a few years before me, and from another source).

(PPS the whole story was printed in the Newry Telegraph on 26 May 1842, which in turn had been reprinted from the Derry Standard)

Thursday, July 02, 2020

'Uncorked in America' - a Pennsylvania slogan from 1906

It's a famous slogan - 'Brewed in Scotland, Bottled in Ulster, Uncorked in America'. The earliest version of it I have found is from the Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine in 1923. It comes from a witty and metaphor-laden speech given to the Pennsylvania Scotch-Irish Society in 1906 by Rev. Dr. William Hamilton Spence, the minister of First Presbyterian Church in Uniontown, Fayette County, Pennsylvania –

"a genuinely Scotch-Irish taste - distilled in Scotland, decanted in Ireland, uncorked in America"

It's on page 88 here. It shouldn't be a surprise that the figure of speech has its origin in the land of the Whiskey Rebellion!

• The full text of the speech is online here. Spence's father was a Donegal man and he throws in some Ulster-Scots expressions. Very quotable material. 

A Huge Gamble? Playing Cards and Partition

To mark the creation of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State, The Worshipful Playing Card Company printed two sets of beautiful commemorative playing cards. This website describes them –

"Ireland: Commemorating the establishment of the Irish Free State by treaty with England in December 1921. In the centre of the Celtic design is the National Emblem of Ireland with the words Ireland for ever. The border shows historical landscapes together with the Arms of the four Provinces, the centre being filled by the Imperial Crown – emblem of supreme sovereignty. Design by Edward Cunningham of Goodall & Son. 1250 packs issued. (A) White border. (B) Red border. Double packs were sent to His Grace the Duke of Abercorn, who was Governor of Northern Ireland, and to Mr. T.M. Healey, Governor of the Irish Free State."

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Dark Horse podcast / Alisa Childers podcast

While deskbound I get the opportunity to listen to many YouTube podcasts. Events in the USA of recent weeks continue to dominate the airwaves and online platforms. The two I am posting below are both truly fascinating and educational, but on another level also pretty disturbing. 

"from little acorns" – The oak sapling of the Covenanter Alexander Gordon, "The Bull of Earlstoun"

Back in April 2012 I was invited to give an illustrated Powerpoint talk about the Covenanters in Ulster at the AGM of the Scottish Covenanters Memorials Association, in Fenwick in Ayrshire. From memory I had about an hour, thankfully it went very well. It was one of the stories I was privileged to bring to wider public attention in 2007 during my term as Chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency (with invaluable guidance from others) and had learned so much more in the intervening five years.

The next day I was invited to visit the home of one of the SCMA members, Andrew Blackley from Irvine, who gave me an oak sapling. It was one of a number that he had grown from a famous tree. I had been sent an email a few days beforehand in which he offered me –

"a sapling taken from an acorn of the very tree where renowned Covenanter Alexander Gordon 'The Bull of Earlstoun' hid whilst avoiding his tormentors. If you're interested in having this piece of living history, let me know and we'll arrange something"

The Covenanter Alexander Gordon (1650–1726; Wikipedia here) was known as "The Bull of Earlstoun". Dr Mark Jardine's comprehensive blog 'Jardine's Book of Martyrs' has a post about it here.

In April 2012 we were just about to build our house, but I accepted the kind offer and so the poor sapling was fitted into the car and brought back home with me on the Stena Line ferry. It had to survive in a pot for a few years but thankfully it's been in the ground for a while and is now coming on pretty well. I hope it will one day tower over the plum tree and blackthorn hedge it is beside.

Sadly Andrew Blackley has since passed away, but I am honoured to be growing one of his saplings on this side of the North Channel - which itself is this year for the first time producing its own little acorns.

Monday, June 29, 2020

1926: When entrepreneur John Grant of Glasgow bought Belfast's Grand Central Hotel

The Grand Central Hotel was a virtual palace in the middle of Belfast. It had been funded and founded by Ulster-Scot retailer and department store owner John Robb in 1893. He was the father of Nesca Robb; he introduced her to the books of WG Lyttle and encouraged her to take an interest in local history and our cultural and linguistic links with Scotland. It had 200 bedrooms and electricity and when it opened it was described in the press as "undoubtedly the largest and finest hotel in Ireland, and one of the largest and finest in the kingdom".

But in September 1917 the magnificent hotel and its contents were requisitioned by the Government as part of the war effort. It was then used to provide accommodation for around 500 soldiers and was also a recruiting station where thousands of men from across the island signed up. But when the war ended, Robb didn't get it back. Hopefully he was 'looked after'.

• New Nation, New Future for the Hotel

In 1921 Northern Ireland became a new jurisdiction and the old hotel was a dire eyesore in the middle of Belfast's swish Royal Avenue. The Ulster Tourist Development Association had been set up and had big plans. International events were being planned. The regeneration of the Grand Central would in many ways be emblematic of the new nation, a post-War message to the world. Enter the entrepreneurs.

