I broke new ground last Friday evening by speaking at the Turas Irish language group in East Belfast on Ulster Scots.
The invitation was a very welcome one; my view is that our shared cultures should threaten no one and should be respected and appreciated because of the rich diversity which they bring.
So the invite to address the Turas group was a great opportunity to share with an Irish language group and people from an urban background the story of Ulster Scots in rural Ballycarry.
I was thinking about how to explain my Ulster Scots heritage through this talk and I strayed back in time to people who would have been referred to in our community as ‘the aul hanns’ – they were old when I was young, landmarks in the human landscape of our community. One of them, Davy Craig of Lady Brae, was the last man to use a horse to plough the fields of the district, long after tractors had replaced the horse elsewhere. Davy would have used words or phrases like wheen, polis, syne aye, couldnae, wuddnie, dinnae, ane, twarthie, houl yer tongue, and similar.
The late Davy Craig: photo by the author
Davy was a great resource for the history of the area. And there were others just like him in our village and in our farms around. Back then, they would not have really understood the designation of Ulster-Scots although that is what they were. The language they used, the way they expressed themselves, had roots in where they had come from as people, as families and as a community.
Davy Craig taught me a lesson some years after he had passed away. One year our car had broken down and the Twelfth of July Orange parade was in Antrim town. Davy and his wife Joan offered to give us a lift to the Twelfth; I won’t forget it for two reasons, one being the somewhat scary driving along the bumpy country roads on the way home, the other a wee cultural lesson from the Orange parade. Watching lambeg drums approaching us, Davy exclaimed with some excitement “Boys o, there’s the Peter Dicks comin’ now”.
Many years later in Gary Hastings book about lambeg drums and drumming, I learned that the term Peter Dick was the Hibernian term for the drums, which would also have been present at AOH parades in the past. How did Davy Craig come to know the lambegs by their Hibernian name? The answer will never now be known. But it reminds me of crossing cultures, of spaces where history and heritage and culture may overlap.
I am fortunate to come from a complicated place. Ballycarry was settled in 1609 by Scots from Stirlingshire led by William Edmonstone, Laird of Duntreagh. The entire village was Scots along with a total of 2,800 acres of land provided in a land grant from John Dalway, an English settler married into the O’Neills. In modern times this cultural basis is reflected in a 92% single identity background. As part of this scenario, the village is festooned with red white and blue in the summer, but there is a more complicated history in reality.
Here are some of the bullet points of those complications;
- The Scots settlers, such as at Ballycarry, were initially welcomed by the Establishment in Ireland but by the 1630s tensions between the two resulted in Presbyterian ministers being forbidden to preach – and the development of a simmering dissenting resentment.
- In the 1790s Ballycarry was a place of radical thought and in 1798 the village was described as a hotbed of rebellion. One local youth 16 year-old Willie Nelson, was hanged for his part in the Rising – at his widowed mother’s door – and is known as ‘the Ballycarry Martyr’.
- During the Home Rule debate one of the Presbyterian churches in the village was referred to as being full of ‘Home Rulers’. The minister, Rev. Thomas Bartley, was from Monaghan and did not sign the Ulster Covenant of 1912, nor did his wife, who was local. His brother-in-law did sign, showing a split of opinion within the family.
- In 1905 there was an Independent Orange Lodge in the village and adjacent Magheramorne, at a time when the Independent Order was seen to support Home Rule through its famous ‘Magheramorne Manifesto’. Independent Orangeism was very much in keeping with the tradition of the United Irishmen in Ballycarry.
- One of the prominent figures from the area in the 20th century was a wartime general, Sir James Steele and in the Second World War 25% of the population served in the war effort either through the military, RAF, merchant marine of nursing corps.
- There would appear to be an inherent contradiction between being a hotbed of a separatist rebellion in 1798 and being so loyal in the 20th century, but in reality a lot of it relates to the Ulster Scots journey as a community and the landscape around which they traveled. It is complicated.
Growing up in this interesting mix, the only possible response could be to find out more. In doing so, I discovered the richness of my culture, the complications of that culture and how it related to the wider culture around it.
In so doing I was drawn to James Orr. Born in 1770, he lived in interesting times. He was educated solely at home by his parents and was a young radical, absorbing the political ideals of the era. In 1798 he was 28 and he flung himself into the United Irish Rebellion. Afterwards, one of the defeated United Army of Ulster, he had to flee to America for a time but came home under amnesty, although the local landlord refused to allow him to join the yeomanry, still viewing him with suspicion.
The landlord was probably right: Orr remained a radical. But it was as a poet that he will long be remembered best. John Hewitt, the great Ulster poet and advocate of the Ulster Weaver Poets, felt that some of Orr’s poems, particularly The Irish Cottier’s Death and Burial, were better poetry than Burns, whom Orr like the rest of the Weaver Poets had greatly admired.
