Saturday, 31 October 2009

Communist Party of Ireland

After reading an article from the 4 July edition of Unity, the journal of the Communist Party of Ireland, I came to the conclusion that they were not exactly impressed by my appointment earlier that week as Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure.  In fact the writer of the article said that my appointment was 'probably akin to putting King Herod in charge of Mothercare'.

However I ignored the Marxist venom and as I read on one sentence in particular drew my attention.
He has served as director of the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council and fervently believes Ulster-Scots is a language, on a par with Irish, rather than a dialect that in the main is made up as you go along.

The Communist Party is very supportive of the Irish language but clearly takes a disparaging view of Ulster-Scots.  Perhaps that explains why some folk, whose background is in the Communist Party but who today hold influential positions in society, have been both unsympathetic and unhelpful towards the Ulster-Scots language.

Irish blarney?

Today I came across an article from the 2 July edition of the Sinn Fein newspaper Republican News / An Phoblacht. In it the writer refers to Belfast City Cemetery and states that 'many of the graveyard's Protestant headstones bear Irish inscriptions'.

I found that somewhat surprising and so perhaps someone who is familiar with the graveyard can tell me just how many of the headstones do in fact have Irish inscriptions.  I know that there are a few Protestant headstones with inscriptions in Irish but is it true that there are 'many'?  Is it a fact or is it just another bit of Irish blarney from Sinn Fein?

Here and there

Here are a few photographs from events that I have attended since becoming the DCAL minister at the start of July.

I hosted a reception at Stormont on 11 July for visitors from around the world who had come to Northern Ireland for the World Triennial Orange Conference.  The guests were entertained  by musicans, dancers and the unique sound of the Lambeg drum.  Along with me in the photograph are Peter Robinson, First Minister, and two local Orangemen from Belfast County, Dawson Bailie, County Grand Master, and Tom Haire, Deputy County Grand Master.

In September I took part in a Stephen Nolan Show programme from Stormont, along with MLAs from other parties and political commentator Eamonn Mallie.  Not surprisingly for the Nolan Show there was probably more heat than light - both Nolan and Mallie seemed to be majoring on negativity!!

I was back in my own constituency to unveil six art-pieces on the Crumlin Road, along with the artist Lucy Turner and Brian Sore from the Arts Council.

On 10 September I attended the unveiling ceremony of the Threshold Stone for the new Lyric Theatre in Belfast.  My department has committed over £9 million of funding for the new theatre as part of our investment in cultural infrastructure.  The other people in the photograph are broadcaster Mark Carruthers, who is the chair of the Lyric, Rosemary Kelly, chair of the Arts Council, the poet Seamus Heaney and Belfast Lord Mayor Naomi Long.

Here I am being tested by Dr Gareth Davison from the University of Ulster as part of a project to highlight the importance of healthy living.  Physical activity and health experts from the university were up at Stormont and gave some of the MLAs a health check.

Noam Chomsky in Belfast

Amnesty International was set up in 1961 an an international non-governmental organisation 'to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated.'

There is an Amnesty International Annual Lecture as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen's and this year the lecture was held on Friday 30 October in the Whitla Hall.  It was held in association with the Human Rights Centre at Queen's and the speaker was Professor Noam Chomsky, a professor in the department of linguistics and philosophy at MIT in America.

Chomsky was born in Philadelphia to Jewish parents who had come to America from Eastern Europe and his father was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

He is a controversial political activist, who is shunned by the mainstream media in America.  His views are of the far-left and like his father before him he is a member of the revolutionary IWW, whose constitution states:
The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. ... Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth. ... Instead of the conservative motto, 'A fair day's wage for a fair day's work', we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, 'Abolition of the wage system.' It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism.

Chomsky  has stated that his 'personal visions are fairly traditional anarchist ones' and he has praised libertarian socialism and anarcho-syndicalism.  In 2006 he wrote a book on anarchism entitled Chomsky on Anarchism, which was published by the anarchist book collective AK Press.  In spite of his Jewish background he is a strident critic of Israel.

The choice of such a prominent figure from the far-left as their speaker must say something about the politics of Amnesty International and maybe even the Human Rights Centre at Queen's.  For those who are not familiar with the HRC at Queen's, the director is Professor Brice Dickson, the first chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Colin Turkington

Along with my colleague Edwin Poots, the Minister for the Environment, I hosted a reception at Stormont tonight for Colin Turkington from Portadown, who won the 2009 British Touring Car Championship.

Colin is a modest young man and a credit to his family.  He started his career racing karts as a hobby, under the watchful eye of his father Trevor, and then at the age of 15 he got the chance to race cars at Bluestone in Craigavon and got involved with stock car racing.  The opportunity came to race in England where the level of competition was much higher and he also faced the challenge of combining his car racing with his studies for a business degree at Stirling University.

He is a fine ambassador for Northern Ireland sport and his next personal target must be to win the World Touring Car Championship.  I wish him well in his future career.

Motorsports are very popular in Northern Ireland and my department has allocated £2 million over the next two years for health and safety improvements at motorsport venues.  This is an indication of our commitment to motorsports and of devolution delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.

Fair fa ye

After the reopening of the Ulster Museum and Belfast City Hall I noticed that both have a multiligual welcome for visitors and it includes the Ulster-Scots term 'fair fa ye', which can be used as a greeting or a welcome.

