Saturday, April 21, 2018

Ulster's three strands - shamrock, rose and thistle

Shamrock Rose Thistle copy

Three cultural traditions interwoven and overlapping, growing in the same soil. A 'triple blend'. To quote King Solomon, a 'threefold cord'. Others have spoken of a 'three-legged stool'.

Before the Troubles, but even into the mid 1970s, ‘shamrock rose and thistle’ can be seen to be frequently used as a literary, and often visual, motif as an idea to summarise Ulster’s cultural blend. It maps onto our faith communities (Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian), languages (Ulster Irish, Ulster English, Ulster Scots) and our peoples. Of course there are other groups, but these three are the main ones. Giants of Ulster folklife and traditions, like Sam Hanna Bell, often cited the idea.

So I was surprised recently to hear the concept outrightly dismissed by influential people who really should know better. There is an important task to be done in chronologically cataloguing the authentic usage of this historic concept - it might help our present, and our future. Some examples below.

Traditional singer Eddie Butcher, 1976 Shamrockroseandthistle led2070

Derry Journal, 31 July 1850 Tenant Right Letterkenny

Belfast News Letter, 4 December 1914 Ulster linen 1914

Embroidery sampler, perhaps the one referred to above? Ulster Linen crop

Ulster Reform Club mosaic floor, built 1885 Image004

Monday, April 16, 2018

1606 - Ulster and Virginia


(The plaque above is at Historic Jamestown; an illustration of the plaque can be seen in Prof. Jordan B. Peterson’s bestselling recent book 12 Rules for Life).


On 10 April 1606, when his Ayrshire friends James Hamilton and Hugh Montgomery were preparing boats of Lowland Scots folk and supplies to sail from south west Scotland to County Down, King James VI & I signed the First Charter of Virginia, permitting Englishmen to establish a colony in Virginia. Hamilton & Montgomery’s families arrived at Donaghadee in May 1606; the Jamestown colony arrived in Virginia a year later in May 1607.

The full text of the Charter is online here at Yale Law School

King James promised these first American settlers:

"that all and every the Persons being our Subjects, which shall dwell and inhabit within every or any of the said several Colonies and Plantations, and every of their children, which shall happen to be born within any of the Limits and Precincts of the said several Colonies and Plantations, shall HAVE and enjoy all Liberties, Franchises, and Immunities, within any of our other Dominions, to all Intents and Purposes, as if they had been abiding and born, within this our Realm of England, or any other of our said Dominions”.

170 years later, the American Revolution would be fought against a Crown which was restricting those promised liberties, with Samuel Adams (a friend and occasional congregant of influential Donegal-born Ulsterman Francis Allison) restating in 1772 in his The Rights of the Colonists that:

"All persons born in the British American Colonies are, by the laws of God and nature and by the common law of England, exclusive of all charters from the Crown, well entitled, and by acts of the British Parliament are declared to be entitled, to all the natural, essential, inherent, and inseparable rights, liberties, and privileges of subjects born in Great Britain or within the realm."

Shortly after, this stance would famously become "all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”, reaching far beyond any earthly Crown, King or Kingdom - an appeal to the ultimate Throne, not one in London.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

William McEwan's Edison cylinders, 1912 - and a new 'anthology' box set.

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The William McEwan/ MacEwan story just won’t go away! In the past two weeks I’ve found that, before the legendary 78s for Columbia Phonograph Co., he issued four cylinders for Edison, one of which is winging its way across the Atlantic to me as we speak. These were issued in 1912:

‘Memories of Mother’ (12424) – March 1912
‘Gospel Bells’ (14122) – March 1912
‘The Broken Heart’ (14160) – August 1912
‘God Will Take Care of You’ (14163) – October 1912

There are varying accounts of when the Columbia recordings were made (most say November 1911) and issued (most say September 1913). But these 1912 Edison cylinders are a whole new discovery. They are listed here.

Just as much of a surprise was an email from someone I’ve known a long time who, it turns out, is also a McEwan fan, and who intends to release an ‘anthology' box set of all of the recordings later this year. More on this to follow.

WilliamMcEwan Graphic

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Kinahan's 'Glenisle' and Lyle & Kinahan's 'Scotch Malt Very Old' - Scotch Whisky from Ireland, late 1800s?


