Thursday, October 21, 2021

"Historical Belfast" podcast – Thomas Carnduff: The Shipyard Poet From Sandy Row

I was delighted earlier in the year to have the opportunity to freewheel a bit on a Zoom conversation with Jason Burke for his Historical Belfast podcast, mostly about Independent Orangeman Thomas Carnduff but also then a bit more broadly about contextual things too. Carnduff, like Mary Ann McCracken and other cultural figures, is sometimes "claimed" by one side or the other in our present day – but in fact they challenge and defy our present-day categorisations, and their lives and cultural interests cut across the social lines that we today imagine to be set in stone.

You can listen to it online here, I'm on at 11:55. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Doug Elliott, 1947–2021– "friend, ulster scot"

(reproducing here a Facebook post from a week ago)

If you hear a piper in Ballyholme at 3:30 this afternoon, it will be FMMPB Pipe Major Richard Parkes MBE, to accompany my friend Doug Elliott on his final journey. I came off the ferry from Scotland last night to find that, after a long illness, he had died. Although he had become understandably private in recent years, some of you will have known him, and I am sure June and Gareth and family would be happy for you to be present at Sheridan Drive later.

Doug was a phenomenon – a working class lad who became one of Belfast’s renowned architects and conservationists of his era; he rescued the Ormeau Baths building, regenerated the Gasworks site, won multiple RIBA architectural awards, assisted Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band (he and June took me to Glasgow to see FM win the Worlds on two occasions, for which an integral part of the pre-competition ceremony was a Friday night meal for the band and entourage at Café Gandolfi. We did some graphic design work together for the band as well, around '07. Doug, Richard and the FMMPB team invited me to compere a gala concert at the Ulster Hall, which I was truly honoured to do for them, on 30 March 2009  – previous post here).

Doug and I had known each other since the late 90's, we became friends around 2002 – and especially so when he conceptualised our house design about a decade later. He taught me to love Milanese espresso whilst introducing me to the vernacular Ulster traditions work of Prof Estyn Evans at QUB.

This is the square window we spent many afternoons beside - at the back of one of the award-winning landmark Gasworks buildings that he designed, and which his BATIK interiors and modern furnishings business moved to from their Adelaide Street former linen warehouse - overlooking the city and imagining new futures. Those of you who were part of GCAS may not know that around 2005 we had some chats with Doug about relocating the entire group of companies from Russell Court into this building.

His lasting legacy to me - friendship, guidance, clarity of thought, a respect for the rural - and a perfectly conceptualised family homestead that belongs to the landscape of the 'far east' Ulster townland that my family have toiled for centuries.

When we began that design process, Doug sent Hilary and I off many times, to absorb Philip Robinson's marvellous buildings conservation at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, and the Ulster American Folk Park, to immerse ourselves in their details and proportions, for inspiration but not straight reproduction. "Not allowed kerbs! No tarmac! Let the weeds grow!" We’ll finish it one day.

My friend Doug Elliott. Time is short. Life is precious.

(pic of Doug and June is from the FMMPB Facebook post).


DA Chart – "A History of Northern Ireland", 1927


I picked this book up recently, as I was keen to see how Northern Ireland 'officially' presented itself in the years following its establishment. Published in 1927, D.A. Chart (1878–1960; biography here) was the renowned Deputy Keeper of the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland from 1924 – 1948. There are some interesting narratives in it (it starts in ancient times, it agrees with the Patrick & Clyde origin story, the Edward Bruce campaign of the 1300s is in there, and his summary of 1798 is interesting). The county descriptions are pretty much the same as the Ulster Tourist Development Association publications from the same decade, which were written by people like St John Ervine.

