My PhD in English ran from 15 Sep 2020 to 15 Sep 2023, during which time I had the privilege of being Writer in Residence of Ulster University. Here I am, three years on, too many words spent, reliant on photographs to plot it all out...
It began with a trickle of dust falling lightly onto my desk. The world was in semi-lockown, the children were constantly sent home from school to self-isolate, we all had to work from home and the house was a building site! Some weeks later, I was dancing in the kitchen and tore my calf muscle. What a start to a PhD! I didn't miss a single online training session!
A Hallowe'en Party for two! Now P6 and first year. A period of intense sitting and intense reading and writing — for me! (The kids retired from reading in March 2020 and demanded I take all their books to the charity shop!)
Late 2020 and early 2021 — we were allowed to celebrate Christmas with our 'bubble', but for many thousands of people, it was an unbearably sad time. There was snow on Agnew's Hill and across Sallagh as mourners in Craigyhill said goodbye to a beautiful friend, Anne, in early 2021. Another friend's funeral came soon after. Norman's was online and among the hundreds of people present was James Galway, the Man with the Golden Flute. 'Annie's song' was the theme tune to my early childhood and a perfect lament for the winter of 2020-2021. Homeschooling and sporadic periods of school self-isolation followed. No extra-curricular clubs. No childminding. Devices came in handy — for them! I kept reading my books.
Throughout the first year, I focussed on writing some of my new novel and researching the topic of 'female novelists who write in Scots and Ulster Scots'. In July 2021, I took my mum and dad to Scotland, repeating our childhood trip to Butlins — now the Haven Holiday park. Tradition dictated a trip to Alloway, to the Burns Museum, which inspired some scenes in my novel. Covid was lurking around every corner, however, and within a week of coming home, we all had positive tests to prove it! I wrote my first essay for the Phd with Covid. Covid makes you delirious. God love the supervisors who read that first draft! :)
A new member of the family! Dixie was beside me for nearly every word written.
My main task in second year was to research the Agnew family of Lochnaw and Ó Gnímh family of Larne, hereditary sheriffs and hereditary bards. They owned most of the Larne area in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Their story is fascinating and I hope to be able to tell it with the publication of my novel, a diary novel about a young Presbyterian woman who becomes intrigued to learn that her land was once poetic land. I have seen up close the linguistic melting pot of east Antrim in the early 1600s, in the time of the bards. The above photos were taken during my stay in the gatehouse of Lochnaw Castle, home of the Agnews for nearly 500 years.
I also taught a first year class at the university. Face-to-face this time — well, sort of. If you were in those classes and I pass you by, please alert me as I won't recognise you without your mask! It felt good to finish FST, First Steps to Teaching.
A very special trip to Robert Burns home in Ellisland. A tour by poet Stuart Paterson. A warm welcome by director Joan McAlpine. A chance to meet musicians Blackie and Nicola Black. Nicola sadly passed away last year, but not before I had listened to her beautiful songs based on Hugh MacDiarmid's poetry. (She also kindly read Dusty Bluebells and gave me lots of social media support). Above is the desk of Burns. I think I must have caught something in that wee room because Scots crept into my life in a way that I couldn't have imagined after writing three novels in Standard English. I not only translated Dusty Bluebells into Scots but also began to write a few poems in Scots — with some surprising results for a novice.
The best medicine after the worst of a pandemic — the Frances Browne Festival in Donegal. I took Jim and Barbara on this road trip and my dad said to me after he'd listened to the poetry competition readings in Gaelic, 'I hinnae a clue what they're saying, but I'll tell ye yin thing, it's sheer poetry!" Or something like that. It was funny. I won the Ulster Scots poetry competition. The festival meant much to many of us. I'll long be grateful for it and look forward to my third one next month!
I also picked up second place in the Linen Hall Library short story competition and took part in the BBC show 'The Toon' with Ewan Glas — both on the same November day, both in that red tartan dress. It seemed like a good idea at the time! (And I'm not posting any more photographs of it!)
A poem in stone. I had the honour of working on a children's poem alongside 96 kids from St. Nicholas Primary School, Moyle Primary School and Carniny Primary School for the 'Looking Back, to Look Forward’ centenary project by Mid and East Antrim Council.
