Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Census 2021

We got a letter today about the new Census for Northern Ireland. Tonight I came across a folder of research I did a while ago, with the two images I've posted below from the 1911 Census. These are yet another example of people – Portavogie Presbyterians related to my grandmother who was a Coffey – incorrectly marking themselves as 'Irish' speakers because they knew full well they didn't speak the only other option the form named – 'English'.  All of those entries were later scored out, probably by the person who came round to collect and check the forms. I've posted here a few times about this widespread phenomenon; I am glad that the new Census has an Ulster-Scots dimension to it, and I hope that people filling it in have enough understanding to complete it correctly.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Make Ireland Scotland Again - 'Scotia' circa AD600


Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Anthony Bourdain in Appalachia

Back in June 2020 I 'discovered' the late Anthony Bourdain's series Parts Unknown on Netflix (online here). The episode about West Virginia is among the best television I have ever seen. Yes there is food, but his empathy with 'ordinary' people is exemplary. Meredith McCarrol@Meredith_McC is 100% right in this article for CNN. 

1921: Northern Ireland's two Women MPs.

Found this old press photo recently, it's not in great nick but it's the best I've ever seen of these two historic, groundbreaking, yet too often overlooked women – for South Belfast Julie Gray McMordie (1860–1942; Wikipedia here) and  for Londonderry, Dehra Chichester (1882–1963; Wikipedia here). They were both elected on 24 May 1921, almost a century ago. 

Below is the famous 1921 photograph of the first parliament, which met on 21 June 1921 at Belfast City Hall, showing many women – presumably the wives of the male MPs. 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Cancel everybody

'Cancel culture' is everywhere. The "holier-than-thou" types that I grew up knowing about, and who had a certain amount of social clout back then and in previous generations, have been displaced by a new generation of "woker-than-thou" types who are super-connected institutionally and technologically, and whose standards appear to change weekly.

Both of them are moralism on steroids. Both the old version and this new 2.0 edition demonstrate and enhance the social power of the devoted crusader, each 'victory' is simultaneously a 'show of strength' that provides validation for the true believer.  The superiority complex of each is almost identical. The new 'woke' version is secular, but it's just as zealous and self-righteous as the religious version ever was, yet with none of the grace that the religious version forgot that it was meant to proclaim. All "law" no "gospel". All "behave" and precious little "believe". 

So where will 'cancel culture' end? Who's going to do the judging? Maybe those who can assemble the loudest online mob? And to what standard will they operate? And what makes them uniquely qualified for that role? And how do we know that they will wield their power fairly? What will the sentences be? Should anyone even have such power? 

Orthodox Christianity expects people to be flawed – in word, in thought, in deed, in motivation, in inclination. In the New Testament, Romans 3v23 says "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God". Fallen very far short of the standard required. We all fall short, yet we appear to spend our time comparing distances. Pointing the finger elsewhere instead of looking in the mirror. Pulling down 'the system' rather than radically and honestly examining 'the self'.

Everybody has a very dark side. Everybody is Jekyll and Hyde (Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the story as a theological allegory for how he had come to understand his 'self' – but it looks like in San Francisco he has been cancelled too). So everybody should be cancelled.

But, if you keep on reading Romans 3, it continues with hope beyond hope –

"and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus."

You can't 'fix' yourself. We are all born this way. In fact, Psalm 51v5 goes further and says that we are conceived this way. No religious ceremony will paper over the cracks, no public apology will ever be enough. But maybe someone else has the CV that we so desperately need, and is willing to swap his with ours.

Forgiveness is the only adequate currency.

If only there was a transcendent, universal, belief which had forgiveness as its central attribute...

Friday, February 19, 2021

Donaldson & Collins "Red Hand" Ginger Ale, Perth, Australia

I have seen some bottles like this around Belfast now and again, for obvious reasons. Donaldson & Collins were based in Perth in Western Australia and presumably had some kind of an Ulster connection. The company was set up in 1880, and their 'Red Hand' brand was introduced in 1914. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

"The Least Of These" – churches and poverty in Tennessee

Some years ago I met Dr Anthony Bradley on one of his visits to Northern Ireland, a mutual friend introduced me to him at the 'Keswick At Portstewart' summer convention. He is a Presbyterian, an academic, and an African-American. I follow him on Twitter, where he has really powerful things to say and share around issues of theology, denominations, class, politics, the importance of fathers, and race. Voices like his provide some clarity within all of the noise we are bombarded with from America all the time. This tweet from him really struck me today.

