Monday, December 20, 2021

Keep re-inscribing the old stories – visiting the first stone restored by 'Old Mortality'

Back in September and October when filming in Scotland I visited the beautiful Glen Trool valley in Galloway Forest Park where, in 1685, six Covenanter men were murdered by the state for holding an unauthorised prayer meeting. The location of their killing and burial is at Caldons, on the edge of the loch. It wasn't well signposted and it took a few wrong turns before I found it. The stone which is there today is a recent replacement, within a protective walled enclosure – the original stone is in nearby Newton Stewart Museum (the stone had reportedly been vandalised in the 1980s, and so was taken away for safe keeping). Here is a pic of it when it was still at Caldons –

Why go? Well, Caldons was the very first Covenanter stone to be re-inscribed by famous stonemason Robert Patterson (1715–1801), who was also known as 'Old Mortality'. He spent much of his life travelling around Scotland to re-inscribe the weathered, eroded inscriptions of Covenanter gravestones, for fear that the stories would be lost forever. In 1816 Sir Walter Scott even wrote a novel about him, of the same name. Scott mined numerous classic sources to construct the storyline.

Keep re-inscribing the old stories. As Plato once said, "Those who tell the stories rule society". 

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

The Kennedys of Ayrshire, Ulster and Fife

There's a kind of a 'black hole' knowledge gap about Ulster's connections with Scotland in between the two massive events of A) the Bruce campaign of the early 1300s, and B) the arrival of Hamilton & Montgomery in 1606. That's almost three centuries that need to be properly uncovered and explained. One family where some major research should be done is the Kennedys of Ayrshire, later the Earls of Cassilis (pronounced Cassells). They had been gifted a title and land by Robert the Bruce, and both the Hamilton Manuscripts and Montgomery Manuscripts show that a new wave of Ayrshire Kennedys came to Ulster with them in the early 1600s.

But in between those two big dates the Kennedys had various castles and family seats along the Ayrshire coast, firstly at Dunure and also at Culzean. Their name can be found in histories of Maybole (where the Kennedys founded a college in 1246; source here) and Ballantrae, and there is of course a Castle Kennedy near Stranraer. This rhyme gives some idea of their influence –

From Wigton to the toun of Ayr,
Port Patrick and the cruives of Cree;
Man need not think for to byde there,
Unless he court with Kennedie."

The first Lord Kennedy was Gilbert Kennedy of Dunure (1405–1489) and was titled in 1457. His parents had been Sir James Kennedy and Lady Mary Stewart who was daughter of Robert III King of Scots. So the Kennedys were powerful and influential within Scottish society.

Crossraguel Abbey, Ayrshire – Churches, Cathedrals & Abbeys | VisitScotland

The Kennedys were deeply involved in ecclesiastical life and history of the magnificent Crossraguel Abbey just outside Maybole (shown above). Two big things came to my attention again recently. 

BANGOR: John Kennedy, Abbot of Bangor Abbey was appointed to that position in County Down in 1395. His seal and matrix are on display in North Down Museum in Bangor. The illustration here is from the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Second Series, Vol 7, No 1 (January 1901). The seal was reportedly found at Saul Abbey; the text reads Sigillum Rev. Patris Johanis Kenedy, Abbatis de Bangor (translation: The Seal of the Rev. Father John Kenedy, Abbot of Bangor).

Rev William Reeves' 1847 Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Down, Connor and Dromore has nothing to say about Kenedy; neither does Rev. James O'Laverty's 1878 An historical account of the Diocese of Down and Connor, ancient and modern. But it is possible that John Kennedy was of the Ayrshire family. Certainly the Abbot of Crossraguel Abbey was also titled 'Ambassador to Ireland' in 1429 (source here).

ST ANDREWS: James Kennedy, Archbishop of St Andrews (1408–1465) in Scotland was appointed to that position in 1440. He was a younger brother of the first Lord Kennedy. He succeeded Henry Wardlaw who had founded the University of St Andrews in 1413. Archbishop Kennedy was a key figure in the development of the town as a centre of ecclesiastical learning. He was buried in St Salvator's Chapel, with a magnificent memorial tomb (see here). His seal looks pretty similar to that of John of Bangor –

• The family history, published in 1849 and entitled Historical Account of the Noble Family of Kennedy, Marquess of Ailsa and Earl of Cassilis is online here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Ards Football Club, founded 1900

A friend sent me this new video recently. Ards Football Club are my local team, one of my uncles was a devoted supporter but I only ever went to see them play a few times. Ards have not had their own ground for about 20 years when Castlereagh Park was sold off and demolished. There are new efforts to 'bring them home'. As regular readers here will know, I have traced the first football pitch in Ireland to the area around the War Memorial in Newtownards (see previous post here). Maybe there's a 'fly on the wall' style documentary in this –

Monday, December 13, 2021

'Rabbie Reimagined: Gibson, Burns, and Belfast' – Linen Hall Library marking the 120th anniversary of the Andrew Gibson collection

I had the immense pleasure of taking part in an online event for the Linen Hall Library last week – an unscripted conversation with Dr Carol Baraniuk. I even got the opportunity to play some mandolin and to read Burns's own research notes about the tune The Caledonian Hunt's Delight, which he said had come from Ireland or possibly the Isle of Man. He used it for Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon. It's been posted onto YouTube and you can watch it below. We could have talked all night! 


Tuesday, November 30, 2021

"Oh That Will Be Glory for Me" – Charles M Alexander, 1905

I've posted here about this song before, nearly three years ago (previous post here). It was the first worldwide gospel "hit" in the new-fangled era of recorded music. Below is a YouTube video of  Alexander's original recording. My aunt Agnes, my late mother's closest sister, is in her final days and is preparing for her onward journey; she has chosen this as one of the hymns for her funeral service.

