Thursday, 31 December 2009

Belfast-born explorer

Today the Irish Times column, An Irishman's Diary, recalled the explorer and naturalist Dr David Walker, who was born in Belfast in 1837.  He was educated at Befast Academical Institution and at Queen's College Belfast and then became a licentaite of the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin.

Dr Walker was the surgeon, naturalist and photographer on an expedition which left Aberdeen on 1 July 1857 to search for Sir John Franklin, who had disappeared while trying to discover the North West Passage.  The expedition was led by Captain F L McClintock and it returned to London on 23 September 1859, after two years away, including 250 days trapped in the ice.  During the journey he collected flora, fauna and geological specimens and carried out scientific observations and experiments.  On his return he presented papers of his findings to both academic and public meetings.

Walker was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy, a fellow of the Royal Georgraphical Society and a fellow of the Linnean Society.  He also received the Arctic medal.

In the 1860s he went on an expedition to British Columbia and then crossed the border in the United States of America.  He served with the American army for fourteen years on the northwest frontier and then from 1883 to 1887 he was the resident doctor in a gold mining town in California.  Walker moved to Portland, Oregon, in 1889 and died there on 11 May 1917.  His death was reported in the New York Times but there was no mention in any papers in the United Kingdom.

Some years ago when Belfast City Council published a volume on Celebrated Citizens of Belfast, Walker did not even make it into the book, a regrettable omission.  I have not yet had the chance to check in the new Dictionary of Irish Biography but hopefully he is included there.

The Return Room

On a more positive note with BBC Northern Ireland they broadcast an excellent old radio programme tonight.  It was entitled  The Return Room and was written by W R Rodgers.  The programme was produced by Sam Hanna Bell and was first broadcast back in 1955. 

William Robert Rodgers was born in the Mountpottinger area of East Belfast in 1909 and so this year was the centenary of his birth.  His father Robert Skelly Rodgers was originally from Dromara and his mother Jane Ferris McCarey was originally from Dundonald.  His background was thoroughly Presbyterian and thoroughly Ulster-Scots.

After studying at Queen's University and the Presbyterian Theological College he was ordained in 1935 and spent the next decade as minister of Cloveneden Presbyterian Church at Loughgall.  After that he left the ministry and joined the BBC in 1946.  For the next twenty years he was a writer, poet, radio broadcaster, script-writer and book reviewer.  He died in Los Angeles in 1969 and was buried at Loughgall.

The radio programme was a delightful portrait of life in Belfast back in the early part of the 20th century.  It provides us with a glimpse of his childhood and is an evocative portrait of a world that is gone.  Belfast was a busy, industrious city, with the Lagan and the shipyards and with little streets full of children at play.  The family of which Rodgers wrote was a devout Presbyterian family, immersed in metrical psalms, gospel meetings and Sabbath observance.

I was amused to hear the older generation of his family speak of Belfast as Bilfawst, with the stress on  the second syllable, not the first.  That traditional Ulster-Scots version of the name was widely used in the city at one time, even just a couple of generations ago, but has now almost disappeared.

A missed opportunity for BBC

Tonight at 6.25 in Scotland BBC2 broadcast Auld Lang Syne, a half-hour programme by Artworks Scotland investigating the origins of Robert Burns's most famous song.  Here in Northern Ireland in the same slot we had a repeat of a very old edition of Are You Being Served? 

This was another missed opportunity for BBC Northern Ireland to share a programme with BBC Scotland.  There has always been a strong interest in Burns in Ulster and even those who are not Burns enthusiasts are familiar with the old song.  I  recall being in the Waterfront Hall a few months ago at a concert organised by an East Belfast flute band and it was sung enthisastically by a packed audience.

Is it too much to ask BBC Northern Ireland to consider broadcasting the programme Auld Lang Syne at a future date?  Certainly it is time for BBC Northern Ireland to take a more positive and proactive approach to co-operation with BBC Scotland.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

George McWhirter

This year Sir James Galway, Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley all celebrated their 70th birthday but as far as I know the local arts sector did not pick up on the fact that another Ulster-born poet was 70 years old.

George McWhirter was born in Belfast on 26 September 1939 and grew up in a large extended family on the Shankill Road.  His father James McWhirter was a shipyard worker and his mother Margaret (McConnell) was a shopkeeper.

He was educated at Queen's University and Stranmillis College and then taught in schools in Kilkeel and Bangor.  After that he taught in Spain and then in 1966 he moved to British Columbia, where he taught at Port Alberni before studying for an MA at the University of British Columbia.  McWhirter stayed on at the university and was appointed professor in 1982 and then head of the creative writing department from 1983 to 1993.

He writes both poetry and fiction and some of his later work deals with Northern Ireland.  The Listeners (1991) explores the lives of a group of musicians in Protestant Belfast and A Bad Day to be Winning (1991)  is a series of short stories set in Protestant Ulster.  In March 2007 the city of Vancouver named him as its inaugural poet laureate for a two-year term.

It seems to me that too often we forget those who have left these shores and made their mark elsewhere.  George McWhirter is just one example and there are many more. 

For example, how many books on Ulster or Irish artists mention Henry McArdle (1836-1908), who was born in Belfast but eventually settled in Texas.  There he painted a number of important people and events in the history of Texas, including Dawn at the Alamo and The Battle of San Jacinto, which hang in the Senate chamber in the Texas Capitol, and The Settlement of Austin's Colony, which hangs in the hall of the House of Representatives in the Texas Capitol.

Those who are tasked with preserving and promoting our cultural wealth have a responsibility to raise awareness of these artists, whose work is part of that cultural wealth.

In Search of Ulster-Scots Land

In recent years there has been an increase in interest in the contribution of the Ulster-Scots to the making of America and in 2008 Barry Aron Vann, associate professor of geography at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee, published a new volume entitled In Search of  Ulster-Scots Land: The Birth and Geotheological Imaginings of a Transatlantic People 1603-1703.

The book deals with both the movement of Scots to Ulster and then the movement of Ulster-Scots to America.  Five of the book's six chapters deal with the seventeenth-century formation of an Ulster-Scots cultural community and the author examines population statistics and geographical features to argue  that the sea between Ulster and Scotland served as a bridge rather than a barrier. 

According to David P King, who reviewed the book for the Journal of Southern Religion:
Vann's interest goes beyond genealogy and geography. He argues that it is the religious thinking of the Ulster-Scots that shapes their unique culture. Diffused through their immigration to America, these beliefs have also left a significant cultural imprint on the South. Vann declares that the conservative belief system, political ideology, and landscapes of the Ulster-Scots are mirrored in the contemporary culture of the "Bible Belt."
This is a major contribution to the academic study of the Ulster-Scots and one that should be on the bookshelves of Ulster-Scots enthusiasts as well as libraries in Northern Ireland.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Country roots are Scotch-Irish

Back in 1973 Wayne Erbsen moved to Charlotte in North Carolina to dig deep into the roots of Southern Appalachian music.  Today he lives in Asheville and teaches music, as well as publishing books on traditional country music.  He also has his own weekly radio programme Country Roots.

