Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Crafts of the Ards - Mary Ann Wallace, flowering at Ballyfrenis, circa 1940

Martha Wallace Flowering HR

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Crafts of the Ards - Royal Embroidery of Portavogie

Now here is something that deserves a project before the memories have completely faded away. Not so long ago in Portavogie when the men were at sea the ladies would embroider or ‘flower’ linen for the Royal Family amongst others. For maybe a century or so this was a vast cottage industry in County Down in particular.

Hubert Cully was one of the local agents who folk here still remember, he sold trawler nets and equipment to the fishermen, and bought and sold embroidery for the women. It was also known as ‘whitework’ and even ‘Ayrshire embroidery’ as some of it was bought by Scottish agents who couldn’t get enough of their own home-grown products. I wonder how many local attics have some samples left?

Below is a detail of a tourism map from the 1950s with ‘Royal Embroidery’ marked on it.

I have a photo of my great-great-grandmother Mary Ann Wallace, ‘flowering’.. She was born in 1863 and along with her husband Robert was a member of Ballyfrenis United Free Church of Scotland, here in the Ards, halfway between Millisle and Carrowdore.

(Their daughter Martha Wallace married Vincent Hamill, whose daughter Mary Ann Hamill married William Wilson, whose daughter Martha married Eric Thompson - who had five children, the first of whom was me).

IMG 8266

Monday, May 29, 2017

Crafts of the Ards Peninsula - Kircubbin 'flying fifteen' boat building, circa 1955

Centuries of tradition and craftsmanship captured in this lovely old film. These were sports & pleasure craft, but there were of course 'proper' boatyards at Portavogie and Portaferry, maybe also Ballywalter and Kircubbin. I can vaguely recall one at Portavogie, long-gone now, displaced by steel and then EU-funded 'progress' which would decimate the local fishing industry. I clearly remember boats being 'decommissioned' - bought off by European chequebooks, then set on fire on the beach, consigned to history. There are still plenty of pleasure boats on Strangford Lough, with sailing clubs on both coasts.

Here is an article from 1885, describing Portavogie - 'self-reliance and independence have preserved them from being demoralised alike by Government grants and doles'.

Portavogie 1885

Friday, May 26, 2017

Tullyhogue Flute Band drum - rose, shamrock & thistle

Thanks to Mr. I.C. for letting me post this here. Another example of our three-stranded identity. I would hazard a guess that the drum is probably circa 1920. Tullyhogue is near Cookstown in County Tyrone, and was the ancient crowning place of the O’Neills.

DSC 2143a

Kidnapped by Indians - Meggie Stinson (SW Pennsylvania, 1764) and Jenny Wiley (East Kentucky, 1789)

There were, and still are, Savages in the Ards Peninsula. That's not a pejorative term, although the wordplay is sometimes aimed at me by local town-dwellers! The Savages / Le Sauvages were an Anglo-Norman family who arrived in Ireland in 1171 and eventually moved north to Ulster, settling in Antrim and Down. After the Bruce wars of the early 1300s their estates were restricted to the southern end of the Ards Peninsula and also Lecale just across Strangford Lough. Their legacy is a collection of castles which exist to this day, and probably some of the early abbeys and churches. Their history was catalogued by George Francis Savage-Armstrong in two books, firstly The Ancient and Noble Family of the Savages of the Ards (1888) and the posthumous revision The Savages of Ulster (1906).

So what of these 'noble savages'? This is an idea which exists far beyond the Ards.

The romantic 'noble savage' theory (usually attributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau - Wikipedia here), proposed that ancient peoples were peaceful, living at harmony with the natural world and enlightened, until a group of 'outsiders' arrived and colonised them all. You can apply this to various places in the world, you can hear it assumed and implied in many places - People A were idyllic, happy and peaceful, a model society even, until People B turned up, supposedly bringing ‘civilisation'. The 'noble savage' idea has been disproven time and again - ancient peoples were themselves sometimes violent and barbaric. Human remains have demonstrated this over and over again. What we might think of today as 'people groups' have been warring amongst themselves since the dawn of time - and so even the notion of homogenous 'people groups’, defined as such in our era, is flawed.