And somebody has quite recently done this to it –

Tuesday, November 09, 2021

"Ulster-Scots is basically just bad English. It's not a language its just bad pronunciation"

So said one of NI's most lauded musical figures in a very recent FB video stream. Class prejudice dressed up as intellect, a cheap shot to amuse one's socially superior peers. I am thankful to the friend who brought it to my attention.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

"Historical Belfast" podcast – Thomas Carnduff: The Shipyard Poet From Sandy Row

I was delighted earlier in the year to have the opportunity to freewheel a bit on a Zoom conversation with Jason Burke for his Historical Belfast podcast, mostly about Independent Orangeman Thomas Carnduff but also then a bit more broadly about contextual things too. Carnduff, like Mary Ann McCracken and other cultural figures, is sometimes "claimed" by one side or the other in our present day – but in fact they challenge and defy our present-day categorisations, and their lives and cultural interests cut across the social lines that we today imagine to be set in stone.

You can listen to it online here, I'm on at 11:55. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Doug Elliott, 1947–2021– "friend, ulster scot"

(reproducing here a Facebook post from a week ago)

If you hear a piper in Ballyholme at 3:30 this afternoon, it will be FMMPB Pipe Major Richard Parkes MBE, to accompany my friend Doug Elliott on his final journey. I came off the ferry from Scotland last night to find that, after a long illness, he had died. Although he had become understandably private in recent years, some of you will have known him, and I am sure June and Gareth and family would be happy for you to be present at Sheridan Drive later.

Doug was a phenomenon – a working class lad who became one of Belfast’s renowned architects and conservationists of his era; he rescued the Ormeau Baths building, regenerated the Gasworks site, won multiple RIBA architectural awards, assisted Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band (he and June took me to Glasgow to see FM win the Worlds on two occasions, for which an integral part of the pre-competition ceremony was a Friday night meal for the band and entourage at Café Gandolfi. We did some graphic design work together for the band as well, around '07. Doug, Richard and the FMMPB team invited me to compere a gala concert at the Ulster Hall, which I was truly honoured to do for them, on 30 March 2009  – previous post here).

Doug and I had known each other since the late 90's, we became friends around 2002 – and especially so when he conceptualised our house design about a decade later. He taught me to love Milanese espresso whilst introducing me to the vernacular Ulster traditions work of Prof Estyn Evans at QUB.

This is the square window we spent many afternoons beside - at the back of one of the award-winning landmark Gasworks buildings that he designed, and which his BATIK interiors and modern furnishings business moved to from their Adelaide Street former linen warehouse - overlooking the city and imagining new futures. Those of you who were part of GCAS may not know that around 2005 we had some chats with Doug about relocating the entire group of companies from Russell Court into this building.

His lasting legacy to me - friendship, guidance, clarity of thought, a respect for the rural - and a perfectly conceptualised family homestead that belongs to the landscape of the 'far east' Ulster townland that my family have toiled for centuries.

When we began that design process, Doug sent Hilary and I off many times, to absorb Philip Robinson's marvellous buildings conservation at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, and the Ulster American Folk Park, to immerse ourselves in their details and proportions, for inspiration but not straight reproduction. "Not allowed kerbs! No tarmac! Let the weeds grow!" We’ll finish it one day.

My friend Doug Elliott. Time is short. Life is precious.

(pic of Doug and June is from the FMMPB Facebook post).


DA Chart – "A History of Northern Ireland", 1927


I picked this book up recently, as I was keen to see how Northern Ireland 'officially' presented itself in the years following its establishment. Published in 1927, D.A. Chart (1878–1960; biography here) was the renowned Deputy Keeper of the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland from 1924 – 1948. There are some interesting narratives in it (it starts in ancient times, it agrees with the Patrick & Clyde origin story, the Edward Bruce campaign of the 1300s is in there, and his summary of 1798 is interesting). The county descriptions are pretty much the same as the Ulster Tourist Development Association publications from the same decade, which were written by people like St John Ervine.

Given Chart's soaring scholarship, the book is disappointing. As an example of his true mastery, his 1942 paper The Break-Up of the Estate of Con O'Neill, Castlereagh, County Down, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Vol 48, is quite brilliant. It's also a critically important piece of work as it presents a detailed analysis of contemporary sources on the historic land transactions in north and east County Down which took place from 1571–1623, from an original Chancery Inquisition that PRONI had just acquired in the 1940s, with original letters patents. Perhaps PRONI still have it. Chart's paper starts with the Sir Thomas Smith failed English colony of 1571–5, and then jumps forward to 1605 and the James Hamilton & Hugh Montgomery era.

Of particular interest to me within it are –

• an Articles of Agreement document dated 24 December 1605 in which Hugh Montgomery and Con O'Neill "covenant not to injure each other, but to aid assist and defend each other and their tenants from wrong. If controversy arises amongst their followers, it is to be judged by the parties or two or four of their most discreet and impartial followers. At the time of the ensealing of any deed or feoffment each party is to deliver to the other a bond of £1,000 for observing the covenants".

A man I know who did a PhD on the era told me he'd found evidence that, in the decade prior to this Agreement, the Montgomeries had been supplying the O'Neills with arms during the Nine Years War. The Montgomery-O'Neill relationship is a fascinating dynamic.

• a document dated 25 April 1606, written by Hugh Garvan, the Clerk of Crown in Scotland, in 'Ervine' / Irvine in Ayrshire

The Hamilton & Montgomery Settlement began just days after, in May 1606. Some people today assume, or allege, there has only ever been perpetual adversarial conflict here – but often the primary sources erode those claims away. It is dangerous to overlay present-day assumptions on the past. We all have much to relearn and to reassess.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

The 'Loyal Left'?

My grandmother worked on a factory floor
Sewing leather for minimum wage...
My daddy grew up, on the wrong side of poor
Rubbin' nickels together for heat.
Well, he and his sister had barely got by
With the clothes and the shoes on their feet.

Red, white and blue
Those colours mean something
Those colours stay true.
Like my family before me,
I'll feel it too.
The blood that's in my veins,
Runs red, white and blue.