This is the web page he links to. I have encountered this in our own NI context. Churches whose members are well-off, and which therefore have spare funds for external 'missional' work, often choose missions which appeal to their aesthetic preferences, and those preferences often reflect their lifestyles and interests.

Dr Bradley's point here is that the words of Jesus Christ from Matthew 25v40, where Christ aligns himself with those at the very 'guttermost' of the social ladder – people he calls "the least of these" – don't necessarily compare well with Christians who are prone to look the other way and do trendier things instead.

Dr Bradley is a really interesting voice, across multiple subjects – if you are on Twitter you can follow him here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

"the issue is how I interpret"

The Just Thinking Podcast is hosted by Darrell Harrison and Virgil Walker. Check it out here. The pic below shows them with Voddie Baucham, a church pastor who has visited Northern Ireland many times, and who is sadly in poor health just now. As you can see these men are black, but the Reformed biblical and gospel that they champion transcends the ethnic differences that our age obsesses over. "For God so loved the World..."

Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Ulster Overcoat, Centennial Exhibition Philadelphia, 1876

In looking for other things recently, I came across this low-resolution image, of the famous John G. McGee & Co.'s world famous Ulster Overcoat. Hopefully one day I'll find a full resolution version, or an actual original. A number of Ulster businesses exhibited in Philadelphia that year, a sign of how visionary our predecessors were.

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Jonathan Pie - "Woke Utopia"

Forgive the language in places, but he makes some absolutely critical points here on freedom of thought, expression and association –

Monday, February 08, 2021

Hiber-nation in 1996? Embrace the varieties.

This article caught my eye a while ago, when it was published over the Christmas and New Year period, and it came back to mind today. What is remarkable about it is not what the Presbyterian representatives Rev Dr Harry Allen and Rev Sam Hutchinson said back in November 1996, but rather that those from the Northern Ireland Office were so taken aback by it. The civil servants who run Northern Ireland are supposed to be masters of nuance and ambiguities, but in this article - at a key moment in history - they show just how little they understood when they said "On identity, the views expressed tended towards the surreal". Maybe the NIO had been asleep at the wheel - certainly they had no grasp of cultural complexity and diversity. Hiber-nating in fact.

'Irish' meant in its broadest geographical context just means 'from Ireland'. But there is also a narrower cultural/linguistic context which can mean a very specific set of cultural expressions and aspirations. For example, when someone says that Ulster society is a combination of Irish, English and Scottish influences, we know that 'Irish' in that context is much more specific than merely geography. And even these can 'radiate' in degrees of specificity, and overlap with one another. As with any discussion, it is essential to define your terms.

To lift some quotes from the News Letter article, is no surprise to me whatsoever (or to anyone half-informed) that Presbyterians might describe themselves as 'Ulster-Scots', and that their 'Northern flock', living within the United Kingdom, would be 'first and foremost British', or perhaps have a sense of identity that was 'Britishness tinged by a bit of Irishness'.

Shockingly still, this was the era when the Cultural Traditions Group delivered some very fine work under the auspices of The Institute of Irish Studies at Queen's University in its Varities series. The Varieties of Scottishness conference had been held in March 1996 just a few months prior to the NIO/PCI meeting. The Group had delivered Varieties of Irishness in 1989, Varieties of Britishness in 1990, and All Europeans Now in 1991. The papers from these, and the Group's other conferences, were published; these can still be bought online via Abebooks.com and other second hand sources. 

1996 was also the year of Seamus Heaney's superb Burns's Art Speech (see previous post here) in which he articulates and understands so beautifully our historic and intertwined triple-blend.

