Saturday, November 30, 2019

Sam Henry 'A Critic In The Candlelight' - Summer 1943

'My heart had a vision of Ulster the Land of the Free.
Our fathers shed their blood for the right to think.'

This is by the wonderful and globally-renowned folklorist and photographer Sam Henry, from Ulster Parade Number 5, a periodical that was published during the years of WW2, quarterly from 1942–1947, and which featured a variety of popular Ulster writers of the time. It was published by The Quota Press, which was an interesting and innovative imprint that produced a large amount of local material from around 1927–1952. There are quite a few Ulster-Scots kailyard stories in the editions of Ulster Parade I have.

The use of very natural Ulster-Scots in this story by Sam Henry is joyful, and it's especially interesting to see it in print in the 1940s, which is usually thought of as a period where Ulster-Scots had fallen out of fashion. The storyline, of the hassles of trade barriers and import taxes across the border, is very topical in our current Brexit context!

Monday, November 25, 2019

Bowmore - the most expensive Scotch whisky in the world? – and the Old Comber connection

This article (albeit from 2012) shows just how in-demand whisky from Bowmore Distillery on Islay is. £150,000 for a bottle of spirit is quite some price tag. It was bottled in 1957 when Bowmore was owned by William Grigor & Sons, from 1950–1961. As you can see from the clipping below, when the company's owner James Grigor died, he was the owner of both Bowmore and Old Comber.

A 1980s bottling of 1950s Old Comber is a relative bargain, at just over £500. On 27 October 2019 a bottle of Old Comber, which from the label design looks to date from around 1900, sold on for £2750 (see photo below).

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Rivers and Burns of Belfast: Town Burn, Pound Burn, Knockburn and Mary Burn

Intro: They say that history is written by the 'victors'. That's true in the aftermath of a war. But for the mundane normalities of everyday existence, in every society in the world, daily life is recorded by the dominant culture which has a kind of social power and 'majority privilege'. Ulster-Scots has never been dominant here – it was and is the speech of ordinary folk – and so much of it has gone unrecorded. So finding gold nuggets gleaming out of the dull silt is exciting.

There are still many very familiar 'burns' still today around greater Belfast, such as Minnowburn, Purdysburn, Tillysburn. Further out there are Muttonburn, Woodburn, Redburn, Crawfordsburn and maybe even Lisburn. I am sure there are more. These names reflect the parts of the Belfast hinterland where Lowland Scots settled over the centuries. Here are four more examples I recently came across which are new to me:

• The Presbyterian Banner of Ulster newspaper reported on 29 March 1860 that an old forgotten stone bridge had been discovered during works on High Street, referring to –

'... the turgid waters of the "Town Burn" from the Bank Buildings to the embouchure of the stream, opposite Queen's Square ... The "Town Burn" was perfectly opened down to the river, and navigable, at flood-tide, for very small craft and boats ... The "Town Burn" or "Belfast River" as it was sometimes called, had, it is supposed, an artificial course through the town – as would seem to be shown by its comparative straightness from the Belfast Flour Mills to its junction with the Lagan ...'

Today, that 'straightness' runs from Andrews Flour Mill down Divis Street into Castle Street and Castle Place and then into High Street – certainly the description sounds a lot like the famous final section of High Street which ships used to be able to sail into from the River Lagan, as depicted in the Carey illustration above. It was all culverted and built over in the later 1800s.

• The Northern Whig of 4 November 1902 refers to another, called the Pound Burn. According to Councillor J. N. M'Cammond surface water was 'running like a millrace from the Pound Burn' due to flooding problems in Belfast. It was located between Glengall Street and Grosvenor Street, eventually joining the Blackstaff River. The bad weather had resulted in the Pound Burn being 'in a filthy condition with two or three feet of mud, old tin cans, and refuse of all sorts ... had the Pound Burn and Blackstaff River beds been cleaned out there would not have been the flooding in this district to the same extent, and possibly none at all'. It is marked on the 1957–1986 OS map, close to the junction of the Grosvenor Road and Durham Street.