That song by Aaron Lewis is of course from an American perspective. Here in the UK there's been a lot of talk about the former 'Red Wall' in the northern half of England – working class post-industrial cities and communities that have been unassailably Labour Party strongholds for generations. Until very recently. Over the past generation the Labour Party's power centre shifted southwards geographically, and upward socially to the white collar professional classes, largely abandoning values and interests of the blue collar working classes, and branding them as 'gammon' and other epithets. Recent research says that of all of the Labour MPs today, just 7 of them had a working-class job before they entered politics.

In Northern Ireland, and especially the madder corners of Twitter (which provides fascinating insights into the deficient, deranged, radicalised worldviews of the new 'connected' generation) you will see utter nonsense like 'Unionists can't be socialists". Where do you start with that?  

There is within the UK what might be called a 'Loyal Left' – people who are working class and who also strongly identify with their community and nation, whatever that nationality means for them (and also the distinctives of internationalism, rather than homogenised globalism). This is the case in every democracy in the world. How could it be otherwise? As GK Chesterton once wisely wrote –

A poor man has much more interest in good government than a rich man. A poor man must stay and be misgoverned; a rich man has a yacht.

To get back to the theme of the song above, my mother worked in the Berkshire textile factory in Newtownards until I came along; I eventually went to the grammar school in the town. Other kids in my year had parents who were teachers in the school - my mother's cousin Patsy was one of the dinner ladies. I was reasonably bright, but I often felt pretty inferior and inadequate in school – but I also made lots of good friends there, of all classes and viewpoints, some of whom I have recently reconnected with. The only way to treat people is as individuals, and take them as you find them.

I do hope that the craziness of Twitter is, as some have suggested, organised and choreographed from 'bot farms' – because if it is in fact authentic and spontaneous, and revealing of widely-held attitudes, then society is heading nowhere good. As Eric Hoffer wrote:

Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without a belief in a Devil.

If your neighbour is your devil, your ideology is poison.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Lukas Nelson & Family - Turn Off The News And Build a Garden

I turned off the news about 18 months ago, not long into Covid. I feel sorry for newsrooms having to re-present the same issues over and over again. I am also wary of narratives, and the damage caused by the perpetual state of fresh crisis that is presented to us daily.

This recent article on The Critic by Henry McDonald caught my eye as he paints a wider context which resonates with me. I know nothing about the book he is reviewing but the broader brush that he uses aligns with much of my memory of the decade from say 1997–2007 here in Northern Ireland –

"...the rest of us who reported on the Good Friday Agreement’s creation and the subsequent demise of Trimble’s UUP thinking it was all to do with Tony Blair chucking him under a bus..."

Everyone sensible that I know understands that Northern Ireland society needs agreement. But what type of agreement, and is that type of agreement even possible?  The latest difficulties are not the first difficulties. Rose-tinted selective nostalgia leaves everyone unprepared, and the clickbait style reporting of everything as an unprecedented disaster only ups the ante.

Turn off the news and build a garden
Just my neighbourhood and me
We might feel a bit less hardened
We might feel a bit more free
Turn off the news and raise the kids
Give them something to believe in
Teach them how to be good people
Give them hope that they can see
Turn off the news
And build a garden with me

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Waitrose – Jerk Prawns with Scotch Bonnets – by Melissa Thompson

During the summer I always enjoy a lot of local seafood, including the massive Strangford Lough langoustine prawns which James Martin has featured on his TV shows, and woodfire cooking on our Stadler oven. YouTube's algorithms have figured me out and sent me this video. I'd definitely prefer a 'proper' Portavogie prawn than this variety, but the recipe and end result look great. Check out Melissa Thompson's work online here.  

Thursday, July 08, 2021

Inglorious Monarchs

It only takes a light knowledge of history to quickly realise that all leaders – whether hereditary kings and queens, or elected politicians – are deeply flawed. Psalm 146 exhorts the reader to "put not your trust in princes". Part of our problem today is that we are so bombarded with the latest news that our mental inboxes quickly fill up and we subsequently have very short memories. We can't recall events of last week, so we are subject to the push and pull of whatever today's new drama and outrage is, with little or no wider context or memory to measure it against.

A familiarity with the history of the Bible is a huge help. The Hebrews wanted a king. They had not had one before, for the previous 400 years they had a sequence of twelve Judges instead, both male and female, ruling over their familial tribal confederation. One of them, Deborah, is shown below.

But all of the other non-Hebrew tribes around them had kings, so they demanded one too. So, through Samuel the prophet, God gave them a warning about what would inevitably happen if they did get a king – "he will take your sons... he will take your daughters... he will take your fields and your vineyards and your oliveyards... and you shall cry out in that day because of your king" (1 Samuel 8 v 11–18). 

They insisted, and so they got their King. The first, Saul was succeeded by David, who was then succeeded by Solomon. All three were deeply flawed. After the 120 years of their collective reign the kingdom split into two, along those ancient tribal lines – called Judah and Israel – each with its own king, and the majority of them  oppressed the people. There are charts which track them all, showing which were good and which were evil (one example chart from Pinterest is below). Understanding this history is a very useful education. Monarchs can be bad.

Fast forward to the Reformation that had been simmering in some localities in Europe for a few centuries, but which eventually exploded with Martin Luther in 1517 in the advent of the printing press. With the Bible being translated into various vernacular languages, a newly literate people could read and think for themselves. The power and politics of the theocratic superstate the Holy Roman Empire (Wikipedia here), which owned vast amounts of land and puppet Kings across Europe, could not stand idly by while its dominance was challenged.

The teenage King James V of Scotland allowed his young relative, the 28 year old abbot Patrick Hamilton, to be burned alive in the street in St Andrews in 1528. James V's widow, Mary of Guise and the Regent James Hamilton, ordered George Wishart, a teacher of Greek, to suffer the same public fiery fate in the same streets in 1546. Monarchs can be bad.

Wishart's burning was witnessed by John Knox (some accounts say that Knox had offered to be burned along with Wishart); Knox later went to Geneva in Switzerland to assist with the production of the Geneva Bible of 1560 (Wikipedia here). The Geneva Bible wasn't just the text, it also had marginal interpretive notes to aid the reader. Its authors chose to advise the readers that 'monarch' can be 'tyrant' – more than 400 times. The 'tyrant' references in the pages of the Geneva Bible were evident to its readers.Knox returned to Scotland and had a number of famous verbal confrontations with Mary, Queen of Scots from 1561–1564. 