I have been learning more recently about whisky. It’s not a specialist subject of mine but I do remember my mother keeping a bottle of Bushmills at the back of the cupboard to make up some whisky punch as a pacifier for my younger siblings. Maybe that’s illegal now!

Anyway, I have found that the Dublin-based Irish spirits producer Kinahan’s had a brand of Scotch whisky called Glenisle. Their Belfast rival with the ‘confusingly-similar’ name of Lyle & Kinahan, had a Scotch Malt called Very Old. Some adverts showing these are below.

The Dublin firm dates from the 1770s. Belfast’s Lyle & Kinahan was founded in 1850 by Samuel Lyle and Frederick Kinahan (1830-1902) of Lowwood, north Belfast, when they bought out William McClure & Son. He was the son of Rev John Kinahan, Rector of Knockbreda, and seemingly a nephew of the then-owners of the Dublin brand.

(Samuel Lyle lived at 23 University Square and was an elder of Fisherwick Place Presbyterian Church. He seems to have been a good deal older than Kinahan, and was a friend his rector father. Lyle and Rev Kinahan were committee members of the Ulster Society for Promoting the Education of the Deaf, Dumb and Blind. Lyle was also a donor to the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, and an office-bearer in both the Belfast Town Mission and Belfast General Hospital. There are hints that Lyle may have become uncomfortable with the firm selling alcohol, but when Lyle died on 24 December 1856, Kinahan was very happy to scale it up).

The two companies got into a major legal tangle over trademarks and copyrights in 1906 (see documentation here). The Belfast firm was the winner, having been able to prove continuous use of the name since 1867.

As yet I don't know if these whiskies were distilled in Scotland, or here in Ulster/Ireland, but it’s an interesting geographical and branding overlap that would probably be impossible today given how regulated and protected the definitions of Scotch and Irish whiskys/whiskeys have become.

Kinahan’s was revived a few years ago and its ‘LL’ brand is back on the market again. As far as I know Lyle & Kinahan died out in the late twentieth century and its plant was bought over by Bass Ireland. (photo below from Facebook)

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Sunday, April 08, 2018

The Gospel origins of country music ... and rock 'n' roll?

I was recently invited to have a conversation about this topic for a forthcoming radio broadcast. More on that to follow.

It’s a subject that’s been been in the back of my head for a long time, absorbed over maybe 30+ years of reading, listening, observing and researching. Fragments have been posted here too.

With the huge upsurge of popular hymnwriting which seems to have followed the revivals of the 1850s in particular* (in Scotland, Ulster and America pretty much simultaneously), a new ‘template’ for hymnwriting emerged. Simple tunes, easily singable. Repeated choruses. 4/4 time and 3 chords. Big ‘hook’ melodies. Easy to harmonise with. Written by skilled songwriters, many of whom were already successful in the secular mainstream. A little faster and suddenly you’re starting to sound like Lynyrd Skynyrd unplugged. I can remember a piano player in a hall I used to go to in my teens, not much older than me, who, when he got the chance, would sprinkle in a bit of honky-tonk when he thought the hymn warranted it. It was magic.

These hymns were massively popular - and at the same time somewhat controversial for the more traditionally-minded churches. It brought the format of secular pop songs and folk songs into the churches - and when you grasp that, then you can see more clearly the case for exclusive Psalms-only worship.

Yet the Wedderburn brothers in 1500s Scotland had done just the same thing with their Luther-inspired Gude and Godlie Ballads (see previous post here). Never underestimate the power of songs -  the Ballads ‘… did more for the spread of reformation doctrines than any other book published in Scotland …’ but soon it would be John Calvin’s Psalms-only approach which would come to dominate the country. Fast forward 300+ years and when Moody & Sankey arrived in Psalms-only Scotland in the 1870s, and Ireland shortly after, the Glasgow press wrote that the hymns sounded like Scottish and Irish folk music (see previous post here). So what Moody & Sankey did wasn’t ‘new’, they were in fact just turning the clock back.

Many famous singers emerged from the world of popular hymns. It’s a big subject for another post. We’re not just talking about the Carter Family of the 1920s, it carries on right up to the present day. The wonderful 4-times Grammy winner Jason Isbell - a native of Alabama and 7 years younger than me - recently spoke of his grandfather teaching him to play the guitar, starting with gospel standards. 

And of his father’s 6 day working week in the local hospital meaning he was sad to be too tired to go to church some Sundays, which inspired his song Something More Than Free.

