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

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

BBC4 'Folk America' (2009)


Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Eoin MacNeill - 'Memoir of a Revolutionary Scholar' (c. 1932)

I found this, by the renowned Eoin MacNeill (1867–1945; Wikipedia here), whilst looking for something else –

"I was born on May 15th, 1867, twenty years to a day after Daniel O’Connell’s death. My people in Glenarm all belonged to the same local stock. They belonged to families of hillside farmers...

Glenarm was on the border between the main region of County Antrim, largely settled with Presbyterians from Scotland, and the region of the Glens, stretching north as far as Ballycastle where there was an earlier Scottish settlement under the Mac Donnell’s who came in from Argyll and the Hebrides after the breakdown of the earldom of Ulster. These were mixed with the old Irish stock of the county and were nearly all catholics. In my memory there was no native of the parish of Glenarm, who spoke Irish, and I think the same was probably true of Glencly... 

Inland towards the mountains, especially in the Braid Valley, there was a mixture of these populations and many living in that direction spoke a pure Scottish dialect of English, as distinct as may be found in the poetry of Burns. In fact Burns was a favourite among them..."

This is from his Memoir of a Revolutionary Scholar, and has much more detail in between these extracts. It is interesting that, whilst the 'pure Scottish dialect' of the Braid Valley was of no direct interest to MacNeill, he neither scorned it, nor denied its existence or validity.  

Saturday, April 03, 2021

For Easter – Steph Macleod from Edinburgh

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Steve Dornan's new poetry collection – 'Tha Jaa Banes'

I've been saving this one up for a while, given that tomorrow is Good Friday...

Steve and I have met, I think, twice (once in Belfast, once in Donaghadee) – he's an Ards man who relocated many years ago to Scotland, close to Aberdeen. So he grew up here in an era and community when Ulster-Scots speech was still very much part of daily life – within our ears from older folk if not always on our lips. But that's how it starts. You need to hear the sounds before you can make the sounds. He moved to a real heartland of Scots (the local dialect of Scots is often called 'Doric' up there in the north east) which has a richness all of its own. We banter on Twitter a fair bit. And he has no idea I am writing this post. 

The Ulster-Scots Academy Press, the publishers of this title, have flourished in our lockdown year, with a raft of important publications. Tha Jaa Banes was published back in December and it meets a long need, as a contemporary collection from a new young writer. It is very skilfully handled, and in so many places deeply thought provoking. Here are a few thoughts it inspired:

1. Creative contemporary Ulster-Scots writing is possible, it's not just for nostalgia or occasional comedic interjections.

2. It can be rooted in, and duly honour, community tradition (both linguistic and cultural) and yet also provide space for personal reflection and re-consideration of those traditions.

3. It can offer incisive and insightful comment, with a compactness and brusqueness not always possible with English

4. It can re-energise words from our written and spoken past and re-introduce them into the present. I had to look up a brave wheen of the words in each poem from the online Dictionary of the Scots Language, Chambers Concise Scots Dictionary and of course The Hamely Tongue. I am impressed that Steve did not include a glossary. The onus is placed on the genuinely seeking readers to 'do the work'; it invites us to apply ourselves and join with him in the uncovering.

5. Individual words are interesting, but they need to be woven together to be truly contextualised and appreciated. The "word of the day" thing has been around for many years now, from various quarters, because that's still a necessary point of entry for some (but seriously, how many times can 'oxters' be rolled out?). Some of the newer Twitter-based ones are younger, fresh and full of vitality. But words need a habitat, an idea to express, a story to tell. A sentence tae haud.

So, why post this today of all days? The standout poem for me is 'Belfast, Efter Good Friday'. I measure its power in its having welded itself into my mind ever since I first read it. The intelligence and multi-layered meanings within 'Belfast, Efter Good Friday' make it a poem I have returned to many times. 

Here in Northern Ireland we had a generation of Troubles/Conflict. Theoretically that ended with the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998 – but in actuality it just moved to a new arena and different methods, to a low-level relentless wearying attrition. Since the 'GFA' we have had a further generation, which, for a time at least, enjoyed a 'peace dividend' of material prosperity. And yet so much remains unresolved, bleeding raw, unhealed, bealing, stoons.

Just last week it was disclosed that a government-commissioned report into just one aspect of that past will never be made public (newspaper report here). We've been offered conveniently-packaged official narratives, which come wrapped in our preferred colour schemes. But the actual truth seems to be too dark to tell. The empty chairs, the photographs on walls and mantelpieces, the silent birthdays, the missing Christmas cards, the tending of graves, the looming annual anniversaries. The cost of the desire to 'move on' has been a kind of 'institutionalised forgetting'.

"Progressive weans, on siller reared,
Can ocht forget"

Each line in 'Belfast, Efter Good Friday' demands attention, offering perspectives on the commercialisation and gentrification of the city, language decline but also thran persistence, a place with 'nae heart' (I have heard similar remarks from many people about the 'new' Windsor Park). When at Belfast Art College from 1990–94 I walked nearly every day from Oxford Street Ulsterbus Station, down through the lonely near-dereliction of what would later become redeveloped and rebranded as 'Victoria Square' and 'Cathedral Quarter', making my way to York Street and the old college building; the campus included the former 1930s Orpheus Ballroom, which was next door to the vast abandoned shell of the famous and once-bustling Co-Op with it's 1960s sci-fi movie set external cladding. These are all shiny glass boxes now. Much has changed. 

Tha Jaa Banes has been deservedly, positively, reviewed by people who understand literary form far better than I ever will. Seek those reviews out.

Steve, from within the community, has produced a collection that does justice to the depth and subtlety that exists within the values, thoughts and experiences of the community. He is not some detached monacled examiner surmising over a new curio or specimen. He has not adopted an alien idiom, he has not harvested mere 'content'. He has dug up oor banes. As the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel famously asked, "Can these bones live?".  Well, these Jaa Banes aren't just living – they hae a 'Leevin Tongue' forbye. An mair nor that, the jaas hae something tae say...

Tha Jaa Banes is a 60 page collection and is published by The Ulster-Scots Academy Press. You can buy it online here, for just £6.00.

PS: And here is Steve hissel in his ain words –