Monday, March 25, 2019

Balmore Belfast Scotch Whisky - R&D McAlister

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Brexit, Trump, etc - The Ulsterisation of 'western' politics

(Images here from the 2005 movie V for Vendetta)


I've avoided committing these kinds of thoughts to pixels, apart from briefly here in June 2016, but here goes. I still think that culture is more important, enduring, and flexible, than politics.

Regardless of your stance on Brexit, I think that we are observing the  'Ulsterisation' of UK politics, and perhaps politics across wider 'western' society. But it hasn't happened overnight. It has been developing, ignored, for the past few decades. Like the plot of some sci-fi B movie, unspoken forces were seeded underground a long time ago and have been creaking and hatching ever since. Suddenly they have now broken through. The wreckage is everywhere.

Countries which have for those decades ignored their social fractures and tensions, are now experiencing the sort of 'two tribes' politics which we specialise(d) in here, and for which we used to be chastised by various world leaders. Now their successors are experiencing similar dynamics within their own populations.

Brexit has forged two political communities in the UK which have very little to do with the old party loyalties of the past 100 years. The state of the Conservative and Labour parties show this - both are riven on the issue. The endless diet of coverage galvanises these two communities into hard camps.  'Leave' and 'Remain' are no longer just administrative preferences, they have quickly become badges of personhood, defining the new human tribes of 'Leavers' and 'Remainers'. There are few shades of grey in between. As with here, for generations these tribes have read their own newspapers, listened to their own spokespersons, absorbed their own journalists. They do so even more so now, creating 'echo chambers' of 'bias confirmation', consuming what suits their tastes from the digital media menu, messages which reinforce that you are right and good and they are wrong and bad.

As with here, socially these tribes hardly ever encounter each other. They live in different worlds. When they find themselves in each other's presence, there is a discomfort or near-horror; social etiquette causes them to avoid the big issue and maintain polite small-talk. So there is little or no interaction, little or no empathy. 'They' must be defeated.

The two communities have widely differing life experiences, inherited understandings, lifestyles, and aspirations, and the EU Referendum was simply an outlet for that. David Goodhart has famously described these as the somewheres and the anywheres (BBC video here). Since June 2016 they have become committed opponents, suspicious of each other and unable or unwilling to empathise with the other. Maybe even now forged into enemies. Just listen to the phone-in shows. Watch the social media arguments. Speak to your friends in England in particular. If you make a light-hearted remark on the subject you do so at your own peril.

Once-sensible media voices become fevered. The decline of the traditional media has turned into a dogfight for survival in the online world, where advertising revenue depends upon clicks, and so the outrage machine has developed to generate anger, and to then convert that anger into income. One community gets told lies about the other, about people who were until very recently their neighbours. Hideous caricatures are painted in your mind about the type of people they are. You start to believe the exaggerations. You get radicalised.

Just why did 17.4 million people vote 'Leave'? Are they all - as the mainstream media would have us believe - stupid, gullible, racist, bigots? Gordon Brown's 2010 accusation that 65 year old Rochdale woman Gillian Duffy was a 'racist' comes to mind. Emily Thornberry's similar remarks about 'white van man' in 2014 are another example. Trump voters are similarly characterised by the loudest American voices.

I doubt that these simplistic diagnoses are the full story. Because no 'decent person' wants to be any of those things, perhaps the smears are strategically deployed with the intention of causing a recoil, and thereby stopping some of those people from ever voting that way again. But smarter voices - like this video from the Cato Institute – have a deeper set of thoughts.

The entire UK has been polarised and Ulsterised – along lines that are different than ours, but with similar social effects. And it has of course added a whole new world of complexity here, and the issues around the border and 'backstop'.  Northern Ireland has lived in an ambiguous dual-nationality detente since 1998. There is no room for ambiguity now.

Whatever happens in the coming weeks, the tectonic plates have utterly shifted, releasing huge subterranean pressures, and the future will not just be a simple reset to a pre-2016 world. Whether there is a Brexit or not, the underlying issues which caused Brexit in the first place have never been fully identified and taken seriously by government, not reflected upon by the media and the nation, not considered by neighbours. Those issues still, dare I say it, remain.

But there will be no going back.

(PS: Acclaimed Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi's forthcoming book, Hate Inc. - link here - looks like it will be an important one.)

