Friday, October 18, 2019

The Blue Rhythmaires from Ballymena

I picked up this old dance card recently, for the annual dance of Ballykeel LOL No 472 at the Protestant Hall in Ballymena. Two years after World War 2 you can see signs of the world changing - I am pretty sure that the band 'The Blue Rhythmaires' weren't playing fiddles and accordions for traditional country dancing! More likely to have been Glenn Miller style 'big band' sound with jazz, blues and ragtime influences.

A dig through the British Newspaper Archive shows that they were kept very busy in the late 1940s, at Ahoghill Orange Hall and Craigywarren Orange Hall - with the dancing from 9pm till 2am! I wonder how that was regarded in conservative mid Antrim in that era?

According to the Ballymena Observer report of the event - a week later on 28 March - "so large was the attendance that at the traditional opening there was scarcely enough room for the participating members". The band leader of The Blue Rhythmaires was a Wilson Gordon and "dancing continued to a late hour and the ball was voted one of the best this season".

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Temperance, bagpipes, fifes and drums - John Edgar (1798–1866)

John Edgar (1798–1866) was born somewhere around the Saintfield and Ballynahinch area of County Down in the historic year of 1798 – on the cusp of the famed rebellion, and in between two of the renowned battle sites of that rebellion.

His father was the Secession minister of a congregation at Ballynahinch and also ran a school, an 'academy', where a local youth called James Thomson assisted him. Thomson's son William would become world famous as Lord Kelvin. John Edgar's life story is told in this Memoir by WD Killen, published in 1869 (online here). A short bio can be found on the Dictionary of Ulster Biography here.

Edgar was theologically orthodox, a member of the Reformation Society, also strongly supportive of the Irish language and of evangelism across the entire island. He was also famous as a pioneer of Temperance in Europe, beginning what is thought to have been the very first such campaign on the entire continent, in 1829. It held its first meeting at 5pm on Sunday 4th October 1829 in Donegall Square Methodist Church in Belfast, the building too small to hold the crowd who has gathered. Edgar is said to have 'delivered an impressive discourse ... an energetic appeal to all the feelings of duty'. There were even centenary celebrations in 1929.

Yet Edgar is not well-known today, in contrast to his Catholic counterpart Father Theobald Matthew (1790–1856) who founded the Cork Total Abstinence Society in 1838, and to whom there are statues in various towns in Ireland.

The pages below describe a large pro-Temperance rally in 1837 in Clones in County Monaghan, cross-community in nature, and with bagpipes, fifes and drums.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

A Quare Tongue with Damian Gorman

I enjoyed talking with Damian Gorman by phone around a year ago, and eventually we met up for a chat in person with a crew from Tern Television recording it. I haven't seen the programme yet but I am sure it's going to be of high quality. Tune in on Sunday evening or catch it on iPlayer for 30 days afterwards.

Monday, October 07, 2019

When "fight the power" becomes "shoot the neighbours"

[This post isn't a balanced or authoritative history, it's just a mop-up of things I have happened upon over the last while.]

I try to keep things positive and constructive here. But of late I've been stumbling into some very dark stuff, but it is material which needs to be owned up to and acknowledged. Over recent months, in the Brexit context, and a potential 'border poll' in the years ahead, there has been much talk of a 'new Ireland'. So, almost exactly 100 years on from 'partition' - when the border was created - it is instructive to look back and see what happened then. But I've been pretty shocked at what has unexpectedly landed into my awareness over the past while. It is a period I previously knew little or nothing about.

Back in December 1912, the minister of St Enoch's Presbyterian Church in Belfast (which was Ireland's largest Presbyterian congregation) Glasgow-born Rev John Pollock, visited Canada. He addressed a large audience in an Orange Hall in North James Street in Hamilton in Ontario. He confessed that he had changed his mind twice on the 'Home Rule' for Ireland issue. He said he was a

'Home Ruler on principle ... I have no objection to a free Parliament on College Green, but I do object to Italian rule ... Home Rule would be the end of liberalism and progress. I have nothing against the religion of St Peter, but I protest against the politics of the Vatican ... if Home Rule becomes law, persecution in its most insidious form could not be prevented'.