For people who are not familiar with Scots or Ulster-Scots, it might be helpful to provide some examples of earlier usage of the term.  Probably the best known is that of Robert Burns in his address To a Haggis.  As the speaker welcomes the haggis he addresses it with the words 'Fair fa' your honest sonsie face.'

That poem was written in 1785 but some fifty years before that an Ulster-Scots poet, William Starrett of Strabane, said 'Fair fa' ye then' when he wrote to his friend Allan Ramsey, the famous Scottish poet. 

James Orr of Ballycarry, the best of the 'weaver poets' and himself a United Irishman, had the women of the village welcome home the returning rebels in 1798 with the words, 'Guid God! Is't you?  Fair fa' ye.' 

The term was also used by another Ulster-Scots poet, but this time from county Down, Robert Huddleston of Moneyreagh.  In 1844 he wrote a satirical poem about the Presbyterian theological controversies of the time and in it he had one of the characters  say 'Fair fa' ye auld Cloots!'  (Greetings Satan!)

The use of 'fair fa ye' by three of the Ulster-Scots poets confirms it as an authentic Ulster-Scots term and shows that it was used in the three core Ulster-Scots speaking areas of Down, Antrim and the Laggan.

More recently the term was used by Ards Borough Council on welcome signs and it also appears on a trilingual welcome sign which was erected some years ago outside in the village of Dunloy, along with the Irish 'failte' and the English 'welcome'.  James Fenton, author of The Hamely Tongue, referred to this in his poem Dunloy, which appears in his volume Thonner an Thon, and he read the poem at the unveiling of the stones.

Fair fa ye is an old Ulster-Scots greeting or welcome and it is good to see it in use today.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Bairbre and her Union Jack

Sinn Fein MEP Bairbre de Brun sits in the European Parliament as a member of a group with the rather cumbersome title of Confederal Group of the European United Left - Nordic Green Left.

The official website of this group helpfully shows Bairbre de Brun as a representative from the United Kingdom with a rather fine Union Jack beside her.  I am sure she is not amused but that is the fact of the matter.

Ulster-Scots place-names

The current issue of Ainm - A Journal of Name Studies has an interesting chapter by Pat McKay on 'Scots influence on Ulster townland names'.  It notes that the influence of Ulster-Scots takes several forms:
1. Ulster-Scots words in townland names eg burn, brae, kirk, calhame, flush, haw, holme, knowe, moss,  cott and whin.
2. Scottish surnames in townland names eg Blairtown, Boydstown, Grahamsland and Newtownstewart
3. The element Scotch in townland names eg Scotchtown and Ballindreen Scotch
4. Townland names imported from Scotland eg Scotland, Caledon and Roxborough
5. Townland names with Scots cultural or religious association eg Tom of the Tae-end, Cuttymanhill and Meetinghousehill.

At the beginning of the 17th century the government simply accepted the existing townlands as the basic administrative unit and retained the existing Gaelic names.  According to Pat McKay, 'It was therefore something of a legal imperative for the Scottish settlers to adopt the native Irish townland names and it is no surprise that for the most part they followed this course rather than inventing new names of their own.'  As a result, even in county Antrim, the number of townland names with an Ulster-Scots influence in just under 3%.

However minor place-names, below the level of the townland, show a much higher level of Ulster-Scots influence. Some years ago McKay carried out an oral survey in the parish of Loughguile in county Antrim and found an Ulster-Scots influence on as many as 22.5% of the place-names.  This is an important area of study and one that deserves much more attention.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Memorial to Council workers

Last night I attended a ceremony at Belfast City Hall to dedicate a memorial in memory of the Council workers who were murdered during the Troubles.  The memorial takes the form of a fountain in the courtyard of the City Hall and there are also five new trees planted in the courtyard.

As well as councillors and trade unionists there were also relatives of some of the victims although some families found that the memories were still too painful and decided not to attend. Their absence was a salutary rerminder of the daily hurt suffered by the families of the victims.  Before the ceremony those present signed a memorial book and left a comment.  Some folk left longer comments but I simply wrote 'Not forgotten'.

It was therefore a lesson to me when the Lord Mayor read out the names of the 22 workers who had been murdered down through the years and described the circumstances in which they were murdered.  I had remembered the atrocity in Donegall Street, when an IRA car bomb killed several workers, and I had remembered the attack on Council workmen at the Kennedy Way depot in West Belfast.  I could even recall a few more incidents including the murder of workmen at the abbatoir but I soon realised that in spite of writing 'not forgotten' there were those whom I had forgotten.

We do well to remember the terrible damage that terrorism did to our society and the hurt that was caused to some many people by the actions of terrorists and the fountain will serve as a daily reminder to councillors, council staff and members of the public. 

Monday, 26 October 2009

Belfast in UK's top-five tourist destinations

Belfast is still in the top five favourite tourist destinations in one of Britain's leading travel polls.  Readers of The Observer voted Belfast as their fourth favourite UK city in the newspaper's Travel Awards 2009.

The number of tourists coming to Northern Ireland has increased enormously in recent years and we are all aware of the number of foreign tourists to be seen in the streets of Belfast and indeed across the country.  However we cannot afford to be complacent and there is much work to be done in developing our tourism product and then marketing that product around the world.

Cultural tourism is one of our strengths and the reopening of the Ulster Museum, Belfast City Hall and the Ulster Hall, along with other cultural developments around the country will help to strengthen our tourism product.  We can also look forward to the completion of the Lyric Theatre.

