Thursday, October 29, 2020

The lockdown beard

The photo on the left column of the blog is about 10 years old now so it will urgently have to be updated. I used to laugh at politicians using younger photos of themselves on election posters and leaflets, but it turns out that I am unintentionally doing the very same thing. Meanwhile here are two pics my wife took in early July with approx 3 months of lockdown, just before I shaved it off. Maybe one day it might return! (in the second pic I had let our children take the clippers to my hair, much to their great amusement).

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Sir Samuel Ferguson's final writings - St Patrick and the Frederick MacNeice connection

During late July, August and early September (just after lockdown was relaxed, and just before the more recent restrictions were introduced) we filmed six new episodes of Hame for BBC Northern Ireland; one of which includes a short reference to Sir Samuel Ferguson (1810–1886) who was regarded as one of Ireland's greatest ever literary figures. He spent his childhoods at his granda's farmstead at Four Mile Burn in the Sixmilewater Valley, and was laid to rest at historic Donegore churchyard.

After a day of filming in the area I bought a copy online of his last ever writing for the Royal Irish Academy, entitled The Remains of St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland, the Confessio and Epistle to Coroticus, with a Dedication and Introduction by his widow Mary. 

It was published as a memorial edition after Ferguson's death. It wasn't expensive and I expected a run-of-the-mill edition. But when it arrived, I opened it and found the signature of Frederick MacNeice (1866–1942) the father of writer, poet and broadcaster Louis MacNeice.

In her Introduction, Mary Ferguson comments on the Scottish origins of St Patrick and his reputed birthplace at Dumbarton, a subject which readers here will know fascinates me. To see those Scottish traditions within such an august context confirms to me once again how well-known and credible they once were. 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Mark Driscoll - "Crazy Grace - Good News for Bad People"

This message from Mark Driscoll yesterday is packed with superb content from end to end. The presentational style won't be everyone's bag of course (and some of the cultural illustrations work in Arizona or the US and maybe not so well elsewhere) but the content is excellent. Skip the intro stuff and jump in at 14 minutes, the hour and a bit that follows is great. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

"100 years from this day, will the people still feel this way?"

Anniversaries are a big deal; centenaries more so; multi-centenaries even more again. Back in June 2005 when I started my four year term as Chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency, I was fortunate that the following year, 2006, was the 400th anniversary of the arrival into County Down of James Hamilton, Hugh Montgomery, and thousands of Lowland Scottish families onto 2/3 of the Con O'Neill estate. It's both a great story (should be dramatised) and an important history.

So, with the help of many other people who I am forever grateful for, we launched a project and despite short notice it was really good - a mix of the scholarly and the popular. A BBC TV programme 'The Dawn of the Ulster Scots', presented by actress and descendant Flora Montgomery, was made and broadcast (you can still find it on YouTube). 


As we put it at the time,"H&M400" wasn't the first connection between Ulster and Scotland, but it was when "the trickle became a flood", the year when a permanent Ulster-Scots community was established. The centuries of connection before are important, but May 1606 was the big moment when the boats began to fill up the coastline of Donaghadee, and the famous harbour was soon built. 

During 2006 we recovered a big almost-forgotten story, we built relationships, and by the end we understood far more than before. It was ripe for still more to be done. But then towards the end of 2006 one person, in a fairly high position, said to me in sincere tone "well that's that out of the way for another hundred years. What's on for the year after?". 

Anniversaries are certainly an opportunity. But those remarks from late 2006 have stuck with me ever since, as they shine a light on the problems that anniversaries bring. They soak up far too much energy and significance for a blast of just 12 months – but then people get bored, and so precious little more is done in between. The key is to use them for the longer term, to put down a marker from which you build, reiterate, reinforce, explore, challenge, reflect, adjust, go deeper, get better, and develop people.  

There is a marketing rule of thumb about long-term advertising campaigns – "when the marketing department is getting bored of it, the audience is just starting to understand it". The marketing department sees every little thing that is produced and done. The audience doesn't. So consistent repetition is key. Or, as Martin Luther said in the 1500s:

“This truth of the Gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine…Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.”