Knox's successor, Andrew Melville, had a famous public clash with Mary's son, King James VI, in which he made clear to James that he was merely

"... God's silly vassal; there are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland: there is King James, the head of this commonwealth, and there is Christ Jesus, the King of the Church, whose subject James the Sixth is, and of whose kingdom he is not a king, nor a lord, nor a head, but a member..."

James VI was apt to banishing people who stood up to his abuses of power, such as Rev Robert Bruce of Edinburgh. Monarchs can be bad.

So the new King James decided to commission his own Bible, removing those 'tyrant' references, which was published in 1611. Interestingly in Ulster the Geneva Bible persisted for some time (Hugh Montgomery gifted large presentation editions of it to six of his Ulster-Scots County Down churches in the 1620s) and the readers of that Bible would soon experience monarchical tyranny for themselves. Monarchs can be bad.

More to follow...


Sunday, July 04, 2021

Happy 4th July; think independently

It's that day again, celebrating the success of the American Revolution and marked forever on 4th July 1776, the day that the Declaration of Independence – overseen by Charles Thomson from Upperlands and printed by John Dunlap from Strabane – was signed. The Revolution was a 'Scotch-Irish rebellion' as some commentators at the time said. Liberty before loyalty (to the crown or the state), community before nation, and maybe people before power. A 'covenant' of sorts. You'll read or hear very few NI commentators today who understand this, or who can recognise that this has surfaced at various points along the arc of Ulster-Scots history. Think independently. 

Thursday, June 24, 2021


Connecting with the previous post, made almost fifty years later in 2014 this short film by Charlie Brooker and Adam Curtis might help explain a lot of our recent disorienting world... "no one was sure what was real or was fake ... its a strategy of power" – sometimes called "non linear warfare". A short profile of the architect of this strategy – Vladislav Surkov – is on the BBC Radio 4 website here.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021


This isn't my usual content here, but YouTube offered it to me and it is certainly very interesting. Also, if it is from 1966, it has many prescient themes for what engulfed Northern Ireland around that same time. 

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Voddie Baucham

Friday, June 04, 2021

Irish Whiskey Review livestream

Had a lot of fun doing this livestream chat with Marty McAuley and Justin Macartney – and of course with Fionnán O'Connor last Saturday night, ahead of the BBC broadcast of Whiskey Talkin'. More on that to follow...

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Football's Coming Hame

Well done to the marketing people at Adidas for this stroke of Scottish genius, painted onto a wall in Glasgow ahead of the European Championships which begin next week. 

Football is not just a sport, it is a deep form of popular identity formation, both locally around towns and cities, and also for nations or countries.

I have travelled back and forth to England a lot from 1992 onwards. I distinctly remember summer 1996 – the summer of the Euro '96 tournament being hosted there, and of course the famous anthem Football's Coming Home – as the summer when Englishness and St George's Flags seemed to suddenly explode in popularity. Flags were flying in pubs and gardens and town centres to an extent I'd never seen before. And being from NI, I am fairly flag-conscious!

The wave of 'Cool Britannia' was a factor in Tony Blair's Labour Party coming into government less than a year later in May 1997 (remember Things Can Only Get Better?) – yet these things also enhanced the sense of individual nations within the UK. That autumn, in September 1997, the Scottish Devolution Referendum was held, and by summer 1999 Scotland had its own Parliament once again. And ever since, Scottishness has become more and more distinctive.

Englishness and Scottishness have revived and diverged over those past 25 years. Football might have kicked it all off in 1996. 

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Untidy desks and three perspectives on the "culture wars"

In this interview, Eric Kaufmann says that "if your desk is messy you're more likely to be liberal on immigration" (go to 28:40). So that's me defined – and might help explain why I see the Ulster/Scotland relationship as one of a continuum of two-way (im)migrations rather than one-way top-down power-led oppressor-imposed "colonialism".

I first came across Kaufmann around 2007 when he did an academic review of the then Institute of Ulster-Scots Studies at the University of Ulster. There's a lot that's interesting stuff in this interview with Thaddeus Russell around the whole "culture wars" and "wokeness" stuff that's so hot right now. Russell himself is an interesting figure, he says on his own website that "during my early childhood our house on Woolsey Street in Berkeley hosted Black Panthers, IRA guerrillas, and Marxist intellectuals from all over the world."

Another angle is by Mary Eberstadt of the Catholic Information Center in Washington DC who sees it all as a surrogate family, a social purpose for the family-less generation, as she explained in this recent Triggernometry interview –

Finally, this fascinating, detailed and lengthy article in Jewish periodical The Tablet by Michael Lind – The Revenge of the Yankees: How Social Gospel became Social Justice – looks back to 100 years ago in the USA when it was an American Northern Protestant 'Social Gospel' ideological élite who sought to set the nation's cultural agenda. He makes the connection between that movement and today's increasingly authoritarian secular 'wokeness' (which again seeks to set the cultural agenda) and proposes that it is in fact a direct descendant. Here's a killer quote –

"The increasingly powerful and intolerant woke national overclass justifies its cultural iconoclasm in the name of oppressed minorities. But this is just an excuse for a top-down program of cultural imperialism by mostly white, affluent, college-educated managers and professionals and rentiers. Woke attitudes are much less common among Black Americans and Hispanic Americans than among the white college-educated elite.

