Sunday, December 22, 2019

Foy Vance - from Bangor to Memphis and Muscle Shoals

Friday, December 20, 2019

Preserve, Demolish, Restore?

I was down at Sketrick Castle again a few days ago, tucked away on the sheltered side of one of the islands on Strangford Lough. It's been there for about 500 years. Today it's the worse for wear - a shadow of what it was in its heyday, now eroded by the forces of nature and also neglect. In our post-Troubles era, ambitious developers have flattened many an important building to make way for something flashier and more profitable. Some old buildings in prime locations have mysteriously, conveniently, burned down over the years.

But Sketrick is culturally important for many reasons, and so it has been shored up by specialist building conservationists over the years, to maintain it for the public to appreciate, and to pass on to future generations. It would even be possible for experts to produce an artistic impression, or digital reconstruction, to show what it was like at its proudest moment. The remains bear enough evidence, the printed records have enough description. In theory the missing walls could be authentically rebuilt.

In many ways, buildings like this across Ulster can be seen as a metaphor for Ulster-Scots language. Centuries old, certainly not what it once was, today very eroded – but with tonnes of published literature, still culturally and linguistically evident, and still important.

The recent - and inaugural - Ulster-Scots Language Week at the end of November was inspiring and thought-provoking in many ways. The speakers and contributors from Scotland were superb. Making meaningful connections across the water could bring us all sorts of fresh momentum.

Our choice now is do we merely preserve it? Or do we let the ambitious new generation of cultural developers demolish it to make way for something new? Or do we actually restore it, renew it. revitalise it?

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Adam Lynn's Linguistic Fusion - Ulster-Scots, Orange and Irish

Adam Lynn (1866–1956) seems to me to be underrated as a writer, not just for his rich Ulster-Scots but for the world that it describes. His collection Random Rhymes Frae Cullybackey was published in 1911* and is online here. We filmed a segment about him for one of the Hame BBCNI episodes, but there was no room for it in the final edit.

In recent years much attention has been focussed upon the famous Irish language expression Erin Go Bragh being used prominently at a huge Unionist convention in 1892. Lynn uses the term as well, in his Ulster-Scots poem Ireland for Me on page 146.

He also uses another famous Irish language expression - Cead Mile Failte - in a poem of that title which celebrates the 12th July demonstration in Cullybackey in 1910.

The world as understood by Adam Lynn was linguistically overwhelmingly Ulster-Scots, and culturally one where Presbyterians, Church of Ireland, Faith Mission and Orange lodges co-existed, and within which the occasional use of commonly-known Irish language expressions was natural.

That was 100 years ago, a very different time. Pre Partition and pre Troubles. Pre our institutionalised polarisation. This balance and blend was, and still is, different in other parts of Ulster - and that is why notions of a flat cultural and linguistic uniformity are a huge mistake. It is essential to reflect the variety.

His poem Liberty on page 169 is worth a spin through.

* Coincidentally, 1911 was also one of the years of the Census of Ireland. So of course I had to look at the forms online. Adam Lynn lived in Galgorm, and on his form the language column is left blank. Three other families in Galgorm - the Church of Ireland McMeekins, the Presbyterian Stockmans and the 'English Church' Crawfords - had written 'Irish' in their forms, but in all cases the enumerator who did the checking scored that out. So, a famous and published Ulster-Scots language poet with no means of officially recording himself as such - and three families whose linguistic lack of self-understanding had got it wrong.

PS: The 30-something female poet Agnes Kerr of Ahoghill whose important Ulster-Scots collection was published in 1913, also left the language column in her form blank. In Ahoghill only the Brethren McMeekin family, the Church of Ireland Marks family, the Catholic Letters family and the Presbyterian Mark family were those who filled in 'Irish', and again in every case the enumerator scored that out.

There is a need - or opportunity - for an academic re-assessment of the Census, which takes into account all other existing evidences of cultural and linguistic life.

