Monday, November 28, 2022

Omnipresence - by one guitar and two voices

Monday, October 24, 2022

Abraham Lincoln's father and the emigrant United Irishmen in Elizabethtown, Kentucky.

 Here is Thomas Lincoln (1779–1857). More to follow.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

'Come and See' - Belarus WW2 movie by Elem Klimov, 1985

This horrific and infamous scene, from the harrowing movie Come and See by Russian filmmaker Elem Klimov (Wikipedia here) will have echoes for those in Ireland who know the full story of the 1798 Rebellion here - of the burning of the McKee family in their home at Carrickcessna near Saintfield, and of the burning of around 200 people in Scullabogue barn in Wexford (see previous post here). Klimov had personal experience of World War Two, and Belarus is said to have had over 2 million deaths during the war, over 25% of its population. At the end of the movie a caption says that during the war “628 Belorussian villages were burnt to the ground with all their inhabitants.” Utter barbarity. 

I can't say I would recommend Come and See as an experience, but it a remarkable and utterly horrifying movie, acclaimed as a 'masterpiece' since its release in 1985. It was remastered and rereleased in 2020. Here is a review on YouTube. Its hand-held steadicam camerawork gives it a revolting nauseating realism. 'Soldiers' drunk on whisky, power, and hate. Be very careful of viewing it.

Whatever the era, whatever the ideology, whatever the circumstances, the human heart never changes. As Scottish author and poet Robert Louis Stevenson knew, every one of us is both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

"And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see." - Revelation 6:7-8 

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Billy Strings & his Father - "What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul?"


The Monroe Brothers recorded this in the 1930s, a classic Appalachian 'brother duet'. Outstanding version by Billy Strings. A taster of his forthcoming album, Me & Dad.

And here's a rough version my brother and I recorded at the kitchen table on an iPhone about 12 years ago, with just one guitar, on our old Soundcloud page. Trying to find those primitive harmonies.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Part Four – back to Meagher's tricolour and Red Hand in 1848

There are lots of primary sources for how Meagher had designed his version of the tricolour, which, as per previous post, was not in fact the first such design. Here's one from 1848, showing that the inclusion of the Red Hand on the white third was for him a critical component in communicating the message of his flag, and with a harpist playing the melody The Battle of the Boyne.

Just a few weeks ago, at the Northern Ireland v Kosovo international football match, just as Josh Mageniss struck the winning goal, I spotted a Northern Ireland supporters club home-made flag which was a blue saltire on a green field –

Symbols are fascinating. People have some kind of primal need to create them. And over time, their stories can get distorted and misunderstood. 

Monday, October 10, 2022

Part Three - Gerald Anthony Hayes-McCoy's 1979 book 'A History of Irish Flags from Earliest Times'

This is a classic volume, heavily illustrated and with meticulously-researched textual narrative. I consult it often, and picked it up again back in July after hearing a Radio Ulster discussion about flags, which was instigated by the annual burning of flags which happens on bonfires here, by loyalists on 11 July and then later in the summer by republicans too. I don't have a sense of how genuinely widespread flag burning is as a behavioural phenomenon, but it sure generates a lot of online reaction and press & broadcast media coverage.

Hayes-McCoy has a chapter entitled 'The Tricolour Triumphant' and also a subsection entitled 'Orange or Yellow?' where he outlines that the American 'Fenian' movement in the 1870s made various alterations to Meagher's tricolour design – first with a golden sunburst in the white third, and later by substituting a yellow or gold for the orange third. The 'Fenians' had other flags and emblems, one intriguingly described as:

 'a tricolour of Green, White and Gold, Saint Patrick's Cross with a red field, and shaped nearly like Saint Andrew's Cross, has one large shamrock emblazoned on it, with a wreath of small shamrocks encircles the cross, embracing the three colours. I never saw a handsomer flag in my life-time of experience. The Fenians and the Legion of St Patrick maintain that their destiny is to make a New Ireland, and the first step is that of providing a Flag that will be universally adopted by Irishmen in every part of the world. They hold to the belief that the Sunburst and Harp are not suitable, and not correct in point of historical accuracy...' 
– The Irishman, Saturday 18 September 1869

The poem below is from The Flag of Ireland newspaper, 10 July 1869. 'Green white and gold' is certainly a descriptive figure of speech everyone has heard. And from various online 'debates' I have been sent links to very recently, the introduction of 'gold' is indeed seen by many as a purposeful ousting of the 'orange' which had been used by Daniel O'Connell and the Association of the Friends of Ireland in 1831, and Meagher in 1848.

