Late July, hot and humid, I set out for Belfast via the small Shropshire town of Wem. Why Wem? Well, I’m working on a book about William Hazlitt, and feel the need to walk some of the ground he trod. His father, the Reverend William Hazlitt, ministered to a small ‘decayed’ Presbyterian congregation here. Hazlitt spent part of his childhood and youth in a house in Noble Street. The small meeting-house beside it is now a hotel garage, but it’s the site of one of the most famous moments in English – perhaps I should say British – Romantic prose. Here, Hazlitt painted his father’s portrait – the old Irish radical holds an open book which his son says is Shaftesbury’s Characteristics, an early work of aesthetics. He spent many days on the portrait, and one evening he laid down his brushes to go for a walk. It was then that he heard the news of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz and in a state of huge, irrecoverable elation saw the evening star set ‘over the poor man’s cottage’. It’s a Wordsworthian spot of time, a historical moment in the prose Prelude which Hazlitt’s readers assemble from his collected works. Out of piety and curiosity I wanted to see where it happened and to walk the road to Shrewsbury, where Hazlitt set out in 1798 for the momentous meeting with Coleridge which liberated his imagination and enabled him to become one of the masters of English prose style. Though he calls that year ‘the year of Demogorgon’, it’s not a date that strikes any historical chord in England now. And neither does the name Wem. It seems appropriate that this neglected figure should have grown up in this sleepy forgotten town.
After Wem, Birmingham, where I caught a plane to Belfast’s new harbour airport. It wasn‘t a random juxtaposition of places: the Rev. Hazlitt’s family were from the North of Ireland, and at some level my interest in his son’s writings must issue from a recognition that their combative Whig mentality and natural jouissance are rooted far back in the Ulster Enlightenment, especially in the work of Francis Hutcheson, the Ulster-Scots philosopher who is known as the founder of the Scottish Enlightenment (Hutcheson’s aesthetics and Shaftesbury’s are closely linked).
Flying over the Isle of Man, then down Belfast’s blue sea-lough to the concrete apron on the sloblands, the names Hazlitt, Haislett, Haslett, run through my mind. They came from Scotland, and brought their Presbyterianism to Ireland, North America, England. I’ve become very interested in the family over the last few years, but that’s not why I’ve come to Belfast. I’m here to make a short film about the Ulster Scots tongue for BBC Northern Ireland. There’s quite a bit of interest in Ulster Scots just now – a society called Ullans (short for Ulster Lallans) has been formed. There’s a magazine, lectures and editions of the weaver poets who wrote in Ulster Scots. A dictionary is due out. There are no surviving monolingual speakers and it has no songs, but there are poems and a whole mentalité which is a distinctive part of the province’s culture.
The first night, I sit up with the film’s director, David Hammond, adding bits to the script. We’re in the sunroom, as he calls it – a big glass-domed upstairs sitting-room at the back of his house. Purple summer dark, stars, streetlights climbing Divis, or the Black Mountain, as it’s called. We stare out at the mountain and drink glasses of Powers. Now and then there’s a silence, pause, a moment of contemplation, a gap. It’s like being inside a double bowl – the glass dome, then the city ringed by hills. A line of Lowell’s – ‘this sweet volcanic cone’ – comes to mind, except it’s not sweet inside the cone, because somewhere in that darkness, out there on the slopes of Divis, are buried the bodies of more than twenty IRA victims. Now the relatives of Ulster’s disappeared are demanding details of where the remains of their loved ones are located. This campaign has developed since the ceasefire, but no bodies have been exhumed yet. The mountain is a giant unmarked grave.
Now, near the first anniversary of the ceasefire, Ulster has a strangely lulled feeling, I begin to think. The excitement of the peace – palpable in the early months – is starting to ebb. Something is bottoming out, and now and then this lulledness infiltrates our talk and we fall silent. It’s a bit like stopping halfway across a dried-up river-bed, or looking round the sides of a maybe extinct volcano. I’m meditating on this when there’s a ring at the door. David goes to answer it and returns with a tall grey-haired man in his later fifties whom I’ve never met before but whose face is almost familiar. ‘Tom, meet the Reverend William Haslett,’ he says.
