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 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.