Often, the most extreme voices and positions about issues in Ireland come from beyond these shores, from romanticised ex-pats or those who like to indulge in what might today be interpreted as a kind of political 'cosplay', or by others seeking purpose through emotional involvement in far-away disputes. Or online, from the safely detached distance of a keyboard.

Flags, often belittled by the middle classes and some in the media as flegs, in fact hold visual stories and can tell us a lot about eras and ideas.

Wednesday, October 05, 2022

Part Two: MacNeven's tricolour objections? New York City, Tuesday 26 April 1831

There were plenty of reports in the 1830s of Daniel O'Connell rallies in Ireland using green and orange banners and ribbons. Here is one example, from a letter O'Connell published in The Freeman's Journal on 27 December 1830, outlining a proposed public demonstration in central Dublin –

There are accounts of Repeal meetings in Dublin using "a tri-colour of orange, green and white" in January 1831. (So the official Thomas Francis Meagher 1848 orthodox account of the origin of the flag appears to not be the whole story after all).

Therefore, that the Association of the Friends of Ireland in the United States were also using these colours in 1831, is no surprise.

Below is a report from the Charleston Mercury on 2 May 1831, of the Association event in New York on 26 April, where the emigrant United Irishmen leader William James MacNeven reacted to seeing orange – "the emblem of all that was baneful to his beloved native country". The wording is ambiguous – he might have been bemused rather than actually objecting.

The whole episode rippled across to our side of the Atlantic, and was reported in the Belfast News-Letter, the Tipperary Free Press, and other newspapers. Here's the News-Letter one from 1st July 1831:

There are many surviving records and accounts by, and about, William James Macneven. In The United Irishmen, Their Lives and Times (1842) there is a detailed memoir of his life, by his daughter, from pages 197-256 (online here), with his own autobiographical notes from page 244 (online here).

His birthplace and childhood near the historic battlefield of Aughrim was formative –

"an eventful battle was fought there on 12th July 1691, between the forces of King James II and King William, and my early intimacy with every inch of the field gave my thoughts ever after an invariable direction to the unfortunate relations of Ireland with England".

When he was arrested in 1798, aged 35, the 'examination' he underwent in Dublin on 7 August was transcribed (online here) – which includes an interesting usage of the term sasanagh as "one name for Protestant and Englishman". Yet he also objected to an Ireland under any religious establishment, even his own Catholic one, saying "I would no more consent to that than I would to the establishment of Mahometanism". 

All 'movements' are made up of individuals, and all individuals have their own quirks, biases and agendas. I have learned this over the years when I have collaborated with, and even hired, people for a very specific skillset or shared interest – but of course the rest of that person comes along too, with all of their associated baggages. MacNeven must have had his as well.

I've only skimmed through these references, but what emerges for me is of MacNeven being an example of how it's one thing to be in opposition to a government and even to plan and lead a rebellion – but another thing entirely to actually work to build a cohesive inclusive society. 

But if MacNeven's reaction was perhaps bemusement rather than outright objection of the orange component in the flag, soon it would be others who definitely would object. 

More to follow.

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Part One: William James MacNeven, the emigrant United Irishman leader from Aughrim, who objected to the orange third in a proto-Tricolour flag of Ireland, in New York City in 1831.

Meet William James MacNeven (Wikipedia here). He was born in Aughrim in Galway in 1763, joined the Society of United Irishmen and was imprisoned in 1798. He ended up in Fort George in Scotland along with other United Irishmen prisoners such as Rev William Steele Dickson, in whose famous Narrative of Confinment and Exile he is named as M'Nevin. Steele Dickson listed M'Nevin, and himself, among the four Catholic, six Presbyterian, and ten Church of Ireland leaders of the movement.

MacNeven left Ireland for America in 1805, where he became a hugely successful scientific academic. He died in New York City, on the 12th July 1841.

MacNeven had been President of the Association of the Friends of Ireland. At a meeting of the Association in New York City in 1831, a "green, white, and orange, tri coloured flag, the white in the centre" was used and a matching scarf was given to him. These, and their design, appear to have been sprung on him, and he wasn't happy.

