Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Here We Still Stand - Jared Wilson

Jared Wilson's book The Imperfect Disciple: Grace for People Who Can't Get Their Act Together is on my to-read list. He visited Belfast not that long ago but I wasn't able to get there. He's one of the freshest (that means most authentic) voices in the Reformed world these days. Have a listen to this, from the Here We Still Stand conference from just a few weeks ago. Website here.

Jared Wilson | Here We Still Stand from 1517. on Vimeo.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

No Scotch-Irish need apply (Welcome to New England & Philadelphia)

05b Jonathan Dickinson Shipwreck S 1

Yes, the title of this post is a deliberate rework of the infamous mid-1800s slogan which was aimed at Irish immigrants fleeing famine for what they thought was refuge in either Britain or America*. The more I read about the first waves of Ulster-Scots / Scotch-Irish migration into New England over a century earlier, from 1718 onwards, a similar slogan could easily have been applied to them as well. And maybe was, but just hasn’t been recorded for us. The era was different, the context was different, but the human experience seems to have been pretty much the same.

Those first Ulster-Scots emigrants faced sectarianism from those whom they might have regarded as fellow Non-Conformists, class discrimination from an élite establishment who had previously indicated a welcome, and commercial exploitation due to the local grain supplies being bought up by New Englanders just before the arrival of the Ulster families, which almost doubled the market prices (see here). They were outcasts from the beginning.

The Quakers from Philadelphia were shocked and scandalised by the clothing they wore as the ships landed, or in the case of the Ulster-Scots women, didn’t wear: "full bodices, tight waists, bare legs and skirts scandalously short". Well that’s what poverty and the quest for survival during two months starving at sea during the summer does to the dignity of once-modest, once-muscular, country Presbyterian women. It's life or death and they have no plans for dying just yet. You get a sense from that particular account of the disgust and social disdain which their new 'superiors' had for them.

For the emigrants it must have felt like ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss'.

This all goes against the grain of the many of the old-fashioned ‘heroic narratives’ of say the past 100+ years, when hagiographies were being fervently penned, of people stepping purposefully ashore and conquering all in front of them and constructing the greatest nation the world has ever seen.

But we have to be careful here too, as this now plays too easily into our present era’s fixation upon ‘victimhood’ – which is actually faux victimhood – where to be a victim (or even a descendant of a perceived victim group) is not only fashionable but it also secures a privileged status in what has been called the ‘Oppression Olympics’. As the adverts ask, “Suffered an injury? You may be entitled to compensation”. Nowadays that injury might just be hurt feelings. The compensation is that you get a seat at the big table. Victimhood = entitlement = power. Even perpetrators have learned to present themselves as victims. That’s how warped our era is.

I am certain they were hard done by. I am also certain they were instilled with a fair amount of ‘No Surrender’ given their experiences from the Siege of Derry and of the post-1702 ‘establishment' in Ulster.

In his oft-quoted letters of 1718 & 1719Jonathan Dickinson, the Philadelphia Quaker hinted at above, could see that too:

“a swarm of people … the speech of these people was English, but they spoke with a lilting cadence that rang strangely in the ear … but even in their poverty they carried themselves with a fierce and stubborn pride that warned others to treat them with respect’.

That "strange, lilting cadence" was of course Scots, or Ulster-Scots, words, expressions and language.

So what had they left behind? In 1928, in a Northern Whig article entitled 'Education In the United States: Ulster’s Contribution’, Dr John S. MacIntosh wrote that leading up to the emigrations of 1718, Ulster Presbyterians had suffered ‘Five Wrongs’ at home:

- wronged by the State
- wronged by the Church
- wronged in the home (by landlords and bishops)
- wronged in trade (rising taxation)
- wronged in death (denied recognition of burials and graves) 

It’s not a case of comparing oppressions - either with the later ‘Famine Irish’ or with any other group - but rather a recognition that human history repeats its experiences over and again, both the good ones and the bad ones. We are all very much the same. Our stories are very similar.

PS: This article from the New England Historical Society helps explain more


* In 2002, the famous slogan was claimed by an academic to have been a myth, but in 2015, largely thanks to digitised newspaper research, his claim was proven to have been demonstrably false by a smart, highly dedicated 14 year old student (article here).

