Monday, March 05, 2018

Part 7: Ernest Milligan's 36 'Up Bye Ballads': review


Wrapping this story up. What we’ve seen in this series of posts is that the Milligan family as a whole - mainly through the influence of their antiquarian and wealthy father Seaton - had a very wide range of cultural interests and allegiances. The best known of these are Alice’s celebrated Irish nationalist cultural activities and sister Charlotte’s work on Irish traditional song. An Ulster History Circle blue plaque in Omagh Library recalls them (image here).

Yet to us today it might be a surprise to find that there were also brothers, William and Charles, who served in the British Army and Royal Navy respectively. Charles lived until 1983, and served for over 40 years as an Alderman and Councillor in Bangor. Alice’s Shan Van Vocht magazine touched a little on what she called ‘broadest County Down Scotch’, and as a short-lived publication it deserves further investigation, as do her archives. But younger brother Ernest’s 1907 booklet Up Bye Ballads is the strongest example of Ulster-Scots awareness and appreciation within the family circle. As far as our understanding of ‘identity’ goes, the Milligan family pretty much has it all.

My take on the 36 poems and songs which make up Up Bye Ballads as a collection of poems is that they're a good quality appreciation of rural, Ulster-Scots tinged, life in Ards and North Down. I don’t think Ernest Milligan was setting out to be a major league poet, perhaps the collection was just intended for a fairly limited readership in the area. It’s interesting that they were widely reviewed but that could have been as a result of the Milligan family’s wider social influence. It would be particularly interesting to see if the North Down Herald reviewed it. So it’s unwise to retrospectively invest Up Bye Ballads with huge literary or cultural significance. It’s also a shame that Ernest's 2 or 3 youthful years of socialist activism with James Connolly add an extra reason for interest, because the poems themselves warrant their own attention.

They’re not great but they’re good and I enjoy them. They are a positive addition to the local ‘canon’ of Ulster-Scots creative writing from the late 1800s/early 1900s. I’ve read them through a few times, and at the moment the most interesting are:

• Gangin Up Bye – a romantic story of a young man helping a farmer’s daughter bring the kye hame, wooing and eventually marrying her. The story is set at ‘Portavoe wood’ which is where the Milligans’ first holiday home, called ‘Angus Cottage’, was situated. It has a chorus so was intended to be sung. Pretty good Ulster-Scots, with the possible hint of it being autobiographical of a teenage romance Ernest may have had, or observed.

The Whin Bush – Mostly standard English, making the case for the whin bush as the true emblem of Ulster - ‘Men of Ulster, let your token be the braw whin bush!’. Located in the Castlereagh hills, naming Ballylesson, Drum(beg), Purdysburn and ‘Minnieburn’ (Minnowburn)

• The Auld Red Cart – Farming reminiscence, reflecting on childhood around the farm and of how both things and people get old and worn out. A bit of anthropomorphism in the last verse - ‘for carts, with men an’ living things, then one down way must gang … I hae a corner in my memory for the auld red cart'

• Kate of Carrowdore – A standout piece, one I had been searching for for many years.

• M’Cready’s Call – A conversation of a much-loved minister accepting a call to move to a bigger, and more lucrative, congregation. Touches of the structure Robert Burns made famous, ‘standard habbie’. 

• Crossin' the Sound – A foreboding tale of a young man living with his widow mother on the Copeland Islands, who has promised to meet his true love in Donaghadee. His mother warns him not to go, he goes on regardless, and ends up lost at sea just as his father had been. 

• The Baker’s Man – A horse & cart bread delivery man’s story of his daily journeys, with a romance incorporated - ‘but de’il the bit she’ll stir, fu’ weel, she ken’s it’s nae her master’.

• Johnny Grumps – Meant to be a comedy piece, but from today’s perspective it could be about someone struggling with depression - ‘what’s gane wrang, what’s gane wrang, that makes yer face sae sour an’ lang, when ither folk make cheer?'

• Sing Bonnie Bird – A three verse song, more references to whin bushes, nice turn of phrase when he refers to ’the moss yestreen’.

• When Daddy to the Town has Gane – A girl’s romantic rendezvous with her boyfriend when her father is away. 

• Six Road Ends – Another standout piece, humourous and with a simple repeated rhythm. Packed with colour and similar to later local songs by other writers such as ‘The Harvest Fair’ and ‘The Big Stane’. You can see why it was later republished in The Book of Irish Poetry in 1915

• Christmas Eve – An interesting one, 11 verses long, blending Biblical references with local tradition and social reunion. References to parlour games.

• The Bonnie Birdie – Simple, with some light touches of real wordcraft - ‘Me heart’s sae sair and’ lonesome now, mair mournfu’ tune were fitter’.


The Ulster-Scots is pretty good, although inconsistent. You can tell he was learning, rather than had grown up with, the words and expressions. He uses English words in places where a ’native speaker’ just wouldn’t, for example ‘own’ instead of ‘ain’. But he deserves full credit for them.

And it is tantalising that in the 1930s, as an England-based doctor and occasional playwright and broadcaster, his radio programme The Ballad Singer was made up of songs that he had written. Perhaps some of the Up Bye Ballads were used. The performers were of a credible standard - Charlotte Tedlie would appear alongside Richard Hayward in the 1936 film The Luck of the Irish. Hilda Johnston, James Stewart, J.R. Mageean and the others listed in the radio schedule below were all frequently featured on BBC programmes of the era.

Ballad Singer

I’ve wondered what the tunes might have been, and until some ancient recording surfaces we’ll never know. So for now I have begun to compose simple melodies and have performed ‘Kate of Carrowdore’ and ‘Six Road Ends’ at a few local events, where they’ve gone down really well. It’s a joy to take Ernest Milligan’s Up Bye Ballads back to the people and places they were first inspired by, and intended for. 

They work well as songs for a present-day audience, whose Ulster-Scots is light-touch, and a kind of speckle of words within their everyday speech. That being said, the words are an audible enough kenspeckle (definition here) to be noticed as unique local Ulster-Scots landmarks in their own right. There is still enough of what Alice called 'broadest County Down Scotch' to make the poems, or songs, special, and to stamp them with rich local provenance.