In the latest issue:

Botanic Macaroni

Steven Shapin

What made the Vikings tick?

Tom Shippey

In the Lab

Rupert Beale

Will there be a Brexit deal?

Anand Menon

Short Cuts: Under New Management

Rory Scothorne

Out-Tissoted

Bridget Alsdorf

Sarah Moss

Blake Morrison

Poem: ‘Country Music’

Ange Mlinko

On the Trail of Garibaldi

Tim Parks

Art Lessons

Peter Campbell

You’ll like it when you get there

Tom Crewe

Early Kermode

Stefan Collini

‘The Vanishing Half’

Joanna Biggs

At the Movies: ‘The Truth’

Michael Wood

The Suitcase: Part Two

Frances Stonor Saunders

Poem: ‘Siri U’

Jorie Graham

Diary: Getting into Esports

John Lanchester

Close
Close
Vol. 17 No. 16 · 24 August 1995
Diary

Ulster’s Long Sunday

Tom Paulin

3454 words

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.

It isn’t one of his jokes. But the Reverend Haslett isn’t descended from the Reverend Hazlitt’s family, though his neat elegant face reminds me a bit of the master critic’s. There is no connection except the variant name and the Presbyterianism. We talk a bit about Arianism, Unitarianism, Socinianism, the forgotten world of English Presbyterianism. I discover he has a second cousin who is a Catholic bishop, and that they’re often mistaken for each other. Then we divert to teaching, teachers, nicknames from schooldays – the Bubble, the Coot, Bungalow (not much upstairs), Davey Doom as the boys called my headtcacher father. I tell the story about the farmer telling my father that he was taking his son from the school to send him to Inst where he’d get ‘a bitta palish’. Then David tells the story of a BBC script conference in Belfast in the late Seventies. A playwright, Harry Towb, had submitted a script about Ulster’s part in the Second World War. There was a line in it about a young guy, Ray Hughes, who’d joined the British Army – ‘amazing, and him a Catholic!’ one character chipped in. David had objected strongly, saying that the only VC awarded to an Ulsterman during the war had been won by a Catholic, James Magennis. One of the people on the panel, his boss, came back at him in a dull stupid rigid voice: ‘I happen to know he only got the Victoria Cross because he happened to be a Catholic.’ That combination of bigotry, crassness and sheer thick ignorance sounds obdurate and eternal.

Another pause, for there’s something bottomless in this story, then David says there was a mention of Magennis in tonight’s ‘Tele’. I go down to the kitchen to fetch the Belfast Telegraph and find this:

BELFAST HERO FORCED TO SELL HIS VC TO BUY FOOD

The only Ulsterman to win the Victoria Cross during the war was never officially recognised in his own country.

   Leading Seaman James Magennis was awarded Britain’s highest honour for helping to cripple a Japanese battleship and saving his stricken submarine.

   Magennis, from Belfast, was a frogman with a midget submarine crew which attached limpet mines to the hull of an enemy cruiser.

   Exhausted, the young sailor scrambled back into the submarine but the crew was unable to get away because the craft was snagged on the seabed.

   With his oxygen pipe leaking, he dived back into the water to free the hull.

   Later, the mines exploded, destroying the Japanese warship.

   The King decorated Magennis at Buckingham Palace in December 1945.

   But though he returned to a hero’s welcome from the people of Belfast, he was never officially honoured in the city of his birth.

   After a string of menial jobs, he was forced to sell his VC for £75 to buy food.

   However, when Smithfield dealer Joe Kavanagh realised how much it meant to him, he gave it back on condition Magennis kept it for life.

   Bradford, where he later moved, erected a memorial and Gosport also named a street after him.

   Magennis died at his Bradford home in 1986, aged 66.

The next morning we set out for the Ulster Folk Museum where there are thatched cottages, scutch mills, mill terraces, churches, flax growing in the grounds of an old manor house at Cultra on the shores of Belfast Lough. I have to deliver an elegy for Ulster Scots in Ballyverdagh National School, one of the institutions that helped to stamp out the language. This transplanted building has a beautiful early Victorian plainness and simplicity. There’s a peat fire burning softly in the grate and sun pouring through the ogive windows. The old boy who gives visitors the tour stands at the door in the sunshine with wasps buzzing round his head. They must like you, I tell him. It’s the gin, he says. Then he tells me how fed up he gets saying the same things over and over again.

There are old shiny flaking maps of the kind I remember from primary school on the walls – Queen’s County, King’s County, Kingstown are still imperially there; it’s like a moment in a William Trevor story.

I look at a framed text over the fireplace:

Christians should endeavour, as the Apostle Paul commands them, to live peaceably with all men (Romans 12, v. 18) even with those of a different religious persuasion.