This increased investment in our cultural infrastructure is good for the people of Northern Ireland but it is also good for tourists and can bring economic benefits with increased visitor numbers and increased visitor spend.

Ulster's three traditions

At the bottom of the hill in Downpatrick, below the Church of Ireland cathedral, three streets meet at the traffic lights.  They are English Street, Irish Street and Scotch Street.  I often use this as an illlustration of the cultural diversity of Northern Ireland.

There are three strong historical and cultural  influences in Ulster and they are the English, the Irish and the Scotch.  Moreover we can only understand our history if we recognise that basic fact.

Sometimes people think in a two traditions model of Protestant and Roman Catholic, British and Irish, unionist and nationalist, but that is an outdated and redundant model which ignores our real cultural diversity.

I have added below a recent extract from Mark Thompson's blog, Bloggin fae the 'Burn, ( in which Mark comments on this matter.

Two Tribes

I had an enjoyable and interesting meeting today with a Queens University academic about Ulster-Scots related issues, with particular relevance to community relations in Northern Ireland. We talked for the best part of 2 hours - I hope he got something out of it.

What became ever more clear to me during the conversation is that the "two tribes" stereotype of Northern Ireland - Protestant/Catholic British/Irish Unionist/Nationalist - is not the whole story, but its perpetuation is doing huge damage to our cultural life. To me, this outmoded bipolar model harks back to the 1500s, when the issues on this island were English/Irish. To be stuck in this mindset 500 years later is a tragedy and disgrace.

Why? Because it leaves out Scotland. In the 1600s Ulster was changed forever when a tidal wave of Lowland Scots began to arrive here. We might have a "two tribes" political identity, but we have three-sided cultural identity - with Scotland the missing piece. The distinctive regional flavour of Ulster compared to the rest of the island is overwhelmingly due to the influence of lowland Scotland. But the Scottish chapter of Ulster's story is, for most people who live here, completely unknown. And its potential is unrealised.

As long as society, politics, academia and the media remains stuck in the false, 1500s, two tribes mentality, and as long as political identity continues to be imposed upon cultural identity, a"shared and better future" will remain just a buzzphrase for government policy.

It's time to change the story.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Ulster hymnwriters (2)

This afternoon I was reading about another hymnwriter who was born in Ulster.  His name was William Hunter and he was born near Ballymoney on 26 May 1811.

He was the son of John Hunter, a linen weaver, who was born in the townland of Seacon in 1734, and his wife Rachel Dinsmore, who was born nearby in the townland of Ballywattick. Both the Hunter and Dinsmore families were Presbyterian and they were originally from Scotland.

In 1817, when he was six years old, the family emigrated from Ulster to America and settled in York, Pennsylvania. William was educated at Madison College in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and afterwards became a Methodist 1855 he was appointed professor of Hebrew and biblical literature at Allegheny College, remaining there for fifteen years.

Hunter wrote more than 125 hymns and these were published in three collections. They were Select Sacred Melodies: comprising the best of those hymns and spiritual songs in common use, not to be found in the standard Methodist Episcopal Hymn Book: as also, a number of original pieces (1838), which contained thirty-six of his hymns, The Minstrel of Zion (1845) and Songs of Devotion (1859).

His most popular hymns include ‘The great Physician now is near’, which was written exactly 150 years ago in 1859 and still appears in many hymnbooks today.  However very few of those who sing his hymns are aware of the fact that William Hunter was an Ulsterman and indeed an Ulster-Scot.

The great Physician now is near,
The sympathising Jesus;
He speaks the drooping heart to cheer,
Oh! hear the voice of Jesus.

Sweetest note in seraph song,
Sweetest Name on mortal tongue;
Sweetest carol ever sung,
Jesus, blessed Jesus.

William Hunter spent his last years as minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the city of Alliance, in Stark County, Ohio, and he died on 18 October 1877 in Cleveland.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Belfast Deaf Badminton Club

The Belfast Deaf Badminton Club was formed in 1969 at Wilton House in College Square North, a cultural, social and spiritual centre for the deaf community for over 100 years.  Now the club meets in the sports hall at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and it organised a special tournament to mark the 40th anniversary.

Down through the years the club has produced Ulster, Irish and British champions and its players have represented Ulster and Ireland at European and World championships. 

I visited the tournament on Saturday afternoon and it was good to have an opportunity to congratulate the club on its anniversary.  It was also an opportunity to learn more about the issues faced by deaf people in accessing sporting and cultural activities.  The club has an important social function and I told the players, through the sign language interpreter, that I had first met my wife at a badminton club back in the early 70s.

At the end of the visit I learned that the sign language version of applause is to hold your hands in the air, about level with your forehead, and twist them a couple of times.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Reopening of Ulster Museum

I carried out the official opening of the refurbished Ulster Museum on the 80th anniversary of the original official opening in 1929.  Today the Ulster Museum is part of National Museums Northern Ireland.

The project cost £17.2m and was funded by the Northern Ireland Executive and Heritage Lottery Fund.  There was also a substantial donation by an American philanthropist.

The reopening completed the refurbishment of three of our major public buildings in Belfast - the Ulster Hall, Belfast City Hall and Ulster Msueum. 

In the course of my speech I said, 'For many years there was an underinvestment in our cultural infrastructure but Northern Ireland is now coming towards a place where we have a cultural infrastructure fit for the 21st century.'