Sunday morning I'm too tired to go to church
But I thank God for the work
When I get my reward my work will all be done
And I will sit back in my chair beside the Father and the Son

From 1850 to now is about 170 years of unbroken tradition. The quality of the songs is so good that they have endured.

When you grow up in an environment of that type of songwriting, the basic template is only a whisker away from what would become known as 12 bar blues. And the hymns were used in both white and black churches. And mixed ones too. Music gets shared. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, Thomas Dorsey would all sing these and compose similar ones of their own. Go to 9 minutes here to see Thomas Dorsey and Sallie Martin. Just wonderful!

Gospel is a message before it’s a genre. The life-changing message of being made right with God by faith alone through grace alone - a gift received, not a reward earned. Christ not merely as a good example or wise moral teacher, but as our Substitute, Mediator, Advocate. What Luther described as ‘The Great Exchange’ takes place - Christ took upon Himself what we deserve, and we receive what He deserves. Whether it’s through the grandeur of Handel’s Messiah, a plaintive ancient Psalm, or an irresistible foot-tapping gem like Would You Be Free from your Burden of Sin?, it's good news worth singing about. This isn’t religion as control, this is faith as liberty. As Philip Bliss wrote around 1870, “Free from the Law, Oh happy condition!"

Elvis’ only Grammys were for his gospel albums. And so many of the writers of those old hymns were of Ulster descent. It’s not an American importation, it’s a genuinely transatlantic tradition. Moody, Sankey, Chapman and Alexander came over here; many of ours went over there. James Martin Gray, whose parents emigrated from Gray’s Hill in Bangor, became one of Moody’s right hand men and wrote the hymn Only A Sinner Saved By GraceCharles Hutchison Gabriel is said to have sold 17 million copies of the sheet music for his 1900 composition Oh That Will Be Glory For Me. That’s as many sales as Hotel California by The Eagles, one of the biggest-selling albums of all time.

Just before Christmas, Mojo magazine had a free cover CD entitled True Faith. So many great tracks on it, including Johnny Cash’s 1959 version of Lead Me Gently Home Father.

It was written by William L. Thompson, who is said to have been America’s first million dollar songwriter. His grandparents had been Ballymena emigrants. Thompson had a massive musical instrument mail order business, selling everything from harmonium pump-organs to fiddles, guitars, mandolins and banjos. Here’s one of his hymnals which he edited and published around 1904, featuring Where He May Lead Me I Will Go, Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown, I Surrender All, Sunshine In The Soul, all just in the first few pages. Classics every one.

The great evangelist Dwight L. Moody, on his death bed, turned to his friend Will L. Thompson and said, 'I would rather have written “Softly and Tenderly” than anything I have been able to do in my whole life!'

* there were of course many hymnwriters before 1850, but it’s a useful date in terms of the scale of output and the arising publishing industry.

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Friday, April 06, 2018

Elizabeth Catte - "What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia"

Elizabeth Catte writes some great stuff. She's Appalachian, and wisely rebutts all of the easy clichés and stereotypes, including Hillbilly Elegy. But not through academic knowledge alone, through actual lived experience. Check out her website here.

At first I was excited about Hillbilly Elegy and the re-emergence of the Scotch-Irish/Scots-Irish 'nation' in the American consciousness. But then I read it and was disappointed. It became the easy 'go-to' for the urban media class scrambling for explanations for the Trump victory. The Scotch-Irish story is far broader, deeper and more important than that.

Rev Robert Fishburne Campbell (1858-1947) of First Presbyterian Church, Asheville, North Carolina, also had some interesting things to say about Appalachian stereotypes, almost 120 years ago. Some he refutes, but others he confirms.

• Here’s a 1901 booklet entitled Classification of Mountain Whites. He suggests that there are three classes of people in the mountains, with the Scotch-Irish being the virtuous and industrious ones. Make of that what you will. 

• Here’s another by Campbell on Mission Work among the Mountain Whites (1899)

• here’s one entitled Some Aspects of the Race Problem in the South from the same year.

There are a few biographies of Campbell online. Like us all, a man of his time, but he seems to have been prominent and influential. Here’s one on It’s important to consider all of the angles, and to be honest about the biases and contexts of the past. We today all have our own biases, even subconscious. As does the media.