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Devoys of Portavogie, Anglo-Norman influences, and Mount Stewart


• Extract above from Roots of English; Exploring the History of Dialects, Cambridge University Press (2012)

The townland I live on is called Ballyfrench, but the placename experts think that the ‘French’ part is a corruption of a name like ‘Ballifranish’ or ‘Balleffringe’ - perhaps itself a variant of something like ‘Frenes’ townland’. Some of the names around here do indeed date back to the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in the 12th century - and it’s known that there was a John de Freines and Henry de Frenes in the Anglo-Norman settlement area around Dublin in the 1300s. So maybe some of them came north in the wake of De Courcy & co.

As far as the Ards Peninsula goes, the surname Devoy is pretty unique to the Portavogie and Ballyhalbert area. The tradition I have heard is that sometime in the 1700s a French ship was wrecked off the coast at Ballyfrench and the survivors came ashore, some of who were called Devoy. They were welcomed by the Ulster-Scots inhabitants and settled here. The name does appear elsewhere in Ireland, such as the prominent Irish nationalist John Devoy who was from Kildare (Wikipedia here). There’s a Devoy family today in Dublin in the midst of a high profile crime gangland dispute (see here). So maybe the shipwreck story isn’t true, but has emerged as somebody’s attempt to explain the name.

The book extract shown above is an excerpt of an interview with a Kate Devoy from Ballyfrench about speaking ‘Ulster-Scotch’. The same page compares Cumnock in Ayrshire - a place I know fairly well and visited just a few weekends ago - with Cullybackey, Portavogie and Maryport in Cumbria.

The Anglo-Norman influences here in the Ards Peninsula were on the news during the week, with the discovery of a major motte at the National Trust property Mount Stewart (see BBC report here). No wonder that when the Scots arrived they called it Mount Pleasant for about 150 years, until the Stewart family arrived from Donegal, bought it from the Colvilles, and renamed it after themselves.

Northern Ireland today needs to understand that we have multiple, interwoven, cultural and linguistic influences.

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Monday, November 20, 2017

BBC language controversy, Christmas 1933

On Christmas Day in 1933, the BBC broadcast a programme to the nation, made up of items from its various regions. The Northern Ireland segment was in Ulster dialect, and had an item within it called ‘The Wee Wean o Bathleamm’. When the Belfast newspapers hit the streets on December 27th there was a flood of letters, which are fascinating to read from today’s perspective. Many had their addresses printed alongside, and these show two broad reactions:

1) the urban and suburban middle class reaction was one of equal outrage and cringe.
2) the rural working class reaction was that the dialect didn't sound authentic enough 

It seems that it was a hybrid of Hiberno-English and Ulster-Scots, further interpreted through the hand of a scriptwriter, and so perhaps akin to the writings of WF Marshall. Some of the complaints were also that it was ‘too Irish’. The letters pages raged back and forth until early January, when the editors decided to publish no more. A few weeks later, Mr George Leslie Marshall, the BBC Belfast Station Director, issued a statement defending the decision to broadcast Ulster dialect to the rest of the world. The clipping below is from the Northern Whig on 10 January 1934, via the excellent British Newspaper Archive.

It just goes to show that language/dialect along with demographics and broadcasting has always been a difficult arena!

GL MArshall



Saturday, November 18, 2017

Montgomery, Dunlap & Magee - Quebec, Philadelphia, Belfast (1775)

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1775 - Belfast & Philadelphia - a Fast before Revolution

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

'The Psalms in Braid Scots' by Rev TT Alexander (St Ninian's, Leith), c. 1930

My brother was given this by a friend from Donaghadee a few weeks ago. It had been in his mother’s collection of stuff and they thought we might appreciate it. I’d not heard of it before, and so I went for a hoke in Graham Tulloch’s excellent History of the Scots Bible (1989) but it wasn’t mentioned in there either. So it must have been a fairly local edition - pocket sized, priced at one sixpence.

A bit of digging shows that Alexander was minister at St Ninian’s from 1926-1932. In 1931 he stood as an SNP candidate in the East Edinburgh constituency. The BNA has some adverts for him preaching church services in Braid Scots, one of which is below.

Just last weekend my brother and I were in New Cumnock in Ayrshire, playing and singing a bit in the Baptist Church there. We were nearly tripping over folk from Ulster or with Ulster connections. One New Cumnock couple we met are good friends and frequent visitors to neighbours of ours who literally live a few fields away from me.

