Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Shock in Dublin, 1908 – "there exists within the borders of our island a country population which is not West British ... but Lowland Scotch."

I was reminded of this post the other day, a review of a collection of poems by James Connolly's friend Ernest Milligan (1879–1954). They were Ulster-Scots flavoured due to Ernest spending time at the Milligan family's holiday cottage at the end of the Stockbridge Road in Donaghadee over many summers, getting to know the locals. His sister Alice wrote that they spoke 'broadest County Down Scotch'. This illuminating review was published in the Dublin daily newspaper the Freeman's Journal and National Press on Burns Day, 25 January 1908 –

...In these days, when the chief city of Ulster and many towns and country districts all over it are become working centres of the Gaelic revival, a book of verse like this will almost come as a shock to the Irish-Ireland reader. 
He has been busily working for the de-Anglicisation of the Irish nation, looking forward to an era when the West British shoneen will be extinct, end behold here is reminder that there exists within the borders of our island a country population which is not West British nor shoneen, which has not got to be de-Anglicised, for the simple reason that its speech is not English, as we know it, but Lowland Scotch.
The people speaking this tongue are to found mainly Antrim, Co. Down, but also on extensive tracts of land in the North-West, coming right against the Gaelic frontier of Tir-Conal, in the Laggan district, it is called, in Donegal.
But let not the Irish-Irelander brand those survivors of the Ulster Plantation as aliens and foreigners. This Scotch-Irish dialect, so ragged and almost distasteful to our hearing, was the speech of men who stood side by side with the Northern Catholic Gaels on the battlefields Antrim, who camped on the wooded height of Ednavady, and lined the ditch behind “Saintfield Hedge in the County Down.” was the mother tongue James Hope, and the congregations of those United Irish Presbyterian worthies, Porter, and Steele, Dickson, Kelburn, and Warwick. 
It a pity that there is nothing in the little volume before us to recall the patriotism the men of Down, not a single verse echoing the spirit of fine old street-ballad that might well have served as a model. 
"Oh were you at the Battle of Ballynahinch
Where the country arose to make its defence
Where the country arose to prove their overthrow
When led on by that hero called General Munro..." 
All the same we welcome this volume as evidence of the fact that the Scotch-Irishman has not lost the gift of song. The subjects are homely and natural; the verses fluent and tuneful. The satire in “The Ministers Call” and “The Six Road Ends” will be appreciated in Presbyterian circles. There are local poems for many of the North Down villages – Carrowdore, Comber, Donaghadee, Ballylesson and Bangor...

That was 1908. In 2020, if you dare to jump onto Twitter and follow almost any current affairs discussion about Ireland, you'll soon find that it rapidly descends into often vicious, tribal, two-dimensional, fevered rows about politics, nationality and 'power', all freshly-propelled by Brexit-related issues and the thrilling online pastime of 'offence archaeology'.

Some of it is by anonymous accounts. But perhaps of even more concern is that some of the entrenchment comes from public figures of some importance. As Neil Mackay wrote in this article in The Herald just yesterday – “We may not be lunatics in our real lives but once we get online we self-radicalise.”

The shock expressed by the Dublin press in 1908 – astonished to find that there are people whose story doesn't easily fit into the 'two tribes' stereotype – is still relevant today. But over a century later it also makes you wonder if it's so deeply hardwired conceptually that we are destined to keep making the same mistakes over again.

(I hope one of my FB friends doesn't mind me borrowing the photo below. I'll re-shoot one of my own to replace it soon)

This famous poster from 1913 is therefore a simplification. There are not two tribes / communities / language traditions on this island. But it is a powerful trope. and the daily reiteration that there are, has embedded the concept very deeply, to a point that people struggle to perceive anything different.