Since 2012 we have been marking a 'Decade of Centenaries' here in Northern Ireland, and next year is the centennial of the formation of Northern Ireland itself. But the longer term is where the focus truly needs to be. Whatever 2021 brings, the wrong perspective will be to get to the end of the year and think "Well that's that out of the way for another hundred years. What's on for the year after?". 

The mighty Quo have the answer – "Again, again, again, again, again, again, again, again – why don't you do it, why don't you do it again?"

(ps for the 2007 story we went further back in time, and marked the 700th anniversary of Robert the Bruce's refuge on Rathlin Island which took place in winter 1306-7)

Saturday, October 24, 2020

William Cowan Limited - No. 4 Irish Whisky & Loch Lomond Scotch Whisky

I have posted about this company and its brands before. These adverts are from the Belfast Street Directory of 1895 and 1900. It was one of a series of distilleries in Ulster who produced, bottled and sold both Irish Whisk(e)y and Scotch Whisky. I would love to see colour versions of these labels!

Friday, October 23, 2020

Appropriating Patrick - the claimed source of Cantrell & Cochrane mineral water, seltzer water, soda water and sparkling aromatic ginger ale


Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The first football pitch (and golf course) in Ireland - now located?

I have posted about this story before, recorded in The Montgomery Manuscripts, describing a period around 1620 when Hugh Montgomery built a 'great school' with a green – "allowing the scholars a green for recreation at golf, football, and archery..." (page 126). But the precise location of the school, and the green, was until recently a mystery. Montgomery's Ards centred around the old ruined Priory which had been burned down in the 1570s by the O'Neills, and his new Market Cross.

A few weeks ago I found online a reproduction of a 1722 map of Newtownards which shows a 'bowling green' in front of the Old Priory - the ruined church that Montgomery restored for use, also lived in for a time, was eventually buried within, and for which he also built a House, and a Bawn wall which still survives to this day. So I expect that this is indeed exactly where the 'green for recreation' was. Greenwell Street (interestingly mis-named as Cromwell Street) is another clue.

Below is an OS map from the early 1800s showing the green, but which by then had trees on it. The ornamental 'pleasure garden' and 'front garden' of 1722 were still there a century later; the 'kitchen garden' had become a 'castle garden'. Castle Gardens Primary School was built nearby; the CastleBawn retail park with a huge Tesco and Matalan is another naming reference back to Montgomery's time.

Below is a view of the Priory from the green, a pic I took in 2006 around 5:30am one summers day to get the light in the right position!

So, if this detective work is correct, perhaps someone should approach the relevant golf, football and archery associations for a commemorative plaque to be installed at the green. 

The rest of the map is also interesting – another area shows that Newtownards had a 'West Port' and a 'North Port' - close to today's streets of the same names. 'Port' is a Scots term for 'gate' and nothing to do with boats or harbours, so these must have been entry points into the settlement and town.

And below is the whole map. Given that this is a 1943 copy of the 1722 original, and that it was drawn for Robert Colvill (who dominated Newtownards in between the 1600s Montgomeries, and the arrival of the Stewarts from Ballylawn in Donegal in 1744), perhaps the original map this was copied from is in PRONI within the Mount Stewart / Londonderry papers there.

An exciting discovery. Perhaps a gifted illustrator might now be able to reconstruct a depiction Montgomery's Ards one day - maybe his grand Scottish state funeral of September 1636, the day before Eagle Wing set sail for America.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Seán O' Faoláin - community, 'nation', Ireland and Ulster

I am sure there are people out there with PhDs in the subject matter I'm about to paddle into in this post. Perhaps they can forgive these amateur ramblings.

Over the past year I have come across a series of references to Seán O'Faoláin (1900–1991). I had never noticed him or his work at all until these came along. He seems to have been enigmatic, influential and unorthodox.