Vol. 17 No. 17 · 7 September 1995
In his Diary Tom Paulin refers to the film he is making, with David Hammond, about the Ulster Scots dialect (LRB, 24 August). In passing he describes a poem of mine as ‘packed with Ulster Scots words’; and goes on to wonder: ‘Maybe the poet is wanting to ruffle his deft parnassian or to raise certain readers ’hackles? For there’s a calculated over-determined quality to the language in the poem that makes it more like a piss-take.’ In my new collection The Ghost Orchid there are, in fact, two poems so ‘packed’, and a few others which use the dialect more sparingly. I hope that I can allay Paulin’s apparent suspicions about my motives.
In the Poetry Book Society’s Bulletin for Summer 1995 I try to explain what I am up to: ‘I had long wanted to make a self-contained lyric out of the scene in Book XXII of the Odyssey where Phemios the bard and Medon the herald beg for mercy from Telemachos and Odysseus who have just finished slaughtering Penelope’s suitors. By serendipity or subconscious design I was leafing through an Ulster Scots glossary, and found that dialect from my region was making available to me the terror and comedy of this scene out of Greek epic. Words such as banny, bam, gabble-blooter, keeking made fresh sounds and suggestions.’
Or perhaps Paulin has the other poem in mind, ‘The Mad Poet’, in which I use Ulster Scots to underline the satire at the end of Horace’s Ars Poetical? As someone who speaks fairly standard English I would, as a rule, choose Ulster Scots words only when they set free a concept or phrase or emotion which would otherwise not be accessible to me. In a third poem, for instance, dialect words for ‘birdsong’ (tweetle, wheep, chitter, chirl) help me to write tenderly about a very old (Scottish) relative who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.
Paulin is right to praise the Ulster Scots poet and United Irishman James Orr, the Bard of Ballycarry. His ‘Donegore Hill’ (according to Paulin, ‘a brilliant, almost unknown political poem’) is probably the greatest poem to come out of 1798. As directors of Field Day as well as students of Ulster Scots, how did David Hammond and Tom Paulin allow the compendious Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991) to omit not only ‘Donegore Hill’ but all writing in Ulster Scots? James Orr is represented by one poem, but it is in standard English, alas.
Tom Paulin in his references to Hazlitt and Coleridge omits (admittedly in the company of other commentators past and present) to identify as Unitarian the church at Wem, of which the poet’s father, the Rev. William Hazlitt, was minister. A toast and watchword of Unitarianism from the 18th century onwards has been ‘civil and religious liberty’ and so it should be no surprise to find many of the revolutionary and Romantic thinkers of the early 19th century associated with it. Samuel Taylor Coleridge preached in a number of Unitarian pulpits in the West Country and it was to the Unitarian chapel in Shrewsbury that Hazlitt walked ten miles to hear him. Indeed Coleridge had been proposed as the new minister and it was only an annuity provided for him by a Unitarian layman, Thomas Wedgwood, son of Josiah, that enabled the poet and philosopher to devote himself to writing.
May I add a footnote? In the (often fitful) light of the turbid history of Christianity in Ireland, I think – when referring to Presbyterian churches and meeting-houses – Paulin should acknowledge his awareness of the non-subscribing (to the Westminster confession) Presbyterian Church of Ireland, a creedless denomination, albeit small, which for two centuries has preached and practised tolerance in religion, in education and in social service.
Vol. 17 No. 19 · 5 October 1995
Tom Paulin, in his Diary (LRB, 24 August), notices what is hard to miss in Northern Ireland these days, when he mentions the media campaign pushing certain ‘feelgood’ aspects of the ‘peace process’, with its images of tourist beauty-spots and playing children, and its Van Morrison soundtrack. Like Paulin, I am uneasy about the assumptions behind a campaign like this, and find the television ads almost impossible to stomach. But Paulin has missed out on a vital nuance: the sign-off line for each ad (and the catchphrase for the whole corny campaign) is indeed Van Morrison’s line from ‘Coney Island’, but the Diary’s version of this – ‘Why can’t it be like this all the time?’ – is a misquotation, and loses much of the effect. What Van the Man actually says is ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?’: the ‘great’ has its full Belfast ‘gree-at’, and the whole phrase carries a vividly Northern Irish intonation. I’ve been trying to say, ‘Why can’t it be like this all the time?’ in a Belfast accent, but somehow it’s just not the same – it’s English-sounding in some odd, remote way. ‘Why can’t it …’ was a pretty unusual construction when I was a wee lad, at least.