He was not wrong in his prediction...

The booklet 'Lest We Forget - an Irish Record of One Year' came up for sale online over the summer. I had never heard of it before. It is a pretty horrific contemporary diary of some events from June 1920 – July 1921, cataloguing a range of political and sectarian murders which were carried out in many parts of the south of Ireland, which would become the Irish Free State in 1922. For example the murder of a 79 year old retired Church of Ireland rector James Finlay who was dragged from his home at Bawnboy in County Cavan in the middle of the night by a crowd of up to 50 armed and masked men, was shot dead in the road, his head smashed in, and the house burned to the ground. A different house stands there today and is listed on the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, having been built in 1923.

In my time in Cork recently I came across this image from December 1920 which makes the city look like Dresden in WW2 - an event called the Burning of Cork (Wikipedia here), carried out by the British Army forces known as the 'Black and Tans'. How on earth that was sanctioned and enacted is beyond me, and its aftermath was in many ways inevitable. But 'fight the power' too easily became 'shoot the neighbours' - the Protestant neighbours.

The vicious, discriminatory, sectarianisation of both parts of this island was in so many ways institutionalised on both sides of the new border. It is wrong to pretend this only happened on one side or the other. Over the summer, yet another friend told me of his own grandparents having to flee 1920s south of Ireland for refuge in Northern Ireland, just because they were Protestants. I know many families who have told me of similar experiences.

James Craig became the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in June 1921, and whatever his achievements may have been during his life in modern times he is - dare I say it - inextricably linked to remarks he made in 1934 about Stormont being "a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State" (see previous post here). Newspaper reports as late as 1937 show the Presbyterian moderator and also Thomas Joseph Campbell taking Craig to task for these words. As an exact mirror image Eamon De Valera's speech from St Patrick's Day in 1935 said that "Ireland has been a Christian and Catholic nation ... she remains a Catholic nation, and her people will accept no system which denies or imperils that destiny". The 1937 constitution was supposedly developed jointly between church and state.

Earlier this year I saw a memorial plaque which included an Alexander Reid, who had been killed on 30 November 1921. A bit of research uncovered his story - he was a 50 year old shipyard worker, shot dead on his way to work simply because his assassins (correctly) assumed he was a Protestant. He lived at 33 Silvergrove Street just off the Donegall Pass - he was passing the corner of Catherine Street and Cromac Street at 7:20am when he was killed, leaving a widow and seven children. A William Burns was attacked in the same manner, on his way to work in the yard, as he passed the corner of Russell Street and Alfred Street also at 7:20am. Four shots were fired but he escaped and survived.

As I've posted here recently, both jurisdictions on the island are more or less fully secular nowadays. There are new gods. A truly 'new Ireland' must acknowledge, honestly and even-handedly, the full extent of the wrongs which have been carried out on people on both sides of the border.

We are very familiar with Northern Ireland relentlessly being cast as a 'sectarian statelet' and – let's be honest – there is plenty of evidence of that being true. But in Cork, as recently as 2012, another Church of Ireland clergyman Canon George Salter, then in his 90s, bravely gave an account in Irish of his own family's experiences in Cork in a documentary entitled An Tost Fada (The Long Silence). See review here. This 2017 article shows some of the reaction to the film. The film's producer compared this to a 'deep denial' he had encountered in eastern Europe when making a film about the ethnic cleansing of Jews (see article here).

During our most recent and enjoyable trip to County Cork, my 16 year old son and I had a friendly conversation with a middle class couple in a restaurant near where we were staying. I went to the bar to pay the bill, leaving him in their company; they continued talking, but they left before I returned to the table. In my absence they had told him in no uncertain terms that he didn't live in Northern Ireland, he lived in the north of Ireland.

I can understand an instinct to 'fight the power'. But maybe sometimes that is merely a disguise to hide or legitimise the radicalised bloodlust of 'shoot the neighbours', whether those neighbours live in the same townland, the same city, or the same island - and whatever their religious tradition or political persuasion might be.

I hope to go back to Cork again later this year. We met some really lovely people and saw fascinating places. There are more fish to catch, and there are some stories to uncover. There are always things to learn.