According to his page on Wikipedia and some other sources he was the publicity director for the IRA during the Irish Civil War. This was an unexpected twist as all of those specific references to him, and his writing, are superb and ideologically pretty much where many of my own inclinations are too. This is a fascinating piece about him; like all of us, he changed his mind about things and circumstances as life went on. 

Canadian academic Donald Harman Akenson, in his often overlooked yet critically important 1979 book Between Two Revolutions; Islandmagee, County Antrim, 1798–1920, which was written as a result of his living on Islandmagee for some years, quotes O' Faoláin in the brilliant Preface (which I plan to post here in full soon) –

There's a laser-precise insight if ever there was one – 'local communities' and 'local consciousness' are more important than the 'nation state' or 'national culture'.

In his huge 1949 biography of Sir James Craig, entitled Craigavon Ulsterman, St John Ervine quotes from O' Faoláin's second biography of Eamon De Valera (the first in 1933 was 'almost sycophantic'; the second in 1939 which is online here was 'more critical than romantic') –

O' Faoláin and Ervine knew each other - both were members of the Irish Literary Academy which was founded in 1932 by WB Yeats and George Bernard Shaw, as were Helen Waddell, Sean O'Casey and Douglas Hyde among others. From a search on the British Newspaper Archive it seems that their paths might also have crossed at the BBC.

Two of Seán O'Faoláin's early books were banned by the Irish Free State's censorship-happy government for 'indecency' - Midsummer Night Madness (published 1932) and Bird Alone (published 1936). 

O' Faoláin also came up in a fascinating conversation I had recently about the life and work of Sam Hanna Bell. The 33 year old Bell's essay 'This We Shall Maintain' was published in O' Faoláin's renowned literary arts journal appropriately entitled The Bell, in a special Ulster edition in 1942. The story would later appear in Sam Hanna Bell's début collection Summer Loanen in 1943. O' Faoláin's editorial introduction to this edition is a great read, a fulsome praise of "... this new Ulster of ours ... Belfast is a city of mixed grills and double whiskies ... I am in danger of losing my head as well as my heart to Ulster." 

I have just a few editions of The Bell, from the 1940s. In July 1941 there had been what I think was the first 'Special Ulster Number'. Look at the list of contributors, but it's O' Faoláin's own editorial which is the standout article, so I've posted every page below. More to follow...  

Below is the summary biography on the back cover of his 1947 book The Irish –

Sunday, October 18, 2020

"We need a new way to run a truly United Kingdom"

In light of a post I published a few days ago, this article in The Guardian today from the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown is interesting reading. If only his predecessor John Smith hadn't passed away so prematurely in 1994...

Friday, October 16, 2020

Ulster Medical Hall emblem, Bedford Street, Belfast 1852

 Another combination of Red Hand, shield, and five pointed Irish crown.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Prof Wesley Hutchinson in conversation – "Tracing the Ulster-Scots Imagination"

I have had the pleasure of meeting Wesley a number of times and have enjoyed talking with him. This is a very interesting discussion from around a year ago, with Connor McKernan of NVTV.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

There's only one united. Or maybe two. Or maybe lots...

This is the masthead of the News Letter from 1986. Somewhere in the depths of the letters pages, sometime in between 1985–1990 (I can't be certain exactly when) there is a letter from a young me. Now and again it was a kind of game that a few mates and I got up to, to see who could get published. I think my real name was on it, but sometimes we used fake ones.

Bear in mind that the Troubles were raging. Back in November 1983 my uncle had preached at Darkley the Sunday night prior to this horror and he knew all of those killed and injured. As a 13 year old I had been with my parents - and about 200,000 others - at the massive Ulster Says No rally at Belfast City Hall in November 1985. It was in response to the sudden revelation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and it was a memorable, electrifying, day out. We got there very early and were about 6 rows from the front right up at the platform. The socio-political temperature of those years was very hot. 