It’s entertaining to read elsewhere in the Diary about Paulin’s weirdly Yeatsian encounter with an old man of the hills, whose ‘soul sings’ in Ulster Scots, a language which seems to link us with the poetry and ideas of 1798 and all that: the whole scene is touchingly romantic. Even so, it’s hard to thole Paulin’s sleekit poke at Michael Longley’s use of Ulster Scots words in The Ghost Orchid: ‘a calculated over-determined quality to the language’? This has a familiar ring, since it’s pretty much what many readers of Paulin’s poetry (and especially readers from Northern Ireland) have said about his own ventures into the vernacular, which are sometimes just a wee bit wobbly. Are there approved and non-approved users of Ulster Scots? Maybe this explains Paulin’s dark suspicion that Longley might be taking the piss, though the case might be more persuasive if he came out with this in plainer terms. As for hints about Longley’s ‘deft parnassian’, such shorthand (which compresses, I think, a seriously inaccurate judgment) needs to be backed up by something like a real critical argument – as Paulin knows.
As the ‘old man’ (I have just staggered past my 64th birthday) referred to by Tom Paulin and as compiler of the forthcoming Ulster-Scots dictionary to which he also refers, I must correct a couple of inaccuracies in his account of what was said on the moss at Slemish (I was there mainly to provide a dialectal account of the cutting and winning of peats). His list of bird names contains several not provided by me for rural Antrim (though well-known elsewhere and especially in the coastal areas of Down); and the words ‘my soul sings in it’ have never, I swear by Saint Patrick, been uttered by me (though I understand they were used by Philip Robinson of the Ulster-Scots Language Society in a separate interview).
Such slips are probably inevitable when extensive notes are hurriedly taken over a short, hectic period. However, a full explanation should possibly take account of Tom’s revelation that (perhaps unmindful of the risk to his poetic licence) he had consumed Powers in David Hammond’s house on the previous evening, since only the mightiest of stimulants could have enabled him also to roll two great hills (Divis and Black Mountain) into one and to shift Garvaghy from Portadown to Lisburn. Whatever the reason, nothing could take away from the pleasure and privilege of sharing the company of a distinguished poet and scholar.
Finally, I should point out to readers interested in the Ulster Scots poetry of James Orr and his contemporaries that much of its language, sadly, would today be largely alien to those for whom Ulster Scots is still their first tongue.
Newtonabbey, Co. Antrim
Vol. 17 No. 22 · 16 November 1995
James Orr, the Bard of Ballycarry (1770-1816), has been dragged out of the Ulster-Scotch briar patch by your deft-handed diarist Tom Paulin (LRB, 24 August). This is an exercise which normally gies mair scrabs an skelfs nor thinner-skinned husbanders of Anglo-Irish literature would thole. Michael Longley (himself slightly scathed by the exercise), however, agreed that Orr’s ‘Donegore Hill’ was probably the finest poem to come out of the 1798 rebellion (Letters, 7 September). Peter McDonald lakes Longley and Paulin to task for squabbling about the linguistic use of Ulster-Scots as a fertiliser for modern Anglo-Irish writing (Letters, 5 October).
Orr would have loved the irony of all this. He reserved his ‘braidest Scotch’ not only for folksy subjects but also to disguise his radical and controversial politics from the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy: ‘My rude Scotch rhymes the tasteful justly slight,/The Scotch-tongued rustics scorn each nobler flight.’ On the linguistic front, Jim Fenton (Letters, 5 October) is absolutely correct. The good folk of present-day Ballycarry would have great difficulty understanding much of Orr’s Ulster-Scots vocabulary. However, the most obvious reason for singling out ‘Donegore Hill’ as Orr’s best political poem about the 1798 rebellion is a failure to penetrate the language, not to mention the historical and cultural context, of the rest of his poetry. In ‘Donegore Hill’ Orr presents the 1798 rebellion as a hopeless shambles. It is an almost despairing and penitential poem about the hopelessness of rebellion. It contains little sting, and no satire or hidden meaning.