There was a street called Old Pound Loney there too (link here) - a familiar corruption of the Scots word loanen meaning lane. There is also a Pound Burn in Monkstown in Newtownabbey.

• The Belfast Telegraph of 28 December 1956 front page showed a photograph of houses being severely flooded around the Castleview Road area captioned as 'owing to the rain and thaw, the Knockburn River flooded houses and gardens in the area'. This is just directly across the road from the famous entrance to Parliament Buildings at Stormont. On OS maps it is called the Knock River, but yet must have been known locally as Knockburn – there is a street called Knockburn Park still there today.

• An old OS map I picked up a while ago in a second hand shop shows a Mary Burn in the countryside around Andersonstown which is now West Belfast, and which looks like it might have been a tributary of the Blackstaff River. It seems that a large house of the same name was nearby. The Kennedy Centre retail complex is on the site today.

These are just a few examples of once-familiar Ulster-Scots names in the landscape of Belfast which have fallen into disuse. Urban improvements, Anglicisation (both by officialdom, but also by gradual social erosion) and 'progress' have phased them out of usage. But just because they are not visible today doesn't mean that they never existed. It would be good to collate and record these in some way.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Old Comber Pure Pot Still Whiskey (1825–1961) - and the brief Scottish connection

(Just a few notes, not a comprehensive history)

This famous spirits brand was founded in 1825, but there were two distillery facilities in Comber - hence the company name 'Comber Distilleries Company Limited'. There was the Lower Distillery on the Newtownards Road, and the Upper Distillery on Killinchy Street. But 1825 wasn't the beginning of distilling in the town - there had been a malt kiln and distillery on the 'Upper' site since the 1700s, whose owner, a James Patterson, died in 1763. A William Murdock who died in 1805 is named on a local gravestone as 'the eminent distiller of Comber'.

But it was George Johnston and John Miller who set up what became the famous Upper Distillery in 1825, on a street near a ford on the Inver River, called Waterford Loney (later renamed Pot Ale Loney, but which is now unimaginatively called Park Way). It almost immediately came to an end, through an accidental fire in July 1832 – caused by a visiting excise officer, a dipping rod and a candle – in which John Miller was very seriously burned. The buildings were almost destroyed and were saved only through the efforts of "almost every one in Comber". The fertile farmland and extensive grain production of east County Down, dotted with windmills, meant that by 1830 Comber Distilleries was producing a reputed 80,000 gallons of whiskey a year.

Samuel Bruce (1838–1922) of Belfast, and also of Norton Hall in Gloucestershire, bought Comber Distilleries from John Miller in 1872; his brother James Bruce (1835–1917) was a director of Royal Irish Distilleries in Belfast, the producers of the Dunville's whiskey brand. Both brothers had been born at the family home of Thorndale in Belfast, just off Duncairn Avenue - today the house is gone but the family is remembered by street names such as Brucevale Court, Kinnaird Place and Thorndale Avenue.

The Bruces claimed descent from the great royal Scottish dynasty of the same name, and also from Rev Michael Bruce, the Covenanter minister of Killinchy in the 1660s. During this era Samuel Bruce’s monogram 'SB' appeared on the brand's labelling; in his brother James Bruce's country mansion (which is today Benburb Priory - link here) a very similar 'JB' monogram can be seen on the entrance hallway in mosaic tiles.

On the road towards the Great War, Samuel Bruce was Chairman of Comber Distilleries, and his son George Bruce (1880-1918) was Managing Director.  In the 'Home Rule' tumult of 1912, George commanded a company of Ulster Volunteers and drilled them in the Lower Distillery yard. In February 1914 he led 100 men of D Company as part of a 1000-strong demonstration in Newtownards. On the outbreak of war George became Captain of the 13th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles (County Down Volunteers). Even though he was the MD of a major company, George Bruce served in France throughout the War and was tragically killed in action on 2 October 1918 at Dadizelle in Flanders. Captain George James Bruce D.S.O. M.C. was only 38 years old, meeting his end just six weeks before the Armistice was signed. There is a tablet in Comber Parish Church to his memory. The portrait here is from his memorial page on the Winchester College At War website (link here).

