Thursday, May 31, 2018

Before The Throne of God Above - the 'sympathy marriage' of Charitie Smith / Charitie Lee Bancroft De Cheney

It’s become one of the most popular hymns of recent years. Before The Throne of God Above was originally written by a teenage girl from County Fermanagh around 1860 which she then published in a collection of poems in 1867. It lay pretty much in obscurity until it was recovered around 1997 by American songwriter Vikki Cook of Sovereign Grace Music, who composed a new tune. It has since become a worldwide favourite.

The quality and simplicity of the words have brought wide acclaim from seasoned theologians, an excellent summary of the basics of the Reformed faith. It is remarkable that a teenager had such understanding and expressive skills.

• Charitie Smith
The writer was Charitie Smith (1841-1923; Wikipedia here). She was born in Dublin, the daughter of a Scottish-born Church of Ireland rector called Sidney Smith who ministered at Colebrooke and later Drumragh near Omagh. So Charitie’s childhood and early life was spent in the rural west of Ulster within the communities of these two churches. There is a memorial stained glass window to Sidney in one of them. She married former Royal Navy man Arthur E. Bancroft from Liverpool on 21 October 1869 at St Thomas Episcopal Church in Corstorphine, Edinburgh. His father was Peter Bancroft (1809–97), a prominent merchant. However, Arthur Bancroft died some time in the 1880s.

A dig around reveals more detail...

• Prison Philanthropy
Charitie went to America, possibly with her doctor brother Thomas. In newspaper records from California she was described as ‘a woman of considerable means’ who became involved in philanthropic prison reform work in the famed penitentiaries of San Quentin and Folsom. She didn’t only invest her time and goodwill there -  ‘a large part of her personal fortune was spent in the reformation of former inmates’. 

• Marriage
She married Frank Lees De Cheney. He was 27 years younger than her, a ‘mining man and rancher’. Some accounts date the marriage at 1891 when she would have been 50 and he 23. Other accounts say 1901, when she would have been 60 and he 33. It was definitely 1901 when the marriage broke down.

• Divorce
On April 17 1915, aged 75, Charitie, described as ‘a familiar figure in the exclusive set’, was served with divorce papers. They were pushed through an open window by Sheriff Michael Sheehan while she was asleep on the front porch of her summer home at Moss Beach in San Francisco.

The divorce was on the grounds of ‘desertion - the claimant is from San Francisco, and claims that his wife refused to live in San Francisco but preferred southern California’.

The divorce was granted in infamous Reno, Nevada (where the song famously says ‘romances bloom and fade') on 29 May 1915; newspaper reports reveal some context – 'there was a touch of religious difference between the two. Mrs De Cheney is a devout woman while he is a professed agnostic. Her nephew testified along this line saying that he did not think Mrs De Cheney had ever been in a theater in her life.' The wedding was described as ‘a sympathy affair; he had just emerged from a long illness at the time and she had been exceeding kind to him. After the wedding she thought that he would be better away from the temptations of a large city, but he did not agree to that. De Cheney went to Nevada shortly after they parted in 1901’.

She died on 20 January 1923, aged 82, and was buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.
Her brother Thomas Orde Smith also died in Oakland, California in 1931.



Before the throne of God above 
I have a strong and perfect plea 
A great High Priest whose name is love 
Who ever lives and pleads for me 
My name is graven on His hands 
My name is written on His heart 
I know that while in heav’n He stands 
No tongue can bid me thence depart 
No tongue can bid me thence depart 

When Satan tempts me to despair 
And tells me of the guilt within 
Upward I look and see Him there 
Who made an end of all my sin 
Because the sinless Savior died 
My sinful soul is counted free 
For God the Just is satisfied 
To look on Him and pardon me 
To look on Him and pardon me 

Behold Him there, the risen Lamb 
My perfect, spotless Righteousness 
The great unchangeable I AM 
The King of glory and of grace 
One with Himself, I cannot die 
My soul is purchased by His blood 
My life is hid with Christ on high 
With Christ my Savior and my God 
With Christ my Savior and my God

Monday, May 21, 2018

E. Estyn Evans on Ulster's three traditions (1951)

E. Estyn Evans (1905-1989; Wikipedia here) was one of the foremost figures of his time - I know some who studied under him at Queen’s University - he was a recognised authority on folklife and tradition, an academic and author. His Irish Folk Ways (1957) is a classic text. Here is his take on the three traditions concept, from a book published for the Festival of Britain in 1951. We might take a softer view, in that there are overlaps across all three, but you can see that he was aware of the 'model' as a way of explaining Ulster's story. It is interesting that the cobbled streets of Belfast were paved with Scottish stones.