This article on - The Myth of the Noble Savage - is an interesting read, especially the references to Marxist theory of the late 1800s and neo-Marxists of the 1970s. A Biblical outlook is that 'all have sinned', that everybody is contaminated by an broken, sinful, nature, and capable of great evil. So therefore no individual or people group is virtuous. Everybody's just as bad as everybody else, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, geography, gender or historical era. We are all ‘savages'. And we are all able to accept redemption.

Here is a clip from the 2007 film version of the book Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee which might be of interest –

It is of course true that terrible things happened to the Native Americans, and that some of this was at the hands of Scotch-Irish settlers and pioneers, as well as English, French, Germans, Dutch, and all other European settlers. For Central and South America, consider what Spain and Portuguese conquistadors did.Many Native American Indian tribes allied themselves with the French

The Scotch-Irish in turn were on the receiving end of some terrible atrocities carried out by Native American Indians, having been (conveniently) driven by the coastal elites into the backcountry, to form a 'human buffer' in the front line of potential Indian conflict and attack. Many of them were happy to go, confident in their ability to defend themselves if necessary and keen to get away from authority. Others, like James Adair from Ulster (Wikipedia page here) lived very happily in Indian communities for most of their lives.

Charles A Hanna's seminal The Scotch-Irish: The Scot in North Britain, north Ireland, and north America contains much detail of the Scotch-Irish/Native American interactions. They exchanged clothing styles, and both learned how to shoot long rifles with astonishing accuracy (think Davy Crockett). Some were amorous and resulted in intermarriage, some were amicable, some were tolerable, some were seemingly manipulated by the establishment governments. Some were barbaric.

This Declaration document, penned by Matthew Smith and James Gibson in 1764, and signed by 1500 frontier people, gives a clear picture on the experiences of some of the Scotch-Irish.


I've recently come across the stories of two women who were both kidnapped by Native Americans.

• One, Jenny Wiley, was the wife of Ulster emigrant Thomas Wiley. Her father was Hezekiah Sellars/Sellards, described as a 'Presbyterian of the strictest sort' who had settled first in Shenandoah in Virginia. Her mother might have been a Cherokee woman. Jennie was said to have been 'endowed with an abundance of good hard Scotch common-sense'. In 1789 while Thomas was away, the family home in east Kentucky was attacked, nearly all of the children were killed, pregnant Jennie was taken captive with her one surviving 15 month old infant. Both of these children were later killed by their captors. She was held hostage for 11 months, eventually managing to escape and return to Thomas. Today a State Park at Prestonburg, Kentucky, is named for her. Here Wikipedia page is here.

• A similar tale can be found in a song from south western Pennsylvania, from 1764 (the same year as the Declaration above) about a Meggie Stinson / Stevenson who was taken captive as a child. Some years later she and other hostages were set free and returned to their settlement, but Meggie had forgotten what her own mother looked like. The song below, from the despairing mother's perspective, is in broad Scots. It is possible that the song 'Meggie Stinson’ is in fact based on a story of a German settler girl called Regina Hartman Leininger (see gravestone here) who might well have become emblematic of a common frontier experience, one familiar to Scotch-Irish families as well as their German neighbours.

Life is complicated, so is history. One for the sociologists to unpick.

Meggie Stinson

There is a lot of quite interesting material online about the 'noble savage' myth. New York Times science correspondent Nicholas Wade published Before The Dawn in 2006, which appears to be a major reassessment of how ancient people are understood, including the view that "archaeologists of the postwar period had artificially "pacified the past" and shared a pervasive bias against the possibility of prehistoric warfare".

If you Google 'myth of the noble savage' you'll find things like a 2004 course at the University of Washington, Seattle which describes it as 'anthropology’s oldest and most successful hoax'.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Liberty Mountain: The Revolutionary Drama

This play, now entering its fourth season at Kings Mountain in South Carolina, looks excellent. Have a read at this:

“… They took up arms, and many sacrificed their lives, to defend and preserve the freedoms they held dear, and none was more important to them than religious expression.

To understand how crucial this was to the settlers of the Carolinas, you have to go back to their roots in Northern Ireland. Many were Scots-Irish Presbyterians who fled poverty and misery in that land, compounded by religious persecution. The “official” religion of the British Empire in the 1700’s was the Church of England, and those who didn’t swear allegiance to that church were punished, often brutally.

