Wednesday, June 19, 2019

What do you mean by 'Irish?' (defining your terminology)

I had a very stimulating conversation tonight. Maybe I will say more about that later. As always with a conversation like that I came away with ideas rattling about in my head on the road home.

I remembered a tv programme I appeared in called 'Twa Lads O Pairts' which I think was around 2003. In it I was asked a series of questions by the producer about culture and heritage, and was eventually asked if I was Irish. Now in context of the whole series of questions it was clear to me at the time that what was meant was 'Irish' in narrow cultural terms (ie, 'green', Nationalist, Gaelic, Catholic), not in broad geographical terms. There is nothing wrong with those things, and I have learned much from talking with friends for whom those things are very much them, but they are not me. So I said 'no'.

I don't believe it was a set-up or deliberate trick. I got on well with the producer and we stayed in touch for a good while afterwards. The programme was broadcast, but that one remark really stuck out to me.

Shortly after it aired I took a call that same evening from a prominent Ulster-Scots figure who was absolutely thrilled by this remark. I was a bit confused by the call, and their enthusiasm, as that person had never spoken to me before, and seldom spoke to me after. I expect I had served some kind of a purpose.

A wiser, older, me would be less inclined to assume what the questioner meant, and would ask for a definition of 'Irish'. Did they mean in a broad, inclusive and geographical sense? Or did they mean what a friend from County Wicklow called a narrowed exclusive cultural Irishness. Defining your terminology really matters.

Sometimes this wordplay can be sneakily sprung like a trap. You can hear it on phone-in debate shows now and again. It usually goes something like this:

Q: "So are you from Ireland?"
A: "Yes"
Q: "So you're Irish?" (there follows a silent "gotcha")

There's a kind of entrapment there, a kind of exclusion. But Ireland is an island of cultural variety. Every country on the planet has local and regional cultural variety. We are no different, and we would all be better neighbours to each other if we understood that better, and allowed each other to express that in our own way.

Instead of our 'three stranded identity' - of shamrock, rose and thistle - being three separate community threads, maybe every one of us has traces of all three.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

BBC Songs of Praise - Vote for the Nation's Favourite Hymn

This BBC online vote presents the voting public with 100 hymns, but you can only vote for one! The final results will be revealed in the Autumn. Quite a few have Northern Ireland / Ulster connections:

• Abide With Me
Written by Henry Lyte, whose Scottish parents separated and he was raised at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen where an Ulster History Circle blue plaque marks his time there.

• All Things Bright and Beautiful
Lyrically dubious on a number of levels! But famously written by Mrs C F Alexander of Londonderry

• Amazing Grace
Written by John Newton after seeking refuge from a hurricane in Lough Swilly, Donegal. The famous tune New Britain emerged from Scotch-Irish communities in Pennsylvania, as chronicled by the late musicologist Michael Scoggins, of the Scotch-Irish Society of America.

• Before The Throne of God Above
Written by Fermanagh teenager Charitie Smith around 1863; published by Charles Spurgeon. I have assembled fragments of her life story in this previous post.

• Be Thou My Vision
Thought to be Irish in origin, very very old!

• Great is Thy Faithfulness
Its author William Chisholm was, I have been told, from rural Kentucky. So potentially a connection there, research pending.

• Here Is Love, Vast As The Ocean
The anthem of the Welsh Revival; melody by the Pennsylvania Baptist writer and composer Robert Lowry whose parents were from Killinchy

• Praise My Soul The King of Heaven
Another by Henry Lyte of Enniskillen

• What A Friend We Have In Jesus
Writte by Joseph Scriven, born and raised in Banbridge. More on that soon....

The list also includes four contemporary hymns by Keith and Kristyn Getty, both from Northern Ireland and as far as I know now living in Nashville.

So out of the 100 there are around a dozen with plausible links to Ulster.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Flag Day USA - Charles Thomson signs the Stars and Stripes into effect

Flag Day has been an annual celebration in America since 1916 when it was instituted by President Woodrow Wilson. More info here.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

BBC 'Rock N Roll Highway' - Ralph McLean & Ricky Warwick

I had the very great pleasure of contributing to this programme which was broadcast recently, back in November 2018 when these two musical legends spent some time with me at home, talking, jamming, singing and revisiting old hymns & stories. It's still on BBC iPlayer here for a few days yet. Somewhere I have an iPhone clip of the three of us larking about with the old Johnny Cash song Cocaine Blues, after the 'proper' filming was done. I must try to upload it here.

Monday, June 03, 2019

The Armstrongs - from the Borders to Fermanagh to Pennsylvania to Hawaii to World War II

Armstrong. The name will for ever be synonymous with going to the Moon. But this story is less dramatic but perhaps just as interesting.

The Armstrongs were of course originally Border Reivers, deported to Fermanagh by King James VI & I in the early 1600s to clear them away from the 'debatable lands' on both sides of the Scottish/English border. James had united the two crowns and he needed to get rid of the troublemakers. So to Ulster they were sent. Armstrong remains one of the most common surnames in Fermanagh, and is in the top 50 surnames in all of Ulster.

The Armstrongs conducted themselves valiantly during the Williamite Revolution, in particular in the Inniskillings through their exploits at Lisnaskea and Newtownbutler in 1689. In the 'Address to Their Most Excellent Majesties King William and Queen Mary' which was issued from Enniskillen (online here) the list of signatories includes John, Martin, Thomas, Daniel and James Armstrong.

A later James Armstrong (1754–1829) was an Ulster-Scots Presbyterian, born in Enniskillen. He emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1786. He married an Eleanor Pollock there at the First Presbyterian Church in 1788 and they had a number of children. James became a teacher of mathematics at Carlisle High School, Pennsylvania.