Comber Distilleries was then put up for sale and was bought on 12 December 1918 by the Old Bushmills Distillery Company. Samuel Bruce did well from the sale, buying Norton Hall and a London residence, spending the rest of his days in England. However within less than two years, newspaper adverts appeared on 24 September 1920 announcing the liquidation of The Old Bushmills Distillery Company and the sale as a going concern of The Comber Distilleries. In October 1920 it was confirmed that Hollywood and Donnelly had bought Comber. Two years later Samuel Bruce passed away at his home in England on 6 September 1922, aged 86.

The Upper Distillery was rebuilt in Scrabo stone in the early 1920s, at a cost of £50,000, becoming the most advanced distillery in Ireland. But the Lower Distillery closed in the 1930s and was demolished.

There were centenary celebrations in 1925 during which various artefacts were displayed including a letter praising the quality of ‘Old Comber’ from the Prince of Wales, which had been supplied to him via Lord Londonderry of Mount Stewart.

The partition of Ireland in 1921, and also the prohibition era in the USA from 1920–1933, undoubtedly had an impact. ‘Old Comber’ featured among the Ulster whiskies on display in the Ulster Pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition of 1924. Newspaper reports from 1934 show that the firm was once again taking on new employees, there was renewed demand from the United States.

News coverage about the company from the mid 1930s to the early 1950s is pretty scant, but there was a steady amount of display ads within the Northern Ireland newspapers right up to the end of 1939. Distilling in Ulster was suspended for two years in 1943 and 1944, due to barley rationing, but resumed on 1st January 1945. The Lower Distillery premises were sold off by public auction in April 1946; newspaper adverts endorsed by the company, encouraging local farmers to grow 'much more barley', were published throughout the late 1940s

Comber Presbyterian Hugh Patton, a Director of the company, died in January 1950 after 30 years of service. Comber Distilleries ceased production in 1953 but the premises and remaining stock of around 50,000 gallons were bought in 1957 by the ambitious Scottish distillers William Grigor & Sons Ltd of Inverness (founded 1846) who in 1950 had taken over the famous Bowmore Distillery on the island of Islay - one of the oldest in Scotland. The company's managing director was James Grigor (a former Provost, or Mayor, of Inverness) ; his brother William Grigor OBE was a county surveyor for County Antrim here in Northern Ireland from 1934–1962. Both men had served during the Great War. Here is a photo of James in his role as Provost, in 1953, inspecting the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders passing-out parade.

But William Grigor & Sons Ltd put Comber Distillery back on the market about four years later in October 1961; a Belfast Telegraph report from 5 October of that year said that James Grigor estimated that if they were to recommence distilling at Comber they could produce around 6,000 gallons a week. However he also said that –
'the main reason for selling the property was that its stocks ... do not qualify for a Scotch whisky certificate although the whisky itself is an excellent one'.
Shockingly, James Grigor possibly didn't live to see the sale through. Within six weeks he was found dead in his bed at Lentran House in Inverness (photo below) on 27 November 1961, aged 67, the owner of three famous spirit brands - William Grigor & Sons, Bowmore and Old Comber. His widow Kay Grigor is said to have sold Bowmore soon after James' death. His brother William died in Belfast in February 1969.

Image result for lentran house"

• Back in the 1890s, Old Comber had embraced its Ulster-Scots locality, and possibly the Ulster-Scots cultural understanding of its then owner Samuel Bruce, with a 15 year old release called Auld Cummer. 20-odd years ago I saw an original advert for it in an antique shop in Donegall Pass, but foolishly didn't buy it!
• Sources: A Taste of Old Comber (2002) by Len Ball and Desmond Rainey / The Story of Comber (1984) by Norman Nevin MBE is also very good

• Comber Historical Society have hosted my talks a few times over the years; their article on Old Comber Whiskey is here.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Wonnacott 1927 painting of 'The Burn Houses' Ballyhalbert

I found this in my archive and am posting it here in case a connection can be made with the artist's family. I am not sure how I came to have this scan, but we lived there for about 10 years in the middle row of 'The Burn Houses', so-called as the area was known as Clydesburn, and which is where we were when this blog was born.

