Friday, January 05, 2018

'Ulster Links with the White House' - and Sam Henry (1878–1953)

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Sam Henry (1878–1953) is / was a legendary collector of folklore and tradition (Wikipedia here), best known for his collection Songs of the People from 1923–1939, amassing 690 songs in total, most of which were published in 1990 and again in 2010. The full collection is held at Coleraine Museum. A press release from the Causeway Coast & Glens Borough Council about the collection is online here. Some of Henry’s photographs are online here.

Additionally, it seems that he provided some inspiration for what became the 1940s publication Ulster Links with the White House, a collection of biographies of 14 US Presidents said to have been of Ulster descent, illustrated with the famous Frank McKelvey pencil portraits. These biographies were originally serialised in the Belfast Telegraph, and which interestingly make frequent use of the term ‘Ulster Scots’. However the book version gives no detail about who the author was. I have heard some suggest Rev W F Marshall as the writer.

On 19 December 1952 the Ballymena Weekly Telegraph stated that (the then late) Henry had written a biography of President Chester Alan Arthur which first appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on 5 December 1938. Sure enough, this was reprinted in the Ballymena Weekly Telegraph on 10 December 1938 with Henry given as the author. In it, Henry proposed that

‘an artistic board be placed in the main street of Cullybackey and thereon a fingerpost and an arrow pointing towards Dreen across the bridge with the words ‘to the homestead of the Arthurs, ancestors of President Chester Alan Arthur, 21st President of the United States of America’. 

And there is a sign a bit like that on that very bridge today - see photo below. However this 1938 Arthur biography isn’t the same as the one which appeared later in Ulster Links with the White House. A few years  had passed and so someone had taken an editorial fine-tooth comb to the original, bringing it into a consistent word count with the other 13 biographies, but also acknowledging Henry’s original. Henry’s is much better.

In 1942, the Ballymena Weekly Telegraph reprinted verbatim from Ulster Links at least two of the County Antrim related biographies: the President Theodore Roosevelt biography on 9 January 1942, and the President William McKinley biography on 23 January 1942. 

Ulster Links with the White House is an interesting book, but it is unreliable as it over-stretches itself by making Ulster ancestral claims to Presidents John Adams, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams - Presidents who were later dropped from the pantheon in similar projects in the decades which followed.

Further research required, but it does open up an additional strand in Sam Henry’s cultural interests and contribution.

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