I also took the opportunity to talk about my vision for museums and said that in response to a report by the CAL committee at Stormont, we are now preparing a policy for museums.  'That policy will help to provide a strong context for the work of museums and for museum development in Northern Ireland.'

The policy will recognise that museums are custodians and conservers of our heritage but they are more than that.  They can contribute to a 'shared and better future', they can help us to understand our cultures and identities, they can help us to see the complexities and contradictions of our history, they can dispel myths and misunderstandings, and they can contribute to social inclusion and social cohesion.  The policy will also refer to cultural rights and the responsibility of my department and its arms-length bodies, including National Museums, to meet the cultural rights of the people and communities in our society.

In setting out some elements of the museums policy I was giving the audience a flavour of what it will contain but I was also showing that as Minister of Culture I take museums seriously and I have a passionate commitment to ensuring that we have a first class museum sector in Northern Ireland.

Visits to sports grounds

This week I visited the three sports grounds identified by the governing bodies of footbally, rugby and GAA as their preferred ground for a major stadium that would meet their particular needs.  The visits to Casement Park, Ravenhill and Windor Park were extremely useful and I was able to see these situations at first hand. 

The new stand at Ravenhill provides excellent accommodation for spectators and shows  just what can be done.

Consultants have now been appointed to carry out economic appraisals on the proposals for the three grounds and I hope to have my recommendations with the Executive before Christmas.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Ulster-Scots Night in City Hall

As part of the programme of events to mark the reopening of the City Hall in Belfast, the Ulster-Scots Community Network organised a special evening in the Great Hall.  The programme included the Ballycoan Pipe Band, Risin Stour, the Bright Lights Highland Dancers and the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society.  Gareth Hunter gave a stort talk on W F Marshall, the Bard of Tyrone, and read several of his wonderful poems.  There was a full house and the evening ended with some good old fashioned kailye dancing.

I gave a short address at the start of the night and reminded the audience that it was a fitting event to include in the City Hall programe.  The City Hall was built out of the wealth of Belfast industry and most of the entrepreneurs who founded Belfast's industries were Ulster-Scots, such as William Ritchie, who founded the first shipyard in 1792.

At that time Belfast was a thoroughly Ulster-Scots town and when the French aristocrat Le Chevalier de la Tochnaye visited it in 1797 he said, ‘Belfast has almost entirely the look of a Scotch town.'  Moreover the people still spoke Ulster-Scots. When Amyas Griffith came to Belfast in 1780 as Surveyor of Excise he noted that ‘the common people speak broad Scotch, and the better sort differ vastly from us, both in accent and language.’

Science Counts

Sean Carlin, Dr Sally Montgomery, Rhonda Gibson & Nelson McCausland

Who-what-where-when-why, known as W5, opened at the Oyssey in Belfast in 2001 and is a subsidiary of National Museums Northern Ireland.  It provides an informal learning environment incorporating 170 interactive exhibits in four exhibition areas with a changing programme of temporary exhibitions and events.

I visited W5 this morning and was welcomed by the chief executive Dr Sally Montgomery and Rhonda Gibson of the Northern Bank to see the Science Counts programme.  The Northern Bank have teamed up with W5 for a fourth year to support Science Counts, which aims to promote a positive attitude to maths among all ages.

The programme involves 36 schools and it shows students the fun and excitement of science and maths and how relevant these subjects are to their lives and the world around them.  Science and maths are vital to the prospects of a healthy economic future for Northern Ireland and this is an excellent programme, which will be enjoyed by many children.

'Republicans have done Nelson a disservice'

In his weekly column in the News Letter today, N R Greer commented on the recent attacks by Sinn Fein on some of my personal religious beliefs.  He wrote:
Republicans have done Nelson a disservice
Attending an occasional mass, or sitting in the odd mosque during prayers, does not worry me in the slightest but I also absolutely respect the position of DUP MLA and Culture Minister Nelson McCausland not to attend a Roman Catholic service.  To me this is the essence of civil and religious liberty.  If that is what Nelson believes, then fine.  So what?
He is not seeking to deliberately offend Roman Catholics nor their church; he is not stopping anyone from attending the church they want to go to.
Had Sinn Fein not made an issue about the minister's sincerely held religious beliefs no one would have known and no one would have been offended.  By stirring the pot the republicans have ensured lots of people have been offended and the executive has faced yet another petty squabble.
Nelson McCauslad's stance seems to me less offensive than would-be SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie's public remarks regarding Protestant loyal orders.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Opportunity Europe

Nelson McCausland, Cllr William Humphrey (Belfast City Council) & Maurice Maxwell (European Commission) with some of the salsa dancers.

Today was the first day of Opportunity Europe, a two-day European exhibition and fair which helps young people to learn more about our European neighbours.  The event is held in St George's Market in Belfast and is organised by Belfast City Council and the European Commission Office in Northern Ireland, with support from DCAL and others.   It is now in its sixth year and every year it attracts about 5,000 school children from across the province. 

There are stands, demonstrations, competitions, workshops and entertainment and the young people I met seemed to be enjoying it thoroughly.  The event highlights the wide range of languages in Europe and there were even workshops for our two indigenous minority languages, Ulster-Scots and Irish.

I am strongly opposed to the creeping integration of the European Union but I believe that our young people should know about other European countries and be able to appreciate their cultures.