In 2003, thirty years after he settled in North Carolina, Erbsen published Rural Roots of Bluegrass: Songs, Stories and History and this was his conclusion about the roots of such music:
It was clearly the Scots-Irish immigrants who contributed most to what would be called Appalachian or old-time music.                                   [Rural Roots of Bluegrass  p 126]
Today some people say that it was the Irish who contributed most to Appalachian music and yes it was people who came from Ireland but they were Scotch-Irish, the descendants of the Ulster-Scots who crossed the Atlantic in search of a new life in a new land.

The book is available for purchase on the internet, along with a CD containing 14 songs from the book, and it is a great source of information about many traditional songs.  In 2006 Erbsen also published The Bluegrass Gospel Songbook, with more than 100 favourite gospel songs.

Alexander Knox MD (2)

In his History of the County of Down, published in 1875, Alexander Knox MD (1802-1877) made the following observation about the state of the Scotch language in county Down at that time:
The Scottish idiom is most observable in the baronies of Ards and Castlereagh, and their confines, although extending as far as Hillsborough and Dromore. Until recently it was spoken as broadly as in Ayr or Wigtonshire, but it is gradually dying out, although innumerable words imported from Scotland are in daily use in the northern part of the county.
[History of the County of Down  p  48]
Comments such as this help us to develop a picture of the survival and decline of Ulster-Scots across the province.

Alexander Knox MD

In 1875 Alexander Knox MD (1802-1877), a retired medical doctor who was then living at Strandtown, published a History of the County of Down.  The book has been out of print for many years but recently I came across a copy in the Assembly library at Stormont.  The staff had been reorganising some of the books and this volume, which had been in a store, was put out on the shelves. 

There are a number of interesting things in it including the following observation (p 617,618) about the homes of the people living in Ulster after the settlement at the start of the 17th century.
Subsequently to the settlement of Ulster, a better class of buildings succeeded, constructed according to the ideas of the different residents. The English settlers, adopting the style of their native country, erected their houses to the height of two stories, with sash-windows and roofs of slate. The Scotch limited their buildings to one story, having glazed leaden windows, and coverings of thatch, whilst the Irish were content with cabins, sometimes built of mud, which, though humble in appearance, were still a marked improvement on the creaghts, which preceded them.

Although the book was written back in 1875 Knox was very well aware of the 'three traditions' in Ulster, which is so essential to a proper understanding of subsequent history.  In fact he had a better understanding than many contemporary writers.

Sunday, 27 December 2009


Aitutaki is one of the Cook Islands, which lie in the South Pacific, and it is rarely mentioned in the media but a local dispute has brought a new media focus to the little island.

The introduction of Sunday air flights to Aitutaki has led to strong opposition from the residents of the island.  When the local airline decided to add a Sunday flight to its schedule it may have anticipated some opposition but it probably did not realise how strong the opposition would be.  There have been protests at the airport and about 1,300 people have signed a petition against the Sunday flights.  This is a remarkable figure as it represents almost the entire adult population of the island.

On the island of Aitutaki, Sunday is kept as a Christian Sabbath, a day for rest, worship and the family.  According to BBC reporter John Pickford, 'You cannot fail to be elated on a Sunday morning by the sight of a Polynesian congregation in its 'Sunday best'.'  The churches are packed, with the men mostly in black, the women wearing hats and girls in starched white frocks.  There is deep, soulful singing and the sermons are evangelical and evangelistic.

The island was discovered by Captain William Bligh in 1789, just 17 days before the 'mutiny on the Bounty', and Christianity reached it on 26 October 1821 with the arrival of John Williams, a Congregationalist missionary from the London Missionary Society.  Commenting on the impact of Christianity on the island, the leader of the campaign against the Sunday flights said, 'Before the missionaries we were always fighting each other. After they came there was no more trouble.'

After years of missionary work Williams was eventually killed in November 1839 by cannibals on the island of Erromango, part of the island-nation of Vanuatu, while attempting to bring the gospel to the island.  Earlier this month some of his descendants travelled to Erromango to accept the apologies of descendants of the cannibals in a ceremony of reconciliation.

William was an English missionary but Ulster has probably sent more evangelical missionaries around the world than any other place of a similar size.  This is an aspect of our heritage which is largely unrecognised, at least outside the world of evangelical Christianity.   

The heavens declare the glory of God

Armagh Observatory was founded in 1790 by Archbishop Richard Robinson, a wealthy and influential figure and the head of the Church of Ireland. It was the second observatory in Ireland and it is the oldest scientific institution in Northern Ireland. The architect was Francis Johnston (1760-1829), a native of Armagh. 

It was an important element in Archbishop Robinson’s overall plan for the city and the first director was Rev James Archibald Hamilton, rector of Cookstown and later rector of Mullabrack, who already had a small private observatory. 

To mark the construction of the observatory, a commemorative medal was struck by George Mossop of Dublin and this bears the inscription, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God.’ These words from Psalm 19:1 also appear on the observatory building and on the seal of the governors of the observatory. 

It is a most appropriate text for an observatory for the heavens, which are the handiwork of God, speak to us of the glory, the majesty and the power of God.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

O Muirithe on Ulster-Scots

Diarmaid O Muirithe wrote the following about Ulster-Scots in his book A Word in Your Ear, which was published in 1997 and was a collection of articles from his Irish Times column:
Ulster Scots deserved to be cherished ...  You'll find the pockets it survives in, from Down right around to Donegal, and as far south as Monaghan, listed in an essay the late Brendan Adams contributed to The English Language in Ireland, a book of Thomas Davis Lectures which I edited for RTE some years ago.  The language is more archaic than any variety of Scots you'll hear in Scotland, and you should know that if you drive up into the glens above Cullybackey in west Antrim, for example,  those gentle people will address you in Ulster Hiberno-English for your own comofrt, and will speak braid Scots among themselves.
O Muirithe was severely critical of someone who had said that Ulster-Scots was simply 'a dialect of a dialect'. 
'A dialect of a dialect!' wrote one ass, who doesn't even know that Scots is a language, not a dialect of English.

