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
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