Oral Questions

Today I took my turn at Oral Questions and we covered a wide range of issues during the questions and supplementaries.  They included funding for tuition and instruments for bands, improvements to sports facilities, sports stadia, the Ulster Museum and cross-border bodies.

Ian McCrea asked about how I might make savings on the cross-border meetings with the minister from the Irish Republic and I explained that I was following the good example of my predecessor Gregory Campbell by holding the cross-border meeetings about languages and waterways on the one day and in the one place, thereby avoiding the need for two journeys and two separate meetings.

I went on to explain that the next meeting in Northern Ireland, in December, would be held in the DCAL offices in Belfast, thereby avoiding the need to hire a hotel or some other location for the meetings.  I even suggested that on some occasions it might be more appropriate to conduct our business by video-conferencing, saving time as well as money.

This proved too much for John O'Dowd of Sinn Fein, who stated most emphatically that even if it was held in a bus shelter, it was still a North-South meeting.  I took the opportunity to thank John O'Dowd for his helpful suggestion that we hold cross-border meetings in a bus shelter, which was something I had not considered. 

Alex Attwood of the SDLP suggested that we could save money by scrapping the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and creating an 'All-Ireland Arts Council'.  It is amazing how insular some politicians are, especially Alex.  They seem to have a fixation with a single island and are so narrow-minded that they cannot cope with the possibility of reaching out beyond that to a more inclusive understanding of culture.

Stormont is geograpically closer to Galloway than Galway and whilst it is good to have cultural cooperation with our neighbours in the Irish Republic, we must also remember our close cultural connections with Scotland and the other regions of the United Kingdom.

Monday, 19 October 2009


This afternoon I met representatives of the Irish language organisation Pobal.  At the present time I am preparing a paper on a minority languages strategy for Northern Ireland and it was an opportunity to hear the views of Janet Muller and her colleagues.

We have two indigenous minority languages in Northern Ireland, Ulster-Scots and Irish, and I said to the folk from Pobal that the nearest situation to that in Northern Ireland was the situation in Scotland, where there are also two indigenous minority languages, Scots and Gaelic.  There are differences but there are also similarities, not least the fact that the two minority languages in Ulster are sister languages to the minority languages in Scotland.  Scottish Gaelic developed from Irish Gaelic and Ulster-Scots is a variant of Scots.

I also explained that one of my priorities was to promote a shared and better future and that the minority languages strategy would reflect the core principles of that priority, which are equity, diversity and independence.

Assembly Christian Fellowship

This morning I attended a prayer breakfast at Stormont organised by the Assembly Christian Fellowship.  The speaker was Stephen Shaw QC, a senior barrister and a member of the Scrabo Hall fellowship in Newtownards.  He spoke about the three core truths of the gospel - All have sinned, Jesus Christ died for our sins and Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  During his address he reminded us that while politicans are accountable to their party and to the Assembly, ultimately they are accountable to God.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Before the Throne of God above

Hymns written by Ulster hymnwriters are part of our literary heritage and this morning at church we sang an Ulster hymn which has become very popular in recent years.

Before the Throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea.
A great high Priest whose Name is Love
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on His hands,
My name is written on His heart.
I know that while in Heaven He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart.

When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Saviour died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.

Behold Him there the risen Lamb,
My perfect spotless righteousness,
The great unchangeable I AM,
The King of glory and of grace,
One in Himself I cannot die.
My soul is purchased by His blood,
My life is hid with Christ on high,
With Christ my Saviour and my God!

Before the Throne of God above was written by Charitie Lees Smith, who was born on 21 June 1841 and was the daughter of Rev George Sidney Smith. At the time he was minister of Colebrook parish church in the Church of Ireland parish of Aghalurcher and the family lived in Ardunshin House, near Brookeborough, county Fermanagh.

The hymn was written in 1863, just four years after the 1859 Ulster revival, and it was originally entitled The Advocate.

In 1867 Charitie’s father moved to a parish in Tyrone and the family lived at Tattyreagh, Omagh. Meanwhile Charitie continued to write Christian verse and in 1867 she published a volume entitled Within the Veil. Her hymns appeared in Lyra Britannica and in Bishop J C Ryle’s Spiritual Songs, as well as other collections and leaflets.

Charitie married Arthur Bancroft, from Liverpool, in 1869 at a wedding ceremony in Edinburgh. Records of her life are rather scarce but it seems that she was widowed twice and she died in Oakland, California, on 20 June 1923. During her lifetime she composed several hundred hymns and several of them remain in common use but the best known is Before the Throne of God above.

A few years ago an American named Vikki Cook produced a new tune for the hymn and this has resulted in its new popularity. Many of those who hear it think that it is a new hymn but the words are almost 150 years old and the author was an Ulster hymnwriter.

Charitie Lees Smith is just one of our Ulster hymnwriters and there are many more who were either born in Ulster or were part of the Ulster diaspora.  They are a neglected part of our literary heritage and deserve to be recognised, studied and valued.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Cairncastle LOL 692

Earlier this week I travelled up to Cairncastle in county Antrim to meet the members of Cairncastle LOL 692 Community and Cultural Group.  In 2000 the lodge celebrated their 175th anniversary and at that time decided to develop the range of cultural activities in their hall.  This led to the formation of the the community and cultural group and the hall is now home to some cultural activity or other on most days of the week.  The activities include Scottish highland dancing and country dancing as well as musical tuition and a monthly soiree, which draws musicians from a wide area.  The local MP, Sammy Wilson, also attended the meeting and we talked about some of the issues facing the group.  Cairncastle has established a stong relationship with a cultural group in Ardrossan in Scotland and folk from Ardrossan come across to the annual Ulster-Scots Festival

A Man Flourishing

Last night I spoke at the launch of A Man Flourishing, an exhibition in the Linenhall Library to celebrate the life and work of Sam Hanna Bell.  It was a most enjoyable occasion with contributions from the poets Paul Muldoon and Michael Longley.  Paul, who had worked alongside Sam in the BBC, also launched a new book entitled A Salute from the Banderol - The Selected Writings of Sam Hanna Bell, which was edited by Fergus Hanna Bell.