Maybe four of the church pastors in the town are Ulstermen - certainly we met three of them. One man there was thrilled to hear a few sangs in the hamely tongue, as he was born and raised outside Larne. He recounted a story to me of a time when he was asked to preach in a church in Belfast, and so very naturally just used a brave wheen of Ulster-Scots words in his sermon. However one of the church elders, as we say, 'boned' him at the door and made it very clear that he'd caused great offence by using such irreverent and disrespectful language in the pulpit. Sometimes there are just thran individuals who like to be seen to be in charge.

I am pretty sure that the 'Man of Galilee' spoke like a country man from Galilee. There is much academic and theological writing on the subject (example here and another similar article here). The most famous example of this was when his disciple Peter, then in the metropolis of Jerusalem, denied knowing Christ, he was confronted by a servant girl who said - according to the old King James Version translation of 1611 - "Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech betrayeth thee" (Matthew 26:73). Country folk often stand out like sair thumbs in the city.

Rev TT Alexander worked in historic Leith, a suburb of Edinburgh. Language usage has changed a lot in the past 100 years, Scots and Ulster-Scots have been diminished and spread very thin by a whole range of factors. Both remain at their richest in the country, the folk in New Cumnock confirmed this to me over tay and pieces after the meetings.

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Here is the church today, built in 1816: NewImage

And here is the much older manse building. The congregation at Leith dates from 1493, the year after Christopher Columbus is said to have discovered America.St Ninian s Manse North Leith

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Mystery of 'Redemption Songs' hymnbook

Its red cover was in nearly every mission hall and gospel hall when I grew up. The softback ones were like velvet to hold. The hardback ones had posh gold foil blocking on the cover. The music edition was beautifully designed, a real retro classic of its time.

But nobody is sure exactly when it was first published. says 1937 but that’s far too recent, it was definitely older than that. There may have been later additions/editions.

The British Newspaper Archive as ever has some tantalising research references, the earliest being in Scotland in 1910 in Aberdeen Press and Journal newspaper, an advert for a place called Gordon Evangelistic Hall which proudly advertised the Sunday evening service with ‘Hymns from Redemption Songs”. The publisher, Pickering & Inglis, was based in Glasgow - “largely for the non conformist church in Scotland with many Brethren publications”.

A few weeks later the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald was advertising the hymn books, with a free sample copy being offered by bookseller R L Allan & Son of Glasgow to any “mission leaders” who applied for one.

The earliest Ulster reference is from October 1912,  where it is listed in an advert from the Northern Publishing Office (NPO) in Ann Street, Belfast, along with Songs of Victory, Sankey’s Sacred Songs and Solos and various Psalters.


Thursday, November 09, 2017

Preachers, Coal Miners and Singers - BBC documentary about the Everly Brothers

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Ulster-Scots in the 'Northern Whig', 1957 (from the British Newspaper Archive)

Whig 1957

Monday, November 06, 2017

Lights, Camera, Action!

Some of you will know that throughout the autumn I have been filming a new 6-part series for BBC Northern Ireland. It’s been bubbling away since first discussions in the month of May, and at the time of writing we have four programmes done and two to go. I’ve been interviewed for a few things over the years, but have never been in a presenter role before. It has been a massive eye-opener, an insight into the vast amount of work, planning and logistics - never mind creativity, flair and expertise - that a quality series demands of its producers, creatives and organisers. I have met so many great people in interesting places, with new stories, and big discoveries. I will say no more for now. It’s not a new day job but it’s been pretty demanding for me as a total novice. Watch this space!

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Portavogie Harbour opening, 1955

Smithfield Plantation House: home of Colonel William Preston and the Fincastle Resolutions


Situated in Blacksburg, Virginia. Find out more at the museum website here. William Preston was from Limavady, born there on Christmas Day 1729. Here's his Wikipedia entry.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Green Grow the Laurels / Willows / etc.

This is another very old song that pops up on both sides of the Atlantic in slightly different guises. I was surprised to find recently there was a Dublin version which has an Orange variation to it. The broadside below is from the Bodleian Libraries website Broadside Ballads Online, and dates from 1858–1885. It is listed in Cox's Folk Songs of the South (1925, online here) as 'The Green Laurels (The Orange and Blue)’, collected in West Virginia. 