Issued November, 1863

Nice touch that ‘even’, like a grudging knuckle showing. On the flagged floor I notice a crust of wheaten farl and wonder if a visitor dropped it, or is it some self-conscious exhibit like the peat fire? Is the Folk Museum in Ulster or is Ulster in the Folk Museum? Should there be a great big old-style TV camera hanging over it?

That evening I head out to meet two postgraduate students and pass the new concert hall, a great unfinished globe rising above the docks. We’re in a bar near the Ormeau Road, South Belfast, where I grew up, and the talk turns to the RUC operation that enabled the Orange Order to march through the Catholic Lower Ormeau area on 12 July. Is there an Orange route marked out in the Folk Museum? I wonder. Not yet, though all being well it’ll be traced there one day. Louis MacNeice, who was a Home Ruler, said that his heart leapt to the sound of a pipe band – same here. And when I look up at an Orange arch over a main street I recognise with delight the Masonic symbolism of Jacob’s ladder and open book (as in Hazlitt’s portrait of his father). From the Ould Orange flute to The Magic Flute is maybe no great distance at all. This is the radical Enlightenment as folk art. But I’m being sentimental – Orange marches have absolutely nothing to do with such values. They’re all about intimidating Catholics. Agreed? Yes, sure.

As we’re talking, a young man at the next table breaks in. One of the students knows him slightly – he’s an Englishman who’s gone native – and we listen to his account of the police operation. How the residents of Lower Ormeau were tightly organised – no drink and early to bed on the night of the 11th, ready for the big day. They planned to block the road but at six in the morning the RUC arrived in force, grabbed the half-dozen protesters who sat in the road and closed the side-streets with Saracens and police vans. The residents were prevented from exercising their right to walk the streets of their city in order to allow the Orangemen to parade. As they passed the betting-shop where five men were murdered by a Loyalist gunman in 1992, the band played ‘The Sash’ extra loudly. A woman in a wheelchair, the relative of one of the betting-shop victims, heckled the marchers – she was grabbed and bunged in a police van. But the RUC blocked the road at Garvaghey in Lisburn, I say, remembering my delight at the thirty-six hours the Orange marchers had to wait for a compromise to be hammered out with the residents.

On the TV above our heads, Van Morrison suddenly starts up – that unique haunting Ulster blues voice makes everyone stop for a moment. He’s the backing to a commercial put out by the Northern Ireland Office which roves over the idyllically beautiful landscape – those green drumlins and loughs and pebbledashed farms – and concludes with Van’s famous nostalgic last line from ‘Coney Island’: ‘Why can’t it be like this all the time?’

The view I’m given is that the British Government’s policy is to keep Sinn Fein at arm’s length so that people get more and more used to the peace – so used to it that it becomes impossible to break. The new concert hall, a miniature Sidney Opera House, is rising up to proclaim peace and culture for ever. It’s a dangerous game and the present post-marching-season lull is part of it. With every sunny day here I keep trying to trace a recognition, until I get it clear and obvious – this is one long Belfast Sunday. It can’t last.

An old friend from schooldays, Ernie, comes to lift me back to his home for the night. We drive far out into the countryside and stop outside a brick semi with about six old bangers parked outside. Ernie is a car freak and proudly shows me the old Hillman, the MG Midget, the Beetle, the Moggie. He’s fascinated by engines and inventors – part of wor heritage, he says. Beside us a field of wheat and oats shifts in the breeze. I hear the sush sush of cars passing on the main road and notice the security lights under the eaves. Ernie didn’t install them, I know – the state did. Like many former pupils at the school we went to, he’s a servant of the Crown. A red car is tearing up and down a steep slope in a field across the road. What’s that? I ask Ernie. It’s the farmer’s son, he’s a header.

Over dinner, Ernie’s wife Deirdre, who’s in marketing, says she doesn’t know where this peace is leading. Sainsbury’s is going to open six new stores – they’ve just bought Supermac (Ulster’s first hypermarket which opened in the Sixties) and Tesco are about to move in. Rumour is they’re going to buy Stewarts. They’ll ship in their own produce and a lot of people will lose their jobs. The whole security thing is shrinking too, Ernie says. They’re shedding lots of people. And there’ll be drugs coming in far more than ever before. He’ll be chasing more and more smugglers.

The next morning we’re standing outside by the shimmering shifting field and he hands me a black torch which has a telescopic rod and a round mirror attached to it. I don’t need this any more, he says. Used to be quite a drill every morning poking it under all these damned kyars. Must have been, I say. Maybe it’s all over? Aye, maybe – maybe so.