Given Chart's soaring scholarship, the book is disappointing. As an example of his true mastery, his 1942 paper The Break-Up of the Estate of Con O'Neill, Castlereagh, County Down, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Vol 48, is quite brilliant. It's also a critically important piece of work as it presents a detailed analysis of contemporary sources on the historic land transactions in north and east County Down which took place from 1571–1623, from an original Chancery Inquisition that PRONI had just acquired in the 1940s, with original letters patents. Perhaps PRONI still have it. Chart's paper starts with the Sir Thomas Smith failed English colony of 1571–5, and then jumps forward to 1605 and the James Hamilton & Hugh Montgomery era.

Of particular interest to me within it are –

• an Articles of Agreement document dated 24 December 1605 in which Hugh Montgomery and Con O'Neill "covenant not to injure each other, but to aid assist and defend each other and their tenants from wrong. If controversy arises amongst their followers, it is to be judged by the parties or two or four of their most discreet and impartial followers. At the time of the ensealing of any deed or feoffment each party is to deliver to the other a bond of £1,000 for observing the covenants".

A man I know who did a PhD on the era told me he'd found evidence that, in the decade prior to this Agreement, the Montgomeries had been supplying the O'Neills with arms during the Nine Years War. The Montgomery-O'Neill relationship is a fascinating dynamic.

• a document dated 25 April 1606, written by Hugh Garvan, the Clerk of Crown in Scotland, in 'Ervine' / Irvine in Ayrshire

The Hamilton & Montgomery Settlement began just days after, in May 1606. Some people today assume, or allege, there has only ever been perpetual adversarial conflict here – but often the primary sources erode those claims away. It is dangerous to overlay present-day assumptions on the past. We all have much to relearn and to reassess.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

The 'Loyal Left'?

My grandmother worked on a factory floor
Sewing leather for minimum wage...
My daddy grew up, on the wrong side of poor
Rubbin' nickels together for heat.
Well, he and his sister had barely got by
With the clothes and the shoes on their feet.

Red, white and blue
Those colours mean something
Those colours stay true.
Like my family before me,
I'll feel it too.
The blood that's in my veins,
Runs red, white and blue.

That song by Aaron Lewis is of course from an American perspective. Here in the UK there's been a lot of talk about the former 'Red Wall' in the northern half of England – working class post-industrial cities and communities that have been unassailably Labour Party strongholds for generations. Until very recently. Over the past generation the Labour Party's power centre shifted southwards geographically, and upward socially to the white collar professional classes, largely abandoning values and interests of the blue collar working classes, and branding them as 'gammon' and other epithets. Recent research says that of all of the Labour MPs today, just 7 of them had a working-class job before they entered politics.

In Northern Ireland, and especially the madder corners of Twitter (which provides fascinating insights into the deficient, deranged, radicalised worldviews of the new 'connected' generation) you will see utter nonsense like 'Unionists can't be socialists". Where do you start with that?  

There is within the UK what might be called a 'Loyal Left' – people who are working class and who also strongly identify with their community and nation, whatever that nationality means for them (and also the distinctives of internationalism, rather than homogenised globalism). This is the case in every democracy in the world. How could it be otherwise? As GK Chesterton once wisely wrote –

A poor man has much more interest in good government than a rich man. A poor man must stay and be misgoverned; a rich man has a yacht.

To get back to the theme of the song above, my mother worked in the Berkshire textile factory in Newtownards until I came along; I eventually went to the grammar school in the town. Other kids in my year had parents who were teachers in the school - my mother's cousin Patsy was one of the dinner ladies. I was reasonably bright, but I often felt pretty inferior and inadequate in school – but I also made lots of good friends there, of all classes and viewpoints, some of whom I have recently reconnected with. The only way to treat people is as individuals, and take them as you find them.

I do hope that the craziness of Twitter is, as some have suggested, organised and choreographed from 'bot farms' – because if it is in fact authentic and spontaneous, and revealing of widely-held attitudes, then society is heading nowhere good. As Eric Hoffer wrote:

Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without a belief in a Devil.