Saturday, November 04, 2017

Songs My Mother Bought Me & "Songs Our Daddy Taught Us" - The Everly Brothers (1958)

I was I think about 12 years old. That Christmas my mother bought me a cassette tape of a greatest hits compilation by the Everly Brothers. I wish the cover had been more cool and retro, but it was a late 70s or early 80s re-issue. Ah well. But the music, the songs, the harmonies. Their music was, and still is, a masterclass.

So I was amazed to only recently discover that Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day and Norah Jones teamed up to record a new version of the Everly Brothers’ second album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, from 1958. It’s a really important album as it connected the brothers back to their father’s childhood - songs like Down In The Willow Garden (which the superb  BBC tv series 'Wayfaring Stranger’ from earlier this year traced back to Coleraine, and Barbara Allen (a song so old it can be found among old song manuscripts from the Scottish Borders and parts of England), Bailes Brothers songs, songs recorded by Bill Monroe and Bradley Kincaid…  it’s wonderful. It was a shocking move in its day, a bold move for the record company, for a couple of fresh-faced chart-topping pop sensations to record oldies and dark murder ballads. 

The Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones update, entitled Foreverly, is very good. Stick it on your Christmas list. Rockin Alone in an old Rockin Chair would bring tears from a stone - for me it brings back vivid memories of a mother who loved music and who once upon a time bought me an Everly Brothers’ compilation album for Christmas.

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Everly brothers

Friday, October 27, 2017

'Donald McElroy, Scotch Irishman' (1918) a novel by Mrs. Willie Brown Walker Caldwell (1860–1946)


Willie Brown Walker was born in Wytheville in south west Virginia in 1860. She also wrote The Tie That Binds (1895) a love story set during the American Civil War;  and Stonewall Jim, a biography of her father, the Confederate General James Alexander Walker.

She seems to have been what some in Northern Ireland would call a ‘mad Prod’ - she got in trouble in 1928 for declaring that American women needed to save the country from being ‘Romanized and rum-ridden’ following the Democratic Party selecting Al Smith, a Catholic, as a potential candidate for President. She was strongly rebuked for this by Herbert Hoover.

Donald McElroy, Scotch Irishman is interesting as it has touches of attempted Ulster-Scots dialogue and a clear sense of cultural identities. There are tinges of clichéd Ulster Protestant v Irish Catholic tensions for some of the characters (you wonder how those kinds of ideas could still be persisting in late 1800s rural Virginia - these people were probably over 100 years away from an actual experience of living in Ulster). In the story a young Catholic girl called Ellen O’Neil from Baltimore enters the McElroy family circle (her parents had died of smallpox) and the McElroys decide to take her in - they also to try to “make a good Presbyterian of her in no time”.

Donald McElroy and Ellen O’Neil eventually fall in love, get married and agree to tolerate each other’s faith. Although in the final paragraph it seems like she does become Presbyterian. 

Willie Walker married local lawyer Manley Morrison Caldwell in 1887 and the couple moved from Wytheville to Roanoke around 1906, where she became Vice President of the Woman's Civic Betterment Club and joined the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Walker family ancestry is in the Virginia Valley Records (online here), as far back as a John Walker who left Scotland for Ulster in the 1600s.

Donald McElroy, Scotch Irishman is  online here.

Pic below is from the Library of Congress here.


Saturday, October 14, 2017

Things that need to be done - reprint 'Poems on Different Subjects' by Francis Boyle (1812)

This letter in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of New York in 1916 refers to one poem (in standard English) from this almost-extinct edition. There is one copy in Belfast Central Library, or there was about 5 year ago. There had been one in Linen Hall Library but when I went looking back then it couldn’t be found. Over the years libraries have been the subject of ‘steal-to-order’ rumours but I have no evidence of that. Certainly there used to be books in libraries which now can’t be found. Hence the absolute urgency of getting them back into the public domain again.

I had a call from a reporter a few weeks ago, he wanted some comments for a piece he was writing. The question was “what needs to be done to support the language?”. Dead simple. Put the historic printed literature back into the hands and homes of the places it sprang from in the first place. In a form that people will find engaging, persuasive and relevant.

It’s not a hard thing to do. But it hasn’t been done.

Clipping 14413297

Friday, October 06, 2017

Early Bluegrass / Old-Time String Bands in Ulster, 1900?

This from The Northern Whig, Belfast, 1900. Fascinating, and maybe significant, selection of instruments.

Belfast 1900

Were there Pipe Bands in Ulster before the Great War?