Yet it was 1997 during the negotiations which led to the Belfast Agreement when the notion of Ulster-Scots was put to the UK's most senior civil servants and politicians, that one of them said in his memoirs it "left us in hysterics". One might have expected Mr Powell to understand better than most, given than he has an MA in American History from the University of Pennsylvania and wrote this 1979 paper about 'Presbyterian Loyalists' in Philadelphia, published in the Journal of Presbyterian History.

It is hard to know how this place will succeed when the policy makers have been, and maybe still are, so blissfully uninformed. Pretty much every other 'western' country rightly celebrates its inherent cultural diversity.

Variety is both fascinating and true. It seems that grasping this has been, and perhaps remains, a vast challenge for blockish officialdom here - or, exposes the lack of understanding among those whom the officials depend upon for 'advice'.

Friday, February 05, 2021

1985 - "Ulster's Not For Sale"... but the original Great Seal of Northern Ireland was!

On 23 July 1985, at 10.30am, the very first Great Seal for Northern Ireland, from December 1924, was due to be auctioned at Christie's in London as one item in their Ancient, English and Foreign Coins sale, and it appeared in colour on the front cover of the catalogue.

The Christie's catalogue of the sale doesn't name the previous owner, but its lengthy historical description is entitled 'The Property of a Nobleman'. The description points out that it included 'a wreath of shamrocks, roses and thistles' and that it was 13.8cm in diameter and weighed 197ozs. The expected value was £4000 – £5000.

According to reports on the British Newspaper Archive, at the very last moment it was withdrawn from the auction and sold privately. The irony is that, that same year, 'Ulster's Not For Sale' was a familiar slogan around the time of the announcement of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, as per the picture below. However the Great Seal was indeed for sale.

The Great Seal for Northern Ireland had been designed by Neville Wilkinson, struck by the Royal Mint (who also produced one for the Government of the Irish Free State). Later newspaper accounts say that the obverse of the Great Seal was designed by George Kruger Gray and engraved by Cecil Thomas.

The Great Seal was revised a few times over the decades. The next edition was in July 1938, and in doing so the formal procedure of "the defacing of the old" was undertaken. In November 1938 impressions of the original and the new Great Seal were among items donated to the collection of Belfast Museum and Art Gallery. In 1953 it was again revised to depict the new Queen Elizabeth II, and the Northern Whig even printed a photograph on 6 November showing both parts of the new Great Seal beside "the special hammer used to deface the old Seal". 

Perhaps someone out there knows where the Great Seals are kept today.

Ulster-Scots football 1917 - Linfield and Distillery

In my last year of Art College I moved up to Belfast and lived in a student house with two other guys at 86 Rockview Street just off Belfast's Donegall Road. At that end of the street was the late Philip Thompson's chippy (he was from Comber and I knew his children through gospel hall connections) so that kept me sustained. Pretty close to the other end was Windsor Park, so I started going to watch Linfield's weeknight matches; I ended up doing a design project for my final degree 'show' about the club, with assistance from the late club secretary Derek Brooks. Some other unknown student vandalised it, but that's another story...

I found this newspaper article tonight when looking for other things. I had forgotten that, despite the Great War, football continued. Look at how many Scots were signed by both Linfield and Distillery that summer!  I wonder if records exist for other Ulster clubs in that era, to get some idea of the scale of Scottish influence and interconnection? Malcolm Brodie's book Linfield 100 Years, published in 1986, will have to be re-read.

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Mark Driscoll - "Pray Like Jesus"

YouTube offered me this and it's really good. Very very good. I saw Mark Driscoll preaching at Bloomfield Presbyterian in Belfast some years ago, and he was excellent that morning too. He can be brusque, loud, and all sorts of slightly uncomfortable things. But in this recent sermon he is pastoral and warm, handling the text and presenting Jesus Christ very well. 

Monday, February 01, 2021

Luke Combs & Billy Strings - 'The Great Divide'

They're two of the hottest young names in country music just now, and here they are re-shaping one of the oldest themes of the genre – 'The Great Divide' – moving it here from physical geography to political polarisation. A perfect response to our times.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

"An Irish boy he may well be, But he spoke Braid Scots when he coorted me"

He was geographically Irish, and linguistically Scots. It's probably a fictional tale but the boy was most likely from Ulster. These are the ties that connect across our narrow sea. This song is from Galloway in south west Scotland, and is sung here by Robyn Stapleton, Claire Hastings, Emily Smith and Hannah Rarity for the BBC in January 2020.

• Here is an article by Valentina Bold about the song's origins.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

1949: Hugh Shearman on "The Languages of Donegal" – The "English" of Donegal is "Scottish"


I'm posting this whole chapter as I think it will be of interest to some of my readers. This 1949 book, Ulster, was much more than a travelogue for the general Great Britain reader/tourist, yet not an academic history or a linguistic publication. It's split into three sections – The Making of Ulster, Metropolitan Ulster, and The Ulster Counties, and there's plenty of content in it that goes much deeper than a typical 'come and see the sights' approach. Throughout the book Shearman misses, or misunderstands, important nuance though, so I'm only sharing this chapter and not endorsing all of its observations. 

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Hugh Shearman (1915–99), Mount Stewart and Ireland's last sea eagle

I've been reading some of Hugh Shearman's books recently. In his 1949 tourism book Ulster, he says that Mount Stewart estate on the Ards Peninsula was where "the last white-tailed sea eagle in Ireland was seen in 1890".

In fact, a search of the British Newspaper Archive says "on 30th January 1891, an adult female was shot at Mount Stewart, Co Down, which was set up by the late Alfred Sheals holding a mallard in its talons. This specimen, one of the last, if not the last to be secured in Ireland, may be seen in the Belfast Municipal Museum" (Northern Whig, 10 July 1936). And here it is, from the NMNI website

The same article also referred to them living in the Mourne Mountains before 1831,  a pair that lived on Fair Head in 1839, and another pair on Rathlin Island.

An article in the same paper on 10 October 1929 said that a man called Arthur Swithin Newton Horne had recently shot one on the lake of Clandeboye Estate near Bangor. Knowing that the sea eagle lived in County Down makes the naming of the 1636 emigrant ship Eagle Wing even more significant.

As one of 'The County Books Series' published by Robert Hale Limited of London, Ulster is an interesting book - it's wrong in some places, but very strong in others. Shearman himself was a very unorthodox individual. More to follow.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Michael C Scoggins, 'Amazing Grace' – the early 'Scotch-Irish' in Charlestown, South Carolina – Charles County, Maryland

So Garth Brooks sang two verses of Amazing Grace at the Joe Biden & Kamala Harris inauguration yesterday. But he left out the best verse, some of the lines of which I once threatened to my wife I was going to have tattooed on my chest - "Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved"

The late Michael C Scoggins (October 21, 1953 - March 4, 2019) in his tremendous 2013 book The Scotch-Irish Influence on Country Music in the Carolinas: Border Ballads, Fiddle Tunes and Sacred Songs, painstakingly traced the journey of the tune which Amazing Grace is sung to, formally known as New Britain. Starting with the famous William Walker shape note hymnal The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion from 1835 Kentucky where it was first published, Michael tracked it all the way back through history to the Ulster-Scots settler townships of early 1700s Pennsylvania.

Michael Scoggins and I never met; we had become Facebook 'friends' and we emailed each other a number of times in 2018. He passed away in March 2019 aged 65. He was a fine historian and, as we say, he wore many hats - here is one of the many online obituaries.

One of the things he had offered to look into for me arose from this blog post of August 2018, of the Ulster-Scots settlement at Charleston in South Carolina led by a Thomas Ferguson in 1683/84. This was at the same time as Francis Makemie's arrival into the existing Ulster-Scots settlement at Maryland, 560 miles north.

During our correspondence he sent me this information –

"I have gathered several references to “Scotch-Irish” settlers living in Charles and Somerset Counties, Maryland in the 17th century. These are court cases in the Archives of Maryland, the earliest of which dates to July 1663 in Charles County. There are also several from 1689-1690 in Somerset County. I found these because I have been doing extensive research into the usage of the term “Scotch-Irish” on both sides of the Atlantic beginning in the 16th century.

In these court cases, “Scotch-Irish” is a  specific ethnic term used to refer to people who migrated (presumably from Ulster) to Maryland and settled there prior to these dates, and they prove that the term “Scotch-Irish” was already in common enough usage to be entered verbatim into court transcripts."


July 29, 1663:  

“Richard Dod and Mary his wife plantive John Nevill and Joane his wife defendants- the plantive declares against the defendant in an action of the Case upon defamation for that the sayd Joane Nevill did in or about the mounth of June last past falsly and Maliciously utter publish declare and expres severall scandalous words of and against the sayd Mary Dod much to the scandall Prejudice and defamation of the sayd Mary alleaging that shee the sayd Mary was the whore of Capt: Batten and further shee the sayd Joane woold aver and prove her the sayd Mary Dod to bee a whore together with severall other scandalous and ignominious expressions and Aspertions unto her the sayd Mary Relating did shee the sayd Joane utter and declare out of her malicious and fals suggestion which is highly to the Prejudice and defamation of her the sayd Mary whearfor the sayd Plantive sayeth that in fact thay are infinitly damnified in thear Reputations and impared in thear Credits whearfor your petitioner Craveth Reparation of this worshipfull Court against the defendants and for thear Cost of suit…

“Mary Roe sworne and Examined in open Court sayeth that Mary Dod Come into Goodie Nevills feeld and Goodie Nevill sayd thou jade get thow out of my ground for what buisnes hast thow come shee sayd I am in the Path I will goe when I Please and Goodie Nevill sayd if thow wilt not get thee out of my ground I will set thee out and with that Goodie Nevill followed her and Goodie Dod turned about and sayd stand off from mee or I will stricke thee and with that Goodie Dod did stricke her in the face and Goodie Nevill did say thow jade dust thow stricke mee in my owne ground and with that Goodie Nevill tooke holt of Goodie Dods hands and Goodie Dod sayd let my hands goe for the Child it will fall and Goodie Nevill sayd dont feare woman I wont hurt thy Child and with that Goodie Nevill Caled sumbodie to tacke the Child out of her Armes and Robert Cockerill thearupon Came and Goodie Dod thearupon sayd stand away I will not let goe my Child and with that Goodie Nevill strocke her a good blow in the Chops and sayd by God you shall have one for the other and sayd thow jade I will have my Revenge of thee yet and Mary Dod sayd Goodie Nevill doe not you threaten mee for threatened foulkes live long and Goodie Nevill sayd bauld Eagell get thee home and Eate sum of Gammer Belaines fat Porke and Mary Dod sayd if shee did eat fat Porke shee did not Eate Rammish boare and Goodie Nevill sayd who did and Goodie Dod sayd shee did not and with that Goodie Dod Cryed thee Troge and Goodie Nevill sayd thow whore who is that thow Callest Troge and Goodie Dod sayd she was no Scoatchmans whore and Goodie Nevill sayd that nether scotch Irish or English came amis to her and with that Goodie Dod sayd to Goodie Nevill cum will you go home and eat sum of Goodie Belaynes fat Porke if I have any and Goodie Nevill spit at her and sayd shee scorned to go with such Companie as she was and with that Mary Dod went away and Goodie Nevill held up her hands and hollowed at her and further sayeth not:”

• Primary Source: Proceedings of the County Court of Charles County, Maryland, 1658-1666, 53: 376-379 [145-149 in original source].  [Archives of Maryland Online]


March 15, 1689/90:  

“I William Pattent was at worke at James Minders and one night as I was at worke Mr Matt: Scarbrough came into the house of sd Minders and sett down by me as I was at work, the sd Minder askt him if he came afoot, he made answer again and sd he did, saying that man, meaning me, calling me Rogue makes me goe afoot, also makes it his business to goe from house to house to ruinate me, my Wife and Children for ever. I made answer is it I Mr.Scarbrough[?] and he replyed and said ay you, you Rogue, for which doing ile whip you and make my Wife to whipp you, and I answered if ever I have abused [you] at any time, or to any bodies hearing, I will give you full satisfaction to your own Content. [At which Scarbrough said] You Scotch Irish dogg it was you, with that he gave me a blow on the face saying it was no more sin to kill me then to kill a dogg, or any Scotch Irish dogg, giving me another blow in the face. now saying goe to yr god that Rogue and have a warrant for me and I will answer it. Wm. Patent” 