In early July 1926 the hotel was bought "on behalf of a syndicate" by Hugh Smylie, a chartered accountant and prominent civic figure, and Sir Crawford McCullagh.

In late July it was announced that a 50 year lease for the premises had been agreed with 45 year old Scottish hotelier and restaurateur John Grant of Glasgow, at a rent of £4,500 per year, announcing that "no expense will be spared on decorating and furnishing the hotel".

• The Grant Empire
John Grant might have been related to the William Grant who in 1886 had founded the Glenfiddich Distillery in Banffshire - this 1999 legal case shows how potentially confusing the two brand names became.

John was born somewhere in the north of Scotland in 1881 but moved to Bearsden and set up a laundry, and then a sweet shop and grocers in Maryhill. He opened his first restaurant in Govan, in 1920 bought and redeveloped the Royal Restaurant in Glasgow and in 1923 bought The Rosevale also in Glasgow. Other operations that he and his sons John G. Grant and Daniel (Don) C. Grant owned included the famous Rogano seafood restaurant, the Grant Arms Garden Lounge and Grill and also the Buchanan Arms Hotel in Drymen north of Glasgow near Loch Lomond. The company was later renamed John Grant (Wines and Food) Limited.

I have a jug from the time which I have blogged about before, which commemorates four of the Grant owned businesses:

John Grant already had business interests in Ulster; he had been Chairman of Irish Cold Bitumen Ltd of Stranmillis, Belfast. The firm resurfaced the 13 mile Ards TT motor race course (link here). Days after the agreement of the hotel lease, Grant made a legal application to renew the dormant alcohol licence for the hotel. In the application, he gave his address as Strathearn, Broomhill Park, Stranmillis Road – the address of William Hood Thomson, the owner of the bitumen business. Back in 1913 Thomson had business interests in Scotland with a company called Fergusson Brothers and Thomson which was based in Glasgow and which made and sold various oil, paint and varnish products. So maybe they'd known each other for many years.

In a hearing on August 1926 John Grant's legal representative T. J. Campbell K.C. outlined an impressive vision for the building and the regenerative effect its restoration would have on the city. The licence was approved. An investors prospectus was published in the press at the end of October 1926; the new company was named The Grand Central Hotel (Belfast) Ltd, with five directors. Just one of them -  Thomson - was from Belfast.

• The Official Reopening
The new hotel was officially opened on 31 March 1927 with Viscount Craigavon, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, the guest of honour. The Northern Whig report below is packed with cultural resonances –

• "The heartiest good feeling on all sides"
An interesting dimension to all of this is that John Grant was a Catholic and his son Daniel C Grant was educated in Glasgow at St Aloysius School. Today some will insist that Craig's new Northern Ireland was an Orange or Protestant dominated 'regime'. Grant was warmly welcomed to Northern Ireland to take over its most prestigious hotel and, it appears from the article above, that the respect and comfort was mutual. The hotel was the glamorous centrepiece of the city's tourist offering for decades to come.

• Death, Will and Funeral
John Grant died on 5 January 1945, aged 63 at his townhouse home at 40 Kingsborough Gardens in Glasgow. His will left £870,205 and 43,689 gallons of whisky which was auctioned off for a value of £655,342, as well as (according to the Daily Record on 3 February 1945) stocks of port and sherry in the distilleries of Ardbeg, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Glen Grant, Carsebridge, Clynelick, Cameronbridge and Strathclyde. Death duties were set at a colossal £430,109.

His funeral took place half a mile from his home at St Peter's Catholic Church at Hyndland Street, Partick.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Fair Fa Ye - the story of a traditional greeting: "'we doubt whether her Majesty be yet so far initiated into Lowland Scotch as to comprehend the precise meaning of these loyal aspirations for her happiness"

This large stone artwork was installed in Dunloy in County Antrim many years ago - the photo above dates from 2006. "Fair fa' ye" or "Fair faa ye" is a traditional greeting which, like so much Scots language, is best known from its usage by Robert Burns in the immortal introduction to 'Address to a Haggis' –

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!

The expression predates Burns and has also been used in historical Ulster-Scots printed literature. The HathiTrust online archive has 143 returns for it (see here). A spin through the British Newspaper Archive produces a wonderful array of usages with over 40 references. The earliest one there is the Aberdeen Press and Journal on 11 January 1779

Fair fa' ye, canty Reverend Sir,
Your humour blyth, like guid auld fir
To calriff thumbs, clears up wi' Vir
Our dowie Hours;
Thy pleasand Verse, wi' Mirth sae rair,
Dull thought devours

The Scots Magazine of 1 November 1788 has a long tribute poem to Burns which begins –

Fair fa' ye, honest rhyming Rab,
For a' your dainty well-turn'd gab
It gars me claw as we' the scab
For very glee;
A plack mair than wi' ony knab
I'd drink wi' thee

It's in the song My Collier Laddie from the Scots Musical Museum of 1797– "fair fa' my Collier laddie". The Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song of 1810 includes "fair fa' the hands whilk gie".