In the American colonies, they saw the opportunity to start a new life, one in which they were free to worship as they pleased. They came here, built homes and farms and churches and raised God-fearing families. But they were still subjects of the British king, and the Crown continued to attempt to thrust the Church of England on them. When British troops occupied the Carolinas and those who were still loyal to the king went on a rampage of murder and mayhem, these Scots-Irish rose up and fought back ..."

And this newspaper article too:

Production is underway for the fourth season of “Liberty Mountain: The Revolutionary Drama” in Kings Mountain, North Carolina. The play will run for 17 performances, beginning June 23, at the Joy Performance Center in downtown Kings Mountain.

“Liberty Mountain” tells the story of the settling of the Carolinas by hardy Scots-Irish immigrants who came to America to start new lives, raise families, work and worship, and how they became caught up in the conflict of the struggle for independence from Great Britain.

Their story culminates in the Battle of Kings Mountain in October, 1780, which historians agree was the turning point in the Revolution. In an hour of savage hand-to-hand combat, Patriot militiamen defeated a larger and better-trained force of Loyalists, triggering a series of Patriot victories that led to the British surrender at Yorktown a year later.

“Liberty Mountain” features a cast of more than 30 actors in a fast-moving, action-packed drama. Playwright Robert Inman says, “The talented cast and crew bring our audience a production that is true to history, highly entertaining, and inspiring. Every American should know the story of Kings Mountain and the crucial role it played in granting us the freedoms we enjoy today.”

So why is it that OUR story is not told this well HERE? I am not sure that we can claim that the Ulster-Scots / Scotch-Irish were the sole exponents or exporters of liberty, but our role was hugely important, and has become embedded into the psyche of the USA. 

One of the things that has seemed to bewilder commentators and academics over the decades is the ‘conditional loyalty’ of the (let’s be blunt about it) Ulster Protestants. But when you understand our history, you will see that it has been in our DNA  for, I would suggest, nearly 500 years. I would also suggest that our loyalty has been firstly to liberty - religious and civil - and to the monarch or the nation very much second.

Many left the nation behind, but they took liberty with them, beating in their chests and pumping through their veins.

Find out more here.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

Burial Isle and Hamilton's Rock, Ballyhalbert

Burial Isle is part of a jagged reef just off Ballyhalbert, and is said to contain a Danish Viking burial chamber full of gold. I am planning to kayak round it this summer.

Some interesting news cuttings below, including an 1878 reference to 'Hamilton's Rock' but sadly no-one I've spoken to knows now which rock that is. Of course I am assuming a connection to Sir James Hamilton of 1606 fame.

As you can see from the pics it was very dangerous for ships unfamiliar with our coastline, there have been many wrecks and drownings on it. I know a few locals who have been on the island; again the cuttings below are interesting as they talk about bird-watching trips, and of one local who confronted some bird watchers to make sure they weren't there to steal eggs.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Mapping the Scotch-Irish: The 2015 American Community Survey - the 25 largest ancestry groups

Maps are all from this website. I have coloured them to help distinguish them from each other. British, English and Welsh are also distinct categories in the same survey.

Scotch-Irish: Scotch Irish 2015 Survey

Irish: Irish 2015 Survey

Scottish: Scottish 2015 Survey

Chris Stapleton - "I always played music and sang in church with my brother; my dad played the radio a lot and my mom would sing around the house"

He’s one of the finest exponents of (proper) country music today. Raised in Staffordsville, east Kentucky, I have no idea of his ancestry but the geography speaks volumes of his cultural environment. This is often more culturally important than strict 'bloodlines'. To retain or take on cultural traits, when others who were born into the community choose to devalue or reject its traits, is an interesting dynamic that deserves much thought. 

"... my grandmother from Kentucky. She was among the first emigrants to the blue grass, but whether from the Carolinas or Virginia, I do not know.Anyway they were, every mother's son and daughter of them, Scotch-Irish...

Beyond the circle of my relatives in that region, I do not know personally much about our race. The MacMillans, Reids, Grays, Woods, Lynches, and Devers, all one way or another relatives, were evidently, from the names, of the elect race by the male line. But there were others, the Kentucky Robinsons and Martins, also relatives of ours, who were no doubt English people who had been brought into the royal line of the Scotch-Irish by accidentally falling into the clutches of Scotch-Irish girls. Any fellow who did that, whatever his race or faith, was a goner. He had, will-he, nill-he, to obey the scripture injunction to forsake father and mother and cleave to his wife, and his wife clave to the Church and to her clan, and so he had no chance of getting away. He must perforce learn to sing Rouse psalms and argufy theology.