There is a general assumption that pipe bands didn’t really exist here until thousands of soldiers returned from the Great War, where they had seen Highland Regiments being led into battle by pipers and with regimental pipe bands. I have blogged a bit about this before. Certainly there was an upsurge following the War, but it was not the beginning.

Thanks to the Aladdin’s Cave that is the British Newspaper Archive, it is now possible to peel back the layers of history to reveal much deeper stories. A number of Scottish pipe bands visited Ulster in the 1890s, such as Dumfries Pipe Band and the Black Watch Pipers’ Band, but there was also a movement to form local pipe bands, seemingly mostly in Belfast and County Tyrone in particular:

1893 : the Belfast City Pipe Band took part in a works excursion of the Brookfield and Agnes Street Weaving Factories in Belfast
1896 : the 13th Belfast Company Boys’ Brigade Pipe Band (Mountpottinger Presbyterian Church) played at a major BB event in the Ulster Hall
1897 : Fintona LOL 169 founded the Jubilee Pipe Band
1900 : the City Temperance Pipe Band played at half time in a Glentoran v Cliftonville match
1902 : Début concert by Castleton Pipe Band at the Parochial Hall, Greencastle
1902 : Fintona - Killaliss Coronation Temperance Pipe Band founded
1902 : Bushmills - report of a pipe band in the village
1904 : a ‘Band Promenade’ in Botanic Gardens, including Belfast Pipers’ Band 
1905 : Omagh Coronation Pipe Band
1905 : Pipe Band of the Portrush Company
1905 : Throne Pipe Band active in Belfast
1905 : Belfast Total Abstinence Pipe Band played at an Orange concert in the YMCA Hall
1906 : Magheracross Pipe Band parade in Trillick
1906 : Highland Games event in Newtownstewart, with unnamed Pipe Band
1907 : Advert in Belfast Telegraph for ‘instructor for pipe band’ for the east of the city 

These are just a result of a quick surface-skim, and are in addition to visits by regimental and Scottish bands. What they do show is that there appears to be a vibrant pipe band scene in Ulster for a full generation before the Great War.

There is also a reference to a solo piper walking on the 12th July demonstration of 1849 in Downpatrick.


Monday, October 02, 2017

Billy Caldwell, Alexander Robinson and the Treaty of Chicago (1833)


Two mixed race Ulster-Scots & Native Americans: Billy Caldwell (1782–1841) had an Ulster father and a Powatomi mother, and was known as Sauganash. Alexander Robinson (dates uncertain) also had an Ulster father and a Native American mother, joined the Powatomi tribe and was known as Che-che-pin-qua (‘Blinking Eyes’). They were both fur traders, and became the principal negotiators in the ceding of the last Native American lands in Illinois to the United States Government in 1833, known as the Treaty of Chicago. 

• A fuller story is available in this article and also in this one

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Murdoch Nisbet, Scotland's Forgotten Reformer and Linguist.

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

“Moonshine & Thunder – The Junior Johnson Story” - “moonshine and its Scotch-Irish history, and how NASCAR grew.”

This article from The Tribune of Wilkesboro, North Carolina, is interesting. More details here.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Ballyhalbert Orange Hall, 1972

Thanks to Jackie for sending this find! This is my dad, out fixing up the roof of the hall when I was about 3 months old!

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

What Is The Gospel? - Ray Cortese

I love this talk. He nails it every step of the way. Hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The 'Ulster Reunions' in Glasgow, 1882–1912 / Gustav Wolff and our three-stranded identity

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Around the same time of the annual Scotch-Irish Society of the USA gatherings in America, there were similar events in Glasgow. The first of these was in 1882 but the earliest record I can find is of the sixth one, held on Friday 9th December 1887 in the Grand Hall of the Waterloo Rooms (shown above), under the auspices of the Antrim and Down Benevolent Association. The Waterloo Rooms were the ‘re-brand’ for the former Wellington Church in Wellington Street; around 1910 the new Alhambra Theatre was built on the site.

The great and the good were there. Lord Kelvin had chaired the 1886 meeting; he spoke at the 1887 event, commenting on his ancestry and his childhood spent around Conlig and Bangor. Thomas Sinclair also gave a speech. There was a lot of Unionist sentiment in the few speeches I've seen, which of course was typical of the time. Psalms were sung, common ancestry and industrial interests were celebrated. Even W G Lyttle gave some performances. Rev Thomas Somerville, the minister of Dennistoun Blackfriars in Glasgow, commented that when on a visit "to a little place outside Ballymena, he was astonished to find Scotch spoken far more purely than they had it in Glasgow".