The key point is that this all took place 17 years before the orthodox 1848 Thomas Francis Meagher origin account of the Irish Tricolour flag (see the website of the Thomas F Meagher Foundation here). History records that Meagher thought that these three colours, arranged in the exactly the same order as MacNeven's,  could signify a "lasting truce ... clasped in generous and heroic brotherhood".

Meagher was a boy of 8 in Ireland when the 'green white and orange' design appeared at the MacNeven event in New York. Macneven died 7 years before Meagher's matching 'green white and orange' design appeared in Waterford (with a Red Hand on the white) via some women he had met in France. (image below from The Irish Way on Facebook)

More to follow...

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Helen Mark interview for BBC Radio Ulster's 'Kintra'

I really enjoyed doing this conversation with Helen back in August - it's not often I'm the one answering the questions! I blethered on a bit much so the end programme is an astute edit. Check it out online here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The Ulster Fiddle in America - six tunes from 1823

The 1700s was the century that saw massive Ulster-Scots emigration to the USA. People take music wherever they go. There were two main musical sounds which were exported from Presbyterian Ulster – the fiddle of a Saturday night hooley, and the unaccompanied vocal harmonies of Sunday morning Psalms-singing. And maybe a few folk songs too.


James M'Henry (1784–1845) deserves to be better known. I have mentioned him here a few times, especially his searing riposte in 1825 to Sydney Owenson and other writers who depicted Ireland as a mono-cultural island. He was born in Larne, inherited family stories of the Hearts of Steel, witnessed the 1798 Rebellion, and emigrated to America. In his novel The Wilderness, or Braddock's Times: A Tale of The West which was published in New York in 1823 but set in western Pennsylvania in the 1750s, he includes characters who speak Ulster-Scots, and gives this description of the emigrants' dance and fiddle repertoire:

"They accordingly set off with "Nancy Dawson," to which they tripped airily and nimbly along in measured movements, with great art, sprightliness, ind vivacity. Now, (for every ten or fifteen minutes they changed their mood, and Peter had as often to change his tone,) the light corant, the gay cotillion, the merry riggadoon, the measured waltz, and the sprightly jig, succeeded to each other, and were rattled off to the successive tunes of the Irish Washerwoman, the Soldier's Joy, the White Cockade, Patrick's Day, and Morgan Rattler." (from page 79)

• Nancy Dawson
Named after an English stage performer, the tune is a slight variation of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, but first appeared under the title Nancy Dawson around 1760.

• Irish Washerwoman:
Possibly English in origin, but first published under this title in Neil Gow's A Third Collection of Strathspey Reels &c for the Piano-forte, Violin and Violincello, 1792.

• Soldier's Joy:
Used by Robert Burns in The Jolly Beggars/ Love and Liberty, 1785.

• White Cockade:
First published in James Aird's Selection of Scotch, English and Irish Airs, 1782.

• Patrick's Day:
First published in The Caledonian Pocket Companion Book XI, 1750s.

• Morgan Rattler:
First published in Robert Petrie of Perthshire's Collection of Strathspey Reels and Country Dances, 1790.

• So the chronology works – all of these tunes were composed within M'Henry's era and it's entirely plausible that he heard them being played during his east Antrim childhood, and also in emigrant Pennsylvania among Ulster-Scots emigrant communities.


• As posted here recently, the critical cultural context to this is that the earliest collection of American fiddle tunes was George P Knauff's Virginia Reels of 1839 (see link here). This makes the M'Henry reference above, 16 years earlier, from the pen of an Ulster-Scots emigrant, to be hugely important.

• The pics posted here are two that I took of Georgia-born Fiddlin' John Carson's fiddle, brought from Ulster by his ancestors in the early 1700s, and now on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee, in July 2016 (Wikipedia here).

Friday, September 02, 2022

Glasgow no more / Glesga nae mair

Back in February I posted here of how I very nearly went to Art College in Scotland, but was derailed by the surprise intervention of someone who I knew from home who was already studying there, when doing my rounds of degree course interviews in Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh, in April 1991 (see post here). So I stayed in Belfast, where I had done my Foundation year.

At the same moment, my future wife was also offered a degree place at Glasgow School of Art, but she opted instead to come to Belfast, where we met in Autumn 1992.

A few weeks after I had graduated from there, in late July 1994 she had some of her art work exhibited in Felt Directions at the Collins Gallery on Richmond Street in Glasgow, for the International Feltmakers Association, and I flew over the meet her there for a few memorable days, with her parents who had travelled up from England.