We drive back towards Belfast down leafy country roads. Below some beech trees the car turns a corner and I catch sight of a Presbyterian meeting-house – white, shining, Neoclassical, two gold Greek letters above the door. He’s in a rush so I don’t ask to go back and look at this living image of the Ulster Enlightenment. I don’t remember ever having noticed it before.

Later that day I’m walking along Ozone Avenue towards another 18th-century meeting-house, Ballymoney First Presbyterian Church. We’re filming a history teacher read from Lorimer’s New Testament in Scots, the passage where Peter denies Christ and a servant quean says: ‘yer Galille twang outs ye.’

The interior of the church seems very military. I count 11 crowns among the regimental crests in the war memorial window, two British Legion flags, a drum in a glass case near the pulpit, and an Ulster Defence Regiment window. The font has a little silver plaque saying it was donated by the parents of a flying officer killed in the Battle of Britain.

After the reading, I ask about the history of the church. It was built in 1777; in the hot summer 21 years later – Hazlitt’s year of Demogorgon, 1798 – the congregation all supported the United Irishmen who rose in rebellion. Two days after the Battle of Antrim the redcoats closed the town off and hanged two members of this congregation in the Diamond. Others were lashed with the cat and transported. Two years later the Church of Ireland minister gave the local Catholics £20 to help build a church. He said that they were loyalists, unlike the Presbyterians who were ‘rebels’.

Later that day I’m wandering through the townland of Ballyboley with a retired farmer. He’s an expert on the Ulster Scots poet James Orr, the Bard of Ballycarry, a United Irishman who fought at the Battle of Antrim. The rebels were fighting the Parliament in Dublin – Grattan’s Parliament – just like the UDR, he says. I know he wouldn’t like to learn that Gerry Adams in Falls Memories speaks admiringly of the United Irishmen. He tells me that Orr’s best poem, ‘The Wanderer’, is about a United man on the run from the militia, and I tell him about Orr’s ‘Donegore Hill’, a brilliant, almost unknown political poem which describes the ‘unco throuither squath’ery’ – the hurrying disorganised crowd – that went into battle in 1798.

In the evening we drive out to a moss – a bog – near Slemish, the mountain where St Patrick is said to have tended sheep, and where Henry Joy McCracken, one of the United leaders, hid out after the Battle of Antrim. So much of our conversation seems to be about wars, places, pieties, the past, that it’s a relief to listen to this old man standing on the moss and reciting a list of bird names in Ulster Scots: whap (curlew), skart (shag), parr (tern), mossie (meadowpipit), cooterneb (puffin), chitterling (swallow), yellayorling (yellowhammer), chittyran (wren), cran (heron).

When he’s finished, I ask him does he feel at home in the language? ‘I do, aye,’ he says. ‘My soul sings in it.’ I recall there’s a poem packed with Ulster Scots words in Michael Longley’s new volume, Ghost Orchid. 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. Strange how the way we speak and write should trigger ontological questions about being and identity, as well as ideological issues. To draw on Ulster Scots is to summon the emotions and idealism of those mainly Presbyterian rebels – ‘croppies’ – who failed to establish a republic almost two centuries ago:

While close-leugu’d croppies rais’d the hoards
O’ pikes, pike-shafts, forks, firelocks,
Some melted lead – some saw’d deal-boards –
Some hade, like hens in byre-neuks:
Wives baket bonnocks for their men,
Wi’ tears instead o’ water;
An’ lasses made cockades o’ green
For chaps wha us’d to flatter
                         Their pride ilk day.

The second stanza of ‘Donegore Hill’ actively reports the preparations for battle, and as the bicentenary of the rebellion nears, I begin to wonder how it will be treated in the province. It was altogether more tragic and noble than the 1916 Uprising, which I’ve always regarded as a kamikaze action by a small group of extreme nationalists high on the idea of blood sacrifice and ethnic purity.

I wish I could end with the yorling’s chink or the cran’s crank rather than be sucked back into the historical memory, but after a week it was the gaps, the silences, the contemplative pauses in my stretched Belfast Sunday that got to me. A state of aporia, of not choosing one path or the other, suggested itself as the texture of those July days. Coming back from Strangford Lough on the last afternoon, we passed Stormont, and a childhood sense of nausea and grip on the road came back to me – the government buildings, the big hotel, the parliamentary shell of Portland stone, the empty cascading preposterous lawns are still there. That road feels exactly as boring and oppressive as it always did on Sunday trips in the Fifties. I don’t know, but something has to shift very soon.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

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.

Michael Longley
Belfast

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.

Peter Sampson
Lancaster

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.

Peter McDonald
English Department

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.

Jim Fenton
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.

Philip Robinson
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.

Jim Fenton
Newtownabbey, Co. Antrim

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences