"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
Nostalgic Irish prose
Irish culture & folklore
Ulster-Scots short stories
"...stories birling through my mind..."
A dirl of rhyme filtered through the scullery as Cassie stacked the last wheaten farl onto the cooling-tray. Granny was singing about urchins, her hands twisting and plaiting a wisp of straw in her lap.
‘‘Hae ye a wisp for the whole o Ballygally forbye Cairncastle?” teased Cassie, eyeing the overflowing basket by Granny’s feet.
Granny gave a smile as taut as the straw she held in her hand. ‘This bonnie wisp is goin naewhere.”
“Da sez ye’ll hae the devil upon us, with your Hogmanay.”
“If your da spent less time thinkin aboot the deil,” said Granny, “he’d hae less work on his hands.”
Cassie began clearing up the kitchen. All work had to be done before the first-footers crossed the threshold on New Year’s Day, one of the superstitions Granny held onto despite her son-in-law’s censure.
“It’s brave an early to redd up the trimmings,” said Cassie as she lifted the prickly holly from the chimney-brace.
“A clean hoose keeps bad omens oot!” said Granny.
“There’ll be nae talk of bad omens in this hoose!” trumpeted Cassie, mimicking her father’s unyielding voice.
Granny replied with a smile that doubled around her lips like a plaited wisp of barley. It was a fearless expression, ready to deflect any man’s chiding.
Cassie looked across the silver line of hawthorn outside the window. The moon shone white on a navy sky and the lights of the Maidens’ lighthouses blinked yellow. She pictured her mother by the window, her paintbrush pointing to the horizon, her expression fearless.
Cassie clanged the brass bells to mark midnight and sipped back her whiskey. Granny leaned in close on the settle. “I met your granda at Hogmanay, ye ken?”
Cassie dropped her empty mug. Granda Scott’s name was never mentioned.
“Och aye,” said Granny. “The good Lord blow’d him through thon door. Hair as black as coal. I was leukin oot for weans beggin for bread and coal. But here, dear. The first-footer was Hamilton Scott frae Donaghadee. Lost in the fog after a danner up Sallagh.”
Granny held up the short wisp of straw to reveal a heart shape where the loops of her creation intertwined. “I’d a wisp like this yin in my hand for the weans.”
“Och, Granny,” said Cassie, laughing. Hammy Scott was said to have died at sea, but Cassie had overheard a different tale the night of her mother’s wake.
As the sound of the fiddle echoed in the scullery, Granny Armstrong had whispered the truth to her sister, that Hamilton Scott had been a figment of Letitia Lynch’s imagination. The pair of them had leaned over the open coffin and prayed for the soul of the dearly departed — Charlotte Scott, the bastard daughter.
“It’s a cryin shame the weans dinnae still come first-footing roon here,” said Cassie.
“Your da wouldnae stand for it. Beggars, he’d call them.”
“Ma would hae said the same.”
“Och, och anee,” rhymed Granny. “Yer ma liked the oul ways when she was a wean. She aye gien your da his place as the heid o the hoose. And rightly so.”
Cassie thought about her mother and her illness, the fatigue that died in the dim light. She would stay up half the night painting and then she would lie for days, not fit for lifting a hand. The Armstrongs said that Charlotte Scott was too much the lady, with her painting and resting.
Cassie missed her ma, but she’d never been drawn to the landscapes painted by her hand. She’d never been drawn to their colours, as dark as Haleve nicht.
“Granny,” said Cassie. “Ye know there’s mare a chance o’ a draft blowin through thon door than a first-footer. Come on tae bed.”
“Young yins! Where’s the magic? I believed in magic. And leuk at me.”
“Aye, leuk at ye, Granny,” said Cassie, as she rattled the last of the slack from the bucket. “An oul widow wi nuthin but a sixteen year-oul tae warm them cowl feet. Let’s get ye til yer bed.”
Cassie’s mind birled from the whisky. She tossed and turned half the night. At the stroke of five, a cold wind skimmed across her cheeks.
She slipped her hand into the icy air and switched on the gas lamp. Wind whistled through the chimney flue.
Cassie pulled back the heavy quilt and there was Granny. Nose tipped up. A gladsome smile. White hands gripping the heart-shaped wisp like a prayer.