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Beware of some academics – "The Globalization of Irish Traditional Song Performance" by Susan H. Motherway (2013)

My rather odd inclusion in this 2013 book (GoogleBooks edition here) came back to mind the other day. I stumbled upon it a few years ago, with some surprise and then bewilderment. The author - who made no contact with me or the other guys in the group (as confirmed by the list of contributors) - dissected the CD booklet notes, and overlaid an analysis, perhaps fulfilled the course requirements and satisfied the publisher's expectations. But this mangling is what can sometimes happen when normal low-key people's lives become 'content':

"the constructivist nature of Ulster-Scots music, the political overtones of this music, and the perceived low standard of performance are preventing Ulster-Scots from entering the global market".

It might come as a surprise to Susan H Motherway, but sometime people of very limited ability simply enjoy music for their friends, families and local communities with not a care in the world for what the politics and sociology fixated few, or the 'global market', think. I would suggest that some of the other references within the chapter are ... revealing in their tone and implication.

The first 'Low Country Boys' CD Gran Time Comin is/was a local effort with limited sales and popularity. So, using it as some kind of cultural quality or legitimacy indicator is like comparing Portavogie Rangers with Real Madrid. I remember the late, renowned, Geoff Harden reviewing one of our performances where he said something like 'vocally okay but instrumentally mediocre'. He was probably right!

This is not an isolated example. Numerous academics have used Ulster-Scots as content fodder for their own purposes, I have experienced and observed this myself, and I know it has been the experience of many others. These academics selectively home in on the themes and material which suit their own momentary interests, but to the exclusion of the wider available canon. On one level it doesn't really matter. But it leaves behind a trail of (potentially) skewed misrepresentations, with a gloss of academic authority. These live for a long time both online and in libraries, and cast a long shadow of influence. But the course is passed, the grades are achieved, and they move on to the next subject.

In my own design and interpretative work, I make very sure to consult and clear people's contributions before printing. Folklorists of times gone by would go to great lengths to treat their contributors with respect and to present them with authenticity. This seems to not apply as an ethic for some academics. Plenty of knowledge but no understanding, and no desire to understand.

In a world now obsessing about 'privilege' (some of which is to me exaggerated and divisive, but some of which is absolutely true) then surely there is academic privilege. This entitles some in the academy to scrutinise and critique people who are much further down the social hierarchy, who have much less power, who don't have access to well-funded career paths, publication contracts and intellectual and social influence - 'punching down' if you will.

Be careful out there.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Liberty first, loyalty second

This is the natural order. Liberty is the essential and, if liberty is provided, then loyalty is warranted. John Brekell (1697-1769) was an English Presbyterian and an inheritor of that tradition which demanded liberty first, and from that, loyalty second.

It makes no sense to be loyal to a state - whether monarch or government - which is restricting individual or community liberty. This is I think the consistent instinctive position of the Ulster-Scots community, even though they/we might not understand that or articulate that. There are numerous examples of this. So it makes no sense to be a 'loyalist', without a commitment from the state - no matter what part of the world you live in, no matter what historical era - that your liberty is secure. Liberty at risk has often galvanised Ulster-Scots to resistance and revolution.

As the 'Father of Black History', and son of freed slaves Carter G Woodson famously wrote in 1916 –

'… the strongest stock among these immigrants, however, were the Scotch-Irish, "a God-fearing, Sabbath-keeping, covenant-adhering, liberty-loving and tyrant-hating race" which had formed its ideals under the influence of philosophy of John Calvin, John Knox, Andrew Melville, and George Buchanan. By these thinkers they had been taught to emphasise equality, freedom of conscience, and political liberty ... when they demanded liberty for the colonists they spoke also for the slaves ... the ideals of the westerners were principally those of the Scotch-Irish, working for "civil liberty in fee simple, and an open road to civil honors, secured to the poorest and feeblest members of society" ... they therefore hated the institution [of slavery] ... on the early southern frontier there was more prejudice against the slave holder than against the Negro ...'

Liberty first, loyalty second. 

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Alice Milligan and the stoic emigrations of 'Scots of Ulster' - from 'Glimpses of Erin' (1888)

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Presbyterian whiskey - Samuel Wilson Boyd (1860–1932) "... bottled-up happiness, it drives away the heartache..."

Boyd & Company Old Irish Whisky artefacts and memorabilia come up quite regularly.