If your neighbour is your devil, your ideology is poison.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Lukas Nelson & Family - Turn Off The News And Build a Garden

I turned off the news about 18 months ago, not long into Covid. I feel sorry for newsrooms having to re-present the same issues over and over again. I am also wary of narratives, and the damage caused by the perpetual state of fresh crisis that is presented to us daily.

This recent article on The Critic by Henry McDonald caught my eye as he paints a wider context which resonates with me. I know nothing about the book he is reviewing but the broader brush that he uses aligns with much of my memory of the decade from say 1997–2007 here in Northern Ireland –

"...the rest of us who reported on the Good Friday Agreement’s creation and the subsequent demise of Trimble’s UUP thinking it was all to do with Tony Blair chucking him under a bus..."

Everyone sensible that I know understands that Northern Ireland society needs agreement. But what type of agreement, and is that type of agreement even possible?  The latest difficulties are not the first difficulties. Rose-tinted selective nostalgia leaves everyone unprepared, and the clickbait style reporting of everything as an unprecedented disaster only ups the ante.

Turn off the news and build a garden
Just my neighbourhood and me
We might feel a bit less hardened
We might feel a bit more free
Turn off the news and raise the kids
Give them something to believe in
Teach them how to be good people
Give them hope that they can see
Turn off the news
And build a garden with me

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Waitrose – Jerk Prawns with Scotch Bonnets – by Melissa Thompson

During the summer I always enjoy a lot of local seafood, including the massive Strangford Lough langoustine prawns which James Martin has featured on his TV shows, and woodfire cooking on our Stadler oven. YouTube's algorithms have figured me out and sent me this video. I'd definitely prefer a 'proper' Portavogie prawn than this variety, but the recipe and end result look great. Check out Melissa Thompson's work online here.  

Thursday, July 08, 2021

Inglorious Monarchs

It only takes a light knowledge of history to quickly realise that all leaders – whether hereditary kings and queens, or elected politicians – are deeply flawed. Psalm 146 exhorts the reader to "put not your trust in princes". Part of our problem today is that we are so bombarded with the latest news that our mental inboxes quickly fill up and we subsequently have very short memories. We can't recall events of last week, so we are subject to the push and pull of whatever today's new drama and outrage is, with little or no wider context or memory to measure it against.

A familiarity with the history of the Bible is a huge help. The Hebrews wanted a king. They had not had one before, for the previous 400 years they had a sequence of twelve Judges instead, both male and female, ruling over their familial tribal confederation. One of them, Deborah, is shown below.

But all of the other non-Hebrew tribes around them had kings, so they demanded one too. So, through Samuel the prophet, God gave them a warning about what would inevitably happen if they did get a king – "he will take your sons... he will take your daughters... he will take your fields and your vineyards and your oliveyards... and you shall cry out in that day because of your king" (1 Samuel 8 v 11–18). 

They insisted, and so they got their King. The first, Saul was succeeded by David, who was then succeeded by Solomon. All three were deeply flawed. After the 120 years of their collective reign the kingdom split into two, along those ancient tribal lines – called Judah and Israel – each with its own king, and the majority of them  oppressed the people. There are charts which track them all, showing which were good and which were evil (one example chart from Pinterest is below). Understanding this history is a very useful education. Monarchs can be bad.

Fast forward to the Reformation that had been simmering in some localities in Europe for a few centuries, but which eventually exploded with Martin Luther in 1517 in the advent of the printing press. With the Bible being translated into various vernacular languages, a newly literate people could read and think for themselves. The power and politics of the theocratic superstate the Holy Roman Empire (Wikipedia here), which owned vast amounts of land and puppet Kings across Europe, could not stand idly by while its dominance was challenged.

The teenage King James V of Scotland allowed his young relative, the 28 year old abbot Patrick Hamilton, to be burned alive in the street in St Andrews in 1528. James V's widow, Mary of Guise and the Regent James Hamilton, ordered George Wishart, a teacher of Greek, to suffer the same public fiery fate in the same streets in 1546. Monarchs can be bad.