Hands as cold as linen.
“Perhaps the saddest incident comes from Ballygalley. An old woman, named Jane Parke, well-known to most of the residents of the neighbourhood, resided in a roughly-built cabin under the sea wall, a short distance on this side of the Halfway House. She lived principally by charity and recently was in receipt of Poor-Law Relief. Repeated warnings had been given her of the danger she incurred by continuing to reside in her tumble-down shanty in rough weather, but she was deaf to all advice, and now had met her death as the result of her obstinacy, her dwelling being completely wrecked and she either drowned by the heavy seas or was killed by the walls falling in on her.”
Larne Times, 29 December 1894
I’m holding up the photograph of you, Jean Park, a face born of boulder, rock and shingle, but you did not emerge from these rocks. You emerged from the sea, a small baby found in a boat in her dead mother’s arms.
Your face is contorted and twisted with age, older than your 71 years, and you had no time to prepare for any photographer. Did you know what you were doing when you agreed to squat down and look at the camera? Was the photograph taken the same year you died? A farewell. Something to make your legend real.
I want to find a way to know exactly where you resided. The locals do not believe your dwelling was adjacent to the Halfway House, but rather, they say, you lived down by the Ballygally Head. Was it on this spot? I see the photographer, Robert John Welch, climbing from the road down past the seaweed drying out along the wall. I see him tip his hat and approach you. Today, you’re his golden find. He would record your name as Janet, but we know you as Jean, interchangeable with Jane when written in ink.
I hold up my mobile phone, nervous that the wind will catch it. It’s a great luxury now on this, the last of normal Sundays. I see the rocks and the grassy bank and picture the telegraph pole in the photograph that was damaged the night that you were washed away. Above it are the mountains that stretch out along Path Head, misty in your photograph, exactly proportional to what I see through my iPhone’s eye. My brother sees Ballygally Castle behind you. (He sees castles where I see walls, but he has a feeling too that this is the place.) The bank is ever-changing, as we witnessed with the carving of a large swathe of coast at Ballygally in a recent storm. Rocks come and go, but this seems like a good hiding place, an opportunistic spot; you would have been the first person to be seen as the tourists rounded the bend at Ballygally Head.
This bay is the cold, dark edge of Ballygally. I have never stopped here, but I will remember the wild seclusion it holds. Did you pick it because you knew that no one would bother you here, that no authority would climb down and question you — or offer you Poor-Relief? It’s a cove below the head of a sleeping giant, whose face is handsome on approach from Larne or looking down from Sallagh, but here, up close, he’s stark and cold and covered in lichen.
A few years ago, I was inspired by what Linda Ervine was doing in Belfast and contacted her to find out how I could go about setting up an Irish class in Larne. At that time, I was aware that Larne was the centre of the universe, but oblivious to its heritage as a centre of Irish poetry!
Linda is an Irish language student from Belfast, whose personal story is as remarkable as her journey to Irish. The cross-community side of what she does as an Irish language activist is one thing, but the grassroots community building is another: she and the Turas team have brought people flooding into the Lower Newtownards Road in their hundreds in search of Irish culture.
When Belfast was the Athens of the North
On the surface, Belfast seems like an unlikely setting for an Irish language movement. By 1708, it was a plantation “Scots town” with only 7 Catholics among the Protestant population of around 2000 people, but it was surrounded by villages filled with Gaelic speakers.
During the nineteenth century Irish was integral to the Belfast cultural renaissance. Dr James McDonnell, for instance, was at the helm of the Irish cultural movement. He organised the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792 and formed the Ulster Gaelic Society to “revive our language.” The Belfast Royal Academy, which predated Queens University, added Irish to its curriculum in the 1790s. Belfast may have been alive with English and Scots voices, but Protestant preachers understood the importance of learning Gaelic in order to fill their churches with incoming migrants from the countryside.
“The dregs and lees of the Catholic People”
The Catholic Church soon recognised that Protestant churches were teaching Irish for the purposes of religious conversion and so they came down hard on it. Father Luke Walsh referred to Irish teachers as “the very dregs and lees of the Catholic people.”