Maybe W. Wonnacott is known to someone out there.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Ulster 1921 - Leslie Montgomery's 'An Ulster Childhood'

The portrait of Montgomery is by William Conor (©NMNI).

As the centenary of the establishment of Northern Ireland approaches, I am pretty sure there will be two competing political histories presented to us all. I hope that through all of that murk, some solid cultural work can break through.

But what was normal daily life like in 1921? Three years after the end of the Great War how was bloody and bereaved Ulster coping? What was industry like? What were the big employers and brands? Who was thinking big new ideas? What was emigration like? How had agriculture been transformed by the tractor (the Fordson tractor production plant opened in Cork in 1919). How widespread was electricity and running water? Did we have celebrities in an era before mass media? What were the major sporting events and achievements? Who was living in Ulster in obscurity but who would go on to do great things? What music was popular?

Leslie Alexander Montgomery (a.k.a. Lynn C. Doyle) was in his professional life an employee of Northern Bank in Belfast, Lisburn, Bangor, Cushendall, Keady and Skerries in Co. Dublin. In his personal life he was an acute observer of rural life and consequently a writer. He published his famous An Ulster Childhood in 1921. Born in Downpatrick in 1873, his brief bio can be read here on the Dictionary of Ulster Biography. His references to Burns, Presbyterian cousins, Psalm tunes, Covenanter battles, Drums and Fifes, Christmas Rhymers and community relations all paint a superbly vivid picture.

He must have grown up in a fairly well-to-do farming family - however there are no Montgomerys listed as landowners in Downpatrick in Bassett's County Down Guide and Directory (1886), so they must have been a slightly higher class of tenant farmers. Montgomery refers, fondly, to servants who worked on the family farm, yet at the same time he contrasts the small size Ulster farms with the much bigger farms on the rest of the island, and stresses that in Ulster –

'farmers and hands sit at the same table, go afield together, and pick potatoes side by side in the same outhouse. In their working hours there is no social distinction between them, They will sit down amicable in the same ditch side to smoke a pipe together'.

An Ulster Childhood is online here, with illuminating perspectives on country life in the late 1800s, explaining Ulster's distinctiveness. He says in the chapter entitled 'Burns In Ulster' –

'I was reared in the Lowland Scottish tradition of homely realism ...'

and then goes on to tell the story of Paddy Haggarty, a Catholic farm worker to Montgomery's aunt, who was the man that introduced 'Lynn' to the works of Burns, and in particular 'The Twa Dogs'

'when the poem was finished I had become with Paddy a devotee in the worship of Rabbie Burns ... I was wrapt in the discovery that 'thole' and 'snash' were real words, and that I might use them in the future without shamefacedness'

Montgomery then started to read some of Robert Fergusson's poetry to Paddy, who was shaken by the similarities, and famously declared –

'Rabbie'll do for me. Rich or poor, drunk or sober, there's always somethin in him to suit a body. He'll last me my time'

Some of Montgomery's material was broadcast by the BBC in the 1930s; people like Richard Hayward acted in his plays. In 1935 he was appointed to the Eire Censorship Board but resigned after five weeks; living in Malahide he said he loved 'a good crack with old friends'. He died aged 87 in a Dublin nursing home in 1961.

• A sculpture named The Silent Dog in Scotch Street, Downpatrick, commemorates one of Montgomery's early and best-loved stories from his first collection Ballygullion (1908).

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Saint Patrick, Downpatrick and Glastonbury

(It's an entanglement of faith, religion, legend, opportunism, church and state collaboration, tradition and tourism... it's hard to separate the truth from the not-so-true... . Patrick's proven writings are terrific, showing that he was highly educated on Biblical texts, his grasp of theology is crystal clear. I have also gathered up a huge amount of the Scottish traditions about him, stored away and waiting to be written up some time when I get the headspace).