Bessy Bell and Mary Gray

In the estate of Barons Court in county Tyrone the river Strule flows between two mountains known as Bessy Bell (420 m) and Mary Gray (230 m). They were so named by Scottish settlers after the heroines in an old Scottish ballad that begins ‘Bessie Bell an Mary Gray, they were twa bonnie lasses’. It concerns two girls who fled from Perth to escape an outbreak of plague in 1645.  The plague crossed the border from England in April 1645, reaching Edinburgh in June and Perth in August.  Nearly 3,000 peopple died in Perth and corpses were left rotting in the street.  The two girls built a bower out in the country and were supplied with food by a young man from the town but in the end they caught the plaque and eventually  died from it.  The following is just one version of the ballad:

Oh Bessie Bell an Mary Gray,
They war twa bonnie lasses,
They biggit a bower on yon burn-brae,
An theekit it owre wi rashes.

They theekit it owre wi rashes green
That happit it roun wi heather;
But the pest cam frae the borough's toun
An slew them baith thegither.

They thocht to lie in Methven kirk
Beside their gentle kin;
But they maun lie in Dronach-haugh
An beik fornenst the sin.

Oh Bessie Bell an Mary Gray, 
They war twa bonnie lasses,
They biggit a bower on yon burn-brae,
An theekit it owre wi rashes.

[biggit = built; theekit = thatched, covered; happit = wrapped; frae = from; baith = both; thegither = together; thocht = thought; maun = must; haugh = level ground on the banks of a river; beik = bask]

The song was certainly in existence and well-known by the end of the 17th century and the tune appeared in printed form under the title 'Bess Bell' in Henry Playford's Original Scotch Tunes, which was published in 1700. .  A version of it by Allan Ramsay appeared in a volume of his poetry in 1721 and another version was published by Robert Burns.

The most important document relating to the ballad is a letter written on 21 June 1781 by Major Barry, then proprietor of Lednock, which appeared in the Transactions of the Society of the Antiquaries of Scotland:
When I came first to Lednock, I was shewn in a part of my ground (called the Dranoch-haugh) an heap of stones almost covered with briers, thorns and fern, which they assured me was burial place of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray.  The tradition of the country relating to these ladys is, that Mary Gray's father was laird of Lednock and Bessie Bell's of Kinvaid, a place in this neighbourhood; that they were both very handsome, and an intimate firendship subsisted between them; that while Miss Bell was on a visit to Miss Gray, the plague broke out in the year 1666 [should be 1645]; in order to avoid which they built themselves a bowerabotu three uqarters of a mile west of Lednock House, in a very retired and romantic place called Burn-braes, on the side of Brauchie-burn.
The ballad was known to the Ulster-Scots in Tyrone and presumably it was sung by them.  Moreover they must have understood the Scots words such as biggit, happit and theekit.  This shows just what we can learn about the language and the folk-songs of the Ulster-Scots by simple and careful study.

Moreover the story does not end in Ulster because many emigrants from Tyrone went to America and behind the town of Staunton in the Shenandoah Valley there are two peaks called Bessy Bell and Mary Gray which were named after the homeland hills of Newtownstewart.

Atlantic Gateway

Atlantic Gateway: The port and city of Londonderry since 1700 is the tenth in a series of books entitled ‘Ulster and Scotland’, which was published by Four Courts Press in association with the Institute of Ulster Scots Studies in the University of Ulster. The authors are Robert Gavin, William P Kelly and Dolores O’Reilly and Professor O’Reilly kindly sent me a copy after I met her during a visit to Culturlann Ui Chanain in Londonderry. 

The volume contains much valuable information but I was very disappointed that it did not include more information on the Scottish influence in Londonderry and the fact that it was at one time a very Ulster-Scots city. After all the project was taken forward by the Institute of Ulster-Scots Studies, it was part of a series on ‘Ulster and Scotland’ and the general editors were Dr John Wilson and Dr William P Kelly of the Institute of Ulster Scots Studies. 

However there is little information about the Scottish influence in Londonderry and the fact that many of the businessmen and entrepreneurs were Scots or Ulster-Scots. At the start of the 20th century Londonderry was still a very Scottish city and this was noted in a guide to Londonderry and the Donegal Highlands, published in 1925: Derry, it will be noted, is extraordinarily rich in churches of all kinds, Presbyterian ones predominating, as might be expected in a city more than half Scotch. Most of the people talk with a Scotch accent and use many Scotch words and idioms

There is, I would suggest, need for another book that really explores the Scottish influence in a city that was so important as a port from which many Ulster-Scots emigrated in search of a new life in a new world. Perhaps, as we approach the 400th anniversary of the 1613 charter of Londonderry, others will step up to the mark and take forward such a project.

A wheen mair o buiks

Among my Christmas gifts was a copy of Marshal Schomberg 1615-1690 – The Ablest Soldier of His Age by Matthew Glozier, a research associate at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Sydney. This is the first book-length, scholarly appraisal of the man since 17789 and the first ever in English based on new research. Schomberg held high command in British, Portuguese and French armies but he is remembered as second-in-command to William of Orange during the Glorious Revolution. He arrived in Ulster on 13 August 1689 at the head of a Williamite army and then in the summer of 1690 he accompanied William as they marched south to fight James and the Jacobite army at the Battle of the Boyne. Schomberg was killed at the Boyne and buried in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. This is a well-researched book and a welcome addition to the range of books on the Glorious Revolution.

The Man with the Golden Flute is an autobiography of Sir James Galway, written jointly by him and Linda Bridges. The story starts in Belfast, where Sir James was born in 1939, in a house in Vere Street. This was bombed during the Blitz and after that they moved to 17 Carnalea Street. His grandfather was the conductor of the Apprentice Boys Flute Band and his father was also a member of the band but their band-room was destroyed during the blitz and the band did not reform after the war. Sir James himself started in the Onward Flute Band, which still parades and performs today. Writing of his grandfather he said, ‘Although my grandfather was self-taught, he was good enough that he had often played in the opera orchestra. His real passion was playing in the flute bands that we had in Belfast. These bands were the equivalent of marching bands in the United States, or the brass bands they had up in the north of England.’

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Crack and craic

Diarmaid O Muirithe is the emeritus senior lecturer in Irish at University College, Dublin, and the author of a weekly column in the Irish Times in which he examines the origin and meaning of unusual words. 

In his book The Words We Use he explores the origin of the word ‘craic’, which appears frequently today, albeit with two somewhat different meanings. 
The constant Gaelicisation of the good old English/Scottish dialect word crack as craic sets my teeth on edge. It seems, indeed, that many people think that the word is an Irish one; hence we find advertisements proclaiming ‘music, songs, dancing and craic’; the implication is that craic = boozing and high jinks, great fun as it used to be …
The English Dialect Dictionary (Wright’s) deals at length with crack, a word still in use from the English midlands to Glasgow and Edinburgh. It gives crack as ‘1. talk, conversation, gossip, chat’. In this context [Walter] Scott uses it in Rob Roy (1817), ‘I maun hai a crack wil an auld acquaintance here’. ‘The friendly crack, the cheerfulsang’, wrote a lesser Caledonian, Picken, in 1813. 2. A tale, a good story or joke; gossip, scandal.  'A' cracks are not tae be trow'd', is a Scots proverb.
The old Scots word crack crossed the sea to Ulster several hundred years ago and then very recently it was Gaelicised as craic, apparently since there is no ‘k’ in the Irish alphabet. Its meaning then altered somewhat to suggest ribaldry and devilment, particularly associated with public houses.  For example, many Irish pubs have the phrase 'ceol agus craic' in their advertising.