Ulster is complicated and surprising. 
Reject the two-tribes false simplicity.
Reflect the interesting true variety.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Amber Light - new documentary film on the origins of Scotch whisky

This new movie is on limited release just now, having been acclaimed at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year. It showed in Dublin in November, but hasn't yet come to a screen in Northern Ireland. Four star Guardian review here.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Before Makemie? Another reference to Presbyterians in Maryland, 1668

This is a significant reference, from 15 years before Makemie's famous arrival in Maryland. This is solid further evidence that Makemie arrived into a well-established Ulster-Scots emigrant community, and not a spiritual wilderness –

"...The Rev. Matthew Hill, a Presbyterian minister (first settled over a Scottish and English congregation at Patuxent, Maryland), writing to Richard Baxter from Charles county, Maryland, April 13, 1669, states that:
"there are many here of the reformed religion, who have a long while lived as sheep without a shepherd, though last year brought in a young man from Ireland, who hath already had good success in his work."
Concerning the early  congregations in Maryland, very little is known beyond the fact that about 1670, Colonel Ninian Beall emigrated to that colony, settling between the Potomac and the Patuxent. During the next twenty years he induced a  number of his friends in Scotland (most accounts place the number at about  two hundred) to join him. They founded the Presbyterian congregation of  Upper Marlborough, which was first under the care of Rev. Nathaniel Taylor.

Some Scottish Presbyterians were also settled near Norfolk, Virginia, on the eastern branch of the Elizabeth River before 1680. They seem to have been numerous enough to form a congregation, as they had secured a minister from Ireland. His name is not known at this day; but there is some reason for believing it to have been William Traill, who emigrated in 1682-83, and returned to Ireland after the Revolution. The Rev. Josias Mackie, son of Patrick Mackie of St. Johnstone, county Donegal, Ireland, ministered to the congregation on Elizabeth River from 1691 to 1716. 

Many Scottish and Irish Presbyterians were also settled on the eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia, in Dorchester, Wicomico, Somerset, Worcester, and Accomac counties, and along the Pocomoke River, which divides Somerset county, Maryland, from Accomac county, Virginia. They were especially numerous in the vicinity of Snow Hill, Dorchester county, Maryland.

To these people, Rev. Francis Makemie, of Ramelton, was sent by the Irish Presbytery of Lagan in 1683-84. He lived and labored among them for a number of years. Makemie was the pioneer Presbyterian missionary in the New World, his labors in that connection carrying him from Virginia to Connecticut, and he is properly regarded as the chief  founder of the Presbyterian Church in America. Before 1690, there were four or more separate congregations in Somerset (which then included Worcester) county, Maryland, with meeting-houses at Snow Hill (1683), Pitt's Creek, Wicomico, Manokin, and Rehoboth..." 

– From Charles Augustus Hanna's landmark The Scotch-Irish; or, The Scot in North Britain, north Ireland, and North America (1902)

Monday, December 09, 2019

Seamus Heaney and Burns's Art Speech

A few years ago I was honoured to create the naming and branding for what became Seamus Heaney HomePlace at Bellaghy. I was recently sent a copy of his 'Burns's Art Speech' which is thematically connected with - and in many ways a precursor to - the concepts he expressed in his magnificent A Birl With Burns poem. The speech was published within Robert Burns and Cultural Authority by Robert Crawford (1997).

The speech contains many glorious revelations, and an understanding of

"three languages – Irish, Elizabethan English and Ulster Scots".

Geographically, he perceived a cultural and linguistic region which straddles the North Channel -

"somewhere north of a line drawn between Berwick and Bundoran".

More thoughts to follow.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Language debates in the 'Derry Journal' 24 April 1950

Depending on your perspective, it will either be a source of reassurance or frustration to see that some of our present-day debates are nothing new. This cutting from the Derry Journal shows that the language and identity issues recur. The optimistic notion of seeing this place as one of intertwined traditions has in the past as much as the present been replaced with more barbed issues of legitimacy and perhaps even power.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

John Hewitt, Belfast Telegraph, 19 March 1955