What we are witnessing is a power grab carried out chiefly by some white Americans against other white Americans. The goal of the new woke national establishment, the successor to the old Northeastern mainline Protestant establishment that was temporarily displaced by the neo-Jacksonian New Deal Democratic coalition, is to stigmatise, humiliate and disempower recalcitrant Southern, Catholic, and Jewish whites, along with members of ethnic and racial minorities who refuse to be assimilated into the new national orthodoxy disseminated from New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and the prestigious private universities of New England. Properly understood, the Great Awokening is the revenge of the Yankees." **

Kaufmann and Russell get onto similar ground as Lind, by asking if what's happening around these issues is neither racial, nor economic, but is in fact a class conflict (go to 24:00) –

"... could it still be about class? Class is defined both culturally and economically – you can have working class culture and be rich, and vice versa ... it's been largely a civil war between those who are 'of college' – who went to college and speak the language of humanities departments – and those who are not of that world and that culture. Higher education has defined the culture of the dominant liberal class..."

The world is changing. There is always lots to think about. The easy answers are usually wrong.

• Thaddeus Russell's website is here

** PS:  Where Lind goes wrong is that he slips into 'groupthink', and fails to explain that the group term 'Protestant' is not a singular entity, but a widely diverse categorisation. 'Protestant' – both in Ireland and in America – can often be an unhelpful term, just used as a lazy umbrella which in fact camouflages a multiplicity of differing ideas, denominations, communities, the powerful and the powerless, etc. It should be theological, but seldom is any more. The 'Protestant' concept in the context of Michael Lind's article is the very same WASP 'Protestant' concept that JD Vance, author of 2016's Hillbilly Elegy, dissected when he said this in his opening pages –

“I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the northeast ... Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree.” 

Monday, May 31, 2021

The Sermon on the Mount is "absurd", "stupid", "extreme", "unhuman"

This is a famous story told by Tim Keller, the renowned American Presbyterian minister and author, about Professor of English Virginia Stem Owens when she had tasked her students with reading and responding to Jesus' famous Sermon On The Mount. All of their assumptions and expectations were utterly shattered... it leaves no room for our modern moralistic notions of being "good living". The story starts here at 38:25. 

Friday, May 28, 2021

TV Rewind

On the cusp of a new television project I've been involved in being broadcast this weekend – Whiskey Talkin' (which, very appropriately, has been around 3 years from first discussions to completion) I've been reminiscing through my 'timeline' of television-related projects and programmes, and thought it might be useful to jot them down here, even for my own future reference.

Anybody that knows me will be aware that it took years of persuading for me to eventually have a proper go in front of a camera. Presenting isn't something I ever imagined I'd do, or even set out to become – proper presenters are great at it and I'm nowhere near their league. But opportunities came along. Here are the diary landmarks –

• 2003 Twa Lads o Pairts 
The first ever TV programme I took part in was filmed in Summer 2003 and was broadcast on Burns Night 2004, a BBC documentary called Twa Lads o Pairts. It followed both me, and the renowned North Antrim community poet Charlie Gillen, in our own localities en route to eventually meeting up at the Ballycarry Broadisland Gathering which we both took part in that year.

So that was that. In December 2010 I was invited to take part in an industry panel discussion with Northern Ireland Screen, and following that in early 2011 I was invited to be part of their Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund committee, which I did until summer 2012. Nine years that went very fast.

• Summer 2012
With the USBF role concluded, I had an email that very same summer from a seemingly nervous producer (I had no idea that I had such a fearsome reputation – I was very tired of so many tv company researchers cold-calling and cold-emailing just to, as they always said, "pick your brains" – so that fatigue seemed to be well-known). We got on very well and stayed in regular contact, sharing a lot of common interests.

Three years later, in 2015, a few individual tv appearances started to be suggested, which turned out to be both enjoyable and interesting to do. Eventually the concept for a brand new series was proposed, with me in a more prominent role. But as that producer knows, I wasn't easy to talk round...

• Autumn 2017
Two more years ticked on by, during which lots of discussions, thoughts and ideas circulated. Eventually, in late summer and early Autumn 2017, we shot a couple of wee test rehearsal things here around home, some scripted and some ad-libbed. Whoever needed to see those must have been happy enough because at the end of September 2017 it all began for real when we started filming that brand new series, in Raphoe in Donegal, for the first episode of six, entitled Hame. 

Hame was broadcast in January 2018. The community participants in each place were happy with how they'd been portrayed and that they'd been given space to speak for themselves. A wider audience was attracted, the contributors and content have always been very strong, and the team who make it all happen are great. We're currently planning series 4.

Overall, I've no idea how long this will continue for. Nothing is guaranteed, timing is everything, opportunities don't come along very often, and every now and again I think "that'll do me". I'll be 50 in January, everybody has a "sell by date", and you can footer your life away. Whenever it all comes to an end, it'll have been fun and I think worthwhile to have done.


In and around these have been brief appearances with Paul Rankin and Nick Nairn for their Big Food Trip (2013); with Tim McGarry for his Minding Your Language (2015); with William Crawley for Imagining Ulster (2015); on Phil Cunningham's Wayfaring Stranger (2017); with Gerry Kelly for Links to the Past: Pioneers of Ulster Golf (2019) and Ralph McLean and Ricky Warwick Rock N Roll Highway (also 2019). There micht hae been a wheen mair but A cannae mind.


I'm also thankful for the radio opportunities I've had, on A Kist o Wurds, Kintra, and other BBC Radio Ulster things such as the recent adaptation of Sons Of The Sod.

I'm not always very helpful, not always on good form, not always available, don't always have the answers or the archives – but I hope that whatever I have been able to help out with, behind the scenes for other companies and other programmes that I've not actually been on-screen for, has been useful to somebody in some way.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Sazerac Corporation, Glenmore Distilleries of Kentucky – and the Ulster dimension

In May 1956, 60 year old Colonel Frank Thompson (1895–1990) – veteran of two World Wars and the Chairman of the Glenmore Distilleries Kentucky whiskey empire that his Ulster-born father James, and uncle Frank, had founded in 1872 – sailed into Belfast Lough on his 90ft Danish-built motor yacht also called Glenmore.

Col Thompson was an accomplished sailor and he knew our coastline well as he'd sailed into Dublin, Belfast and Londonderry (to visit family at Longfield near Eglinton) in September 1953, not long after taking delivery of the vessel. He was also the heroic 'face' of the Distillery and its many brands, appearing in its advertising campaigns, suitably attired as a Kentucky gentleman.