Crack is a fine word, found in both Ulster-Scots and Ulster dialect, in its traditional form and with its traditional meaning of conversation,  There is no justification at all for the introduction of craic into non-Irish sentences and no justification for the removal of the traditional crack.  This is particularly so when the intended meaning is the traditional meaning of conversation rather than the ribaldry of the public house.

I would not, for example, expect to find craic in a public library or as a regular feature on Radio Foyle but I have encountered craic in a booklet advertising talks in a library and it also appears on the stapline for Radio Foyle on Freeview.

Ulster speech

Diarmaid O Muirithe is senior lecturer emeritus in Irish at University College Dublin and the author of a weekly column in the Irish Times.  I came across the following helpful quote in his book The Words We Use:
The influence of Scotland has crossed the waters of the Moyle into Ulster, in language as in other matters.  But the late John Braidwood sounded a warning note when he wrote of 'the pusillanimous notions of correctness and good taste hammered into kids in school, deterring their progress along the highway of their native tongue, the byeways being prohibited.'  My friend Benedict Kiely has also written about the equally malign influence of radio and television, and there are many who believe that the dialect that owes its richness to Scots is very much endangered.
Here O Muirithe notes the influence of Scots in Ulster and this of course is heard in both Ulster-Scots and the strong Scottish influence in Ulster dialect.

He also notes the influence of education, which tends to standardise speech and erode regional differences, in the interests of 'correctness', and the 'malign influence of radio and television'.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Away in a Manger

One of the best-known and best-loved of all Christmas carols is Away in a Manger.  The most popular tune for this carol is called Cradle Song and it was written by William J Kirkpatrick (1838-1921), who wrote a large number of hymn tunes and also wrote the words of several well-known hymns.

He was born in the parish of Errigal Keerogue in county Tyrone and emigrated from Ulster to America with his parents, Thompson Kirkpatrick and his wife Elizabeth Storey.  This was an Ulster-Scots family and both the Kirkpatrick and Storey families were of Scottish descent.

William J Kirkpatrick is therefore another of those Scotch-Irish hymnwriters who contributed so much to modern gospel hymnody.

World Pipe Band Championships

While looking through the television programmes for the Christmas and New Year holidays I noticed that there is an hour long programme about the 2009 World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow. Ulster bands, musicians and drum majors performed exceptionally well at the championships, taking 31 of the 62 prizes, and the Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band came second in Grade 1.  This programme is on BBC2 on 30 December at 6.30 and it should be well worth seeing.

Belfast Media Group

Some time ago I published a comment about the Belfast Media Group, headed by former Sinn Fein councillor Mairtin O’Muilleoir, and the MacBride Principles. At the end of it I said, ‘It would indeed be interesting to know the employment pattern in the Belfast Media Group, which includes the Andersonstown News, South Belfast News and North Belfast News.

Well now we don’t have to wait any longer because the Equality Commission has published its Fair Employment Monitoring Report for 2008 and we know that the Belfast Media Group has 67 employees but has less than 10 Protestant employees amongst that number.

In Equality Commission reports, where the number of people from a particular community is less than ten, it is simply recorded as such and no specific figure is given. 

It could therefore be 9 Protestants but equally it could be 3 or 2 or 1 or none! Meanwhile the number of Roman Catholics could be 58, 59 or 60 or perhaps even 67 out of 67. What is certain is that it far below the figures that would reflect the percentage of people in our community who are Protestants. 

This is certainly a case of Mairtin saying, ‘Don’t do as I do but rather do as I say!’

Saturday, 19 December 2009

City of Belfast School of Music

The Christmas concert by the City of Belfast School of Music was held in the Waterfront Hall last night and was of an extremely high standard. 

The school was formed in 1965 and is run by the Belfast Education and Library Board.  The head of music service is Dr Joe McKee.  Earlier this year the school moved from premises in Donegall Pass to the former Castle High School in Fortwilliam Park in North Belfast.

There were contributions b ythe City of Belfast Youth Concert Band, the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra, the Youth Chorale, the Junior Music Centre and the Combined Junior Winds, as well as ethnic drumming by A-Freek-A!

This was a most enjoyable evening and the Christmas Concert has been a feature of the City of Belfast School of Music for many years.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

The Barbour family of Hilden

Plans have just been announced for a £100m regeneration scheme that will transform an abandoned textile mill in Lisburn.  The scheme, announced by Environment Minister Edwin Poots,  will provide 600 new homes, office and light industrial units, as well as a leisure complex and a museum that will  focus on the history of the linen industry.

The mill belonged to the Barbour family who came from Scotland in 1784.  In that year John Barbour set up a linen thread works in Lisburn, while his son William bought a derelict bleach green at Hilden.  Later the thread works moved from Lisburn to Hilden and by 1817 it was employing 122 workers.

In 1823 William Barbour bought a former bleach mill at Hilden and built a water-powered twisting mill.  The Barbour Linen Thread Company was foudned in 1898 and became the largest linen thread mill in the world.  By 1914 it employed about 2,000 people and the company built a model village for the workers, with 350 houses, two schools, a community hall, children's playground and a village sports ground.  However the linen indutry in Ulster declined and the mill finally closed in 2006, by which time the workforce had dwindled to just 85.

The story of the Barbour family is just another strand in the story of Scottish and Ulster-Scots businessmen who helped to make Ulster such an industrial powerhouse.  Other include shipbuilders such as William Ritchie and Sir George Clark and the Mackie family who had a major engineering business in Belfast.  This is a story that deserves to be explored more thoroughly.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

No more Sunday games for Murray

Scottish rugby international Euan Murray is to sit out Scotland's opening RBS 6 Nations match against France at Murrayfield on 7 February because the game is being played on Sunday.

Murray was converted in 2006 and later said, 'I heard the gospel which is the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and realised that I had to believe that with all my heart.'  Since then he has played some games on Sunday but earlier this year he admitted that he had been wrestling with his conscience over the issue and after studying and praying he had decided not to play on Sundays.

Scottish coach Andy Robinson said, 'Euan has said he will not play on any Sunday and will give himself to God on that day. He believes it. For some of us it is not what we do, but we are not Euan Murray. We must respect his choice.  He is saying that through his reading and his beliefs, he has come to the conclusion he does not want to play rugby on Sundays.’

Euan Murray, who is a Baptist lay preacher, is to be commended for his public stand for his faith.  There is undoubtedly tremendous pressure to fit in with the spirit of the age and ignore the fourth commandment but Jesus said, 'If ye love me, keep my commandments.'  John Wesley had a seal with the words on it, 'Believe, love, obey' and that sums up the Christian life.  As John Blanchard once said, 'Obedience is not the essence of a right relationship with God but it is the evidence of it.'

This reminds us of another Scottish sportsman, Eric Liddell, who refused to run on a Sunday at the 1924 Paris Olympics.  His story was later retold in the film Chariots of Fire.

Sir James Galway

Sir James Galway was back in North Belfast today to visit the Grove Day Centre, which is part of the Grove Health and Wellbeing Centre, and unveil a new sculpture. 

The sculpture was designed by the senior citizens themselves and it depicts aspects of life in the York Road area, including the old linen mills and the Onward Flute Band of which Sir James was once a member. 

James Galway grew up in Carnalea Street and is 70 years old this year but some of the folk who attend the centre are in their late seventies or eighties and they remembered him very well.  One senior citizen recalled playing in the Onward Band around the same time and others recalled seeing him play with the band.

This was a wonderful afternoon for the senior citizens as they reminisced about their youth and it was good to see the enthusiasm of the staff who run the centre.  James Galway was very willing to take the time to talk to each of the senior citizens personally and they really appreciated the opportunity to meet him.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Looking across the narrow sea

Yesterday on his blog, Bloggin fae the 'Burn, (, Mark Thompson posted a photograph showing the clear view of the Scottish coast from his own front door.  By coincidence, as I was going into work yesterday, driving down the hill section of the M2 towards Greencastle, I could see the Scottish coast from there as well.  The sea between Ulster and Scotland is certainly a 'narrow sea'.

Is it any wonder that, as the historian G M Trevelyan once pointed out, the connection between Ulster and Western Scotland has been a 'constant factor in history'?

Belfast Blues

Belfast Blues is the title of a one-woman play written and performed by the actress Geraldine Hughes, who was born in Belfast in 1970 and grew up in Divis Flats before moving to America nearly 20 years ago.  It is being performed this week in the Brian Friel Theatre in University Square.

The play is a 'tapestry of stories' about the life of Geraldine and her family as she grows up and comes of age in the violent Belfast of the 1980s.  It is told unashamedly from her own perspective and much of it is set in the streets and tower blocks of the Lower Falls.  The only furniture on the stage is a table, a chair and bench and the background is a series of stark depictions of the city at that time.

At the age of 14 she travelled to America to act in a television film entitled Children in the Crossfire.  Later she returned to America where she obtained a private scholarship to the University of California in Los Angeles, where she earned a degree from the School of Theatre, Film and TV.  After moving to New York she made her broadway debut in Brian Friel's Translations and tonight she was performing in the Brian Friel Theatre.

Geraldine has certainly captured the black humour of Belfast in her script and her performance demonstrated her very considerable talents as an actress.  She moves quickly and effortlessly from one character to another as she portrays the experiences of her parents and neighbours as well as her own and it is indeed a fine performance.
The script is very well written but I do have one criticism and that is the over-use of swearing and the continuous use of the name of Jesus Christ in an irreverent way.  Yes many people in inner-city Belfast do swear but I heard more swearing on the stage tonight than I would ever hear during an evening in any inner-city area in the course of my work and it detracted from the play.

50 metre swimming pool

This afternoon I visited the site of the new 50 metre swimming pool project at Valentine's Playing Fields in Bangor.  The pool is part of a larger leisure complex development being undertaken by North Down borough council at an overall cost of around £42m.  My department, through sport NI, is providing £15m towards the capital costs of the the pool.  This will be the first 50 metre pool in Northern Ireland and the project is due for completion early in 2012.

This project marks the first phase of a Major Facilities Development programme.  As a regional centre of excellence this complex will be a state-of-the-art facility to be enjoyed by all the people of Northern Ireland.

We visited the site of the project and then travelled the short distance to the Town Hall, where council officials gave me a presentation about the project.

Abortion guidance

The Department of Health has failed in a new bid to stop the complete withdrawal of government guidelines on abortion in Northern Ireland.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn children (SPUC) had brought judicial review proceedings and Lord Justice Girvan ruled that the sections on counselling and conscientious objection were unclear.  As a result he ordered that the guidance be withdrawn completely and that position was upheld in court yesterday.

According to Lord Justice Girvan, 'There were aspects of the counselling section and the conscientious objection section that the court considered did not represent the correct legal position.  They were significant portions of the guidance and the effect of the errors that the court sought ot identify in the judgement made the guidance as issued as a whole misleading and requiring reconisderation.  I'm not persuaded that one should view the document as complete self-contained separate issues.  This guidance requires to be withdrawn for reconsideration because two important sections of it require reconsideration.'

The right to life is a fundamental right, even for the unborn child, and all those who are pro-life will be watching this issue with great interest. 

Northern Ireland netball success

The Northern Ireland netball team has won the cross-continental Six Nations tournament in Singapore.  They won all six of their matches over the seven days and their success is testimony to their fitness and ability.  This is one of Northern Ireland's most signfiicant successes in international netball and congratulations must go to the captain Noleen Lennon, coach Elaine Rice, and the other members of the Northern Ireland team.  The other teams in the competition were Scotland, host nation Singapore, Tanzania, Canada and Malaysia.

Monday, 14 December 2009

My vision for Ulster-Scots

The following article appeared in the NewsLetter on Saturday 13 December 2009

Four hundred years ago, thousands of Lowland Scots crossed the North Sea to settle in county Down, as part of a settlement led by Sir James Hamilton and Sir Hugh Montgomery. This was the dawn of the Ulster-Scots and Hamilton and Montgomery were the ‘founding fathers’. The following year came the Flight of the Earls and this was followed by the arrival of many more Scots as part of the Plantation of Ulster. 

The culture that was brought across the sea by those settlers developed into an Ulster-Scots culture which is an important strand of the cultural diversity of Northern Ireland.

As we seek to build a ‘shared and better future’ in Northern Ireland, it must be a future based on equity, diversity and interdependence, and Ulster-Scots is part of that diversity.

What this is our vision for the future of Ulster-Scots culture within that ‘shared and better future’? In the wake of recent controversy and comment about the Ulster-Scots Agency it is perhaps an appropriate time to set out some elements of that vision.

As one of the folk who was involved in the formation of the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council in 1995 and as someone who was deeply involved in Ulster-Scots cultural development thereafter, I believe that the original aspiration is just as valid today as it was then. It was an aspiration to see Ulster-Scots culture move from the margins into the mainstream of the cultural life of Northern Ireland.