The Good Friday Agreement story
During the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, I was a student living in France and I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the finer details of Northern Irish politics, so Aodán Mac Póilin’s account of what happened at 3.25 am on Good Friday morning came as a revelation to me.
David Trimble, he explains, threw Lallans onto the negotiating table when everything else had been settled, pointing out that 150,000 people in Northern Ireland spoke it. The Good Friday Agreement, therefore, offers “respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity, including in Northern Ireland, the Irish language, Ulster-Scots and the languages of the various ethic communities.”
When Trimble brought Lallans to the negotiating table, he was asked to speak it in order to demonstrate to the table what he was talking about. Any Ulster Scots speaker would flounder were this to be requested: a negotiating table is a Standard English setting. It’s difficult and even embarrassing to use Ulster Scots out of context. Too many years of being told you speak “bad English” takes its toll eventually.
In 1998, I would have had no notion what Lallans was, even though I came from one an area where Ulster Scots was alive and fairly undiluted. The aunts and uncles and grannies and grandas born in the early 1910s were still speaking in an old way that is now dying out: “Sez I tae me, sez she tae he, och och a nee.”
The Cruithin theory
The next thing that surprised me in Aodán Mac Póilin’s book was the Cruithin theory. The Cruthins were apparently connected with the Dalriada Kingdom that comprised parts of Scotland and Ireland and they were driven to Scotland by invading Gaels in the fifth century. The “Cruithin thesis” was used by a small number of Unionists to challenge the nationalist rhetoric of British colonisation, the idea being that the plantation of Ulster and migration to Ulster by the Scots represented a return of the Cruithin to Ulster and the repossession of a native homeland. A more radical branch of the theory is that the ancestors of the Ulster Scots people were responsible for spreading Christianity in Ireland.
At worst, it's a supremacy theory.
"There's no such thing as Ulster Scots."
These are words I see often on social media. The rationale is that Ulster Scots can’t possibly be a real thing because languages are all supposed to be different and exotic and mysterious, and Ulster Scots is too close to English to be different and exotic and mysterious.
A short lesson on the history of the English language, therefore, seems like a good place to begin an introduction to Ulster Scots.
The word English is derived from Angles, the name of Germanic tribe, and the languages and dialects that all the various Anglo-Saxon tribes brought with them during invasions of Britain around the 5th century A.D. provided the foundations for the English Language.
We refer to that collection of words, sounds and expressions as Old English, but the people of The Netherlands and Germany called it Dutch or Deutsche: both terms of are variations of one another, meaning "belonging to the people."
Languages are porous and change over time, sometimes dramatically. English changed when Christianity spread and Latin was incorporated. There were then some Norse additions when the Vikings invaded Britain in the 700s. During the 12th century, the arrival of the Normans, whose language was a mix of French and Scandinavian, resulted in further changes.
Click on this link and you’ll see my attempt at reading the lyrics of a 1225 song in English to my daughter.
A short history of Scots
The Angles tribe also came to occupy the north-east of England and south-east of Scotland in the fifth century, and Angles gradually spread throughout the Lowlands of Scotland.
By the end of the thirteenth century, this language had developed its own distinct pronunciation and vocabulary.
This blog is the first in series of four. You might enjoy them if the linguistic landscape of Northern Ireland confounds you or excites you.
When a book came through my door entitled ‘Our Tangled Speech’ by the late Aodán Mac Póilin, I felt energised by the language debate within it knew I had to blog about it. These observations are based on a mixture of Aodán Mac Póilin’s research and my own thoughts and experiences.
Edward De Bruce & friends
How many people ever stop to think of the fascinating linguistic journey of the country we live in, of all the influences - pre-Celtic, Gaelic, Viking, Norman, Spanish, French, Scots, and English - and intersection of languages at various points in history? We know that Edward the Bruce came to Ireland in 1315 to serve a short tenure as King, but do we know what language he spoke? Was it Gaelic? Was it an old form of English? Or, was it an early form of Scots? It seems feasible that he would have known all three, but it's an aspect of our history that rarely comes up on the curriculum.
The first written texts in Gaelic date back to the 5th century AD and the majority of the island of Ireland spoke Gaelic until the sixteenth century. During the eighteenth century, however, it ceased to be a majority language.