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Some Aspects of the Race Problem in the South Blog

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

From Cavan to Canada - the Ulster-Scots origins of Canada Dry Ginger Ale

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Canada dry label 1906

Canada Dry is one of the world’s biggest soft drink brands. Ginger ale is now enjoying a resurgence, largely thanks to the rapid growth of the gin industry worldwide and in particular here in Northern Ireland. A number of successful local gins, such as Jawbox, recommend mixing the spirit with ginger ale. Ginger ale is said to have been invented in Belfast, perhaps as early as the 1830s.

Canada Dry was founded in 1904 by John James McLauglin (1865-1914), who had set up a drinks company in 1890 having spent time in New York working for a similar firm. McLaughlin's family roots were Ulster-Scots.

His grandfather, also called John (1811-1893), had been born in Knockbride in County Cavan and was baptised at Corraneary Presbyterian Church. He and Eliza Rusk were betrothed and they were among a group of Ulster emigrants who left in 1832. They married in 1834. Their grandson Sam McLaughlin later wrote this account (the two Tyrone references are potentially confusing) –

… Grandfather John McLaughlin came to Canada from County Tyrone on a sailing ship in 1832. He and the 140 other Irish men, women and children on the ship were not "potato famine" immigrants but had been persuaded to come to Canada by an agent for a scheme to populate the Peterborough area. I don't think Grandfather McLaughlin required much persuasion; he was eager for the opportunities offered to an energetic young man by the big new country across the Atlantic,

At Montreal John McLaughlin and his companions transferred to river boats for the hazardous trip up to Lake Ontario. It proved so hazardous that Grandfather nearly did not survive it. His boat was swamped in rough water and all his possessions were lost. When he landed at Cobourg for the overland journey to Peterborough he had only the contents of a thin wallet between himself and destitution.

Grandfather stayed in Peterborough only a short time, then took up a 160-acre grant of crown land in the virgin forest six miles north of Bowmanville. Some of the other Irish settlers took land nearby, and, nostalgically, they called the place Tyrone.

Granddad cut enough trees to build a log cabin and make a clearing to sow his first crop. In that log cabin was born his eldest child, my father Robert McLaughlin ... 

… Granddad was a devout man, and the only activity permitted on Sundays was church-going. But that in itself was an adventure, a complete change of scene, a transition from the "Little Ireland" atmosphere of Tyrone to the mixed Irish and Scottish settlement of Enniskillen, four miles away. For there was no Presbyterian church at Tyrone, and the good Ulstermen journeyed to the kirk at Enniskillen ...

Re: the Tyrone references, Sam is wrong in the first one - his grandfather John and grandmother Eliza were definitely from County Cavan in Ulster, but he is right in the second reference, that there was a Tyrone in Canada. Such was the concentration of Ulster settlement in this part of Canada that they did indeed settle at a place called Tyrone, in Cavan Township, near Enniskillen, in Durham County, Ontario. There were of course many Orange lodges in the district (see here for more details, in ‘Early Days in Enniskillen - Part 3').

Their son Robert Samuel (1836-1921) was born in Cavan Township. He became a wealthy industrialist, setting up the McLaughlin Carriage Company in 1867 which later collaborated with Buick and was eventually merged into General Motors Canada. Robert was also a Sunday School teacher in his father’s kirk - Enniskillen Presbyterian Church, Ontario.

… It was in the kirk that my father met Mary Smith, the daughter of Scottish settlers who had come to Enniskillen from Perthshire two or three years after the McLaughlins reached Tyrone. She was a bonnie lass, this Enniskillen girl who was to become my mother ...

John James, the founder of the Canada Dry brand, was born in Enniskillen in Ontario. He was a chemist. His two brothers joined the family car firm, but John established the J.J. McLaughlin Company Limited, Manufacturers of Hygeia Beverages in Toronto. He attended Rosedale Presbyterian Church in Toronto, a congregation which had been founded in 1907. After a lifetime of poor health, McLaughlin died in 1914 aged just 48. The company was sold in 1923 but the brand continues to sparkle today.

• His entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography is online here.

… the sweet, dark gold, Belfast-style ginger ale bottled and sold by McLaughlin, and patterned after a ginger ale long popular in Ireland and Canada, was changed to a less sugared substance of lighter colour. To market it, the slogan that would become known the world over, “The Champagne of Ginger Ales” ...

Images duckduckgo

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