Their youngest child Richard Armstrong (1805–1860) was educated at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and then Princeton. He and his new bride Clarissa were sent to Hawaii as  Presbyterian missionaries. They reached Honolulu in 1832 and headed southwards to the Marquesas Islands in Polynesia where they lived and worked among the cannibal Nuku Hiva tribe, alongside fellow Presbyterian Rev William Patterson Alexander who was also of Ulster-Scots parentage. They later moved to the island of Maui and then Wailuku. Richard founded churches and also a sugar company. He was appointed to a number of positions in the Hawaiian government by King Kamehameha III. One of those was President of the Board of Education, gaining him the title 'The Father of American Education in Hawaii'. Richard and Clarissa had ten children; he died following a horse riding accident in 1860.

Their son Samuel Chapman Armstrong (1839–1893) had been born in Hawaii. Following his father's wishes, Samuel went to Massachusetts to study at Williams College, during which time the Civil War broke out. Samuel joined the Union Army and became a captain in the 125ht New York Infantry. Later, on becoming a Lieutenant Colonel, he took charge of the 9th United States Colored Infantry in 1863, taking on the task of educating the men in his care. After the war. President Anrew Johnston made him a brigadier general in 1866. But Samuel concentrated the rest of his life on educating African Americans at Hampton University, one of whom was Booker T Washington (1856–1915, Wikipedia here), who said of Armstrong that he was "the most perfect specimen of man, physically, mentally and spiritually the most Christ-like…." and in his autobiography described him as "the noblest, rarest human being that it has ever been my privilege to meet." 

Samuel's son Daniel Armstrong became a US Navy Lieutenant Commander who, like his father, would train African American troops during World War II, at the Camp Robert Smalls Naval Training Station at Great Lakes Illinois. There is some black and white footage of him here.

Below: Gilnockie Tower, the borders home of the Armstrongs and today the Clan Armstrong Centre.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Carter G Woodson - how Black slaves assisted the poor Scotch-Irish, 1919

"It is likely that in East Tennessee there was considerable prevalence of such amalgamation of African and Scotch-Irish race stocks, with white motherhood. The reasons were largely economic. 

Many of the whites who came to live in the lower farm lands down from their first holdings on the rocky slopes and unfertile soil, were driven from these more productive lowlands by the rich white land owners who preferred to have large plantations with great numbers of blacks to raise the crops, rather than to rent or sell to small farmers.

For these poorer white neighbors there was no recourse but to take to the mountains and to cultivate there the less desirable lands. The life they had to live was necessarily very rough and hard ; their principal diet was corn, and often the rocky soil only yielded them that grudgingly and scantily.

They frequently came in contact with the slaves, and the latter were known to steal provisions from their masters' storehouses and bring to these hill-country people appetizing additions to their meager provisions. And the slaves were also known to mingle with them in the quilting, husking, barn-raisings, and other rural festivities, being undoubtedly made welcome.

It requires no immoderate imagination to state here the likelihood of much racial intermixure, as we know, from testimony, of more than a few specific cases, and we have, in this rather strange way, the account of social intermingling and the secret gifts of the black men who visited these mountain homes."

– Article by Rev William Lloyd Imes, the Black Presbyterian minister of St James' Church of Harlem NYC, in Carter G Woodson's Journal of Negro History,  Volume IV, 1919. Imes was born in Memphis Tennessee, was educated at Fisk University in Nashville (which had developed from the work of Anahilt-born Rev Joseph McKee) and for a time was President of Knoxville College, a Presbyterian institution.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Racism, Satire and Scotch-Irish awareness in 1950s Mississippi

“I do not believe God wants us to mix with the Scotch-Irish, else why did he put them off on a little island by themselves?”

I have never been to Mississippi. It connects Tennessee to the Gulf Coast, a long vertical strip just to the west of Alabama. Its external reputation has been forged in movies such as Mississippi Burning, creating an image of racist discrimination and violence.

This is a pretty eye-opening article, on, cataloguing an anti-racist initiative on campus of the University of Mississippi in the town of Oxford in the north of the state, in the 1950s. These events were a precursor to the campus riots of 1962 when the university enrolled James H Meredith as its first African-American student.

As a method to counter the 1950s campus racism, a group of people led by former US Marine and Korean War veteran Jean Morrison published a newspaper. Also involved was the university Baptist chaplain Will D. Campbell. In later years renowned Nobel Prize winning writer William Faulkner took inspiration from their actions.

Morrison could be outspoken, and he was itching to make a public statement on race. He decided to create a fictitious, satirical newspaper warning of the dangers of allowing the “Scotch-Irish” into proper society. Of course, many white Mississippians are of Scotch-Irish descent.
Their satirical strategy was to take the slurs that Black people endured, and apply them to Scotch-Irish people instead. It was a clever and shocking idea, to provoke a response from the racist whites.

Some editions of the newspaper, called The Nigble Papers, (a combination of a racial slur word and 'Bible') are online along with a later publication which reprinted its content called The Southern Reposure. The psychology at work is fascinating; and if you're familiar with the authentic anti-Scotch-Irish commentary from 1700s New England, the language used by Morrison in his razor-sharp satire is in some ways similar to what the first waves of Scotch-Irish faced when they first arrived in America.

Only two editions of The Nigble Papers were ever published. The episode shows the awareness of a Scotch-Irish identity was in 1950s America. It is very possible that Faulkner, Campbell and Morrison may themselves have been of Scotch-Irish descent, but they certainly understood that it was a meaningful, effective term and concept to be deployed.

The Nigble Reposure blog reproduces some extracts
Digital scanned editions are online here in the University's Archives and Special Collections, which is where the two examples below are from