Wishart's burning was witnessed by John Knox (some accounts say that Knox had offered to be burned along with Wishart); Knox later went to Geneva in Switzerland to assist with the production of the Geneva Bible of 1560 (Wikipedia here). The Geneva Bible wasn't just the text, it also had marginal interpretive notes to aid the reader. Its authors chose to advise the readers that 'monarch' can be 'tyrant' – more than 400 times. The 'tyrant' references in the pages of the Geneva Bible were evident to its readers.Knox returned to Scotland and had a number of famous verbal confrontations with Mary, Queen of Scots from 1561–1564. 

Knox's successor, Andrew Melville, had a famous public clash with Mary's son, King James VI, in which he made clear to James that he was merely

"... God's silly vassal; there are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland: there is King James, the head of this commonwealth, and there is Christ Jesus, the King of the Church, whose subject James the Sixth is, and of whose kingdom he is not a king, nor a lord, nor a head, but a member..."

James VI was apt to banishing people who stood up to his abuses of power, such as Rev Robert Bruce of Edinburgh. Monarchs can be bad.

So the new King James decided to commission his own Bible, removing those 'tyrant' references, which was published in 1611. Interestingly in Ulster the Geneva Bible persisted for some time (Hugh Montgomery gifted large presentation editions of it to six of his Ulster-Scots County Down churches in the 1620s) and the readers of that Bible would soon experience monarchical tyranny for themselves. Monarchs can be bad.

More to follow...


Sunday, July 04, 2021

Happy 4th July; think independently

It's that day again, celebrating the success of the American Revolution and marked forever on 4th July 1776, the day that the Declaration of Independence – overseen by Charles Thomson from Upperlands and printed by John Dunlap from Strabane – was signed. The Revolution was a 'Scotch-Irish rebellion' as some commentators at the time said. Liberty before loyalty (to the crown or the state), community before nation, and maybe people before power. A 'covenant' of sorts. You'll read or hear very few NI commentators today who understand this, or who can recognise that this has surfaced at various points along the arc of Ulster-Scots history. Think independently. 

Thursday, June 24, 2021


Connecting with the previous post, made almost fifty years later in 2014 this short film by Charlie Brooker and Adam Curtis might help explain a lot of our recent disorienting world... "no one was sure what was real or was fake ... its a strategy of power" – sometimes called "non linear warfare". A short profile of the architect of this strategy – Vladislav Surkov – is on the BBC Radio 4 website here.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021


This isn't my usual content here, but YouTube offered it to me and it is certainly very interesting. Also, if it is from 1966, it has many prescient themes for what engulfed Northern Ireland around that same time. 

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Voddie Baucham

Friday, June 04, 2021

Irish Whiskey Review livestream

Had a lot of fun doing this livestream chat with Marty McAuley and Justin Macartney – and of course with Fionnán O'Connor last Saturday night, ahead of the BBC broadcast of Whiskey Talkin'. More on that to follow...

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Football's Coming Hame

Well done to the marketing people at Adidas for this stroke of Scottish genius, painted onto a wall in Glasgow ahead of the European Championships which begin next week. 

Football is not just a sport, it is a deep form of popular identity formation, both locally around towns and cities, and also for nations or countries.

I have travelled back and forth to England a lot from 1992 onwards. I distinctly remember summer 1996 – the summer of the Euro '96 tournament being hosted there, and of course the famous anthem Football's Coming Home – as the summer when Englishness and St George's Flags seemed to suddenly explode in popularity. Flags were flying in pubs and gardens and town centres to an extent I'd never seen before. And being from NI, I am fairly flag-conscious!

The wave of 'Cool Britannia' was a factor in Tony Blair's Labour Party coming into government less than a year later in May 1997 (remember Things Can Only Get Better?) – yet these things also enhanced the sense of individual nations within the UK. That autumn, in September 1997, the Scottish Devolution Referendum was held, and by summer 1999 Scotland had its own Parliament once again. And ever since, Scottishness has become more and more distinctive.