Gustav Wolff chaired the 1895 event - in his speech he recalled arriving at Ballymacarrett over 30 years before, remembering that 'the cottages were strawroofed, and there were handloom weavers in nearly every one of them', and so much praise given to the subsequent growth of Belfast, and the industrial success of Ulster in contrast to the rest of Ireland. He went on:

'... It is not any natural advantage we have; and the question must therefore be put, What is it? I think to a very great extent it is owing to the different races that inhabit the North of Ireland ... there is nothing like a Scotchman, there is nothing like an Irishman, there is nothing like an Englishman, but what I think is that there is nothing like a happy combination of all three. It is the combination of these three races which has produced one race in Ulster which has the hopefulness of the Irishman, the sturdy perseverance of the Englishman, tempered by, I think, the somewhat canny qualities of the Scotchman ... we are self-relying, and we feel that if we wish to succeed we ought to do it ourselves ...'

There you go, three-stranded identity again, the triple-blend. The newspapers of the time have long and detailed accounts of the Ulster Reunions. They ran for at least 30 years, maybe longer.

There’s a PhD in this for somebody. Or at the very least a good solid publication.

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

"Homely Words and Songs for Working Men and Women" - Rev Charles Marshall (1795–1882)

Marshall was Scottish, but this volume was published in both Edinburgh (by Constable & Co) and Belfast (by Shepherd & Aitchison) in late 1856. It was favourably reviewed in the Presbyterian newspaper The Banner of Ulster, who described the poems and songs as ‘an excellent little series’, with ‘each article preceded by a song chiefly in the Scotch dialect, in which we often meet with verses of which Burns need not have been ashamed’.

He was born in Paisley in 1795 and it is said that Robert Tannahill was a friend of the family’s. In 1856 Marshall was a Free Church of Scotland minister in Dunfermline; in 1853 he had published ‘Lays and Lectures for Scotia’s Daughters of Industry’, some of which also appeared in ‘Homely Words’. He died in 1882 and was buried at Grange Cemetery in Edinburgh.

Some of his poems are available online here in the Modern Scottish Minstrel (1857)

PS - what this also leads to is the need for someone to catalogue all of what might be called ‘Scottish Scots’ language books which were also printed in Belfast and Ulster generally. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

History of Mission Halls throughout Northern Ireland

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Remembering Betsy: the short-lived memorial to Betsy Gray, the Heroine of the 1798 Rebellion

Betsy 1939

Above: a newspaper photo from 1939, over 40 years after the memorial was destroyed.

Betsy Gray of Six Road Ends* is a heroine who keeps coming back - her name comes up all the time. Just last week an elderly farmer brought her up in conversation with me. WG Lyttle’s book Betsy Gray and the Hearts of Down (serialised in 1885; first compiled as a book in 1888, frequently reprinted ever since) was one of those handed down to me by my aunt. Tragically, Betsy's reputed homeplace at Six Road Ends, which is on private property, is today collapsing in on itself. Perhaps that is emblematic of how ill-fitting her tale became among the rapidly-changing Ulster politics of the 1800s and 1900s, yet it is also a tale which has remained deep in the hearts and minds of rural County Down folk ever since.

Her reputed burial place is at Ballycreen near Ballynahinch where she, her brother and her boyfriend were killed and buried on 13 June 1798. A tradition developed that each year locals would visit the grave and lay flowers. The site of the grave was just a field, which a century later in the 1890s was owned by a farmer called Samuel Armstrong, and of which a newspaper report said ‘has always been preserved and not put under cultivation both by the present owner of the farm and his predecessors’. These simple commemorations seem to have been low-key, as a local community thing, and with no issues.

• Plans for a Memorial
In September 1895, at Rosemary Street Lecture Hall in Belfast, Alice Milligan delivered a lecture for the Henry J McCracken Literary Society. In the audience was Rev Richard Lyttle of Moneyrea Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church who, in the remarks at the end of the lecture, proposed that a statue be erected in Betsy Gray’s memory.