We have seen considerable progress over the past fifteen years but 2010 must be the year when we take Ulster-Scots up to a new level.

Education and the media are two important areas for the development of any cultural or linguistic tradition and there is work to be done to put Ulster-Scots culture and history in their proper place in the school classroom, in the university and on the television screen. That is not an unreasonable demand. Indeed it is the right of a cultural community, a right that is set out in international human rights instruments.

Real progress will require a coherent and comprehensive strategy for Ulster-Scots and that will also include such things as cultural development, community empowerment, community education, academic research, publications and social enterprise. The essential elements of such a strategy are well-known and all that remains is for those elements to be drawn together in an integrated document.

The Ulster-Scots Agency was established under the Belfast Agreement and it has an important role to play but it must be ‘fit for purpose’ if it is to fulfil that role and meet the needs and hopes of the Ulster-Scots community. That requires it to be efficient and effective, an organisation that provides value for money. If it is to fulfil those requirements it must have a sound strategy and good governance.

My predecessor Gregory Campbell identified community empowerment as a priority and we need a strong Ulster-Scots community sector. I am encouraged by what has been accomplished in building the sector because it shows what can be done but there are still many areas of the province where activity and infrastructure are weak.

There must also be a strong partnership between the Agency and the community with systematic and structured engagement, based on the model of the government compact with the community and voluntary sector. That is a long standing expectation, reaching back to the days of direct rule, and it must be implemented as a matter of urgency.

As a result of the Joint Declaration there is a commitment by government to support and resource an Ulster-Scots Academy. Much good work has been done and after reflecting on that work and on good practice elsewhere, I am finalising a series of actions to make that commitment a reality.

We are only too well aware of the difficulties and the disappointments. For too long Ulster-Scots culture has been bedevilled by unfair and unfounded criticism from without and by foolish and misguided enthusiasms from within. We cannot stand by and allow that to continue. We need firm decisions, resolute action, sound strategy and good governance.

As someone with a passion for Ulster-Scots culture and a deep desire for a ‘shared and better future’ I am determined to do all I can to facilitate the movement of Ulster-Scots in to the mainstream and up to a new level. That is what the Ulster-Scots community expects and that is what they deserve.

Derry's Walls

The Scottish historian Ian S Wood was a lecturer at Napier University in Edinburgh and a tutor with the Open University.  He is also a member of the Scottish Labour history Society and served as editor of the society's journal from 1974 to 1989.  Wood has written and edited several books including Scotland and Ulster.

He was the expert to whom the News of the World (13 December 2009) turned to get an opinion on the traditional Orange song, Derry's Walls.  According to Wood:

Derry's Walls is a celebration of an iconic moment in loyal Ulster history.  It goes on to describe the events of the siege, the blockade, the privations of the siege and the breaking of the blockade on Lough Foyle.
From a historian's point of view it's not a bad description of a sequence of events.
You should NOT see it as a localised sectarian event.  There was more to it than that.

The time has scarce gone by boys
Three hundred years ago
When rebels on old Derry's Walls
Their faces dare not show
When James and all his rebel band
Came up to Bishops Gate
With heart and hand and sword and shield
We caused them to retreat.

Then fight and don't surrender
But come when duty calls,
With heart and hand and sword and shield
We'll guard old Derry's Walls.

The blood did flow in crimson streams
Through many a winter's night
They knew the Lord was on their side
To help them in the fight
They only stood upon the walls
Determined for to fight,
To fight and gain the victory
And hoist the Crimson high;

At last, at last, with one broad side,
Kind heaven sent us aid,
The boom was broke that crossed the Foyle was broke
And James he was dismayed
The banner, boys, that floated
Was run aloft with joy,
God bless the hands that broke the boom,
And saved the Apprentice Boys!

O'Muilleoir and equality

On Tuesday 8 December Mairtin O'Muilleoir, the West Belfast newspaper publisher and former Sinn Fein councillor, hosted an event in New York City Hall to mark 25 years of the MacBride Principles.  It was entitled 'Building on MacBride' and was sponsored by the Irish Echo newspaper which is part of O'Muilleoir's Belfast Media Group.

Also taking part were former Comptroller Liz Holtzman, Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly, trade unionist Inez McCormack, Speaker Christine Quinn, Consul General of Ireland Niall Burgess, and Comptroller of New York State Tom DiNapoli.

The MacBride Principles were named after Sean MacBride, a former chief-of-staff of the IRA, and were launched in November 1984.  They were designed as a corporate code of conduct for American companies investing in Northern Ireland and the first of the nine principles was: Increasing the representation of individuals from under-represented religious groups in the workforce including managerial, supervisory, administrative, clerical and technical jobs.

John Burns, writing in the Sunday Times (13 December 2009) commented on the event and said:
Sadly, there was no time to address the issue of Catholic and Protestant balance at O'Muilleoir's own Belfast Media Group, which published newspapers across the city.
Questions submitted to his website on the matter are deleted without appearing.
It would indeed be interesting to know the employment pattern in the Belfast Media Group, which includes the Andersonstown News, South Belfast News and North Belfast News, as well as the Irish Echo!

Words We Use

Every Monday in the Irish Times, Diarmaid O Muirithe has a column entitled 'Words We Use' and in it he explores the origin and background of words that readers have asked him to research.  Today he looked at the word wime, which is of Scandinavian origin,  and means 'to move in a circuitous or erratic fashion'.

He also responded to an inquiry about the word carnaptious, which a reader had heard used by a friend from County Antrim.  According to Diarmaid O Muirithe:
It means irritable, touchy, bad-tempered, always finding fault.  It came from Scotland where it is also found as curnaptious.  Car is an intensifying prefix and nap is from knap in the sense to bite, to snap, related to Dutch or Low German knappen, to break with a sharp crack.  The ending -tious is used as in loan words from Latin.
The word is listed in Macafee's Concise Ulster Dictionary.  I've heard it in antrim, Down, Fermanagh and Donegal.  The Dictionary of the Scots Language has the word without the car prefix from some of the northern counties of England close to the Scottish border.  'He's a (k)naptious little man.'  Oxford has four citations, two of them from Ulster.  This is one, from W G Lyttle's Readings by Robin (1878): 'He's a cross carnapshus wee brat, so he is!'  A good word it is, no matter how you spell it.

This is a good example of the wealth of information that the columnist provides week by week and he often deals with Ulster-Scots words such as carnaptious.

His writings have appeared in a more permanent form in volumes such as The Words We Use and A Word in Your Ear.  These books are always a very enjoyable read and a wonderful way to explore the richness of our vocabulary.

The Concise Ulster Dictionary is another excellent book and one that deserves a wider circulation.  Ulster dialect, which draws on a range of sources including Ulster-Scots and Irish is a good example of the cultural diversity of Northern Ireland.