As is normal for voyages of this scale, the yacht needed some scheduled maintenance, and also a replacement skipper. Frank was specifically hoping that an Islandmagee man would take the job – in the end he got one from Gilnahirk.

Born on 4 July 1895, Frank won the French Croix de Guerre medal for his Great War service. He died in February 1990, aged 94, his funeral service was held at Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville.

Today, Glenmore Distilleries is the North America headquarters of the global Sazerac corporation, and is still located where the Thompsons founded it – in Owensboro, Kentucky, on the bank of the Ohio River.

Much, much more to follow...

Friday, April 16, 2021

Robert Wallace Murray – Belfast Tobacco Entrepreneur and Confederate Veteran – an 1890 autobiography

I posted here about Murray back in 2013 (post here), his father's grave in 2016 (post here) and in August 2020 some photos of a tin of his Scotch Plaid brand of tobacco (post here). I've recently found an autobiographical account of his life and Confederate war service, from a lecture he gave to the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society on 2 December 1890.

I hadn't known that he relocated from Virginia to Belfast between the ages of 19 and 24, before then going back to Virginia where he was caught up in the developing War, and joined the army aged 25. The account is online here, on, but I'm posting the text below for convenience. 


R. W. Murray, Esq., J. P., read a Paper on 

'The Southern States of America at the time of the Civil War, though determined to maintain slavery, were not fighting for it, as it had not been attacked, but for what they regarded as their rights under the Constitution.

I presume most of my audience are aware of the fact that I am a Virginian by birth. Circumstances occurred in 1855 which changed my residence from America to this country, and with the expectation of making it my permanent home I lived in Belfast until 1860.

Cogent reasons then existed for my return to the States, and, having decided on Norfolk, Virginia, as my future home, I returned to America in 1860, when not only the whole country was intensely excited by the Presidential campaign, then being hotly conducted, but anxiety was pictured in every face, as it was felt the only possible result was the election of Mr. Lincoln, the consequence of which was not difficult to foresee.

I remained quietly in Norfolk, a loyal citizen of the United States, until the battle of Fort Sumpter, which followed the secession of the seven cotton States from the Union, when Mr. Lincoln issued his famous proclamation calling upon Virginia and all other States in the Union to furnish their contingent of men to subdue the rebellion. Neutrality then became a crime, and Virginia had to decide whether to take her place by the side of her natural allies and fight for or against the rights, a principle she had successfully contended for on the first formation of the Union, and which had ever since continued the creed of the dominant political party. Her action was not doubtful, and, foreseeing that all intercourse with the outer world must soon close, I hurried North in April, 1861, with the object of arranging some private business before all communication was suspended. I was, however, only permitted to proceed to Baltimore. On the night of April 20th the great arsenal of Norfolk was evacuated, when nine ships of war were destroyed to prevent them falling into Confederate hands. This great Confederate success was achieved by the strategy of a Virginian citizen soldier and the bravery of three companies of Virginian volunteers. Troops from the South soon afterwards came in force, and a few days placed Norfolk in such a state of defence that the fears of the most timid were set at rest.

The action of the Federal Government had now only effectually crushed out the last lingering attachment of Virginia to the Union, and, having decided to join the Confederate Army, I spent a few months at the University, Virginia, where a school for drill had been established, and a course of lectures on the science of war was delivered by a French ex-officer.

A few months after the battle of Bull Run I entered the Confederate service as a private in a Norfolk company which had existed long before the war, and had formed one of three companies that had relieved the Federal Government of the Norfolk arsenal. It offered also this inducement, that it was composed almost exclusively of gentlemen. For some months we were encamped in the neighbourhood of Norfolk, Virginia. By far the most interesting event of my garrison life was the witnessing of the greatest naval engagement of the war between the Confederate ram "Merrimack" and the first Federal "Monitor." 

Shortly after this the term of enlistment of most of the Confederate army expired, and it had of necessity to be reorganised. I had been then offered a captaincy of a company, but, shrinking from the responsibility, I declined it for a first lieutenancy. I found subsequently, however, that I enjoyed all the responsibility of captain, but with only the rank and pay of first Lieutenant, my captain being only present in our first engagement...'

Mr. Murray then described the first battle in which he took part, an engagement before Richmond between the Federal General MacLellan and General Lee, who commanded the Confederate forces ; — and continued : 

'If I must honestly confess my own feelings, I had never any desire for a first engagement. The more I heard of the whistling of the bullets the more I became convinced that Charles XII was a madman. The Confederate soldiers were miserably armed at the time, particularly those regiments that had manned the heavy batteries around Norfolk, conspicuously among which was my own company. On inspection it was found that they were so miserably equipped that the option was given of remaining in camp. We had certainly never contemplated meeting an enemy with such weapons, but while I suspected that many shared my own feelings, I was sure that not one of us would have lagged behind, even though we had been asked without arms to act as a target for the enemy's shot. We, however, were placed in the rear as a reserve, and during the whole of the day the battle of Fair Oaks or Seven Pines raged in our front. About sunset our regiment was ordered forward, and we for the first time came under fire when it was too late to continue the contest. We bivouacked on the field, but all night long our rest was broken by the shrieks of the wounded and the twinkling lights of the ambulance corps. So sudden had the call been made upon us, that we had neither haversacks nor provisions, and we had to satisfy the cravings of nature by collecting biscuits from the haversacks of the dead which lay thickly scattered about us.' 

Mr. Murray, proceeding, gave an account of the other battles and engagements in which he took part or was a witness of. His description of the privations which he and the soldiers under his command, and the army to which he was attached, demonstrated, if the fact needed such, that a soldier's life in the time of war is anything but a desirable one.

He had numerous hairbreadth escapes, on one occasion, while carrying despatches to the colonel of his regiment, being the target for a considerable time of a number of Federal marksmen. In the course of his lecture he paid a tribute to the generalship of " Stonewall" Jackson and Lee. When he left the army the war had almost come to an end.

