Thursday, September 22, 2022

Helen Mark interview for BBC Radio Ulster's 'Kintra'

I really enjoyed doing this conversation with Helen back in August - it's not often I'm the one answering the questions! I blethered on a bit much so the end programme is an astute edit. Check it out online here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The Ulster Fiddle in America - six tunes from 1823

The 1700s was the century that saw massive Ulster-Scots emigration to the USA. People take music wherever they go. There were two main musical sounds which were exported from Presbyterian Ulster – the fiddle of a Saturday night hooley, and the unaccompanied vocal harmonies of Sunday morning Psalms-singing. And maybe a few folk songs too.


James M'Henry (1784–1845) deserves to be better known. I have mentioned him here a few times, especially his searing riposte in 1825 to Sydney Owenson and other writers who depicted Ireland as a mono-cultural island. He was born in Larne, inherited family stories of the Hearts of Steel, witnessed the 1798 Rebellion, and emigrated to America. In his novel The Wilderness, or Braddock's Times: A Tale of The West which was published in New York in 1823 but set in western Pennsylvania in the 1750s, he includes characters who speak Ulster-Scots, and gives this description of the emigrants' dance and fiddle repertoire:

"They accordingly set off with "Nancy Dawson," to which they tripped airily and nimbly along in measured movements, with great art, sprightliness, ind vivacity. Now, (for every ten or fifteen minutes they changed their mood, and Peter had as often to change his tone,) the light corant, the gay cotillion, the merry riggadoon, the measured waltz, and the sprightly jig, succeeded to each other, and were rattled off to the successive tunes of the Irish Washerwoman, the Soldier's Joy, the White Cockade, Patrick's Day, and Morgan Rattler." (from page 79)

• Nancy Dawson
Named after an English stage performer, the tune is a slight variation of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, but first appeared under the title Nancy Dawson around 1760.

• Irish Washerwoman:
Possibly English in origin, but first published under this title in Neil Gow's A Third Collection of Strathspey Reels &c for the Piano-forte, Violin and Violincello, 1792.

• Soldier's Joy:
Used by Robert Burns in The Jolly Beggars/ Love and Liberty, 1785.

• White Cockade:
First published in James Aird's Selection of Scotch, English and Irish Airs, 1782.

• Patrick's Day:
First published in The Caledonian Pocket Companion Book XI, 1750s.

• Morgan Rattler:
First published in Robert Petrie of Perthshire's Collection of Strathspey Reels and Country Dances, 1790.

• So the chronology works – all of these tunes were composed within M'Henry's era and it's entirely plausible that he heard them being played during his east Antrim childhood, and also in emigrant Pennsylvania among Ulster-Scots emigrant communities.


• As posted here recently, the critical cultural context to this is that the earliest collection of American fiddle tunes was George P Knauff's Virginia Reels of 1839 (see link here). This makes the M'Henry reference above, 16 years earlier, from the pen of an Ulster-Scots emigrant, to be hugely important.

• The pics posted here are two that I took of Georgia-born Fiddlin' John Carson's fiddle, brought from Ulster by his ancestors in the early 1700s, and now on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee, in July 2016 (Wikipedia here).

Friday, September 02, 2022

Glasgow no more / Glesga nae mair

Back in February I posted here of how I very nearly went to Art College in Scotland, but was derailed by the surprise intervention of someone who I knew from home who was already studying there, when doing my rounds of degree course interviews in Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh, in April 1991 (see post here). So I stayed in Belfast, where I had done my Foundation year.

At the same moment, my future wife was also offered a degree place at Glasgow School of Art, but she opted instead to come to Belfast, where we met in Autumn 1992.

A few weeks after I had graduated from there, in late July 1994 she had some of her art work exhibited in Felt Directions at the Collins Gallery on Richmond Street in Glasgow, for the International Feltmakers Association, and I flew over the meet her there for a few memorable days, with her parents who had travelled up from England.

We had various day trips and family holidays in Glasgow over the decades since.

Fast forward almost 30 years and I was back in Glasgow in April 2022 to meet up with our oldest son who was doing some videography work there (see post here) and we had a ball for a few days. He was filming with the-then Glasgow Rangers player Calvin Bassey for some promo videos for his PR agency (on Instagram here).

I had hoped that our second son might study medicine in Glasgow, but he has opted for the University of Plymouth, and starts there next week after his gap year of travelling around Europe, Israel, Australia and Bali.

I took my final hope, our daughter, to the University of Glasgow on 16 June for University Open Day. Whilst I was greatly impressed by the University in terms of its ethos (especially their emphasis on Graduate Attributes rather than grades), and even though we shopped in Buchanan Street (pictured above), hit multiple coffee shops, did the Gallery of Modern Art, and used the dead-easy circular Subway system, she didn't like the vibe of the city at all, and has decided that, if she gets the grades, to stay in Northern Ireland for university. So here endeth our student-era connection with Glasgow.

My maternal great-great-grandfather, James Kerr from Carrowdore, went to Glasgow for work some time around 1900 but he never came home – it's believed that he was drowned in the River Clyde. My mother's cousins, the Hamills from Ballyfrenis, who left Northern Ireland in the late 1960s to live back in that ancestral city have now all passed away, during the Covid lockdowns, with no-one from this side of the water able to be present at the funeral. So my sense of direct familial connection feels tangibly diminished.

We will still visit of course, thanks to the newly-announced air routes with Belfast. It's just a 25 minute hop over, and then the purple Service 500 shuttle bus, which uses wee touches of Scots vocabulary in its branding, from the airport right into the city centre.

With no family ties now, it feels that wee bit more distant. And I will always wonder "what if" I had gone to Scotland in '91.