If Robert Burns was the first poet I'd been exposed to as a young child, the greatest influence during my education was Seamus Heaney. Death of a Naturalist was my GCSE poetry text. So, here's to giving a woman's perspective through those words that teem from the ceiling in the Seamus Heaney Homeplace, where I had the pleasure of running a dialect workshop last year. I also enjoyed a trip around the Ards Penninsula with the Kilcooley Women's Centre. Thanks for the lekker pancake, Mark Thompson!
The photograph that led to a Twitter storm and a Slugger O'Toole article ending with the words, 'Make it ethically and morally reprehensible for any parent to wish to separate children according to social status.'
I have walked the townlands of the Agnews and Ó Gnímhs and experienced the kind of magic that is hard to exaggerate in a novel — like the time our real-life Ó Gnímh / Agnew detectives gathered in Ballygally Castle's grounds only to have an impromtu daylight orchestra of poetry, harp music and birdsong, made special by Déaglán Ó Doibhlin and Aoibheann Devlin. The screenshot below is from the Kilwaughter Castle Facebook page and it captures the subsequent celebration in Sep 2022 in Kilwaughter Hall, as we celebrated the poetry of Brían and Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh and the fascinating history of Kilwaughter Castle. Three great years of email, Zoom calls and meetings with Jacqueline Haugseng-Agnew, Ciarán Ó Maitiú and Ryan Greer, as we ventured into the past together!
Getting in with a bad crowd— it happens to every student! Only joking! But I did get in with a 1798 crowd. First there was Claire Mitchell, who implicated me in a great book about Protestants called The Ghost Limb and deemed me to be alternative. 1798 hit fever pitch when I read the entire O'Halloran novel and recommended to Ian Hooper that he re-publish it. He did. It's a beautiful book. He also published the Scots Edition of Dusty Bluebells, which has no 1798 vibe, but which implicated me, nonetheless, in a Burns Supper with Reclaim the Enlightenment. Truthfully, a great crowd, though I never expected to visit so many graveyards during a PhD. (Thanks Stephen McCracken).
Another Larne-Stranraer connection when I took part in David Hume's Peril on the Sea, commemorating the sinking of the Princess Victoria in 1953. A brilliant wee night of poetry at the Eastside Arts Centre and a peak through the wardrobe door, which reminds me that a real highlight of the last three years was the C.S Lewis symposium at Ulster University. (That and the Eco-symposium, of course!)
A recent gaitherin of writers who write in Ulster Scots in the Sunflower bar. And time to catch up with old friends and old books (from the days before Scots writing) at the Larne Arts Festival. I also had the chance to work on an LRG project with some great poets from around the Mid and East Antrim Council area. Thanks to MEA council, after years of seeing poetry on the walls of Leiden, I finally had the opportunity to add poetry to the walls of Larne.
Over the past sixth months, I mostly kept my head down and worked on the last area of research - Dialect in Diary Novels. It was the international adventure I needed to complement all the local and regional research.
Looking back on old photos has made me see that life has not stood still. My mum and dad's fiftieth wedding anniversary had them both dancing again, like before. Team LRG (Larne Renovation Generation) stayed together against all odds — we had graffiti, poetry and mosaics to deal with, after all. Liam's been busy. The house renovations never ended once the ceiling was restored — a new roof and a touch of lilac were next on the agenda. A son's new perm! My stepdaughters' graduations, with one moving away to London. My brother and my American nieces, so far away, but we'll be coming your way soon. The dancing festivals for the wee one and a return to Irish dancing for me — and I almost forgot that calf injury as I walked up Slieve Donard with the Clonlee women, who kept me on my toes throughout the PhD! Oh and two chances, in the end, to go back to Holland and see the poetry on the walls.
There are too many people to thank. The names are all hopefully in the document above. For now, thank you to my supervisors, Dr. Kathleen McCracken, Dr. Frank Ferguson & Dr. Andrew Keanie.