Orr wrote in English and in Ulster Scots. His most famous work, which was in standard English, was The Irishman, which went to the tune, appropriately enough of “Vive la”. At one time it was printed in Irish anthologies and in American school readers.
“The savage loves his native shore
Though rude the soil and chill the air;
Well then may Erin’s sons adore
Their isle, which Nature formed so fair!
What flood reflects a shore so sweet
As Shannon great, or past’ral Bann?
Or who a friend or foe can meet
So gen’rous as an Irishman?
Two lines from the song
(Erin, loved land! From age to age
Be thou more great, more fam’d and free!)
Appear on the memorial erected by the Masonic Order and locals to his memory in 1831.
Community, Council and Masonic representatives laying a wreath at Orr’s monument
In Orr’s work in Ulster Scots there are many words and phrases which were common currency at the time. Here are just a few examples;
Welcome my frien’s – ye’re just in time,
The kettle’s on, an’ soon will chyme’;
An gif, tho’ us’d to strains sublime,
Ye’ll listen me
I’ll clear my throat, an’ rudely rhyme
In praise o’ Tea
The weel-pair’t peasants, kempin’, set ye;
The weak wee boys, sho’el, weed, an pat’ ye;
The auld guid men thy apples get ay
Seedlin’s to raise;
An’ on sow’n-seeves the lasses grate ye,
To starch their claes
Sin’ sunrise drudgin’ I’ the moss,
I’ve dearly bought a shillin’, O;
An ho to me a weighty loss,
To spen it I’m fu’ willin’ O:
Sae I’se refit an want my rest,
Tho’ I’m baith wat an’ weary, O;
For now the fair is at the best
In sportsome Ballycarry O
Orr wrote fascinating poems, some of which provide us with social history. He was humanitarian and wrote against the practice of bull baiting which was still going on in Carrickfergus in his lifetime. His poem To a Sparrow was one which I found local primary school children became very engaged with a few years back and it is a powerful poem addressed to a little bird whose nest has been upended by thoughtless boys.
He wrote of individuals, some known only to locals – the true calling of the Bard – some known further afield such as Rev. Henry Cooke of Donegore, who was a prominent Presbyterian leader.
One very simple but deeply expressive poem is his The Tree, written about a large oak at Bellahill near his home.
Lofty son of other years,
Now thy vernal robe appears;
At thy foot the streamlet springs,
On thy head the sad breeze rings.
Thine is strength, and beauty, too,
Firm thy trunk, and fair thy hue;
Wide the shade thy circuit throws,
Round thy base thy branches close
Leafy wonder! In thy breast
A defeated corps might rest,
Safe, tho’ searched for. Where’s the tree
That in foliage equals thee?
E’en amid the wintry blast,
In thy ruins thou art vast;
Stately still, tho’ void of dress,
Like a noble in distress.
I must perish – tree of trees!
Thou a future age shall please:
I’m declining in my May –
Thou art old, yet grand and gay.
But tho’ mighty, wherefore throw
These proud looks on me below?
Time, believe me, will not still
Spare the boast of BELLA-HILL
There is the allusion in this poem to 1798 with mention of a defeated corps finding shelter, but his finest poems were probably those which detailed the events of that fateful summer: A Prayer, Donegore Hill, The Wanderer and The Passengers among them.
John Hewitt regarded The Irish Cottier’s Death and Burial as Orr’s finest work and said it bettered Burns, about whom Orr wrote an Elegy. In the Cottier’s Death and Burial it is very telling that Orr relates how, when the minister came to visit, the cottier’s family all tried to quit their Scottish tongue because it was seen as uneducated. This is precisely what happened to Ulster Scots language in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and in response to a question from the audience in East Belfast I was able to make the point that disjointed form of language which remains to Ulster Scots today is but a pale reflection of the language of the 1630s and beyond.
The Irish language, although it has had its ups and downs, has fared better over the years and retained a lot more of its sentence structures whereas Ulster Scots has been left with words and phrases.
It is a great irony that a language seen (wrongly) as a rude and uneducated preserve survived because of the very people who were seen as backward. The educated who looked down on the use of Ulster Scots managed to almost totally destroy it. It’s a great example of how middle class values, wrongly used, can bring a little bit of poison into society.
As for James Orr, he died not quite penniless but not a well off man despite his published poems and his great reputation as a bard. Ulster’s Robert Burns was to lie in an unmarked grave for over 20 years before the Masonic Order and others redressed the balance.
A few years ago our local community group ensured the memorial, erected in 1831, would be restored for new generations.
This, then, was James Orr. Some words which can be used to describe him also fit in well with those who nurtured him: Radical. Conservative. Observant. Poetic. Complicated. And typical Ulster Scots.
We are a complicated people with complicated history. The challenge of the future is to ensure that the overlap of history and culture can be understood and appreciated. And carried forward as unique assets to be treasured and respected.
Marker sign in Ballycarry detailing some of Orr’s poetic works, including a tribute to Burns and Dumfries