The programme included a short clip from one of Sam's television programmes, From the Source to the Sea, which traced the route of the Lagan all the way to Belfast Lough and there was a nice family dimension to the evening with one of Sam's grandsons reading a poem by Paul Muldoon and the other reading a poem by Michael Longley.  The programme ended with a beautiful rendition of some of the songs of Robert Burns.

Sam Hanna Bell had a deep affection for Ulster and his book Erin's Loyal Lily included descriptions of activities as diverse as lambeg drumming, dancing at the feis, making poitin and working in the shipyard!

The Linen Hall Library and the committee who organised the Sam Hanna Bell Colloquium deserve our thanks for their efforts.  Too many important figures in Ulster's cultural heritage have not received the attention they deserve.  Earlier this year, on Burns night, the 50th anniversary of the death of W F Marshall passed almost unnoticed and yet he contributed so much to Ulster culture.  As far as I can recall almost the only mention was an article in the Irish Times.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Sam Hanna Bell

Novelist, short story writer and broadcaster, Sam Hanna Bell was born in Glasgow in 1909. His father James Hanna Bell was a journalist with the Glasgow Herald but his paternal grandparents were from Killyglen in Ulster. James married Jane McCarey McIlveen, who was from Raffrey in county Down, in 1906 and the couple then returned to Glasgow.

On the death of his father, Sam and his mother moved to Belfast in 1921 and lived for a time with a relative in India Street. Sam worked at various jobs and then in 1945 he secured the post of features editor with BBC Northern Ireland.

He was a co-founder of the literary journal Lagan in 1943 and in 1951 he co-edited The Arts in Ulster. He also edited Within Our Province, A Miscellany of Ulster Writing.

His first collection of short stories, Summer Loanen, was published in 1943 and his novels include December Bride (1951), The Hollow Ball (1961), A Man Flourishing (1973) and Across the Narrow Sea (1987).

Today he is primarily remembered for December Bride, which is about the life of an Ulster-Scots community in rural Ulster. In 1990 it was made into a film for Channel 4 and received positive critical acclaim. Reviewing it in the Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole said that it was ‘not just a remarkable artistic achievement but also a remarkable political one … [it] opens up a community’s sense of itself, restoring a richness and complexity to a history that has been deliberately narrowed.’

Doreen Corcoran (chair), Fergus Hanna Bell & Nelson McCausland

A series of events has been organised to mark the centenary of his birth and yesterday I unveiled a blue history plaque for the Ulster History Circle. The plaque is at 2 Crescent Gardens in South Belfast, where Sam Hanna Bell lived when he wrote December Bride.  His son Fergus Hanna Bell,  a member of the Ulster History Circle, was present and spoke about his father during the ceremony.  I also commented on Sam Hanna Bell's writings and his role in the BBC. 

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Spotlight Special

On Tuesday night I took part in a Spotlight Special programme on BBC Northern Ireland.  The other pannelists were David McNarry (UUP), Margaret Ritchie (SDLP) and Conor Murphy (SF).  Mark Carruthers was in charge and there was a studio audience of around 100 people.  The programme lasted almost an hour and the questions covered issues such as the devolution of policing and justice, politicians holding multiple mandates, education and inter-community dialogue.  This was the first Spotlight programme in a new series and it was off to a good start.

Jews Schmooze

Yesterday I visited the Jewish synagogue in North Belfast for the launch of Jews Schmooze, a programme of talks, exhibitions and  concerts that is intended to celebrate Jewish culture.  The centre-piece will be the world premiere in the synagogue of a new production by the Kabosh theatre company.  It is entitled This Is What We Sang and it follows five Jewish family members during Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

Today the Jewish community in Northern Ireland numbers around 400 people but it is a community with a long history and it has contributed much to life in Northern Ireland. 

Growing up in the north of the city I knew a number of Jewish young people who attended the Belfast Royal Academy when I was there.  At that time, back in the 1960s, the community was larger than it is today.

Over the years I have visited the synagogue a number of times and on one occasion I gave a talk on the life of one of the most notable members of the community, Sir Otto Jaffe.

I have a personal interest in the life of Otto Jaffe, who was Lord Mayor of Belfast on two occasions, in 1899 and 1904, and who was a Liberal Unionist.  He was a successful businessman and also a generous philanthropist.  The leading figure in the Jewish community of his day, he built the old synagogue in Annesley Street and also the Jaffe School on the Cliftonville Road.