I suppose this same process went on historically and everywhere. 1 do not see how else we are to account for the fact that the people of so small a territory as Ulster should show such a numerical and geographical extension in America and in the British colonies as they did..."

– from 'How God Made the Scotch-Irish' by W.C. Gray (1894) online here

Just two miles from Staffordsville, on the banks of Paintsville Lake, is an open-air museum built around an 1850s farm called Mountain HomePlace, described as "a reconstructed 1800s Scotch-Irish settler’s farmstead with costumed interpreters. All the buildings were moved there from Paintsville. The setting is wonderfully replicated …". The farm was originally built by David McKenzie. Another place to visit in 2018 all being well (DV).


Friday, May 19, 2017

"Woodrow Wilson was actually as close to a dictator as America has ever had"

Shapior Rubin

So says Ben Shapiro in conversation with Dave Rubin. The video isn't embeddable, you have to view it here on YouTube. The Woodrow Wilson quote is at around 10min 50 seconds. Maybe he is an Ulster-American President of the USA we should be more careful about celebrating! 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Shamrock, Rose and Thistle

Starting to see these references everywhere. 

William Shamrock Rose Thistle 2

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Foghorn Stringband - from Ballyhalbert to Ballyboughal

Ballyhalbert Ballyboughal

It was a friend’s recommendation. It turned out to be one of the best musical nights ever. The Foghorn Stringband have played in Northern Ireland a few times, but on this tour they were staying down south - Dingle, Baltimore and Clonmel, as well as tiny Ballyboughal north of Dublin. So we set off to see them, a 2hr 45min drive down and the same up again.

The venue was the small St Patrick's Hall, a fantastically basic wee venue maybe not unlike older Orange Halls you get up here. No carpets, no amplification, no windows it seemed, and a room packed with about 50 locals who all apparently knew each other. We were complete strangers, but were made so welcome, the folk were delighted and a bit astonished we had made the trek down. We were all asked to turn our phones off but I snuck a few photos anyway.

St Patricks Ballyboughal

The Foghorn Stringband have quite a lot of gospel stuff in their normal repertoire, but interestingly they didn't do any that particular evening. We had them for about 2 hours of playing time with a short interval, we were sat just across the room from them. My jaw was on the floor. My gasps were a bit too audible at times! Spectacular authenticity, and Caleb Klauder is probably now my favourite mandolin player. He gets the old-timey stuff in a way that a 100mph bluegrass picker doesn't. He has flashes of Bailes Brothers, Blue Sky Boys and even the Stanley Brothers' mandolin players ('Pee Wee’ Lambert and Richard ‘Curly’ Lambert) about him. A great great talent who just knows what's needed.

Carter Family covers, Louvin Brothers covers, Hank Williams covers, trad songs and tunes from the Appalachia of the 1800s, tunes which the band had learned from old-timers, as well as original compositions too. Spontaneous waltzing and 'dosy doe' dancing - we managed to avoid that bit! The very next night, Tim O'Brien (yes, who appeared on Wayfaring Stranger and said good things about the Ulster-Scots) was playing at the Séamus Ennis Centre just up the road at (the) Naul. O'Brien is a West Virginian who grew up singing in church. The Ballyboughal folk were urging us to come back down and see him too - but sadly the tickets were long-gone. The warm welcome was pretty wonderful, a stark contrast to some church events my brother and I have played at I can tell you!

It is just a pity, maybe even a disgrace, that up here in the Scotch-Irish home province of Ulster, that there were no dates and presumably therefore not much demand compared with the rest of the island. Music is for everyone. But I do have this niggling question now about why there isn't a buzzing 'scene' for this type of stuff in Ulster-Scots heartlands such as County Down and County Antrim. (there is of course the annual Bluegrass festival in September at the Ulster-American Folk Park, a place called The Red Room in Cookstown, and the Bronte Music Club near Rathfriland).