I've been in Downpatrick a few times recently, it's not far from me as the crow flies but there's a ferry ride in between and so I don't head down that way as often as I otherwise might. Around 100 years ago back in the time of the old Rural District Councils in Northern Ireland, the bottom part of the Ards Peninsula was administered from Downpatrick (see the boundary in the map below, running across Strangford Lough and then skirting below Kircubbin and Portavogie).

It's one of the towns which has that culturally meaningful triple-confluence of English Street, Irish Street and Scotch Street. A place where three cultural traditions met, long before two-tribes politics became our predominant framework – now endlessly, unhealthily, reinforced.

Downpatrick also has a terrific museum that I really need to re-visit.

• The Lovely Bones
Driving into Downpatrick, I remembered something I have posted about here before – the amazing coincidence which befell Ireland's new Anglo-Norman overlords. They had arrived in / invaded Ireland in 1169, and under John de Courcy marched north in 1177 and took the town of Dún Dá Leathghlas, establishing their Earldom of Ulster.

Just seven years later, in 1184, their 'rule' benefitted from the remarkable good fortune of discovering the long-lost grave of the island's national icon and patron saint St Patrick – and as a double icing on the cake, also the graves of St Brigid and St Columba. The three were reportedly found buried together, with Patrick in the middle.

Back in England, the French-born (and later French-buried) King Henry II was delighted by the discovery – his son John made his first expedition to Ireland the following year, from April to December 1185 (Wikipedia here).  De Courcy had 'the relics translated' to a new burial location nearby, commissioned by Pope Urban III, overseen by Cardinal Vivian, all with great pomp and ceremony, the Archbishop of Armagh and about 40 bishops.

It must have been around this time that Dún Dá Leathghlas was renamed Downpatrick. The Anglo-Normans may also have given the surrounding district of County Down its name - Lecale - on old maps and documents it is sometimes spelled 'Le Cayle' or 'Le Caile'.

The Glastonbury Dimension - King Arthur, Queen Guinevere... and Patrick too?!
I visited the famous, mystical, historic English town of Glastonbury about 10 years ago - not for the music festival, just as a sightseer. When there, I learned that also in 1184, the very same year of the Downpatrick discoveries, Glastonbury Abbey was destroyed by fire. Lo and behold just five years later, the reputed graves of English national icons King Arthur and Queen Guinevere were found there, as a result of archaeological excavations guided by a story that the late King Henry II had conveniently heard from an elderly bard. The pilgrims flocked back to Glastonbury and the abbey's coffers rang once again.

There's even a tradition that Patrick had himself actually been to Glastonbury in the year 430, as claimed by the document The Charter of St Patrick, but which is said to have first appeared in 1220 (link here). That linked article brilliantly refers to stories 'which have come down to modern readers through the industry of Glastonbury's twelfth-century press agent William of Malmesbury'. Patrick's name appears here and there around Glastonbury still today.

• 1874 article in the Downpatrick Recorder
Thanks to the wonder of the online British Newspaper Archive, I've found that the Downpatrick Recorder of 21 November 1874 (page 2, right hand column) published a long article about the then dire condition of the reputed burial site of St Patrick, and of the locally-popular traditions and superstitions.

The article is pretty detailed and recounts the traditions of the reputed finding of the three remains, noting that the chronicler Gerald of Wales was the first to write down this discovery, in his Topographia Hibernia in 1188 (Wikipedia link here), describing it as 'this threefold treasure discovered by Divine revelation'.

But was the site of the re-interment later somehow forgotten? Because the Recorder article said that some time in the 1770s Samuel Hall (sexton of the Cathedral) and John Neill relocated an old stone cross from elsewhere in the town into the Cathedral graveyard and then –

'in a fit of pleasurable excitement, asserted that this was St Patrick's grave, and, as Hall was the sexton or keeper of the graveyard, he repeated the same to all visitors, and thus the story was spread and established until it acquired a species of sanctity'.

Renewed tradition took hold through repetition. The 1874 article was published following a visit to Downpatrick by Mr Mulholland MP (Lord Dunleath) who assured concerned locals that a suitable monument - 'national and non-sectarian' - should be erected at the reputed, neglected, burial site.