For about a decade Samuel Wilson Boyd (1860-1932) was Chairman of The Old Bushmills Distillery Company having been the founder and owner of Boyd & Co. Distillers, Belfast. Born in Belfast, his latter years were lived at Fairbourne, Fortwilliam Park in Belfast. He was a member and 'liberal subscriber' at Fortwilliam Presbyterian Church (which closed its doors in October 2018).

His first job was with the Belfast spirits firm Mitchell & Co, who also had interests in Glasgow.  Their founder, William Charles Mitchell, was born in Glasgow in 1834 but came to Belfast in the 1860s to manage the 'crowned king' of Ireland's distilleries, Dunville & Co.. Mitchell was a founder of the St Andrew's Society in Belfast.

Around 1902 Boyd bought Thomas Quinn & Co of Hill Street, which later became Boyd & Co. He was chairman of the Ulster Anti-Prohibition Council and also of the Distillers and Wholesale Wine and Spirit Merchants Association.

The Census of Ireland in 1901 and 1911 shows that the family were then living at Claremont House, 1 Ardenlee Avenue (I think the Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church is now on the site). Their son Cecil was killed in the Great War; he is named on the roll of honour in Whitehead Presbyterian Church. The family sold the house in August 1919.

1923 was a big year for Boyd – he bought the Bushmills distillery, and later that year all of the offices and warehouses that Bushmills owned in Hill Street. He also took to the stage that same year as you can see here:

He oversaw Bushmills becoming a limited company in 1930, with two of his sons as co-directors. He toured America for some time, investigating the effects of Prohibition. He died in June 1932, the funeral was conducted at Fortwilliam Presbyterian and he was buried at the City Cemetery.

Edwin Henry Shaw and the Scottish Saint Patrick mosaic in St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast

Edwin Henry Shaw was yarn merchant who lived at Ailsa Lodge, Craigavad. and had business premises in Bedford Street, Belfast. He was the benefactor who paid for the building of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit in St Anne’s Cathedral, which includes the spectacular mosaics by sisters Gertrude and Margaret Martin, one of which is a ‘tympanum’ that depicts St Patrick sailing from Scotland, with a Scottish saltire flag at his feet (shown above).

The two London-based artists spent at least 4 years on the Cathedral, from 1928-1932, having previously worked on similar commissions at Westminster Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament (see their Patrick, Columba and Brigid mosaic below).

What is particularly interesting is that none of the newspaper reports remark on the prominent Scottish imagery on the mosaic – suggesting that the traditions of Patrick’s Scottish origins were widely understood and accepted in that era.

The Chapel was consecrated on 5 June 1932 and dedicated on 9 June by the Bishop of Warrington and Bishop of Birmingham, which was a ticketed event. The Belfast News-Letter reported that the Bishop of Birmingham said ‘I take it that we rightly see in the Saint a Christian of Western Britain, whether his home was near the Clyde or in South Wales’. The paper also said that the mosaic showed ‘the coming of St Patrick, and his divinely appointed work of bringing light and liberty to Ireland’.

The Dean remarked that ‘Belfast had not hitherto found much room for the expression of religious emotion in terms of art, architecture, music, warmth and colour, owing in part to the circumstances of its growth, in part to their cold northern climate, and in part to their native Puritanism’.

It seems that Shaw had wanted to remain anonymous, but his identity became known against his wishes.

When Edwin Henry Shaw died in 1944 the newspapers of the time say that he left behind an estate of £216, 153. He had made multiple personal bequests, but the great majority was equally shared among five organisations –  the Cathedral, the Royal Victoria Hospital, the Church Missionary Society, the South American Missionary Society, and the Royal United Kingdom Beneficent Association.

Edwin Shaw was the brother of Brevet-Major S H Shaw, who died in 1904 and left his estate to Edwin and their sister Elizabeth. Their father had been Charles Wolfe Shaw.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

James Craig and family, 1921

(photo above from 1921)

Every now and again I dip into the St John Ervine 1949 posthumous biography of James Craig, entitled Craigavon Ulsterman. Ervine frequently uses the term Ulster Scot to describe the Craig family origins. Craig is best known as the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, and notorious for his usually decontextualised quote 'Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State'. It came up recently in conversation with a friend, whose perception of Craig has been almost entirely formed by repetition of that infamous 1934 soundbite, but who was unaware of the context, which is on Wikipedia here. Most people don't know that it was said in response to similar remarks from his Southern Ireland counterparts. Others out there will know the sources, I don't have them to hand here.