The year 1904 was a good year for the Jewish community in Belfast with the opening of the synagogue and the honour of a Jewish Lord Mayor.  Unfortunately the experience of the Jewish community in Limerick in that year was rather different and a Redemptorist priest, Fr John Creagh, led an anti-semitic pogrom which drove many Jews out of the city.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

New stand for Ulster's oldest football club

Tonight I was at Solitude, the home of Cliftonville Football Club in North Belfast, to open their new stand. As a teenager, back in the 1960s, I supported Cliftonville and was a regular attender at their home games but this was my first visit to Solitude for forty years.  I received a warm welcome from the chairman Gerard Lawlor and before unveiling a plaque to mark the opening of the stand, I took the opportunity to set out my vision for a 'shared and better future' in sport.

This year also marks the 130th anniversary of the club, which was formed on 20 September 1879 by John McCredy McAlery, a young Belfast businessman, and it was the first football club in Ireland. Tonight was therefore a double celebration and there was a special 130th anniversary fixture against Glasgow Celtic Football Club. and the ground was filled to capacity for the occasion.

McAlery had gone to Scotland on his honeymoon and after seeing football played there he decided to introduce the game to Ireland. He encouraged the formation of other teams and also organised the Irish Football Association, which was formed at a meeting in the Queen’s Hotel in Belfast on 18 November 1880. John Sinclair presided at that first meeting, Major Spencer Chichester was appointed president and McAlery became secretary. Instead of preparing their own set of rules the IFA simply adopted the rules of the Scottish Association.

Last week I was up in Fermanagh at Ballinamallard United Football Club to meet some of the committee members and to see their facilities. Work is currently underway on a new 200 seat stand for spectators and it is good to see the improvements being made in sports grounds across Northern Ireland. These improvements are supported by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, through Sport NI, and are a good example of devolution delivering.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Clinton and then controversy

It was an early start on Monday morning as I left the house shortly after 7.00 am to be in Stormont Castle by 8.00 for a meeting at 9.00 with US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.  She met First Minister Peter Robinson and his DUP executive colleagues in the executive office and then met Sinn Fein executive members before addressing members of the Assembly in the chamber.

The early part of the afternoon was taken up with departmental papers, a meeting with some American visitors from Milwaukee, and a photoshoot with children from Glengormley Integrated School and members of the Belfast Giants.  Afterwards one of the ice hockey players gave me a team shirt as a memento of the occasion.

Later in the afternoon there was a debate on a Sinn Fein motion condemning me for having stated, in response to a question from a journalist, that as a traditional evangelical Protestant, I would not attend a service in a Roman Catholic church.  They claimed that this was contrary to the responsibilities of a government minister and inconsistent with an 'inclusive society'.  At the end of the debate the Sinn Fein motion was defeated by 41 votes to 35.

I took the opportunity during the debate to say that I had no difficulty attending a cultural or community event in a Roman Catholic church and had already done so but that I could not, in conscience, attend a service of Roman Catholic worship.  By way of explanation I referred to the theological and doctrinal differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

This is a matter of civil and religious liberty and indeed freedom of conscience.  The right to freedom of conscience is a basic human right but the motion sought to deny that right to government ministers who are traditional evangelical Protestants.

There is in fact a clear historical precedent for what Sinn Fein were seeking to do and that was the Test Act, which was introduced in Ireland in 1704, shortly after the death of King William III.  This act required anyone holding public office to attend communion in the Church of Ireland.  As such it discriminated against Dissenting Protestants and Roman Catholics and Dissenters who were members of the corporations in Belfast, Londonderry and other towns were removed from office.  This situation continued for many years but eventually the Test Act was abolished and the principle of religious liberty prevailed.  The Sinn Fein motion was an attempt to introduce a new 'test' and thereby discriminate against evangelical Protestants.

The Sinn Fein motion referred to an 'inclusive society' but they were actually seeking to exclude from ministerial office anyone who was an evangelical Protestant.  There is something bizarre about an 'inclusion' that seeks to exclude.

There are those for whom matters of Christian doctrine mean nothing at all.  However, as a Christian, saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, matters such as redemption, salvation and grace, are of immense importance.

The day ended with another evening meeting and I got home around 9.30 pm, after a 14-hour working day.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

'Arms Length' Departmental Bodies

The way that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure was set up it has more arms-length bodies than any other department.  They include the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Sport NI, National Museums Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Library Authority and Northern Ireland Screen, as well as some smaller bodies.  Each of them has its own board and its own chief executive and so I have also decided to hold bi-monthly meetings with the chairs and chief-executives of the main arms-length bodies.

Departmental officials already hold formal accountability meetings with all these bodies but these meetings are intended to be more thematic and in each case I have put a ‘shared and better future’ high on the agenda at the first meeting.

The meetings will ensure that I have regular personal contact with the lead agency in each area of my remit and good regular communication is extremely important.  I have already met some of the chairs and chief executives for a first meeting and it was most encouraging to hear them say that they too valued this regular contact.

A Shared & Better Future...

The Programme for Government, which was agreed by all the political parties in the Executive, refers to a ‘shared and better future’ and that should be our desire for Northern Ireland.  A shared future will be a better future.

Unfortunately, we have not yet secured political agreement on a strategy for cohesion, sharing and integration but rather than wait for that I have decided to press on and make a ‘shared and better future’ one of the priorities in my own department.  Indeed I believe that culture and sport have a very important role to play in shaping that shared future.

Some years ago the Community Relations Council identified three core principles as essential for a shared future and those were equity, diversity and interdependence.  That is what I mean when I speak about a ‘shared and better future’.  Equity means that it is a future where people are treated fairly and equitably.  Diversity means that it is a future where we recognise and respect difference.  Interdependence means that it is a future where there is social cohesion.  We need all three if we are to have a 'shared and better future' and anything less will not work.