Meanwhile in Scotland, a form of Middle Irish took hold in the 5th and 6th centuries, spreading throughout Scotland and replacing Pictish. This form of Gaelic, dominant until the eleventh century, was referred to as Scottis. It was eventually taken over by what we now know as Scots. By the 1400s, Scottish Gaelic had been demoted as a national language and was called Irish (Erse), reflecting its Irish roots.
Western Scotland was still largely Gaelic speaking in the seventeenth century. This means that a large proportion of people of Scottish origin in Ulster have ancestors who spoke Gaelic. Economic migrants and plantation settlers who spoke Scots would also have come into regular contact with the Gaelic language in the 1600s. The Ulster Plantation represents a multilingual intersection in our history, when men gathered at markets to haggle for the best price of a cow in a variety of Irish, Scots and Elizabethean English. I rather envy the ancestors who got to witness it.
I don't recall how I ended up at a Corrs concert, or when exactly it was, but I do recall that it was around the time of the peace talks, a time of great hope in Northern Ireland. The singing was beautiful and the music was enchanting. And although marriage and children were a distant vision, I committed my future brood to music lessons there and then. Each musician in the Corrs played several instruments live on stage. Quite the mesmerising spectacle underneath a hope-filled sky!
Andrea was the middle class girl from Dundalk, raised with three siblings, life centring around her parents’ band and piano lessons, and I was the working class girl from Larne raised with three siblings, life centring around the drums and flutes of the Chaine Memorial Flute Band.
It seemed to me that my life could not have been more different to the woman moving ethereally across the stage, not least because my singing credentials were limited to having turned the pages for the pianist in the school choir for four years.
There was a time, not so long ago, when everyone had an aunt or uncle with a fiddle or melodeon. My great uncle Dan Hewitt was a well-known fiddler in the town of Larne and as a child, I delighted in the Aladdin's cave of melodeons, fiddles, saxophones and clarinets hidden underneath his sofa, not to mention the harmonica residing in his top pocket that appeared to have a way of conversing with children all by itself. When Dan played the fiddle on Radio Ulster in the 1980s, “us weans” took it as read that he must be the most famous man alive.
As I was writing ‘Irish Dancing: The Festival Story,’ I picked up bits and pieces about the history of music: the ancient harp and pipe traditions of Gaelic times; fiddle schools emerging all around Ulster during the 1830s and 1840s; the popularity of instruments as they became more affordable and the subsequent creation of bands comprising banjos, fiddles and melodeons - the “pop bands” of their time. The encroachment of jazz music and gramophone records lead to the belief that live music might die out all together, so in the 1920s Irish folk music, along with Irish folk dancing, was added to the syllabus of the musical festivals.
Burning corks for eyeliner by the fire
Two years ago, I began to do some historical research for a new novel called Waterloo Road. I was able to draw from my own experiences, having grown up with great aunts and uncles who lived on the Waterloo Road, but when Barbra Cooke got in touch to tell me about her granny Martha Doey’s diary, the novel came to life in my mind.
Barbra’s aunt Irene, Martha’s daughter, invited me to her home to learn more, and during that interview, I picked up the kind of detail that could not be found in a newspaper or a history book. I discovered a world in which women scrubbed their teeth with soot from the fire, painted their eyebrows with burnt cork and went hungry as rationing stretched from one world war to the next.
A picture emerged in my mind, a hazy outline of an industrial area that only half exists today, the old red brick walls of the linen mill still standing on the Lower Waterloo Road; the unbridled noise of looms, smoke belching from chimneys and the giant damn for steeping flax near present day Kent Avenue all gone.
The people who congregated at the factory corner outside Billy Boyd’s store were already known to me, as I’d spent so much of my childhood at that same corner buying sweets from Duddy’s or Sally’s shop, but I began to see my old aunts and uncles more clearly. I also started to understand the significance of the 12 foot high wall that separated the kitchen houses of the Waterloo Road from the big houses where the captains and doctors resided.
I discovered the world of Little Ballymena, a quarter of Larne that has since lost the moniker for which it was once known. My great grandparents were among first generation to fill the kitchen houses on the Waterloo Road, Herbert Avenue and Newington Avenue in the late 1800s. They were farming people with “Broad Scotch” accents, an eclectic mix of every Protestant denomination; religious affiliations that were often determined by whichever church was providing handouts to the poor and needy. Such folk, alongside their Catholic friends, were all united in a love of whiskey, dancing and music.
