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.