• Primary Source: William Pattent, Affidavit, March 15, 1689/90, in Somerset County, (Maryland) Judicial Records, 1689-90, 106:67. (William Pattent filed this affidavit in order to bring charges against Matthew Scarbrough.) [Archives of Maryland Online]


June 10, 1690: 

“Their Maties [Majesties]
“ agt.   [against]
“William Scarbrough  

“Somersett County the Jurors for their Maties being sworne upon the holy Evangelists at a grand Jury held for the body of this County the second tuesday in March last doe present and find that Matthew: Scarbrough of this County Gent att Snow hill in Boga=toe norton hundred and within the jurisdiction of this Court, most proudly arrogantly and contemptuously and malitiously utter publish, and with a loud voyce did declare his contemptuous malitious and seditious mind agt their Maties authority now in - being in these words that mr. Samuel: Hopkins had granted a warrant to the Constable to sumon none to theese Burgesses but Scotch Irish men. which was a great abuse to your Maties Comrs for this County yr fore yr Maties attorney craves judgmt agt the sd Scarbrough according to Law.      

Somersett County  The Jurors for their Maties being sworne upon the holy Evangelists at a grd Jury held for the body of this County March Court last past doe present and find that Matthew Scarbrough of this County at the house of James Minor in the hundred of Bogete norton Ano. 89. his Maties peace then and their did not keep, but their Maties. Comrs did abuse and Contemne, Calling Capt David Browne Rogue & Dogg, and in an oppirous manner stiled him the scotch Irish mens God, and upon the matter aforesd did beat and wound ^ William: Pattent of this County: Taylor, saying affirming and his wished intent wth a loud voyce declaring that it was no more sin to kill the sd Pattent then it was to kill a dogg not regarding that due respect by the law of God he ought and should give to Magistrasy but in despite of their power & authority in it by law invested by perticularizing the sd Capt David Browne in the name of the whole did tacitly imply his contempt to the sd power. Their Maties Attorney Craves judgmt may be entered agt the sd scarbrough according to Law in that case made and provided. 

“James: Sangster. Clk. Judy.”

• Primary Source: Court case, “Their Majesties against Matthew Scarbrough,” June 10, 1690, in Somerset County (Maryland) Judicial Records, 1689-1690, 106:103-104. [Archives of Maryland Online]



Robert King (d. 1697), a northern English planter, merchant, and colonial officer of Somerset County, Maryland, was called a “Gentleman” upon his arrival in Maryland c. 1666, and in 1692 was described as “A Scotch Irish Man” and a chief supporter of illegal trade with Scotland.

• Primary Source: Edward C. Papenfuse, Alan F. Day, David W. Jordan, and Gregory A. Stiverson, A Biographical Directory of the Maryland Legislature 1635-1789, 2 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1979), 2: 511-512. Reprinted in the Archives of Maryland, Vol. 426. [Archives of Maryland Online]


Michael C Scoggins (October 21, 1953 - March 4, 2019)

Betsy Gray or Hearts of Down: A Tale of Ninety-eight (1894, 3rd Edition)

Found this image online. If anyone out there has a copy of this edition that they'd like to part with, please let me know.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Brian Boru (941–1014) High King of Ireland, 'Imperator Scotorum'

These stamps were issued in 2002 to mark the 1000th anniversary of Brian Boru becoming High King of Ireland. He was killed in the Battle of Clontarf on Good Friday 23 April 1014, in which he is said to have brought to an end the centuries of Viking presence in much of the island of Ireland. This website by Trinity College Dublin says that the title 'Imperator Scotorum' - which was written into a manuscript of the ancient Book of Armagh around AD1005 - means 'Emperor of the Irish'

So 'Scotorum' means 'Irish', not 'Scottish'. Other sources translate 'Scotorum' as 'Gaels'. It has long been known that at least some of Ireland was for centuries called 'Scotia'. Perhaps this is a further evidence of this, reaffirmed by these official state postage stamps of nearly 20 years ago.