I hesitate to challenge the combined claim of Paulin and Longley that it is Orr’s best poem about the 1798 rebellion. However, I must suggest an alternative: ‘To the Potatoe’. This innocuous, humorous ‘Scotch-rhyme’ addressed to Ireland’s national dish is surely Orr’s most radical work. The Anglo-Irish Ascendancy is the clear target: ‘Waeworth the proud prelatic pack, wha Point an’ Prataoes downa tak!’ The poor ‘deels’ living on bogs and braes, are never able to taste fine foods, ‘Nor pit new clais on; while a’ they mak’ can har’ly please, Some rack-rent messon.’ The choice for the poor is either to steal food like a fox, or to turn out with the landlords in ‘hungry hun’ers’ in order to flush out their weaker neighbours:
What wad they do without Do-blacks
Their weans wi sarkless wames to rax?
They boost to forage like the fox
That nightly plun’ers
Or wi the ’Squires turn out an’ box
In hungry hun’ers.
Although the penultimate verse is well disguised (towards the end of an apparently innocent poem) its radical message involved a considerable risk for Orr. Fifty years before the Potato Famine, he was calling for a general strike of potato-pickers. His express purpose was the completion of the failed mission of the ’98 rebellion:
Upsettin’ England sudna ding
Thee just sae sair – she’s no the thing
Gif thou’d withdraw for ae camping,
Thy brow-beat callens,
Whaever pleas’d cud clip her wing,
An’pare her talons.
Not all of Orr’s poetry will be pleasing to Anglo-Irish sensitivities, or to 20th-century perceptions of who the Ulster-Scots are, were and ought to be.
Ulster-Scots Language Society
Vol. 17 No. 24 · 14 December 1995
Wae a’ the room ye hae gien tae oor owl tongue – an we’re saerious gled o it – A wunther if a boady micht luck tae gie it a wee airin an at the sametim mak adae at strechtin oot twarthy metthers?
In thon ither scrape A writ ye – for the geg, maistly – A wuz chakkin Tam Palyin (as iz yins wud ca him) for gan wrang wae burd names (Letthers, 5 Uptober). Noo Tam’s harly the soart tae tak snool, but oanyway. Whut happent wuz this: bak at ooris, afore leein for Shillinavogy Moss (tae tak aboot peats – aboot breeshtin, stankin an braidfittin; aboot cassles, fittins an rickles) we gaen through a hale trevalley o burds, baith for Antrim (lake felt, stanechakker an wee blakheid – the yins A went ower agane in the moss) an frae a’ ower, an Tam jaist didnae sinther them richt. (Mine ye, it wuz a quare day for makkin mistaks: baith cowl an drachy – mair rid nebs nor midges – an iz plowterin lake fegogged dreechles in grun that wuz sapplin an nixt tae a gullion eftther the plump. A mine Tam – weerin licht claes, forbye – stannin stairvin at the binkheid an aply ettlin tae get bak tae the Poors, A jalooze. An nae wunther! – sure wuzn’t he jaist eftther stravaigin an crakkin frae the clouds o the moarnin?)
The McDonal boady frae Bristol (or neardher name) wuz aksin wha should richtly be at the Ulster-Scots. Weel, ye sa whut Philip Roabysin wuz allooin aboot yins ‘failin tae penytrate’ Orr’s lenguage – an that’s the hale thing, ye see. It’s nae guid ava jaist cloddin a gopin o the owl words inty a pome, lake pittin currans in fadge – whather it’s Tam’s fremd evenin or clabbery market, or Michel Langley’s weefla lettin a guldher at his da. A boady micht think the lake o them could aiblins gie iz a hale pome or twa in the day’s Ulster-Scots; but A wunther. It’s a wile peety nether o them had it for their furst wie o takkin (an a peety, tae, Mossbawn wuznae a weethin neardher Buckna). For it haes enuch wee cleeks an thras tae sen even the brichtest ootsider heelsmegairy; nae metther hoo able, he micht weel mak a sore han o it.
Newtownabbey, Co. Antrim