Robin Bury's 2017 book 'Buried Lives, the Protestants of Southern Ireland' (review here) has been added to the pile I need to get round to reading, as has Gerard Murphy's 2010 book 'The Year of Disappearances: Political Killings in Cork, 1920–21'.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Ideas are big

Bigger than nationality, bigger than ethnicity, bigger than gender, bigger than class. The sharing of ideas is the biggest tool the human race has. Some photos here of Cork Baptist Church, built in 1892 – I've spent a bit of time in Cork this year and have learned a lot. Some posts may follow. Evangelical reformed faith is not 'owned' by a subculture or tribe in Northern Ireland. Ideas are bigger than borders. 'For God so loved the world...'

This wasn't the first Baptist place of worship in Cork, but it's a pretty quirky building and it has a good chippy next door which is a bonus.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

M'Connell's Whisky - Belfast and Stromness, Orkney

J&J McConnell Limited was founded in 1776, the year of the American Revolution. Based at the Cromac Distillery in Belfast, one of their brands was abbreviated as Old Cro' Irish Whisky. This is yet another Ulster whisky brand with a meaningful connection into Scotland – but this time not to the big cities in the mainland but, ironically, to the Orkney island which is itself called 'Mainland'. The firm was in liquidation in August 1931, but bottled products were still being sold for some years after. The Stromness distillery had closed around 1928 and the building was later demolished. However, the McConnell's brand is due to be revived in Belfast in the near future.

Companies do things for commercial reasons – but surely the geographical proximity with Scotland, and potentially the cultural connections and similarities – were additional factors in so many Ulster distilleries looking west for new business ventures.

BBC Scotland - 'The Last Explorers', David Livingstone - presented by Neil Oliver

This BBC Scotland documentary about the Scottish missionary/explorer Dr David Livingstone is brilliant, his is one of those names I grew up with, in Sunday School and from many books we had around home. Tremendous insight into the challenges he encountered in trying to end slavery in east Africa. Presented by Neil Oliver and on iPlayer now.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

George Washington and the obstinate, dastardly Scotch-Irish

Washington's famous, admiring, quote about the heroic Scotch-Irish of Virginia is often cited (see my July 2017 post here, tracing the earliest source I have ever found for it). If he said it, it was around the 1770s during the American Revolution. But here is an earlier one, from 1755, with a very different slant. Washington was just 33 years old, and a volunteer aide-de-camp to notorious General Edward Braddock.

"... After surviving the disastrous Braddock expedition, Washington was raised to the position of Colonel and commander in chief of Virginia forces on the western frontier in August 1755. He returned to Winchester to take command on October 10, and was not impressed, calling the town "this vile post" and complained of the "obstantcy and dastardliness" of the Scotch-Irish settlers of the area. Nevertheless, Winchester was a vital link in a defensive chain intended to counteract French forts like Duquesne and defend settlers from Native American raids ..."
This was the very same year that Winchester's Ulster-Scots emigrant population were described as 'a spurious race of mortals known by the appelation Scotch-Irish' (see previous post here). As more of George Washington's papers are researched and digitised, I expect that more and more Scotch-Irish / Ulster-Scots material will be unearthed.

Source here

A "company of Ulster-Scotch" - Northampton County, Pennsylvania, 1765

This extract is from the Founders.Archives.Gov website:

"... Capt. William Craig, the son of Thomas Craig, was a tavern keeper and the first elected sheriff of Northampton Co., 1752; commissioned by Hamilton, December 1755; passed through Nazareth on the 20th with his “company of Ulster-Scotch”; performed guard duty along the frontier, January–February 1756. He drew £256 13s. 3d. pay for himself and company March 15; thereafter was stationed at Fort Hamilton. There is no record of his service after mid-1756 ..."
It is within correspondences from the Benjamin Franklin papers, part of notes accompanying a letter from Pennsylvania Deputy Governor Robert Hunter Morris to Franklin, giving an account of events during the French and Indian War.

1700s Pennsylvania was of course overflowing with Ulster-Scots emigrants - to find the terminology 'Ulster-Scotch' documented is very important.

Source here.