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Nesca Robb on Ulster's three linguistic traditions

The family of Nesca Adeline Robb (1905–1976) ran the once-famous Robb's Department Store in Belfast city centre. She was a friend of the likes of John Hewitt and Sam Hanna Bell, and was effectively the founder of the National Trust in Northern Ireland, and an important figure in the arts community here, with international recognition for some of her writings. Her unpublished manuscripts in PRONI are a cultural goldmine - she could see that an understanding was being lost in the rush towards modernity. Here she is explaining our three traditions. Nesca Robb 3 traditions

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The Scotch-Irish of Northampton County, Pennsylvania

Northampton County has a Belfast, a Bangor, a North Bangor, and not far beyond is Milford. This 1879 book is subtitled A Record of those Scotch-Irish Presbyterian Families who were the First Settlers in the Forks of Delaware. A quick flick through the text shows frequent usages of the term Scotch Irish and also one of Ulster Scot. So once again the terminological pedigree is evident.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Jason Isbell - 'If We Were Vampires"

Great artist (referred to in a recent post), great song, great aesthetic in these three videos.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

All mixed up

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Culture is transmitted. People share things, adopt things, and (often unwittingly) absorb the community values that surround them. People change and adapt. New things come along, some old things endure, some are discarded. New people embrace those values and become part of the community. This is what makes life interesting, and Ulster is no different. In that regard culture is much more interesting to me than assumptions about ancestry. 

It’s maybe easier to observe in America, where for example the wonderful musical duo the Loudermilk / Louvin Brothers, of Dutch or German ancestry, lived in the very Scotch-Irish world of northern Alabama and the southern Appalachians. Their ancestry wasn’t defining, but their cultural setting was.

I only knew three of my grandparents - my paternal grandfather, the local poet and three field homestead farmer William Thompson, died a long time before I was born. The other three were solidly culturally Ulster-Scots in every imaginable way, and so I am sure that he was too.

Yet it is highly presumptious to think that that’s all they were comprised of. A peek into their ancestry reveals some interesting potential twists. My maternal grandmother was Mary-Ann (Molly) Hamill (1918-1982). My paternal grandmother was Maggie-Anne (Madge) Coffey (1911-1995). These two surnames, Hamill and Coffey, are pretty much as old as it gets round here - older than the Lowland Scottish surnames which arrived here post-1606 with Hamilton & Montgomery.

Both Coffey and Hamill can be found as surnames of the Irish tenants on James Hamilton’s east Down estates in the early 1600s. Neill and Manus O’Hamill lived at Ballyhalbert and Groomsport respectively, and Edward O’Coffie and his brother, whose first name is unrecorded, lived at Killyleagh. They weren't ‘driven out’ as the loaded stereotype would claim. These, and other Irish families, are referred to even in Sir James Hamilton’s will. It is entirely plausible that these are ancestors of my two grandmothers.

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Their names are among those catalogued in Rev David Stewart’s landmark 1950s research The Scots in Ulster - that’s where the images on this post come from. 

Ancestrally my grandmothers may well have had some pre-Plantation Irish elements, but culturally they were both Ulster-Scots. There’s a family tradition on the Hamill side, probably dating from the late 1800s or early 1900s, that a young Catholic girl from Donaghadee had fallen pregnant, was shunned by her family. A young Presbyterian man, a shopkeeper from Millisle, took pity on her, gave her a job and a room in his house, and eventually they got married. Surnames like Drennan and Carr/Kerr bubble around in that generation, I’m not precisely sure which apply to this - socially scandalous - couple. 

Most of us, ancestrally, are a mixed bag. But culturally, my lot have been Ulster-Scots for as far back as anyone can recall. Prior to that, my white eyebrows and haplogroup I-M253 suggest a bit of Viking or Anglo-Norman in there. 

Our actual lived experience, and the influence and values of our families and community, is what forms us culturally - not some imagined ancient past. We learn from our history but we live our culture, and our culture can take on new forms and be shared with others.

There’s a great letter from Rev Josias Welsh of Templepatrick in south Antrim who observed in 1632 that people recently arrived from England were quickly adopting Presbyterian culture. Shamrock, rose and thistle.

So when I was at a history talk event not that long ago, and not in my own locality - I was a bit shocked when the Q&A session at the end descended into a “they stole our land”.  What is meant by “they”? And what is meant by “our”? I know fine well what was implied, but when your ancestry is probably on both sides of the argument then you can see how pointless it is.

And does one historical moment matter more than all other moments? Do the eras of conflict assume more importance than the eras of co-operation? Does the present generation inherit the culpability for the social problems of the past, but gain none of the credit for historical social co-operations? And how is that responsibility or credit tangibly measured?

In a way we are all either editors or audiences - editors in that we choose what we decide to cherish, audiences in that someone else’s editorial decisions are served up to us. These choices are made for good or for ill. 

So where do you choose to draw the line?