On the other hand, there maybe is a demand, but perhaps the present-day gatekeepers of the publicly-funded arts centres and the locally-run community venues are just on a whole different wavelength. It seems to me that these places are doing very little by way of cultural affirmation, appreciation and education.

It was interesting that the folk were a bit incredulous that I had no idea who Séamus Ennis was. Goes to show the huge cultural gulf that exists.

(I should maybe book the Foghorn Stringband for a gospel gig next time they're in the vicinity). IMG 8196 IMG 8209 IMG 8195 IMG 8197IMG 8193IMG 8194

Mary McKeehan Patton – Gunpowder Heroine of the Battle of King's Mountain

Pam lisa pouring blackpowder mary patton

Among the community who settled at Watauga (see previous post) was a Mary McKeehan. She is said by numerous websites to have been born in England in 1751. Where exactly no-one seems to know, but the surname would suggest ancestry in Scotland or Ireland *. She emigrated and in Pennsylvania she married emigrant Ulsterman John Patton in 1772. They had a gunpowder mill and when the skirmishes eventually turned into war the Pattons were kept busy. They left Carlisle in Pennsylvania and headed for the mountains of East Tennessee. A contact called Andrew Taylor set up a new mill for them and the place became known as Powder Branch.

Mary supplied 500 pounds of gunpowder to the Ulstermen who headed off to confront the King’s troops at the Battle of King’s Mountain. There is now a road named after her called The Mary Patton Highway, at Elizabethton, Tennessee.

She features in the Ulster-Scots Community Network booklet Ulster and Tennessee (pdf online here).

In the late 1800s a Charles L McKeehan was Secretary of the Pennsylvania Scotch-Irish Society.

* The English birthplace might be an error which has been repeated over and over again. There are numerous Presbyterian McKeehan graves in Pennsylvania, some of which (such as this one, to Elizabeth McKeehan, born 1745) specify Northern Ireland as the birthplace. This website refers to a Benjamin McKeehan who emigrated to Pennsylvania from County Antrim. Big Spring Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania was founded around 1737 with a John McKeehan as one of its elders. A few Google searches throw up many more examples of Ulster McKeehans in 1700s Pennsylvania.


Monday, May 15, 2017

The first independent government in America? The "Watauga Association" of 1772–1776


It seems that this is in a sense the ‘missing link’, connecting the Regulators of North Carolina of 1771 with the Fincastle Resolutions of Virginia in January 1775.

It was said by President Theodore Roosevelt that these were "first men of American birth to establish a free and independent community on the continent”, up in the Appalachian Mountains. Made up by rural frontier settlers near what is today Elizabethton, Tennessee, the "Watauga Association" straddled Carter County, Tennessee and Watauga County, North Carolina, and was named after the Watauga River which flows through both.

Among the seventy homestead farms who bonded together was that of James Robertson, later one of the founders of Nashville, who might even have suggested the name "Watauga Association”. They were a combination of English, Scot and Scotch-Irish; they had their own Constitution (based on that of Virginia), their own laws, their own court system, and were part of the historic success at the Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780.

“…the Watauga colonists were largely Scotch-Irish has been generally accepted, and in view of the fact that the areas from which they came were so largely occupied by this race, the belief seems justified. It is however interesting to note, in this connection, the variety in stock as shown in the leaders, most of them American born …:

Robertson brought a group of around sixteen Regulator families from North Carolina to Watauga after the Battle of Alamance of May 1771 (see recent posts); John C Campbell carries on that quote above by pointing out the English, Welsh and French Huguenot ancestry of some of the thirteen Watauga commissioners. This belter of a quote from the History of Tennessee (1903; online here) by William Robertson Garrett (1839–1904), a former lawyer, then Captain in the Confederate army, and then Chair of American History at the University of Nashville, covers very familiar ground –

“… But whether they came from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Pennsylvania, the first settlers of Tennessee were, in the main, the same type of people— an aggressive, daring, and hardy race of men, raised up in the faith of the Presbyterian Covenanter, and usually comprehended under the general designation of Scotch-Irish, that people forming their largest element … These Scotch emigrants were stern, strict, liberty-loving Presbyterians, who believed in the Westminster Catechism and taught it to their children. They resented the pretensions of the Crown to be the head of the church, and believed with John Knox that the King derived his authority from the people, who might lawfully resist, and even depose him, when his tyranny made it necessary …"

Contrary to modern assumptions, it seems that the Wataugan settlers got on well with the local Cherokees. During the Revolution, Fort Watauga was built, and was recreated in 1976 at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. Eventually Watauga was subsumed into the post-Revolution state of North Carolina.