A postcript. As the last weeks approached, Agnew's Hill, the centre of my PhD world for three years, overlooked a scene of unimaginable sadness, as hundreds of people gathered on Bardic Drive in Antiville. I have noticed since then that everywhere there are butterflies. Fly high Scarlett.x
“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
The following blog post was written in March 2020 after a walk around Ballygally trying to locate the position of Jean Park's home. Since writing it, a team of Jean Park enthusiasts have been in touch with more information, and this has become a truly enticing tale. I have highlighted anything new with an asterisk. Many thanks for your help.*
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; they say 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, but 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 where you resided. Was it on this spot, by Ballygally Head? I see the photographer, Robert John Welch, climbing down from the road 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, the common Ulster pronunciation of the name Jane.
I hold up my mobile phone and 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). 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. Did you pick it because you knew that no one would bother you here, that no authority would climb down and question you? 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.
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, which to be 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 for the novel that came to be known as Dusty Bluebells.
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.
How did did our ancestors, the young and old of nineteenth century Ulster, foot it to the dance floor? The answer, if you're partial to Victorian literature, can be found in a recently republished novel called Orange Lily.
May Crommelin’s novel, set in County Down in the 1870s, is well worth a read, but what caught my attention, as I made the last touches to my book on the history of Irish dancing, was the description of dancing, and in particular, the reference to Soldier's Joy, my 6 year-old daughter's favourite team dance.
No slithery-slathery walzes!
‘Soldier’s Joy' is a popular team (country) dance in the festival tradition of Irish dancing, and the dance is a charming spectacle to behold as the children knock, knock, knock, clap clap clap and rolly polly polly to the music.
However, in Orange Lily, the dance is a little more rustic. ‘Big Gilhourn,’ an affable farmer, who has taken a fancy to Orange Lily despite her unerring love for Tom, takes to the earthen floor of the barn like Michael Flatley, rejecting any notion of lilting to a modern dance:
“None of your new slithery-slathery walzes for me. What I like best is to see a man get up and take the middle of the floor - and foot it there for a good hour!’ ‘The Soldier’s Joy’ for me, if I may make so bold as to ask that request.”
Agnes McConnell (Close), was born in 1901 at 1 Railway Street, Ballymena. It isn't clear who taught Agnes McConnell to dance in the Irish style promoted by the Gaelic League, but Ballymena was a hub of traditional dancing in Agnes’ formative years, and the Protestant Hall in the 1910s and 1920s regularly accommodated Irish night festivities.
Agnes ran what the family called the “original and only dancing club in Ulster” in Railway Street from at least the late 1920s, if not earlier. Most of the McConnell siblings were involved in dancing, including Sam (b.1911), Fred (b.1915) and Pearl (b.1920).
The children grew up in Harryville, a working class area of town that provided manpower for the local linen mill. Most of Agnes McConnell’s aunts and uncles worked at the mill — her mother, Margaret was a spinner and her father, David, a fitter.
The McConnell family, who belonged to the Church of Ireland, would not have been part of the Gaelic League’s new dawn of saffron and green. Those Protestants involved in the Gaelic League revival of the early 1900s tended to be from middle class or aristocratic stock. Harryville was a unionist, working class and Protestant heartland where the voices were ‘broad Scotch’ and a Twelfth of July arch was decked out in in red, white and blue.
The McConnells appear at the 1929 Ballymena festival as ‘The Shamrock team,’ featuring Miss Pearl McConnell, younger sister of Agnes. Their performance was noted by adjudicator, Mr Denis Cuffe, as the finest he’d seen in a life-time. In subsequent years, the McConnell dancers were entered into competitions under the name of ‘Miss McConnell’s school.’
Sally McCarley, who later taught her cousin, Sadie Bell (née Kernohan), was instructed by Agnes McConnell in the early 1930s. Sadie, who set up the Seven Towers School of Irish dancing in 1950, also
The decommissioning of arms
Sean O’Togda complained in 1924 of the ignorance of youth as a result of the decline of the old dance masters. Mr O’Togda had a teacher of the traditional style who taught dancing to women in the following way:
“To add grace and variety to the dance, he showed them how to dance with arms akimbo and to place the hands gracefully on the hips…He also showed the girls how to hold their skirts lightly at the side with thumb and index finger of both hands, and slightly and gracefully keep them out from the sides.”
