Monday, May 17, 2010

George Francis Savage-Armstrong's "Ballads of Down", 1901

(NB: If you're reading this on Facebook, you can read this post in full on my blog).

A while ago, Fiona McDonald posted on her blog about this writer, who also features in Dr Frank Ferguson's excellent Ulster-Scots Writing: An Anthology. George Francis Savage-Armstrong (1845 - 1906) was born in Dublin (his father was from Wicklow and his mother was from Co Down) and his wife, Marie Elizabeth, was from Belfast. Her father was Rev John Wrixon, rector of St John the Evangelist Church on the Malone Road.

"GFSA" was a prolific writer and poet (full bibliography here). He was Professor of English and History at Queen's College Cork and at one stage was a contender for the position of Poet Laureate. His later writings included much County Down history, as well as "Ballads of Down", a collection of 92 songs and poems published in 1901.

Many of these are in Ulster-Scots, which he describes in the glossary as follows - "...the Downshire dialect, with its variants, is an Ulster development of Lowland-Scottish - principally Ayrshire - brought over by Scottish settlers in the reign of James I... the dialect is more or less marked according to the locality and to the degree of the speaker's education. Some of the peasantry have it so strongly as to be hardly intelligible to a stranger...". Even with his own academic pedigree, his English poetry is described in the Dictionary of National Biography as "competent but pedestrian" - nevertheless, "GFSA" retained a sound handling of Ards Peninsula Ulster-Scots.

Here's an example of his work, a poem called A Cannae Thole Ye!

Ye may be clivver, may hae won
A wheen o' honour 'nayth the sun
But, whatsaee'er ye've earn'd or done,
A cannae thole ye!

Ye may be genial noo and then
Wi' helpless waens an' humble men;
But, though ye'd gilt auld Poortith's den,
A cannae thole ye!

Ye may be guid; ye may be great;
Ye may be born tae rule the State;
But, though ye rowl'd the wheels o' Fate,
A cannae thole ye!

Ye may hae drawn yer watery bluid
Frae Noe's sel' that sail'd the Flood;
But, though in Noe's breeks ye stud,
A cannae thole ye!

Ye may be lord o' mony a rood;
Yer smile may mak' a monarch prood;
But, though the De'il afore ye boo'd,
A cannae thole ye!

It's nae that ye hae din me wrang;
It's nae A feel a jealous pang;
It's jist that, be ye short or lang,
A cannae thole ye!

GFSA attracted some opposition during his career - here's an excerpt from his DNB entry:

"...He was antagonistic to the Irish literary revival and was severely criticized by W. B. Yeats. In ‘“Noetry” and poetry’, his second review of Savage-Armstrong's Poetical Works (9 vols., 1891–2), Yeats judged Savage-Armstrong's work to be either rhetorical or crude, but conceded that the ‘Irish’ verses were memorable. In 1898 Savage-Armstrong addressed the Irish Literary Society, London, on ‘The Two Irelands in Literature’, arguing against Matthew Arnold that Gaelic literature had ‘not much style, very little melancholy, and very little natural magic’. He praised the foundation of Trinity College, Dublin as having initiated ‘Irish literary production in the English tongue’ (The Times, 28 May 1898). Yeats responded ferociously, attacking the barrenness and negativity of Savage-Armstrong's Ireland, arguing that he knew little of Gaelic literature, that he represented an obsolete tradition and that he resented being sidelined by the writers of the revival; Yeats's attack was an expansion of his first review of Savage-Armstrong's Poetical Works, in which he had asserted that ‘Mr. Armstrong has cut himself off from the life of the nation in which his days are passed, and has suffered the inevitable penalty’...."

Threatening, almost sinister, stuff - showing that even 100 years ago swimming against the intellectual mainstream was a dangerous activity. GFSA spent the last years of his life at Strangford House where he died on 24 July 1906. Some of his collected material is held at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA).

The Savage-Armstrongs had three children, all of whom were caught up in the events of World War One:

Francis Savage Nesbitt Savage-Armstrong (5 July 1880 - 23 April 1917) became a Lieutenant Colonel in the South Staffordshire Regiment. He joined the Army on 19 Sept 1900 and served during the Boer War. He served in France & Flanders from 3 Nov 1914, was twice Mentioned in Despatches, and was awarded the D.S.O. (see London Gazette 23 Jun 1915). He was killed in action on 23 Apr 1917 and is interred in the Poit-du-Jour Military Cemetery, France.

John Raymond Savage-Armstrong (13 May 1882 - 1918?) became a Captain in the 4th Leinster Regiment. He was wounded at the "Battle of Hill 60" at Ypres in April 1915, and was released on sick leave. He seems to have returned to Strangford House - Northern Ireland's Digital Film Archive contains two of his letters which were written around the time of the 1916 Easter Rising - one written to him by a Miss Julia Taylor of Dublin, and one written to him by his son (also called Raymond).

Arabella Guendolen Savage-Armstrong served as a nurse at the Richmond Military Hospital during World War I, and after this, was active in social settlement programs like the Hackney Girls' Club, the Pell Street Club and the Sandes Soldiers' Home at Magilligan, Co Londonderry.

IMHO, the Ulster-Scots material in "Ballads of Down" is worth reprinting for today's generation.