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.