He closed with the hope that none of his audience might ever pass through a similar experience, and the prayer that "the weapons of our warfare may be spiritual, and not carnal." 


PS: This talk was presumably drawn from the content of a booklet of the same title that Murray had published at Warrington in England in 1877 (see entry here on WorldCat). His first wife, Marion, was from Warrington, the daughter of Robert Workman of Belfast. The Murrays moved to Belfast in 1880; she died in 1882 at their home, named Arlington, on Windsor Avenue, Belfast.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

William Christopher (W.C.) Handy 'The Father of the Blues' – An Emancipation, Education and Musical Journey, from Anahilt to Alabama

It's a long way from Anahilt in County Down to Alabama, but it can be done – especially if you go via Nashville, Tennessee – where the new National Museum of African American Music opened back at the end of January (website here).

I've posted here before about Presbyterian Rev Joseph Gillespie McKee from Anahilt (1832–1868; see previous post here), and his educational work amongst 'freedmen' slaves in the city of Nashville, the effects of which would cost him his health and eventually his life.

His work was the foundation of what became Fisk University in 1866. Joseph McKee died two years later in 1868. The renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers emerged as a touring acapella ensemble in 1871, through the vision of George Leonard White, ostensibly to raise funds for the University. One of the first Singers was Maggie Wilson, later Porter (1853–1942), who was a former pupil of McKee's (source here). The Fisk Jubilee Singers visited the north of Ireland in 1873, singing to enthralled audiences in Belfast (at the Ulster Hall) and Londonderry (at First Derry Presbyterian Church on the famous city walls).

• The Handy family of northern Alabama
That same year, in rural north Alabama, a boy called William Christopher Handy was born, on 16 November 1873. Blues musicians like Robert Johnson (1911–38) have a high profile still today, but from the previous generation, W. C. Handy is the true 'Father of the Blues'. His grandparents had been slaves, and his father, Charles B Handy, was the minister of a small African Methodist Episcopal church in Guntersville in northern Alabama, on the banks of the Tennessee River, 150 miles south of Nashville. In his 1938 Collection of Negro Spirituals Handy reminisced that the church was 'the first to be built by my grandfather and from whose pulpit my father preached many a sermon'.

From W.C.'s 1941 autobiography it's clear that the area was socially divided, but mostly along class lines, which he labels as 'cultured' (ie well off and educated) and 'uncultured' (ie poor and uneducated) – with white people and black people mixing to some extent within these two categories. Here is Handy's home cabin.

• Guitar, Whistling and Fiddling for Dances
Religiously his family was very conservative. His mother 'admitted a fondness for the guitar, but she could not play it because the church put a taboo on such instruments'. An uncle banned his children even from whistling. Before his maternal grandfather Christopher Brewer 'got religion, he used to play the fiddle for dances'. Knitting needles were used as drumsticks.

• Early Influences and 'The Devil's Playthings'.
A trumpet player called Claude Seals was the first musician that 'fired my imagination' – he had come to town to play with the local Baptist choir. But Handy really wanted a guitar, and saved what little money he could until he could afford to buy one at the local department store. When he presented it at home for the first time, both of his parents were furious – 'my father was outraged. "One of the Devil's playthings!... whatever possessed you to bring a sinful thing like that into our Christian home!" W. C. took it back to the store and exchanged it for a Webster's Dictionary. 

• Professor Young A. Wallace, the first graduate from Fisk University
With discouragement at home, school was to be where Handy's musical training first came. His teacher at Florence District School for Negroes was a local man, Professor Young A. Wallace, or 'Y. A. Wallace'. Wallace had been among the very first class to graduate from Fisk University in Nashville in 1877. 

In The Heritage of Lauderdale County, Alabama Young A. Wallace is mentioned in an article about the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the oldest churches in north west Alabama. The congregation was founded in 1840.

"About the year 1860 one tall man of mixed blood, Robin Lightfoot, a slave-preacher who could read a little together with the following named men: LaFayette Simpson, Sr., Edward Poole, Sr., Charles Grey, Jerry Simpson, John Rapier, Cain Leach, Harvey Weakley, Sr., Anthony Simpson, Charles Handy, Harrison Woods secured a lot which is now intersected by the highway leading to O'Neal Bridge. On this lot was a brick cowhouse which the men converted into a church. Then, with Lightfoot as their leader organized the first known Negro church south of the Mason Dixon line. The slave owners did not interfere with the assembly of slaves in this church nor did they permit patrolers to intimidate them.

During the year 1862, Robin Lightfoot held revival in this church and Y. A. Wallace and his brother Beverly Wallace were mourners (definition here). Y. A. Wallace left Florence with a general in the Union Army which passed through the town. He went seeking an education and after completing his course at Fisk University, returned to Florence and taught school for many years. Mr. Wallace was given credit by William Handy for starting the first chorus in Negro churches in Florence. St. Paul was one of these churches. Lightfoot preached continually to his congregation that freedom would come for the Negro slaves."


Rev Robin Lightfoot, aged 73, was murdered by lynching/hanging by Confederate soldiers in 1862.

Some histories of the area link his murder to the wartime arrest and imprisonment, on 8 August 1862, of Rev William Henry Mitchell, the Monaghan-born and Belfast-educated and Princeton-qualified minister of Florence's First Presbyterian Church from 1851–71, who was also President of Florence Synodical Female College. Mitchell had pro-Confederate sympathies and was often outspoken in the pulpit, even when Union soldiers were present.

W. C. was under Y. A. Wallace's tutelage for 11 years. A search on show that Y. A. was also politically very active in the community, leading the local Republican Party branch on a range of issues.

• "My Introduction to the Rudiments of Music"
Evidently Wallace was a main of personal faith, however Handy wrote that 'Professor Wallace had no interest in the spirituals. Though the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers toured the world in his day and created a lasting esteem for these songs, he made no attempt to instruct us in this remarkable folk music' – he also credits Wallace with being his first great musical mentor – 'my introduction to the rudiments of music was largely gained during the 11 years I spent under this quaint instructor in the Florence District School for Negroes'.