When Queen Victoria visited the village of Cochran beside Kincardine O'Neil on her famous tour of Scotland in 1848, the locals had built a series of arches to greet her. One of these bore two large red flags, one of which had the message 'Fair Fa' Ye' and the other 'Guid Gae Wi' Ye' (Aberdeen Press and Journal 13 September 1848). The Belfast Presbyterian newspaper the Banner of Ulster's report of the same event had the second slogan as 'Guid Guide You' but it went on to say 'we doubt whether her Majesty be yet so far initiated into Lowland Scotch as to comprehend the precise meaning of these loyal aspirations for her happiness'.

It crops up in the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald on 6 March 1858 – 'fair fa' ye, my bonnie laddie'; the Dunfermline Saturday Press on 17 December 1859 – 'peace be wi' ye; fair fa' ye a' my bairns'. 

A gardener poet called Alick Murray (bio here) in the Aberdeen People's Journal of 19 June 1886 wrote a poem about the Home Rule movement and he implored William Gladstone

Heave awa' Wullie! Ne'er mind that they ca' ye;
Ye'll stan' best and best when it come to the poll
Return wi the Country's mandate – Fair fa' ye!
An' gie to 'Ould Oirland" the right o' Home Rule!

The Sussex Agricultural Press of 21 January 1898 reported on a wedding where a house was bedecked with 'Fair Fa Ye' in white letters on a red banner at the wedding of Rev Arthur Hamilton Boyd of Roxburghshire and Penelope Blencoew of Bineham in Sussex. It crops up in the New Ross Standard of Wexford in 1903.

The Ulster-Scots usages are many - Strabane/Lifford poet William Starrat's poem written by renowned Scots poet Allan Ramsay in 1722 included the lines –

Fair fa’ ye then, and may your Flocks grow rife,
And may nae Elf twin Crummy of her Life.

In his 1798 rebellion poem 'Donegore Hill', James Orr of Ballycarry wrote –

What joy at hame our entrance gave!
“Guid God! is’t you? fair fa’ ye!
’Twas wise, tho’ fools may ca’t no’ brave,
To rin or e’er they saw ye.” —

In his 1897 Border Reivers novel The Outlaws of the Marches, Tyrone-born Lord Ernest Hamilton (1858-1939; Wiki here) includes a character called Agnes who, on page 193, cries out "Fair fa' ye! watch your feet and haud up well to the right. There's a glog hold down ablow the big stane yonder." (see link here). Hamilton also wrote The Soul of Ulster in 1917.


The counter to all of these happy greetings is "Foul fa' ye" – that's another post for another day.

John Mitchel's "History of Ireland, from the Treaty of Limerick to the Present Time", William Drennan and Scotland

John Mitchel (1815-1875; Wikipedia here) is in the news again due to his statue in Newry and his infamous pro-slavery views. His father was a Presbyterian minister; John jr was married at famous Drumcree Parish Church outside Portadown in 1837. Mitchel's History of Ireland is online here.

There are many interesting references in it, such as these two: –

p.346 – "a strong address written by Dr Drennan was sent by the Society of United Irishmen in Dublin to the delegates for promoting a reform in Scotland, in which this sentence occurs ... 'If Government has a sincere regard for the safety of the constitution, let them coincide with the people in the speedy reform of its abuses, and not, by an obstinate adherence to them, drive that people into Republicanism'"

p.463 – "the seeds of insurrection which had manifested themselves in Scotland and England were, by the vigour and promptitude of the British government, rapidly crushed ... Lord Melville had obtained and published prints of the different pikes manufactured in Scotland, long before that weapon had been manufactured by the Irish peasantry..."
• The original source for the William Drennan and Archibald Hamilton Rowan address 'for promoting a reform in Scotland' is online here, dated 23 November 1792

There's also an interesting reference to the horrors of Glencoe in 1692, on p. 15 – "King William we are assured did not wish to perpetuate this iniquity ... but certain wicked advisers in Scotland forced him to do the one deed ... in Scotland it was the wicked Master of Stair, together with the vindictive Marquis of Breadalbane, who planned the slaughter"

• The 'Master of Stair' was John Dalrymple (Wikipedia here) ; the Marquis of Breadalbane was John Campbell (Wikipedia here).

Monday, June 22, 2020


The centenary year of Northern Ireland / Irish Free State / Partition is just six months away. But with the entire world in a state of flux because of coronavirus, global health issues paramount, travel restricted, and 'western' nations in the midst of Black Lives Matter related protests and campaigns, it will be interesting to see if the centenary, or CentenNIal, will be marked in a meaningful way.