Other people were having similar thoughts; a John Clarke regularly gave a lecture at the time entitled ‘The Neglected Graves of the ’98 Ulster Patriots’. Rev Lyttle and some ladies from Moneyrea, on behalf of the Charles J Kickham Society, laid a floral cross on Betsy’s grave in June 1896. That same month the ‘Moneyrea Irish Women’s Association’ organised three car loads of their members to place wreaths on 1798 graves at Saintfield, Ballynahinch, Castlereagh and Moneyreagh. When they arrived at Ballycreen Mr Armstrong ‘received them with sympathetic courtesy’. They installed eight wooden stakes around the reputed grave location, to which they fixed light wire, and then added flowers and garlands. On the grave were laid: a wreath of pansies (by a Miss Macauley), a cross (from Misses Milligan and Johnston), and a wreath and a cross of unusually large dimensions made of blue and white flowers (from Moneyrea Irish Women’s Association). Mr Armstrong was thanked by Mrs McCullough of Moneyrea and Mrs Murray:

‘for his goodness and that of his family in guarding the grave so well for 98 years, and for his kindness in permitting the decorations. He replied that any man, no matter what his politics might be, who could not honour such heroism and unsullied patriotism as that displayed by the victims who fell and were buried on his farm would be dead to all sense of humanity and nobility’. – Newry Telegraph, 4 July 1896

• Memorial Installed
In the middle of August 1896 a formal memorial stone was installed on the site, which was paid for by a James Gray from London. This was described as ‘native granite, a polished oblong block, with margined sides resting on a chamfered plinth, and surmounted with peaked terminal’. The inscription read ‘Elizabeth Gray, George Gray, William Boal, 13th June 1798’ and on the back ‘Erected by James Gray, grand-nephew of Elizabeth and George Gray, 1896’. Wrought-iron railings were also installed. The work was carried out by S & T Hastings of Downpatrick and Newtownards Monumental Works, costing £50. Some pics are shown below.

This new landmark attracted wider attention to the site - it was said to have been ‘visited by a good many people out of curiosity’. In September 1897, another group of visitors including James Murray and Mrs Murray, Rev Lyttle and Alice Milligan were once again at Ballycreen to pay their respects. A gap had been made in the hedge to facilitate access, and at this gathering it was resolved to fund the installation of a turnstile.

• Memorial Destroyed
Momentum was building on the run-in to the 1798 centenary. Ballycreen seems to have become a focus for visits by increasingly large groups of Nationalist-minded visitors who ‘placed on the grave a number of wreaths and emblems bearing offensive and seditious mottoes’. Eventually a large gathering was advertised in the Nationalist-inclined Belfast newspapers, to take place on a Sunday afternoon, 1st May 1898, under the auspices of the Henry J McCracken Literary Society. The first that Mr Armstrong knew about this proposed gathering was when the police sergeant from Ballynahinch called up to the farm to let him know; Armstrong was concerned that a large visit was to take place at all, but especially on the Sabbath Day. He decided to refuse permission for the proposed meeting. There are competing accounts of what actually took place, which vary depending on the editorial stance of the newspapers. You can imagine.

After the gathering had laid floral wreaths and had dispersed, such was the stir in the Ballycreen community that that same night a group of local men visited Armstrong’s farm, equipped with sledgehammers, and smashed the granite memorial to pieces. 

The Irish Independent summarised the events as 'Decorated by Nationalists, and Desecrated by Orange Scoundrels’. The Ballymena Weekly Telegraph said that the police had allowed ‘Armstrong’s rights to be trampled upon, the law broken, and the law breakers protected and encouraged’.

Willie Redmond asked questions in the House of Commons about the incident, which was widely reported in newspapers across Ireland.


* there is a competing claim that Betsy was from Tullyniskey near Dromore.



Betsy memorial

Monday, September 11, 2017

"Live Free or Die" - John Stark's signoff which became the motto for New Hampshire

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An earlier generation of Starks had been Presbyterian Covenanters, who fled to Ulster for a time for refuge. Archibald Stark arrived at Londonderry as a young boy with his family, having been born in Glasgow in 1697. Archibald married Eleanor Nichols in Ulster in 1714. Around 1720, having watched the successful migrations of 1718, Archibald and Eleanor boarded a ship and sailed for New England.

They settled in the new Ulster-Scots settlement of Nutfield (later Londonderry) where their son, and future General, John Stark was born on 28 August 1728. Eight years later in 1736 the family moved to another Ulster-Scots settlement at Derryfield (later Manchester) where John remained until he was 27 years old. When he grew up he became one of Ulsterman Robert RogersRangers, and when revolution was in the air Stark sided with Washington, becoming a military hero of some renown.