Englishness and Scottishness have revived and diverged over those past 25 years. Football might have kicked it all off in 1996. 

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Untidy desks and three perspectives on the "culture wars"

In this interview, Eric Kaufmann says that "if your desk is messy you're more likely to be liberal on immigration" (go to 28:40). So that's me defined – and might help explain why I see the Ulster/Scotland relationship as one of a continuum of two-way (im)migrations rather than one-way top-down power-led oppressor-imposed "colonialism".

I first came across Kaufmann around 2007 when he did an academic review of the then Institute of Ulster-Scots Studies at the University of Ulster. There's a lot that's interesting stuff in this interview with Thaddeus Russell around the whole "culture wars" and "wokeness" stuff that's so hot right now. Russell himself is an interesting figure, he says on his own website that "during my early childhood our house on Woolsey Street in Berkeley hosted Black Panthers, IRA guerrillas, and Marxist intellectuals from all over the world."

Another angle is by Mary Eberstadt of the Catholic Information Center in Washington DC who sees it all as a surrogate family, a social purpose for the family-less generation, as she explained in this recent Triggernometry interview –

Finally, this fascinating, detailed and lengthy article in Jewish periodical The Tablet by Michael Lind – The Revenge of the Yankees: How Social Gospel became Social Justice – looks back to 100 years ago in the USA when it was an American Northern Protestant 'Social Gospel' ideological élite who sought to set the nation's cultural agenda. He makes the connection between that movement and today's increasingly authoritarian secular 'wokeness' (which again seeks to set the cultural agenda) and proposes that it is in fact a direct descendant. Here's a killer quote –

"The increasingly powerful and intolerant woke national overclass justifies its cultural iconoclasm in the name of oppressed minorities. But this is just an excuse for a top-down program of cultural imperialism by mostly white, affluent, college-educated managers and professionals and rentiers. Woke attitudes are much less common among Black Americans and Hispanic Americans than among the white college-educated elite.

What we are witnessing is a power grab carried out chiefly by some white Americans against other white Americans. The goal of the new woke national establishment, the successor to the old Northeastern mainline Protestant establishment that was temporarily displaced by the neo-Jacksonian New Deal Democratic coalition, is to stigmatise, humiliate and disempower recalcitrant Southern, Catholic, and Jewish whites, along with members of ethnic and racial minorities who refuse to be assimilated into the new national orthodoxy disseminated from New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and the prestigious private universities of New England. Properly understood, the Great Awokening is the revenge of the Yankees." **

Kaufmann and Russell get onto similar ground as Lind, by asking if what's happening around these issues is neither racial, nor economic, but is in fact a class conflict (go to 24:00) –

"... could it still be about class? Class is defined both culturally and economically – you can have working class culture and be rich, and vice versa ... it's been largely a civil war between those who are 'of college' – who went to college and speak the language of humanities departments – and those who are not of that world and that culture. Higher education has defined the culture of the dominant liberal class..."

The world is changing. There is always lots to think about. The easy answers are usually wrong.

• Thaddeus Russell's website is here

** PS:  Where Lind goes wrong is that he slips into 'groupthink', and fails to explain that the group term 'Protestant' is not a singular entity, but a widely diverse categorisation. 'Protestant' – both in Ireland and in America – can often be an unhelpful term, just used as a lazy umbrella which in fact camouflages a multiplicity of differing ideas, denominations, communities, the powerful and the powerless, etc. It should be theological, but seldom is any more. The 'Protestant' concept in the context of Michael Lind's article is the very same WASP 'Protestant' concept that JD Vance, author of 2016's Hillbilly Elegy, dissected when he said this in his opening pages –

“I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the northeast ... Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree.” 