Germaine Greer

The Australian-born writer Germaine Greer has written and spoken about her ancestry on a number of occasions. Writing in the Guardian on 19 June 2004 she said, ‘My father was born in Tasmania in 1904’ and she added that ‘his paternal grandparents were from Ulster.’ 

In a recent interview with William Crawley on Radio Ulster she was more specific and said that she had Ulster-Scots ancestry. She said that her father’s name was Hamilton and ‘it doesn’t come more Ulster-Scots than that.’

Eddie McIlwaine

I always look forward to Eddie McIlwaine’s page in the Belfast Telegraph each Saturday night and last Saturday was no disappointment. He had a short article on the actor Richard Todd and said that Todd ‘always regarded himself as an Ulsterman’. He also had an article on the Ulster scientist Sir Joseph Larmor (1857-1942) and pointed out that one of the craters on the far side of the moon is named after the Ulsterman.

Unfortunately not enough is done through our education system and through the local media to inform and educate about some of the great Ulster men and women of the past and their contributions in such fields as science, innovation, culture and arts are often forgotten.

Orange Interpretive Centres

On Friday the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland launched its plans to develop two Orange interpretive centres, one at Schomberg House in Belfast and the other at Sloan’s House, Loughgall in county Armagh, where the Orange Order was founded in 1795. 

An application for funding for the iconic £4 million project has been submitted to a European funding programme along with a detailed business plan. 

I attended the launch where Dr David Hume said, ‘It is a central plank of the submission that the Orange Order has a key role in society and that unless there is engagement with the Order from the wider community there will continue to be misunderstandings, leading to conflict and lack of respect for different cultures. The Orange interpretive centres proposal gives the opportunity for that understanding to develop.’ 

The Orange Order has an extensive programme of outreach to schools and community groups, which is headed up by David Scott, and there has been a high level of uptake from schools in the Roman Catholic sector. This outreach was first undertaken by members of the Education Committee of Grand Lodge on a voluntary basis, and some years ago when I was convenor of the Education Committee, I visited the Abbey Christian Brothers School in Newry to speak to the boys about the Orange Order. However the demand outstripped the supply of voluntary speakers, who were generally not available during school hours, and the Order now employs a full-time education officer.

The outreach work and the development of interpretive centres are initiatives that are worthy of support and they have much to contribute to the creation of a 'shared and better future'.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Swine flu outbreak

Speaking at this month's swine flu briefing in Belfast, the Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride said that the worst is behind us.

According to figures released by the Department of Health, the number of antiviral prescriptions has dropped by almost 40% since last week and GP consultations for symptoms have dropped by a quarter while out-of-hours consultations dropped by almost a third.  Even Michael McGimpsey acknowledged, 'We are now experiencing the same level of flu activity as this time last year.'

This is rather different from the situation just a matter of weeks ago when Minister McGimpsey was demanding vast additional sums of money to deal with the outbreak and predicting that he would need it to buy body-bags and procure morgues for the bodies!

Republic's 'collusion' in sexual abuse

Former police ombudsman Nuala O'Loan entered the House of Lords as Baroness O'Loan in September 2009.  She is a devout Roman Catholic and in an article for The Irish Catholic she has spoken very plainly about the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in the Irish Republic and about the 'collusion' of the state and state agencies.

Referring to the recent report on sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic diocese of Dublin, she said that she was shocked to learn how state agencies protected abusers from being discovered and punished.  'The failings articulated in the Murphy report are not just the failings of the Church.  They are also the failings of the state and they are equally grave.'

In her article she criticised the apostolic nuncio in Dublin, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, for failing to cooperate with the investigation.  [The apostolic nuncio is the diplomatic representative of the Vatican in Ireland.]  Baroness O'Loan said this was 'totally unacceptable' given that the Murphy inquiry was an official investigation into highly serious allegations. 

'How could anyone sacrifice little children in this way in order to protect an institution, which by these very actions became collusive in the crimes of the abusers?'

Condemnation is now being directed at:
1. the priests who carried out the sexual abuse of children
2. the Roman Catholic church officials who covered it up and moved abusive priests from parish to parish to prevent them being discovered and tried before the courts - in this way they colluded in the crimes.
3. the state agencies who protected abusers from being discovered and punished and also colluded in the crimes.


As a book-lover, one of the delights of being Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure is that I tend to receive books to read or review.  So here are some I have received or bought in recent weeks:

If Trees Could Talk - the story of woodlands around Belfast : Ben Simon
This was written by Ben Simon, who works in Belfast City Council Parks and Leisure Department, as a publication of the Forest of Belfast initiative.  The book itells the story of the woodlands and landscapes around Belfast over the past four centuries and it includes significant coverage of some of the city's parks, especially Cave Hill and Belfast Castle Estate, Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park and Barnett Demesne.  It is a valuable resource and Ben has certainly captured the stories and the character of the people who helped shape our landscape.

A Beleaguered Station - the memoir of Head Constable John McKenna 1891-1921 : John McKenna
The book offers a unique insight into troubled times in Ulster, spanning the Home Rule crisis of 1912-1914, the 1916 Rising and the period of partition.  The author, John McKenna, was a Roman Catholic head constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary during that period and he was a moderate nationalist.  This is the first autobiographical account of that era from the perspective of a Roman Catholic nationalist policeman and it was written in 1932.  The memoir has been edited by his grandson John McKenna with an introduction by Dr Eamon Phoenix. 

The book was published by the Ulster Historical Foundation and both John McKenna and Eamon Phoenix spoke at the launch in Belfast Central Library.  The library is an excellent setting for book launches and cultural events.

Guid Wittins frae Docter Luik - The Gospel according to Luke in Ulster-Scots
The latest publication from the Ullans Press, the publishing arm of the Ulster-Scots Language Society, is Guid Wittns frae Docter Luik, a translation of the Gospel according to Luke into Ulster-Scots.  The translation was carried out by a team that included native speakers from Antrim and Down.  The translation consultants and editors were Philip and Heather Saunders, who have had many years of experience in Bible translation with the Wycliffe Bible Translators.  They worked for 20 years in the translation of Scripture into the Kouya language of the Ivory Coast in West Africa.

The project started in 2003 but regular work began in April 2006 and I recall attending one of those early meetings to see the translation process in action.

The volume is well presented and includes the 1611 Authorised Version in a parallel setting with the Ulster-Scots translation.  There is also a short preface written by Professor Michael Montgomery and a helpful introduction.  I look forward to reading the translation which is a significant step in Ulster-Scots language planning.

An there's mair forbye

Dublin child abuse report

The following letter appeared in the Irish Times yesterday 10 December 2009.