I don't have a copy of the letter, as back then they were handwritten and nobody had a photocopier at home. If anyone ever goes looking for it I expect that it is probably mostly bonkers. Maybe I will get 'cancelled' for whatever those words were. I do recall clearly that in the letter I advised Ian Paisley and James Molyneaux, the two unionist leaders of the time and the key platform speakers, that England didn't want us – and so Scotland and Northern Ireland should get together. I can see Scotland from my window every day. It's natural. We belong together.

I have many Scottish friends who are pro-Independence, or 'Indy'. Just today an IPSOS-MORI opinion poll has reported that a record high of 58% of Scots plan to vote SNP at the next Scottish Parliament election. This is in a context of high profile strife, scandals and controversies around the party. But the even wider UK context for the Scottish population – of Brexit, Boris Johnston and Coronavirus confusion and cronyism – by far trumps any negative baggage there might be around the SNP.

We are 30+ years on from the heady days of my letter writing foray into the pages of the News Letter and the United Kingdom clearly has the potential to unravel. Who knows if politics will permit another Scottish Referendum as a sequel to the 2014 original which finished 55.3% v 44.7%? But is there even one sensible advocate for 'The Union' who speaks credibly and persuasively to each of its constituent nations and regions of being together? Is there anyone doing likewise across the entire UK and also reaching out to the common interests that are shared with the Republic of Ireland? I can't think of one.

UK Devolution of the late 1990s has caused a generation of divergence, and a complex infrastructure of administrators and bureaucrats have institutionalised that divergence. During this year of coronavirus there has been yet more divergence of policy among the nations and regions than ever before, with too many key figures in our various legislatures opportunistically taking advantage of the pandemic to prepare the ground for their next election campaigns – with an eye on the next stage of their political careers rather than caring for the greater good of the people they get paid to represent. 

So, what happens next? Well, if the cliché "the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there" still applies, then the future must also be a place where things are done differently. That future will still require co-operation across our islands - through the ever-presents of geography, trade, health, transport, energy supply, tourism, language, culture, history, natural resources, family ties, and many more factors.

What The Sun tabloid newspaper front page yesterday proclaimed as Disunited Kingdom might not be the end game. In fact, it might create the potential for new unities, a mesh of uniteds in multiple collaborative directions, and not just the binary Ireland v GB options that currently exist. A fabric. A weave. The co-operation, and how to get on with the neighbours, will always be needed. Perhaps those are the very relationships and interconnections that have been badly needed, but missing, for the past 50+ years.

Who knows. There are endless hypotheticals. But championing the ideas and values that truly unite people is the very core of any serious 'unity project', however you choose to define that, and whichever 'United' you support. The cold mathematics of an election or referendum result, or a paper agreement arrived at in secret between politicians, might be presented as a form of 'unity' – but these fall far short of actually uniting people. And nobody is doing that.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Royal Ulster Yacht Club insignia

Another world of symbols and emblems are the sailing clubs that the well-connected did, and still do, frequent. Royal Ulster Yacht Club in Bangor dates from 1866. Sir Thomas Lipton famously sailed his boat Shamrock here. Flags are a critical medium for communication at sea - the triangular shape is a 'burgee'. 


"The Pelt" of Portavogie

I never met her, but she was a real person, and her presence spooked the older generation of fishermen. If they encountered her on their way to the harbour to set off for their week's fishing the superstition was that they couldn't go - they had to go back home and try again some other time to make it to the boat. She lived in the village and wore both strange clothing and a strange demeanour. 

I've no idea what her actual name was, she was only ever called in handed-down stories as 'The Pelt'. And above is the entry from the Concise Scots Dictionary that I came across just yesterday – "a person of little value ... a shabby garment, a worthless rag".

As Victoria Williams and Pearl Jam sang in the 1993 track about someone similar, called Crazy Mary"that what you fear the most, could meet you halfway".

Looking back now I expect that she must have had some trauma or difficulties in her life. I hope some folk were kind to her.


Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Ulster / Free State Boundary - 'The Seat of All the Trouble' – British Pathé News footage, 1924

This coloured still is from this R.I.C. Facebook group, where someone had captured it from this original British Pathé News silent footage and then colourised it. I think it was filmed on the border bridge in Pettigo, in Donegal/Fermanagh (visit it on Google Streetview here).