The biography also includes an interesting extract from 's Seán Ó Faoláin's acclaimed 1939 biography of Éamon De Valera, which appears to confirm that there was discrimination in the South - 'neither north nor south need pretend that the other is alone in this kind of penalisation on account of religion and private opinion'.

Efforts to create what might be called a mono-cultural ethnostate on the island of Ireland, or in one or other jurisdiction on the island of Ireland, should be equally acknowledged, and equally repudiated. It was not restricted to north or south. But our future can be better if we re-examine and critique our pasts, not just reinforce soundbites for ideological advantage. We choose what baggage we carry with us. Inflamed grievances will take us nowhere good.

Ireland is an island of cultural variety, and the province of Ulster arguably contains the most variety of all, if you can think beyond the stereotypes. Vikings, Anglo-Normans, Huguenots, Quakers, Moravians, Jews, Italians, Eastern Europeans - as well as the Irish, English and Scots.

We can also have differing worldviews from our neighbours. Neither is necessarily 'wrong', or 'bad', or 'evil' - but maybe just radically different through experience, understanding, perspective and aspiration. Realising that is important – whether in Northern Ireland specifically, the wider UK in terms of 'remainers' and 'leavers', or in the USA with the issues that led to the election of Donald Trump.

The 2021 centennial of Northern Ireland, handled well, presents an opportunity to improve understanding and relationships - by challenging 'fake news' narratives, by setting aside cherished mythologies, and by trying to improve everyone's cultural future.

As politics across the western world unravels, culture is still where the positive potential is.


Below - a 1929 poster showing the co-operation of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland on the agricultural and fishing industries. The respective tourism bodies openly proposed a joint marketing campaign in the USA including a billboard in Times Square in New York. Yet to listen to today's 'accepted wisdom' we might assume a history of constant conflict. It's not true - be wary of those whose careers depend upon creating that impression.

Andrew A Watt & Co – Londonderry and Glasgow

Huge thanks to Abby Wise for directing me to this mirror on my recent trip to Edinburgh. Wonderful Ulster-Scots artefact!

Saturday, March 02, 2019

When did 'we' stop telling 'our' sad stories?

Recently I've been working on a number of history projects, absorbing and learning stories which are new to me. Last week I was over in Scotland for a few days - literally a flying visit, from Belfast to Edinburgh - and spent a day on the old town where I re-visited some of the historic Covenanter sites. The photo above is of current restoration work on the famous monument to '18,000' martyrs in Greyfriars kirkyard. As ever, this has caused me to think and has also brought back some memories.

The 'we' and 'our' in the title of this post are references to broad present-day Ulster Protestant evangelical communities. I grew up on many sad stories - like the Covenanters, like Corrie Ten Boom, like Richard Wurmbrand and many others who suffered behind the Iron Curtain, like 'Brother Andrew', like Jim Elliott, of my grandparents and parents' personal stories of their own poverty during the 20th century in rural Ulster. Stories of suffering and one might say 'injustice'. We had a few copies of Foxe's Book of Martyrs which I eagerly read. There are many more examples. Even the many innocents who were murdered during the Troubles are mostly brushed aside.

For some reason 'we' have stopped telling our sad stories. They are socially impolite. A mixture of stoicism and amnesia, a 'press release' mentality and shallow optimism has skewed our self-image, and therefore others' impression of us. Stories stay 'safe' out of concern of causing discomfort or offence. But if 'we' insist we have always been comfortable - or victorious - then we have nothing interesting to say, and that somebody else, or some other group, must have been victims.

I know plenty of people - on both sides of our 'divide' - who have no idea of these histories and experiences. I gave my illustrated talk on the Covenanters a few months ago, to a mixed audience, and at the end one man in the Q&A session said "I had no idea you people had suffered too'.

Modern evangelicalism, in particular musically, emphasised up-tempo major keys and positive themes and notions of triumph and victory. Sermons have morphed into pep talks and life lessons and 'applying the text to Monday'. No wonder many whose life experiences are mostly minor keys and doubts and difficulties have stopped turning up on Sundays.

The 'We Are The People' slogan is not true. 'We' have suffered too. So 'We' need to tell our stories in a more rounded way, furthering both our own understanding, and the understanding of our neighbours and how they view us.