Another big story for somebody to dig further into. 

The Wataugans by Max Dixon (1976) is online here
• More details available here on
• Wikipedia entry here
This article gives detail on the various individuals and families involved. 

Fort Watauga is shown below



Saturday, May 13, 2017

My grandfather, community activist, Portavogie 1938

William Thompson (1901–1957) was a small-time farmer with 3 fields to his name, and a local poet of some renown. He died when my father was just 14. He wasn’t an Orangeman, but here he is in 1938, aged 37, chairing a local protest meeting at Portavogie Orange Hall to redirect road building funds away from where the government wanted to put it to where the community needed it more.

He had married my grandmother, Madge Coffey, the year before on 30 July 1937. My uncle John was their firstborn child, born just the month before the meeting, on 11 November 1938. These articles are from the Belfast News Letter and the Northern Whig, December 1938.

The road upgrade was eventually carried out, around 1955, as shown in the photo below. The wheels of government turn slowly. 

Portavogie Road Protest NWPortavogie Road Protest

Butterlump Road

Thursday, May 11, 2017

'O Liberty's a braw thing!' - David Bruce, SW Pennsylvania, 1801 - "Originally Written under the Signature of the Scots-Irishman"

David Bruce was born in Caithness, Scotland, but seems to have lived for a time somewhere near Londonderry & Coleraine. He emigrated to the US and arrived at Bladensburgh, Maryland, in 1784. He moved onwards to Burgettstown in Washington County in frontier south west Pennsylvania around 1795. He published poems in regional newspapers, some of which are brilliantly rich with the hamely tongue.

Politically charged, a collection of them was later published as a bound edition in 1801, entitled Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, Originally Written under the Signature of the Scots-Irishman. The poems give superb insight into the political convictions of a relatively obscure rural ’Scots-Irishman' in America. They were expertly analysed by Harry R Warfel in 1925 (in two related papers in The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, in the July and October 1925 editions) who detailed the political context in which Bruce was writing.

The excerpt below shows that from Bruce's perspective, even after the French Revolution, the establishment gradually resumed control. It is perhaps also a reference to the experiences of post-Revolution America.


"I, far owre th'Atlantic's wave,
A thoughtless multitude amang,
Frae mad Democracy to save
Pour out my unavailing song'

That Bruce wrote for a Pennsylvania readership in (Ulster-) Scots tells us that the local community was literate enough to be able to read it. It's also a barometer of the politics of the frontier in the aftermath of the Revolution, when new political debates were raging within the new nation. Federalists were all the rage, their party run by Alexander Hamilton who in his early life was influenced by the thinking of a Belfast Presbyterian minister, Hugh Knox (see previous post here).

Significantly, it shows the usage of the term Scots-Irish a good 40 or 50 years prior to the ‘famine Irish’. Normally of course you’d expect to see Scotch-Irish, but nevertheless it is a self-identification in a rural community long before the mid-1800s. There is a common myth that these distinctive terms only emerged after the later arrival of the ‘famine Irish’, to draw distinction, but this is not true. (It is a myth which to the modern mind carries with it the silent inference of social or even sectarian prejudice).

A PDF edition is online here (1801)
Warfel’s analysis is online here (1925) 

Monday, May 08, 2017

Wayfaring Stranger - Episode 3: "“the Ulster-Scots, that’s really where traditional bluegrass comes from"


(Declaration of interest - I appear in this episode, but leaving that aside…). It has taken me a couple of weeks to gather my thoughts on this. Here we go.

In a more informed culture, the three absolutely wonderful episodes of Wayfaring Stranger, presented by the equally wonderful Phil Cunningham, might be nominated for a Grammy Award. Indeed, Episode 1 included Rhiannon Giddens, whose album Factory Girl was itself Grammy nominated earlier this year. 