Martha Taylor’s diary is buoyant with the kind of language that comes from listening and yarning. The rhythm and phrasing her words echo conversations conducted over washing lines; tales whispered in queues when ships bearing bananas came into dock and stories formed in a world in which women talked for hours. I haven't attempted to reproduce any of Martha’s diary: The following words are merely notes with my own insights of a short but rich historical resource.
A life of serfdom
Martha, who was born in 1917, begins the diary as a small child sitting on an army blanket in the back garden of number 15 Waterloo Road.
The walls are thick with snow and she is content watching the robins hop along them. She is writing in the year 2001, her mind flooded with early memories.
Martha’s peace on the army blanket is shattered when she hears soldiers marching.
“Tramp, tramp, tramp,” she writes.
She is a small child and she is afraid. A great military parade to welcome the soldiers home after Armistice is likely to have been the occasion.
Brown’s Factory area is beset with unemployment in the 1920s as the linen trade goes into decline. Men are to be found on street corners lamenting the lack of work and gravitating towards socialism. Women, who are never far from hard work, continue to scrub laundry for a pittance, tend to cut knees, cook and clean.
My Great Aunt Jean McCullagh (nee Lyttle) was 104 this week. Happy birthday Jean!
Jean is my granny Rossborough's sister. I interviewed her a couple of years ago when I was writing an historical novel and thought this would be a nice time to share what she told me. My mum is very fond of her aunt Jean. I always remember Jean sitting in the Murrayfield shopping centre when I was wee and my mum yarning to her for an eternity.
Jean said that when she goes for medical appointments, the nurses sometimes take pictures of her. They also invariably ask her what the secret is to a long life. She tells them that she was reared on goats milk and that she had bacon, eggs and soda fresh from the griddle every morning.
Jean's mother was Mary Lyttle (nee Gillen). She was from Ballysnod and lived there most of her days. Jean’s father was Samuel Lyttle, whose parents were from Maghera.
Mary’s father was Patrick Gillen, who, like many people in the late 1800s, left these shores for America. He was forty at the time, and it is believed that he may have died before actually boarding the ship. His wife, Isabella Gillen, my great great granny, was therefore alone for most of her adult life.
Jean loved visiting her Granny, Isabella. She too was from Ballysnod, but lived in a thatched cottage at Bank Quays near the Glynn. The house was on the opposite side to Howdens and located back from the road at the foot of a steep glen. Jean frequently ran down though the fields between Ballysnod and the Glynn with her siblings. They slept in an old settle bed filled with straw by the fire when they stayed over with their Granny Gillen. Jean recalls that her granny used to walk as far as Carrickfergus to sell eggs and to visit a relative.
Childhood play for my granny’s siblings involved hoops and skipping ropes. The children also had free reign of Arnold's farm. Jean’s mother, Mary, rarely ventured beyond the end of the lane, but the world came to Mary’s door with people selling a variety of goods, not least needles, pins and thread, essential items for a talented seamstress. The fishman also came once a week, whilst Jean remembers an auld boy called Tinman, who sold the family tin cups and a tin teapot.
Scene from Snugville Street
82 Waterloo Road
The Teacher Voice
The Last Day of Summer Scheme
Uniquely Girls' Brigade
The Children of Latharna
The Band Stick
The Bully up the Brae
God Created Butlins
History & folklore
Language Blog I
Language Blog II
Language Blog III
Language Blog IV
Fiddles and Melodeons
Martha Taylor's diary
Jean McCullagh at 104
Ballymena & the McConnells
Arms in Irish Dancing
Catholics & Protestants in Irish dancing
Irish Dancing: The Festival Story
The Protestant in Irish Fiction.
The Protestant in Irish fiction II
Ulster-Scots in Irish Fiction
An author in Wonderland
Dancing in Victorian Ulster
Learning the Irish Language.
John Hewitt Summer School
Thirteen Reasons for Peace
So Young then (Andrea Corr & me)
Lesley Allen & Helen Nicholl