Our current departmental business plan makes reference to it and I am looking at ways to promote it in a practical way through the arms-length bodies under my department.  I want to see the outworking of those three core principles in culture, arts and leisure.

Belfast Church Gets World Monument Status

The former Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church in Belfast has been included on a list of endangered buildings by the World Monuments Fund, which is based in New York.  The 2010 ‘watch list’ includes 93 locations of which five are in the United Kingdom and one in the Republic of Ireland.

The church was built by Alderman James Carlisle (1810-1882) as a memorial to his only son, who died at the age of 18.  It was designed by the noted Ulster architect W H Lynn and completed in 1875.  At one time it was home to one of the largest Methodist congregations in the city but it closed back in the 1970s and has lain empty and unused for the past thirty years. However it is an imposing building and an important part of the architectural heritage of Belfast.  The spire rises to a height of 198 feet and is a well-known landmark.

The Belfast Buildings Preservation Trust has prepared a very thorough report on Carlisle Memorial, looking at the current state of the building and the potential cost of restoration, as well as possible future uses.  It has also campaigned to get Carlisle Memorial on the 2010 ‘watch list’ and I must congratulate Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle and the Trust on their efforts.

Historic buildings such as Carlisle Memorial are part of our cultural heritage and cultural wealth.  However in the years before the Troubles we lost a number of important buildings because of carelessness and thoughtlessness.  During the Troubles we lost more buildings as a result of terrorism.  Now we need a determination to ensure that we protect and preserve those that survive, protecting them from demolition by developers and bringing those that are empty and derelict back into sustainable use.

I hope that this recognition of Carlisle Memorial on a worldwide list of endangered sites will focus the attention of everyone on the need to preserve and restore this landmark building.

Friday, 9 October 2009


Over the summer I came across an interesting letter in a Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail (3 August 2009), which is published in Vancouver, British Columbia.  The writer was Professor Tom Priestly, who is professor emeritus of Slavic linguistics at the University of Alberta, and he was commenting on the use of the words language and dialect.  I quote his letter in full:

In his letter Linguistic Clarification (Aug 1) Dan Calinescu makes the non-linguists’ error of referring to the Romanian and Moldovan ‘languages’ as if they could be defined in non-political terms.  Perhaps he doesn’t know the decades-old-saying, ‘A language is a dialect with an army and a navy’.  The word ‘language’ has multiple meanings and when it refers to standard languages (English, Romanian etc.) it has to be used in the real-world political sense.

Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian are now separate but still similar enough to be taught as one language at some universities; not long ago, they all belonged to a single ‘language’ with local variants that were about as different as British and American English.  Danish and Norwegian are distinct ‘languages,’ but most people consider the difference smaller than the ones just cited.  (One must be deliberately inexact: No one has devised an acceptable measure of linguistic difference.)

And Moldovan was indeed created, inexpertly, by Soviet bureaucrats; while the country was and is independent, its ‘language’ is what its officials say it is.  The fact that it is now virtually identical to Romanian is beside the point.

Here in Northern Ireland a number of people have set themselves up as experts and have argued that the Ulster-Scots language is merely a dialect.  I would suggest to them that they note carefully the comments of Professor Priestly.

First of all Professor Priestly states that, ‘One must be deliberately inexact: No one has devised an acceptable measure of linguistic difference.’  Such honesty is truly refreshing.

Secondly he says that Moldovan is ‘what its officials say it is’.  In the case of Ulster-Scots the government of the United Kingdom has said that it is a regional or minority language in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.  That was made clear when the United Kingdom government ratified the Council of Europe Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.  It recognised Ulster-Scots as a regional or minority language and there the matter rests.

On the basis of official recognition and in the absence of any ‘acceptable measure of linguistic difference’ the matter is well and truly settled.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Over the Sea to Skye

On Tuesday 29th September 2009 I went 'over the sea to Skye', which is one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland, and on Wednesday morning I visited Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college, which is part of the University of the Highlands and Islands.  It is the only all- Gaelic institution in Scotland offering courses to degree level.  We were welcomed by John MacLeod, head of studies, and a number of other staff, including Donnie Munro, the former lead singer of Runrig.

The folk in the college were warm and welcoming and we have much to learn from them, in relation to the development of both Ulster-Scots and Irish, especially as we move forwards into a 'shared and better future'.

From Skye I travelled down to Edinburgh to meet my counterparts in the Scottish Parliament, Shona Robison MSP (sports minister) and Michael Russell MSP (culture minister).  

While I was in Edinburgh I also visited the offices of Scottish Language Dictionaries, met the chair and chief executive of the Scottish Arts Council and attended the annual Scottish awards evening for Arts and Business, which was held in the Usher Hall.

The final day of the visit was spent in Glasgow where I visited the headquarters of the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association and the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland.  I also visited Glasgow University to meet Professor John Corbett, who is professor of applied language studies, and his colleague Dr Jennifer Smith.  This was a valuable meeting in the context of developing a strategy for the Irish language and Ulster-Scots language and culture.  Scotland is similar to Northern Ireland in that both have two indigenous minority languages.  Scotland has Gaelic and Scots while Northern Ireland has Irish and Ulster-Scots.

This visit is the first stage in my plans to develop and strengthen cultural links with our nearest neighbour in the United Kingdom.