Episode 3 opened with Roseanne Cash, the daughter of Johnny Cash, playing the song Girl from the North Country. She was followed by the West Virginia mandolin legend Tim O’Brien who quite naturally said –

“the Ulster-Scots, that’s really where traditional bluegrass comes from.. you hear people in the mountains of West Virginia singing about Ireland’s green shore - they were people who had a lived for a generation, two or three, in Ulster and then moved and kept moving until they settled in the mountains … and kept the old tunes and songs alive that became what we call bluegrass..."

I saw Tim O’Brien playing with the late great Doc Watson at the Museum of Appalachia in 2002, with my parents, my wife and our then only, and four year old, son Jacob. I have the photos of Jake with Tim & Doc picking away in the background behind him. That autumn/fall we drove around east Tennessee for two weeks, playing tapes of old-time country music I bought in roadside filling stations, and my mother knew more of the songs than I did.

But back to the programme. Next up was footage from the Ulster American Folk Park with bands playing The Old Gospel Ship, followed by On the Sea of Galilee hit me like a double sledgehammer; being from a coastal community I grew up with these two songs. 

The programme then went back in time to the first fiddle contest, on St Andrews Day in 1736, from which we were brought through 200 years plus of continuous tradition, majoring on the early recorded music era. Henry Gilliland’s seminal tune Arkansas Traveller was played by Sara Watkins (try to stop your foot tapping when you hear it). His pal Eck Robertson got a mention. Disaster songs, murder ballads ... Tim O’Brien picked through Down in the Willow Garden with a deceptive and deft simplicity, its sweet melody making the brutal story all the more powerful. It’s a song I have known for at least 20 years - but I had absolutely no idea it was first written down in our very own Coleraine, as Rose Connolly.

You need to get a taste of the rough & ready, and maybe even a little bawdy, Skillet Lickers - superb and literally spirited music. They were led by Clayton McMichen, who I am told gave some interviews about his Ulster ancestry. From the Saturday night sin, to the Sunday morning repentance, every shade of human experience is expressed in this old stuff.

Personally I was thrilled that the McCravy Brothers made the cut, my brother and I used to sing their songs at Sunday School socials, learned from 78s that our grandparents had and which I now have. I choked up with a flood of nostalgia when Sara Watkins sang Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave it There with her ukulele - speaking to me so powerfully of my mother’s last few agonised years of life when her faith in the sufficiency of Christ was her sole delight –

“if your body suffers pain; and your health you can’t regain;
and your soul is almost sinking in despair;
Jesus knows the pain you feel; He can save and He can heal;
take your burden to the Lord and leave it there…"

Music changes, it picks up influences as it travels, it leaves influences behind. Bluegrass, invented by Bill Monroe around 1945, was really the hip-hop of its day, which mixed and sampled existing old sounds and from them created something new. Dock Boggs did the same, fusing blues rhythms with old-time melodies. The important interaction between Scotch-Irish Americans and African Americans is a theme I’ve posted about here a few times. In itself that’s a big and important story.

Throughout the three programmes the quality of contributor was impeccable, apart from me of course. It was a privilege to help the producers a wee bit. They went to extraordinary lengths to get to grips with deep, persuasive, meaningful content, to carry out fresh research, to follow trails which made new connections.

What Wayfaring Stranger has done is, I believe for the first time, ‘pinned down’ the origins of country music as being overwhelmingly Scotch-Irish. Most people who know the material would have known this already, but it has not as far as I’m aware been framed with such clarity until now. As I have said in previous posts, over recent generations early American music has been presented as being Scottish and Irish in origin, but with the specificity of ‘Ulsterness' not understood and not presented. Wayfaring Stranger has put that right.

Wayfaring Stranger is I think even better than An Independent People, the much-acclaimed series on Ulster Presbyterians from a few years ago.

If it was me, I’d give them a Grammy. 

• Episode 3 is available on BBC iPlayer here.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Making sense of the Census – the language question?


My paternal grandmother was Madge (Maggie Anna) Coffey; she was raised on the Warnock’s Road in Portavogie. The house she grew up in is still there, although now derelict and overgrown, and I can see it from my front door. Her father, William Coffey, relocated the family to Newtownards for a while where he had a shop. He was 49, and living in Greenwell Street, when he filled in the family's 1911 census form. My granny was just 2 months old. They attended Greenwell Street Presbyterian Church, even though they had been gospel hall Brethren folk back in Portavogie. They moved back to the village soon after.