The interlinkedness of the two landmasses that we today call Ireland and Scotland (and their respective smaller islands) and the connectedness of the multitudes of peoples who have migrated back and forth and established deep bonds of common ancestry and kinship, is a concrete fact of history. 

PS - it would be over two centuries later, in 1263, when the Scots managed to end Viking dominance of the North Channel, at the Battle of Largs. New alliances formed between Ireland and Scotland, when the ambitious Bruces gathered their allies at Turnberry Castle in Ayrshire to sign the 'Turnberry Band', on 20 September 1286. It was the start of their quest for the crowns, and the two boys present - Robert and Edward - would eventually become Kings of both countries.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Christmas Rhymers / 'Mummers' in Ulster

This is another of the shared traditions - we did this in our primary school a few times as an old-time local equivalent of what in later decades would become 'pantomime' season. We had a wonderful principal - Mrs Armstrong - the wife of a local Presbyterian minister, who loved passing down local tradition to us weans. And, as you can see in the image above, she was happy to have us perform a play that included Beelzebub! I wasn't unique, other friends of my age did the very same thing in other schools in Newtownards and other places on the Peninsula. The tradition can be easily found in County Antrim too, written about by John Hewitt (his poem The Christmas Rhymers, Ballynure, 1941 is online here) and John Clifford (link here).

The famous Ballyboley photograph above (taken by John Clugston of Dundonald) has been reprinted in many books – this one is from my copy of Six Miles from Bangor; the Story of Donaghadee and the Copeland Island by WG Pollock. It has a full chapter about the rhyming tradition, and it reproduces a version of the entire script. 

My aunt Betty turned 80 back in July. She sent me the following poem on New Year's Eve. It looks like an extract from the famous Rhymers script, but she said that it was used by itself as a standalone rhyme on Hogmanay in years gone by –

I wish you a Happy New Year
With a bag full of money and a barrel full of beer
Get up auld wife and shake yer feathers
And don't ye think that I'm a blether
A slice of loaf, a cut of cheese
And a glass of whisky if you please

I posted it on Twitter, and a friend in Scotland told me that on their side of the water these are known as the Galoshan plays, which are being carried on at Inverclyde & Greenock (website here).

I remember seeing the excellent Aughakillymaude mummers from County Fermanagh at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC in July 2007, and recognised a lot of their performance. They are the most renowned group carrying this once-widespread tradition on.

If traditions aren't written down, to be passed on, they may as well have never existed. I would like to see the Aughakillymaude mummers again some time – a reminder of something that we all used to do.

• PS  - If you are interested in this subject, I can highly recommend my good friend Philip Robinson's chapter 'Harvest, Halloween and Hogmanay; Acculturation in some Calendar Customs of the Ulster Scots'. published in Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life, edited by Jack Santino, published by the University of Tennessee Press (Knoxville, 1994), which includes a section about the Christmas Rhymers.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Road bowls / "bullet playing" / "long bullets" in Ulster

These days, this once-widespread activity is mostly associated with County Armagh and County Cork. Yet it was once played in Ulster-Scots communities too. Here are a couple of references from Sandra Gilpin, about road bowls in the village of Moneyrea in County Down across a period of 100 years:

"... One Saturday in June 1739 a strange incident took place at Moneyrea. Some young men were playing ‘long bullets’ (i.e. road bowls) near the Presbyterian meeting house when they were approached by a man dressed in scarlet and looking like an army officer. He spoke to them in French and offered them gold if they would ‘inlist in the pretender’s service’. The young men were not impressed and sent him packing. Soon afterwards they decided to pursue him and apprehending this curious individual they took him to James Wilson of Purdysburn, a justice of the peace, who had him lodged in Downpatrick gaol. That evening many of those whom he had solicited in the same manner were seen ‘riding to and fro to the terror of the neighbourhood.’ ..."