After the war he sent a message to a reunion event which famously said ‘Live free or die; Death is not the worst of evils'. New Hampshire adopted this as its official motto in 1945.

• 1949 biography by Howard Parker Moore is online here
• an earlier memoir is online here


Sunday, September 10, 2017

"Twa Hours at Hame" David Kennedy & Family, Ulster Hall, April 1877

David Kennedy

The Kennedy family toured the world with a show which celebrated Scottish culture and music. David Kennedy (1825–86) has been described here as ‘a concert singer who combined traditional Scots song with oratorio and sacred music’. Here is a report of one of their shows, at the Ulster Hall in 1877, one of at least three nights they performed in Belfast on this particular tour.

His daughter Marjory published this biography in 1887, detailing the family’s Perthshire and Presbyterian origins, as well as page after page of Scots language dialogue. It would be interesting to chart all of their appearances in Belfast, as 1877 was around the time of a fresh upsurge in local Ulster-Scots creative writing and publishing.

In 1881, three of his children, all members of the performing family, died in France when the Opera House in Nice was burned to the ground. Kennedy’s Wikipedia entry is here

Twa Hours at Hame 1877

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Friday, September 08, 2017

'The Gate, Newtownards' by Alicia Boyle (1908–97)


Sunday, September 03, 2017

Scotch Night, Bangor, 1938

Scotch Night Bangor 1938 copy

James Collins, the Blind County Down Fiddler (born 1841)

Article from the Irish News and Belfast Morning News, 26 August 1897. County Down born of Scottish parents, Collins found his way to Eastbourne where he sang Robert Burns songs and seems to have become a bit of a celebrity in his day.

James Collins 26 Aug 1897James Collins Fiddler

The inhaled 'aye'

I don't know how widespread this is, but older men, and younger men who are ‘old-school', around here will often inhale an ‘aye’ of approval during a preacher’s sermon. Does anybody else know about this?

Friday, September 01, 2017

Where are all the tourists?

Tourism is a massive subject in Northern Ireland. It’s a news topic almost every day. It’s our economic future and in a sense ‘saviour’. Public policy is geared towards it, bringing much needed inward investment. Hotels are growing up all over the place (well in greater Belfast at least). Which is why this YouGov poll took me by surprise.

From a sample of 8,000 people surveyed across the UK, Belfast is bottom of the list of UK cities they have visited, equal with Sunderland. Twice as many people have been to the hotspots of Leicester, Norwich and Coventry.

We do have the added disadvantage of people having to take a ferry or a flight to get here. And of course a generation or two of ‘bad news’. But it does make you wonder if the weekly diet of pro-tourism publicity is working out in reality.

(NB: It is a pity that the Republic of Ireland isn’t included in the survey, as the comparable stats for Dublin would be really interesting)


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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Matt Kibbe on Liberty

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Dori Freeman, Galax, Virginia: "a lot of other people don't feel the same pride, don't know how rich culturally where we come from is"

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

'Orange Lily' by May Crommelin (1879) - now reprinted

It’s a real pleasure to see that, less than a year after I first ‘discovered’ May Crommelin (see previous post here), that her novel Orange Lily, set in Carrowdore here in the Ards Peninsula, has now been republished. I have a very short appendix in it which gives some of my family history and how it overlaps with the Crommelins. It’s an important wee book, and there are more stories by May Crommelin now being uncovered, so I’m pleased that she is back on the map and that the book is once again available. It has also now been added to the Ulster-Scots Academy online text base

• Order a copy on Amazon here.

Orange Lily

Orange Lily Orig Cover

Donaghadee Steam Crane / April 1914

I have gone sea-angling on boats from Donaghadee for about 30 years - and I've given talks to the local historical society quite a few times too. The steam crane is a local landmark that seems to have been removed in the 1930s or thereabouts - in the black and white pic below it's the box-like shape on the quayside. As you can see in the recent pics below, the other crane is still in place. There is a concrete shape still today on the harbour which I think might have been the original position for the steam crane.

It is said that it was the steam crane which was used on the night of the gunrunning in April 1914, from the boat Innismurray and not the Clyde Valley. (see this article). The old postcard below certainly shows the steam crane.

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