Friday, October 09, 2020

Con O'Neill – author Roy Greer interviewed by Stuart Bailie

Back in 2006 when I was oxters-deep in trying to bring the Hamilton & Montgomery story back to public attention, I also wanted to do something about Con O'Neill, whose estates they negotiated a third of each, but none of the appropriate organisations were up for it. So we stuck to the H&M story. In early 2019 Roy Greer contacted me (we'd met each other at least once before) to tell me that he was working on a book about Con. It was published last autumn by noted local publisher White Row Press and is a very fine piece of work, in terms of the depth of research, the quality of writing, and the visual presentation. Here is Roy being interviewed in detail about his journey from discovery to print, just a few weeks ago, as part of the Turas Belfast festival –

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Symbols and meaning - a century apart, a world of both difference and similarities

Symbols have no meaning in themselves - we give them meaning in how we use them, and in how we perceive them. These two representations, of Ulster in 1954, and of Northern Ireland in 1958, are over 100 years apart yet they are in so many ways the same. The five pointed Irish crown and the shield on the left, are superseded by the British crown and the six pointed star on the right. The 'clan belt' on the left becomes an artistic flax flowers border on the right. The meaning is different but the composition is essentially the same.

The six pointed star device was introduced in the early 1920s to represent the six counties of Northern Ireland. As per the clipping below, it was proposed as the sole centrepiece of the new Governor of Northern Ireland flag in 1924, designed by artist William R. Gordon (1896–1951) of the Belfast Libraries, Museums and Arts Committee. He proposed a Union Flag with no Irish Province of Ulster Red Hand element at all.

Gordon was also involved in the design of the 'Ulster Pavilion' at the Empire Exhibition at Wembley that same year, and in the early organised Arts scene in Belfast. 

A year later, in May 1925, the design below was produced by Belfast Rotary Club as a presentational gift for a visit to Cleveland, Ohio, USA. Gerald Anthony Hayes-McCoy's 1979 book A History of Irish Flags from Earliest Times is a great reference on these things, but he doesn't go into real detail on the flags of post-1921 Northern Ireland. Maybe somebody should.

All symbols evolve and change, and will continue to do so. 

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

The Barefoot Movement - 'Sin City' bluegrass style

This is a tremendous and fresh new version of the Flying Burrito Brothers / Gram Parsons classic.

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

The first Northern Ireland postage stamps, July 1958

I am convinced that one day the ancient emblem of the Red Hand of Ulster will once again be restored to mainstream usage here. Many of our sporting bodies use it - Ulster Rugby, hockey, multiple GAA clubs, various schools level athletics organisations, recently Mid Ulster District Council – but, in the main, polite 'establishment' society appears to be frightened of it. GCAS, the design company I worked for and was eventually MD of from 1999–2006, was commissioned by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board to replace the Red Hand from their logo (a brief which was completed just before I moved to GCAS; the rationale was that it was an unwelcoming symbol for international visitors, it visually communicated 'stop, don't go there'.)

In 1958 the Red Hand was regarded as the essential component in Northern Ireland's first ever postage stamps: the 3d designed by 38 year old Liverpool-born Belfast-based commercial designer William Hollywood; the 6d by Bolton-born Leonard Pilton (a lecturer at Belfast Art College); the 1/3d by a 22 year old from Deer Park, Portadown, called T. (Tom?) Collins, who was about to start working life as a 'teacher of arts and crafts at an intermediate school in his native town'.

Collins' is the most insightful as his design went further than the other two by incorporating the classic 5 bar gate and pillars, an icon of our landscape, and a symbol which was adopted as the logo for the first Ulster Folk Museum. His papers about his work on designing the stamp is held in PRONI, Ref No D4552.

A drop of "Wee Still"

Brilliant poteen and whisky story here on 
(Photo from here)

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Scotch Whisky & Scots Language