We had various day trips and family holidays in Glasgow over the decades since.

Fast forward almost 30 years and I was back in Glasgow in April 2022 to meet up with our oldest son who was doing some videography work there (see post here) and we had a ball for a few days. He was filming with the-then Glasgow Rangers player Calvin Bassey for some promo videos for his PR agency (on Instagram here).

I had hoped that our second son might study medicine in Glasgow, but he has opted for the University of Plymouth, and starts there next week after his gap year of travelling around Europe, Israel, Australia and Bali.

I took my final hope, our daughter, to the University of Glasgow on 16 June for University Open Day. Whilst I was greatly impressed by the University in terms of its ethos (especially their emphasis on Graduate Attributes rather than grades), and even though we shopped in Buchanan Street (pictured above), hit multiple coffee shops, did the Gallery of Modern Art, and used the dead-easy circular Subway system, she didn't like the vibe of the city at all, and has decided that, if she gets the grades, to stay in Northern Ireland for university. So here endeth our student-era connection with Glasgow.

My maternal great-great-grandfather, James Kerr from Carrowdore, went to Glasgow for work some time around 1900 but he never came home – it's believed that he was drowned in the River Clyde. My mother's cousins, the Hamills from Ballyfrenis, who left Northern Ireland in the late 1960s to live back in that ancestral city have now all passed away, during the Covid lockdowns, with no-one from this side of the water able to be present at the funeral. So my sense of direct familial connection feels tangibly diminished.

We will still visit of course, thanks to the newly-announced air routes with Belfast. It's just a 25 minute hop over, and then the purple Service 500 shuttle bus, which uses wee touches of Scots vocabulary in its branding, from the airport right into the city centre.

With no family ties now, it feels that wee bit more distant. And I will always wonder "what if" I had gone to Scotland in '91.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Ulster-Scots Music: "Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws"

The quote above is from Scottish writer and politician Andrew Fletcher. He understood the power of music, story and song. Few of his ilk do so today.


Music is the universal expression of the human race, whether through rhythm, song, or instrument. It's a creative endeavour and so is seldom, if ever, 'fossilised' and frozen in time.

A trawl through the earliest printed Ulster-Scots sources always reveals some great material: 

• The Montgomery Manuscripts, collated in the late 1600s by William Montgomery, from first-hand accounts and family traditions, are always a great place to start. It includes references to the lute, bagpipes, drums,  trumpet, violin, flute, recorder, cornet, hautboys, and 'the huntsman's musical instrument' which must have been a type of horn.

• The 1700s sources are pretty scant, because printing was still a fairly limited industry, but towards the end of that century the printing presses of Ulster were busy churning out volumes of local poetry and local songs by the Weaver Poets. Within the same era as the far more celebrated Belfast Harp Festival of 1792, these are full of references to music and songs.

• The Scottish sources from the 1700s also overlap into Ulster – some of the tunes in the Scottish Musical Museum which Robert Burns worked on included tunes from Ulster and Ireland, Burns confirmed so in his notes – including the melody he used for Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon

• The 1700s was the century that saw massive Ulster-Scots emigration to the USA. People take music. The two sounds which were exported from Presbyterian Ulster were the fiddle of a Saturday night, and the unaccompanied vocal harmonies of a Sunday morning.

- FIDDLE: The first published collection of American fiddle tunes was George Knauff's renowned Virginia Reels in 1839, of which about 20% are Scottish in origin. So any references before 1839 are highly important. Here are two: 

1) There's a reference to an unnamed fiddle-playing Presbyterian minister at Londonderry, New Hampshire, circa 1730, one of the second wave of Ulster emigrants to arrive there.

2) Larne-born and raised author James M'Henry (1785–1845) emigrated to America in 1817, aged 32. His novel The Wilderness was set in 1750s Ulster-Scots Western Pennsylvania and has a short, but very important, list of dances and specific tune names. This is especially valuable because The Wilderness was published in 1823 – 16 years before Knauff's Virginia Reels.

- VOCALS: An Anglican minister in the frontier Carolinas, Rev Charles Woodmason, an avowed opponent of the Ulster-Scots, had to admit in 1760 that in a church service he had conducted "On the 31 (Sunday) I gave service to about 400 people among whom a great number of Baptists and Presbyterians… excellent singing. The women sing as well or better than the Girls at the Magdalene Chapel, London – they all come from Virginia and Pennsylvania – not an English person or Carolinian among them".