Coffey is a very common surname here, I have second cousins and schoolfriends who are Coffeys. The graveyards at Ballyhalbert, Ballyeasborough and Glastry have plenty of examples of the name, going back to the mid 1700s. When you go through the 1911 census there are two Coffey families in Portavogie who, when self-completing the forms, wrote ‘Irish’ in the language box. Which is a huge surprise.

But not only them, there is also a Bailie family in the village who did the same thing. Also an O’Brien family who I am pretty sure were in the local Orange lodge did the same. A widow called Eliza McLaughlin. A McMaster family. A Young family. A Mahood family. A Close family. A Keenan family. A Hughes family. A Glenn family. A McConnell family. An Adair family. A McVeagh family. All Protestants of the three main denominations. All County Down born. All who in their language entry described themselves as Irish speakers ... but which, as you can see in the example below, was later scored out by the census official who came round to collect and check the forms.

Irish lang

Had it not been for the scoring out, done by one observant census collector, a present-day researcher might assume there was a large network of Irish speakers in Portavogie a century ago. Well, I am 99.9% sure that these families, like all of the 'native' families in Portavogie, were in fact Ulster-Scots speakers. My hunch is that they knew they didn’t speak ‘proper English', their experiences of school and church would have confirmed that for them, but with the form giving Irish as the only alternative to English, they filled it in. Wrongly. 

In my lifetime, it was in Billy Kay’s wonderful 1989 radio documentaries The Scots of Ulster that he visited Portavogie and interviewed the late great matriarch of the village, Eileen Palmer, who among other things was the driving force of Portavogie Fisherman’s Choir. In the interview Mrs Palmer said that the language of Portavogie was, as she put it, “the Scotch Irish”.  This is a term that has never applied to language, only to the American diaspora. She just didn’t have the words. She knew it wasn’t English, but had no understanding of terminology which would correctly describe the local tongue.

This is what happens when a culture is starved of self-understanding. People lose the sense of value and importance, and the ability to articulate. People don’t know what it’s called. People fill in forms wrongly.

For the present day, it appears that trawling the census to gauge the numbers of Irish speakers could therefore be fraught with pitfalls and nuance. You need to have an understanding of the social and cultural background to assess if the entries are correct. In the case of Portavogie and my Coffey ancestors, the forms were filled in wrongly. I imagine this could be an issue for many Ulster-Scots speaking families and households of the time. Belfast had rapidly grown through the development of industries and the railways, country folk moving there for work, and the same with the market towns. A thorough analysis would be interesting.

[UPDATE - I later did a quick check for Ballyhalbert, the other village which is near to where I live, and the same pattern emerges, a dozen or so households who wrote that they were Irish speakers, but which was then scored out, presumably by the official census collector. A thorough piece of research is needed for a full picture.).


In 1844, the Principal of Ballyhalbert National School, Joseph Conkey, had copies of Robert Huddleston’s poems. I hope they were used in the classroom during lessons. Conkey’s edition is pictured below, from Linen Hall Library in Belfast.

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PS: There is one man - a John Braine from County Cork – who was living in Portavogie at the time who wrote ‘Irish and English’ in his. There is another family, called Hickie, also from County Cork but who left the language column blank.

PPS: This linguistic experience of school is provincewide and community-wide. As the Ulster-Scots Agency website says, "In his autobiography Steps on My Pilgrim Journey, Cardinal Cahal Daly, the former Cardinal-Archbishop of Armagh,  recalled that Scots was spoken in his native Loughguile, near Ballymoney, during the 1920s: ‘In school, one had to talk “polite” to the teacher; but in the playgound one talked the local “patois” which in North Antrim was close to Lowland Scots’. 



Thursday, May 04, 2017

"Political Philosophy" - Dave Rubin and Brandon Turner

Some great stuff here, presented by ‘classical liberal’ Dave Rubin, who famously recently ‘left the left’.

John Locke (1632–1704) gets a good look in here, whose writings were themselves based on the thinking of Scottish Covenanter minister Samuel Rutherford (see this article, exploring the 20th century American Presbyterian Francis Schaeffer’s writing on the connections between Locke and Rutherford). The ideas of Rutherford’s ‘treacherous' landmark Lex Rex have often been connected to the American Revolution, in this recent Washington Post article for example.