In a 1904 photograph of an Irish dancer, “Cassie” in Victorian attire at the Feis na Gleann, the dancer has both hands on her hips.
Miss Patricia Mulholland, a Belfast dance mistress, who began teaching in the 1930s, was also an exponent of the use of arms. “As far as I was concerned, arms poker-rigid beneath an expressionless face had little attraction. I wanted to inject more feeling, and, in the process, let Irish dancing come into contact with the widest possible audience.”
Arms were, however, discouraged by some dance teachers in the nineteenth century. Mr Trench, a dance master operating in the south of Ireland in the early 1800s instructed that arms should hang gracefully to the side. He actively discouraged the flinging of these limbs about, or flourishing them on the level with the head; an indication that the dancers either had a tendency to naturally liberate their limbs in ethereal motion, or that in some previous time, the arms had moved freely. Another reflection on pre-dance master times is this: “During the rapid exercise, Nancy occasionally clapped one hand on her well-developed hip.”
The white collar scholars of the Gaelic League and the country dancers went head to head in a great national and nationalistic debate about what exactly Irish dancing was, and the Gaelic League turned to the south-west for inspiration, applying the Munster style found in areas of counties Kerry, Cork and Limerick to step dancing in the rest of the country. Dances were to be controlled, hip slapping and flings thereby excluded.
This week the sun was shining in Larne and the Orange Hall steps were ornate with dancers in emerald green, black, burgundy, royal blue, scarlet, navy blue and cerise. The festival was a positive experience made special by the charm of the dancers, the spirit of the musicians, the enthusiasm of the adjudicator, the generosity of visitors from across the province, the support from local people and the dedication of wee fairies who made it happen.
There was also a strong sense of history. The lady at the door danced competitively in the same hall as far back as the 1930s, the pianist had danced as a toddler in a variety concert in Ballymena during the second world war, and the wee fairies on the stage and in the kitchen included grandmothers, mothers and daughters who have been dancing their whole lives.
Few people realise is that Irish folk dancing, now primarily known as ‘festival dancing’ is a cross-community tradition. Even during the upheaval of ‘The Troubles,’ Catholics and Protestants continued to hold hands, literally and metaphorically, in towns like Belfast, Larne, Portadown, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Portstewart, Ballyclare and Bangor. Irish folk dancing, in fact, blossomed against the timbre of bullets and bombs.
Catholics and Protestants in the Irish folk dancing tradition have been dancing together for for ninety years, but further back in time, the harvest homes, lintings, punch dances and Mayday festivities also provided opportunities for Catholics and Protestants to come together. Traditional Ulster social dances like ‘A Soldier’s Joy,’ ‘The Sweets of May’ and ‘The Three Tunes’ were danced by Protestants and Catholics before the term “Irish dancing” was invented.
A story to warm the cockles of your heart:)
I was sick, sore and tired of the games that Harry and Gary played on the street. I was sick, sore and tired of BMXing, I was sick, sore and tired of A Teaming, I was sick, sore and tired of band sticking and I was sick, sore and tired of footballing.
‘I’m bored.’ I said to my mum.
‘How could you be bored? It’s summer. You’re off school. The street’s full of weans. Away out and play like the rest of them.’
‘They only want to play on bikes and all. I’m bored of bikes and all.’
‘Jenny’s on her own over there. Away and play with Jenny.’
My mum’s eyebrows were curved like question marks and she had a semicolon smile. She knew that I was not sick, sore and tired of Harry’s sister, Jenny.
Jenny goes to the Andrew’s school of dancing at the Town Hall. Each Saturday, I’m there alone on the boy’s side of the hall. Jenny is there on the other side surrounded by thirty girls.
It’s wile hard to be alone at dancing without stories birling through my mind.
I do the three-hand reel with the girls. There’s a jellyfish of a girl on my left with arms and legs that wriggle in all the wrong directions. There’s a swan of a girl on my right with strong arms and graceful legs. The swan girl is Jenny
History & folklore
Jean Park of Ballygally
Fiddles and Melodeons
Martha Taylor's diary
Jean McCullagh at 104
Ballymena & the McConnells
Arms in Irish Dancing
Catholics & Protestants in Irish dancing
Dancing in Victorian Ulster
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