There is so much richness and depth. More to follow...

Monday, August 22, 2022

Irish, Scots and Anglo-Normans in Portaferry, 1641 (from 'The Savage Family in Ulster', p 128)

The Savage family of the Upper Ards and Lecale were originally Anglo-Normans. They had dominated Antrim and Down up until the Bruce 'invasion' of 1315–18. This list of their tenants from 1641 on the Portaferry estate shows that their territory there became home to English and Scots as well as Irish people. 

"...In an old Rental preserved at Portaferry the number of tenants in the town of Portaferry at this time was stated to have been twenty. It is interesting to read the names of the then tenants on the estate in the year 1641. They are:—

Patrick Savage, Esq., his demeasne;
Conboy O'Neale and others during pleasure;
Rowland Savage (three townlands);
James Coffy and others;
James Savage and others, during pleasure;
Rowland Savage, five half-quarters Ballyvranagan, in freehold;
Henry Savage, Ballefunerergh, in freehold;
John Martin, during pleasure;
Patrick Savage and others, during pleasure;
Arthur Moneypenny (two townlands);
James McCullen and others, during pleasure;
Hugh O'Tomolte and others;
William Waghop, during pleasure;
Nicholas ffitzsymons, in freehold;
Patrick Harnot and others, during pleasure;
Thomas Carr, in freehold;
William Dunbar;
William McCea;
James Savage;
Divall Smith and others (Quintin Bay);
John Echlin;
Nevin McCormick, during pleasure;
Dualtagh Smith (the half-town of Tullenecrevy);
Patrick Steward, during pleasure;
Henry Smith, during pleasure;
Dualtagh Smith (Knocknellett), freehold;
James Capy Widow;
Thomas Malmont..."

Friday, August 19, 2022

Psalm 91 by Renew Collective

This isn't my musical cup of tea, but its a great example of how versatile the inspired Psalms are. The 1650 Psalter was put together by a team of people including Rev James Hamilton of Ballywalter, Dumfries and Edinburgh. He may not have ever seen a person of a different ethnicity, but he would definitely have known 'For God so loved the World', and he would definitely have read of the Ethiopian of Acts chapter 8. What a legacy.

From some research I did a few years ago:

'...The General Assembly of 1649 appointed Hamilton, with John Smith, Hugh McKail, Robert Traill, George Hutcheson (he had been sent to Ulster by the General Assembly in Feb 1644 ) and Robert Lowrie, to “overtake the review and examination of the new paraphrase of the Psalms”. The final volume, entitled The Psalms of David in Meeter: newly Translated and diligently compared with the Original Text and Former Translations, etc. Allowed by the Authority of the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland was published in 1650. This remained the only authorised version of the Psalms in Scottish Presbyterian churches until the revision of 1929...'



Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Jimmy Hawthorne, Douglas Carson, and taking a risk

Back in October 2004 when I was invited to be the new Chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency I sought advice from various work colleagues. I knew that, if I accepted it, it was going have a significant impact upon my life. At that time I was Managing Director of GCAS Design, and just a year before had completed the project to create and implement a new corporate identity for the Northern Ireland Executive and its then eleven departments. So people at Stormont knew me. Our sister company, GCAS Public Relations, had a number of external consultants including senior former BBC Northern Ireland people James Hawthorne and Robin Walsh. Via a colleague in GCAS PR, Jimmy Hawthorne's advice to me was "don't touch it with a barge pole".

I weighed that up for a while, but eventually disregarded it. I accepted the invitation and attempted that role for a full four year term from June 2005 – June 2009. It was unpaid*, and meant to be just three days a week. But it took over almost all of my non-GCAS life, and not always positively.

I think it was in Wendy Austin's landmark 1996 BBC Radio Ulster series 'Pioneers and Presidents' that another BBC giant, Douglas Carson, pictured above from this Irish Times obituary, poured scorn on the idea of being proud of ancestry. Perhaps it was the common upbringing that Carson and I had in the 'Brethren' Gospel Halls that caused his remarks to resonate so strongly with me.

He was right. You can only be proud of achievements, things you have done, not of what you accidentally are – and even at that, pride is of course the very first original sin. I remember being queezy when I was asked to say something on a TV script about being proud of heritage. The vocabulary that we use shapes our world. Be precise with words. 

* the fee for board members was from memory about £600 per month, but it was all paid to my employers, for them to release me for those three days per month.