• 1900: Francis Joseph Bigger's memorial stone installed
It was 26 years later in 1900 when the antiquarian Francis Joseph Bigger (1863–1926) had the large inscribed boulder that we see today installed at the site, in time for St Patrick's Day on 17th March. That's it pictured at the top of this post. For all of the great scholarly work that Bigger did to preserve Ulster's heritage, he also had a theatrical imagination and a gift for the memorable. To his credit, he, and private subscriptions, achieved something at the dawn of the new century which has stood the test of time.

• 1900: Queen Victoria and the Shamrock
It was that same year when Queen Victoria approved soldiers from Ireland serving in the British army to wear a sprig of shamrock on St Patrick's Day. An unnamed woman from Downpatrick sent a spray of shamrock, said to have been gathered near the grave site, and sent it to London for the Queen to wear.


Patrick's life, mission and writings are enormously important, and should be remembered and honoured. None of the above takes away from his core purpose – but it's interesting to unpick the industry that has developed around him, many centuries after his time.

PS - Bassett's County Down Guide and Directory (1886; page 193) includes some information about the grave site, which was then 'the object of incessant care' by Robert Henry Bell, the verger and sexton, who had been appointed in 1862.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Ulster-Scots language in east Ulster - the 1911 Census and the 1960 Gregg Survey maps compared

Regular readers here will be aware of previous posts on the anecdotally-notorious unreliability of the language question on the 1911 census, for east Ulster in particular. The niggling concerns of many were confirmed in technicolour by Barry Griffin's mapping which was published just earlier this year. I'll not rehearse all of the issues, you can read the previous posts. (just search for 'census' in the box in the left hand column).

Just this week, as a result of an Ulster-Scots community language workshop session I attended in Ballywalter, I got the famous 1960s Gregg languages survey map out and then decided to compare it with Barry's excellent mapping work which shows the supposed 'Irish' language speaking area of east Ulster as had been self-recorded by households in the 1911 census. As you know, many of us have thought for some time that the folk who completed those forms as 'Irish' had done so in error, because the only two options on the forms were 'English' and 'Irish', and they knew full well that they didn't speak English.

Despite multiple variations in the data compilation – ie a 50 year gap, the self-understanding and self-completion v professional linguist, the vast scale of the census v the individual research of Gregg, as well as all of the linguistic 'erosion' that Ulster-Scots has undergone during the 20th century, the two areas are remarkably similar.

So, I am ever-more convinced that those 'Irish' speakers who filled in their own census forms were in fact Ulster-Scots speakers, but they had no mechanism to record that accurately. The only other possibility is an unthinkably massive east Ulster language population displacement, and then replacement, within just two generations. There are zero records of that ever happening.

It is time that our increasingly bilingual bureaucracy acknowledged our trilingual society. Perhaps the next census, which is scheduled for 21 March 2021, will address that properly. I am glad to see recent moves in Scotland towards a proper trilingual understanding there too (link here).

(PS - in The Laggan district of east Donegal, the census appears to have been pretty accurately completed - and it aligns almost perfectly with Gregg. I expect that this is because Ulster-Scots people there knew what Irish language was, and also knew that whilst their nearby neighbours spoke it, they themselves didn't.)

• There's a lot of enthusiasm, energy and activism around the Irish language these days. It's become fashionable and is part of the new 'progressive' package of values and interests here. I wish Ulster-Scots had a fraction of that. But there is also desire to airbrush the embarrassment and inconvenience of Ulster-Scots away. A proper understanding of the census results for the language traditions of east Ulster – given the vast scale and geography revealed by Barry's mapping – will bring any honest observer to Ulster-Scots as the natural conclusion.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

The Scots-Irish in Missouri: The People of Our Place

This interesting resource was published online by the Bolivar Herald-Free Press of Missouri just yesterday. Link here.  On our side of the Atlantic, the Ozark mountains don't get as much coverage as the Appalachians do - lots of potential here for research, study and connections to be made.