A hundred years later, the local Ulster-Scots poet Robert Huddleston was severely injured during a game of road bowls aged around 21 -

"... the young Bob was convivial and evidently enjoyed life to the full. He writes in a letter to John Poundley in September 1843 that he has been made lame by a “mettle bullet”, probably as early as 1835. The game of bullets has disappeared in the area: the car now reigns supreme on the Ballygowan to Belfast Road, where the teams once gathered for their tournaments..."  

There are many newspaper references in the 1800s and early 1900s in both Ulster and Scotland to the same game, under the name "long bullets". According to the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, there's an account of the King playing "lang bowlis" at St Andrews in 1496 (link here).

The Belfast News-Letter reported on 7 October 1946 that "the game is now played almost exclusively on the country roads near Armagh". The same article said that Londonderry Council banned the game from being played on the city walls, and that Dean Jonathan Swift mentioned it in a poem written in Markethill in 1728. Patrick Bronte's relatives played "long bullets" near Aghaderg, Banbridge.

In Northern Ireland's unfortunate yet polished parlance, when an activity is described or perceived as being that of "one community", it's generally an untrue claim. Many traditions, historically, are shared.

Ordnance Survey Memoirs, Donaghadee, 1837

Here's another quote demonstrating the scale of 'Scotch' speech in east Ulster in the 1800s – this is from the Ordnance Survey Memoirs from 1837. When you gather all of the contemporary references up, Belfast was entirely encircled by Ulster-Scots vernacular speech – and it was of course evident within the growing city too when those people moved in for the industrial 'boom'. The children of farmers became world-class engineers, and the old individual wooden hand-loom cottage weavers became mechanised maestros, running factories and leading battalions of labourers who had learned to master vast steel-and-iron behemoths that produced acres of fine linen fabric which rivalled silk. 

When Scotsman Rev Dr James McCosh LLD was at Queen's College in Belfast from 1850–1868. His autobiography says that "The plain people … were earnest in their devotion to the cause of liberty, and so also were their friends and relatives among the Ulster farmers. The classes of Queen's College had many members from among these enterprising, industrious, serious people, and Professor McCosh became deeply interested in them". (online here)

His fellow Scot and Queen's College colleague Professor George Lillie Craik spoke at the Burns Centenary events in Belfast in 1859, and said "we have come over and set up another Scotland here - an Irish or Little Scotland, as it may be called. We have made this Province of Ulster - this Black North - half Scotch, or more than half Scotch, in almost everything – in blood, in language, in religion, even in mind and character ...".

This all sets a far more plausible demographic context for the Census of Ireland in 1911, in which the population was given two options of 'Irish' and 'English' to describe their language, and vast numbers in Antrim and Down opted for 'Irish'. It's extraordinarily unlikely that they meant Gaeilge.

Here is Barry Griffin's excellent map again, showing the familiar and well-attested Gaeltachts of the west – but which also reveals another vast 'non-English' linguistic tradition and community in the east.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Old Comber Pure Pot Still - "striking display" in Belfast, May 1931

The British Newspaper Archive is a wonderful resource, but when you find something as brilliant as this but with understandably poor quality images, it's frustrating! Maybe somewhere in the world somebody has prints of this photograph of whiskey-laden horse-drawn wagons being toured through Belfast in May 1931.


Thursday, January 14, 2021

The Madness of Crowds, the Danger of Tribes

Humans form tribes. We also worship. Sometimes we worship our tribe. Eric Weinstein has recently said (in this podcast) from an American perspective, that both 'Woke' and 'MAGA' are cults, the quasi-religious worship of ideology. From a Northern Ireland perspective, everybody knows where social severance can lead to.

However, we are all individuals with our own tastes and preferences and influences and responsibilities. But we too easily allow ourselves to be corralled into 'groups' that have been defined for us – which are then squared up against some 'other' group. We are presented with the most extreme voices from the 'other' and we are affirmed that their group are all just as bad.

In an absence of actual relationship, people believe more and more lies about the 'other' far too easily. And, as Voltaire famously said, "You must first believe in an absurdity before you commit an atrocity." Here is a former US President, talking sense.