Handy wrote that under Wallace 'we learned to sing in all keys, measures and movements. We learned all the songs in "Gospel Hymns, one to six" [an Ira D Sankey collection]. Each year we bought new instruction books and advanced to a point where we could sing excerpts from the works of Wagner, Bizet, Verdi and other masters – all without instrumental accompaniment'. He goes on to explain in some detail the musical theory and singing skills that Wallace taught him. Yet, Wallace could see no future in music as a career – 'what can music do but bring you to the gutter?'.

Y. A. Wallace died in June 1937. Here is his obituary from The Florence Herald of 25 June 1937:

'What can music do but bring you to the gutter?'. How wrong Wallace was. Not only is W. C. Handy credited with being the 'Father of the Blues', he learned the music business fast; he had sold the rights to his composition The Memphis Blues for just $100 – but he soon set up a publishing company to secure copyrights to all further compositions, including his St Louis Blues



• PS: On my previous post about Joseph McKee, back in 2015, author Andrew Ward was kind enough to place this informative comment – "Thank you for your article on Joseph McKee, who features in the early chapters of my book, Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. He was a truly heroic figure, and though his establishment competed, and, in the end, lost its preeminence to the Fisk enterprise and its sponsor, the American Missionary Association, he was a remarkably tenacious toiler among the Contrabands of Nashville, and deserves a memorial plaque. "Tell me not of Burmah's heathen," he versified to his brother in India, "Far away o'er oceans' foam. / Teach them, teach them who can reach them / We have heathen nearer home."

• A C-SPAN video of Andrew Ward giving a talk on the subject, including Joseph Gillespie McKee, in June 2000 can be viewed here.


Friday, April 09, 2021

Another "man o' independent mind" - William Walker (1871-1918)

William Walker's name has popped up from time to time in various bits of reading I've been doing. The two books above – The Belfast Labour Unionist Centenary Essays (Umiskin Press, 2018, online here) and Dr Mike Mecham's biography of Walker Social Activist and Belfast Labourist (Umiskin Press, 2019, online here) will tell Walker's story better than I will, so I'll not mangle it here, but will outline a few highlights.

He was born 150 years ago in 1871. His father was a shipyard worker, and Walker was an apprentice joiner and member of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners, a Scottish trade union. A Rechabite and teetotaller, he described his religion as "Agno-Theist" on a census form but his wife and children are listed as Presbyterians.

He has been presented by some as a kind of Unionist version of James Connolly, with whom he debated in print, convinced that the 'Four Nations' together would most effectively protect workers' rights. The Larne Times said that Walker 'held advanced views on social questions, and championed the Socialist cause in the city at the Custom House steps and elsewhere in its early days of propaganda in the city'.

Scotsman Keir Hardie, the Labour party founder and leader, came to Belfast to campaign for Walker. (I have visited Hardie's monument, outside Cumnock Town Hall, a few times). In December 1902 Walker was selected as a candidate for the Duncairn Ward in North Belfast; in January 1904 Walker addressed an audience of trade unionists in the Ulster Hall.

Walker had stood for election twice, in September 1905 (against the Lord Mayor, Sir Daniel Dixon). Andrew Boyd's book The Rise of the Irish Trade Unions (1972) outlines that Walker 'ruined a good campaign by succumbing to the pressure of the Belfast Protestant Association' by providing answers to a host of loaded questions, 'answers which he gave were very offensive to Catholics'. It was a record poll for the constituency but Walker lost by a margin of 474 votes. In 1906 Walker again lost to Dixon but by fewer votes than before.

Dixon died in March 1907, and so a by-election was held in April, with Walker standing against shipyard magnate Sir George Clark.  Walker decided to 'out-Unionist' Clark, who seems to have been using the Royal Standard or Crown on his election materials. Walker wrote to the King's Private Secretary, Francis Knollys, to complain about this – and then turned Knollys' reply into the basis of this campaign poster. He lost again, this time by nearly 2000 votes. 

'One Parliament for All Europe'
In November 1909 Hardie was back in Belfast and at a meeting in Belfast Engineers Hall he and Walker selected Robert Gageby as their next candidate for Belfast North.

In 1910 Walker, described as 'Ireland's best-known trade unionist', stood once again for election, but this time in Leith Burghs in Scotland, but again unsuccessfully. During the campaign he was reported as saying 'he was not a believer in having a Parliament in Dublin and another in England. There were too many Parliaments already. If there was only one Parliament for all Europe there would be no wars.' He went on to say that 'he did not want, as an Irishman, to be divorced from his fellow democrats in Scotland'.

Walker died in the Royal Victoria Hospital on 23 November 1918. The Northern Whig reported that he was buried from 'his late residence, Rathcoole, Park Avenue, Strandtown, for interment in Newtownbreda burying ground ... a very large number of friends attended to pay their last tribute of respect to his memory. Rev D.D. Boyle (M'Quiston Memorial Presbyterian Church) officiated'.

The Independent Labour Hall on York Street was where the above photograph was taken in 1935. One of those present, Harry Midgley, is perhaps best known today as the man whom Midgely Park is named after – the training and reserve pitch beside Linfield's Windsor Park.

(Another similar hall, North Belfast Independent Labour Hall, on Langley Street off the Crumlin Road, was subjected to three arson attempts in August 1920, the third causing extensive damage; a William McCausland was charged).

As with all people, who knows what Walker's motivations were? Perhaps he was another one of those oddball or maverick individuals that Ulster's unionist history seems to be littered with – convinced of his own ideas, but unable to bring enough people along with him to make much of an impact. As has so often been the case here, the wider constitutional issue of his time submerged all else. But as a non-establishment voice, coming from within the Unionist community at a key moment in our history, he deserves some attention.  

• Paper on Walker by Emmet O'Connor is online here
• Article by Dr Mecham here on The Failure of a Four Nations Labour Movement
• 2016 article by Brian John Spencer on Slugger O'Toole here
• Wikipedia entry online here