Monday, May 31, 2021

The Sermon on the Mount is "absurd", "stupid", "extreme", "unhuman"

This is a famous story told by Tim Keller, the renowned American Presbyterian minister and author, about Professor of English Virginia Stem Owens when she had tasked her students with reading and responding to Jesus' famous Sermon On The Mount. All of their assumptions and expectations were utterly shattered... it leaves no room for our modern moralistic notions of being "good living". The story starts here at 38:25. 

Friday, May 28, 2021

TV Rewind

On the cusp of a new television project I've been involved in being broadcast this weekend – Whiskey Talkin' (which, very appropriately, has been around 3 years from first discussions to completion) I've been reminiscing through my 'timeline' of television-related projects and programmes, and thought it might be useful to jot them down here, even for my own future reference.

Anybody that knows me will be aware that it took years of persuading for me to eventually have a proper go in front of a camera. Presenting isn't something I ever imagined I'd do, or even set out to become – proper presenters are great at it and I'm nowhere near their league. But opportunities came along. Here are the diary landmarks –

• 2003 Twa Lads o Pairts 
The first ever TV programme I took part in was filmed in Summer 2003 and was broadcast on Burns Night 2004, a BBC documentary called Twa Lads o Pairts. It followed both me, and the renowned North Antrim community poet Charlie Gillen, in our own localities en route to eventually meeting up at the Ballycarry Broadisland Gathering which we both took part in that year.

So that was that. In December 2010 I was invited to take part in an industry panel discussion with Northern Ireland Screen, and following that in early 2011 I was invited to be part of their Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund committee, which I did until summer 2012. Nine years that went very fast.

• Summer 2012
With the USBF role concluded, I had an email that very same summer from a seemingly nervous producer (I had no idea that I had such a fearsome reputation – I was very tired of so many tv company researchers cold-calling and cold-emailing just to, as they always said, "pick your brains" – so that fatigue seemed to be well-known). We got on very well and stayed in regular contact, sharing a lot of common interests.

Three years later, in 2015, a few individual tv appearances started to be suggested, which turned out to be both enjoyable and interesting to do. Eventually the concept for a brand new series was proposed, with me in a more prominent role. But as that producer knows, I wasn't easy to talk round...

• Autumn 2017
Two more years ticked on by, during which lots of discussions, thoughts and ideas circulated. Eventually, in late summer and early Autumn 2017, we shot a couple of wee test rehearsal things here around home, some scripted and some ad-libbed. Whoever needed to see those must have been happy enough because at the end of September 2017 it all began for real when we started filming that brand new series, in Raphoe in Donegal, for the first episode of six, entitled Hame. 

Hame was broadcast in January 2018. The community participants in each place were happy with how they'd been portrayed and that they'd been given space to speak for themselves. A wider audience was attracted, the contributors and content have always been very strong, and the team who make it all happen are great. We're currently planning series 4.

Overall, I've no idea how long this will continue for. Nothing is guaranteed, timing is everything, opportunities don't come along very often, and every now and again I think "that'll do me". I'll be 50 in January, everybody has a "sell by date", and you can footer your life away. Whenever it all comes to an end, it'll have been fun and I think worthwhile to have done.


In and around these have been brief appearances with Paul Rankin and Nick Nairn for their Big Food Trip (2013); with Tim McGarry for his Minding Your Language (2015); with William Crawley for Imagining Ulster (2015); on Phil Cunningham's Wayfaring Stranger (2017); with Gerry Kelly for Links to the Past: Pioneers of Ulster Golf (2019) and Ralph McLean and Ricky Warwick Rock N Roll Highway (also 2019). There micht hae been a wheen mair but A cannae mind.


I'm also thankful for the radio opportunities I've had, on A Kist o Wurds, Kintra, and other BBC Radio Ulster things such as the recent adaptation of Sons Of The Sod.

I'm not always very helpful, not always on good form, not always available, don't always have the answers or the archives – but I hope that whatever I have been able to help out with, behind the scenes for other companies and other programmes that I've not actually been on-screen for, has been useful to somebody in some way.