Madam - I was enraged to read that the purpose of the meeting of Pope Benedict and Cardinal Sean Brady and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on Friday is to discuss 'how the Catholic Church should deal with the damage caused to it by the child abuse scandal'.  The focus of the Pope and his bishops this Friday surely should be on how it might better deal with repairing the damage the Catholic Church has caused to children through child abuse and ensuring that it never happens again.
Maeve Harrington
Co Dublin

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Meeting with Arts Council

One of the things I introduced after taking up my position in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure was the practice of bi-monthly meetings with the chairs and chief-executives of the main arms-length bodies and this afternoon I met with Rosemary Kelly and Roisin McDonough of the Arts Council.

I find these meetings very valuable as they are an opprortunity for us to talk about some of the current issues that I have identified through meeting arts practitioners or attending arts events.  There is also an opportunity for the folk I am meeting to raise issues directly with me.

There are formal accountability meetings with departmental officials but they are more about issues such as governance.  These meetings are rather different and they afford an opportunity for a free-ranging discussion about the area of activity, which in this case is the arts.

DCAL has more arms-length bodies than any other department and around 80% of the departmental budget is spent through these bodies.

Bangor Carnegie Library wins award

Tonight I visited the new Bangor Carnegie Library for a reception to celebrate the library's success in the Public Library Awards 2009.  The awards focus on library building design, good practice, overall management and public usgae and the Bangor library was shortlisted in the 'Architecture meets Practicality' category.

The original two-storey library building was erected in 1909 as a joint Public Library and Technical School project and as the library part of it was funded by a Carnegie grant it became known as the Carnegie Library.  Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) was born in Scotland and then emigrated from there to america as a child.  He made a vast fortune as an indutrialist and businessman and eventually gave away most of his money to establish schools, libraries and universities.

The project involved a major refurbishment of the old library building and the consttruction of a large modern extension.  The enhanced building is one of the largest public libraries in Northern Ireland and since reopening the number of people using the library has increased.  It is now the second most used library in Northern Ireland.

Since DCAL was set up ten years ago, eleven new libraries have been opened and there have been many other refurbishments, including Bangor.  The work is ongoing and Antrim will open to the public shortly.  Work is also underway on the Dungiven and Whitehead libraries.  Overall my department will invest around £17 million on library buildings over the current budget period and there will also be a large sum earmarked for a new Central Library in Belfast.

The other speakers at the reception were Irene Knox, the chief executive, and David Elliott, the chair of Libraries NI.  Afterwards I had a tour of the facilites, which are very impressive and attractive.  This is a good example of what a modern library should be like and also a good example of how the old can be retained and combined with the new.

Metropolitan Arts Centre

Work is due to start on a new £17.5 million Metropolitan Arts Centre in the Cathedral Quarter in Belfast.  The centre will house two theatres, three visual arts galleries, dance studios, rehearsal rooms, offices and a restaurant.

The Northern Ireland Executive, through my department DCAL, has allocated £10.76 million to the two-year project, which will provide employment for 420 people during the construction work.

The new MAC will appeal to a wide range of performers and the aim is to provide a building which will create entertainment, promote eductaion and inspire creativity.

The development is the latest capital project in a decade-long investment in new infrastructure venues in Northern Ireland, including a new home for the region’s only repertory company, the Lyric Theatre, and major refurbishments of Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre and the Playhouse Theatre in Londonderry.  This is another good example of devolution delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.

A Birl for Burns

The following tribute to the influence of Burns and Scots in Ulster was written by the poet Seamus Heaney, who celebrated his 70th birthday earlier this year.

A Birl for Burns

From the start, Burns' birl and rhythm,
That tongue the Ulster Scots brought wi' them
And stick to still in County Antrim
Was in my ear.
From east of Bann it westered in
On the Derry air.
My neighbours toved and bummed and blowed,
They happed themselves until it thowed,
By slaps and stiles they thrawed and tholed
And snedded thrissles,
And when the rigs were braked and hoed
They'd wet their whistles.
Old men and women getting crabbèd
Would hark like dogs who'd seen a rabbit,
Then straighten, stare and have a stab at
Standard habbie:
Custom never staled their habit
O' quotin' Rabbie.
Leg-lifting, heartsome, lightsome Burns!
He overflowed the well-wrought urns
Like buttermilk from slurping churns,
Rich and unruly,
Or dancers flying, doing turns
At some wild hooley.
For Rabbie's free and Rabbie's big,
His stanza may be tight and trig
But once he sets the sail and rig
Away he goes
Like Tam-O-Shanter o'er the brig
Where no one follows.
And though his first tongue's going, gone,
And word lists now get added on
And even words like stroan and thrawn
Have to be glossed,
In Burn's rhymes they travel on
And won't be lost.

Copyright © Seamus Heaney

NSMC Language Body Statement

Attracts some attention...

BBC News Online
UTV News
Belfast Telegraph

Monday, 7 December 2009

The GAA, an Irish language centre and republicanism

On Sunday 6 December there was a series of events in Londonderry to mark the 25th anniversary of the deaths of four IRA men. 

On 2 December 1984 Ciaran Fleming and Anthony MacBride, who was a member of the Irish Army as well as the IRA, planted a landmine near Kesh in county Fermanagh.  A hoax call was made to lure the British Army into the area and three armed IRA terrorists lay in wait but the mine failed to explode and MacBride was shot by the SAS.  Another IRA member, Ciaran Fleming, drowned in the Bannagh River while trying to escape.

Two more IRA men, Willie Fleming and Danny Doherty, were shot on 6 December 1984 by the SAS as they were going into the grounds of Gransha Psychiatric Hospital in Londonderry, where they planned to murder an off-duty member of the UDR.  At their funeral Martin McGuinness said, 'We are an occupied country and those brave enough to fight repression deserve nothing but respect and unfailing support from us all. Only the IRA can bring Britain to the negotiating table.'

To mark the anniversary of the deaths of the four IRA men Martin McGuinness gave a lecture in the new Irish language centre, Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin, which opened recently at a cost of £4 million  in Great James Street. There was also an exhibition in the centre of photographs of the IRA men, their deaths and their funerals.

The republican commemoration also included a wreath laying ceremony at an IRA memorial and a Gaelic football match between Na Piarsaigh CLG and Séan Dolan's GAC at Celtic Park in Londonderry.  Celtic Park is the main ground of Derry County Board of the GAA.

Once again various forms of Gaelic culture have been aligned with militant Irish republicanism.  The main county GAA pitch, which is owned by the Derry County Board, was used to host a Gaelic football match commemorating four IRA men and a new Irish language centre was the location for a commemorative lecture and exhibition.  Is it any wonder that unionists do not feel any affinity with either the Irish language or the GAA?

The start of another week

On Monday I had meetings with representatives of the Caleb Foundation, Paul Mullan and Ronnie Spence from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the Northern Ireland controller of the BBC, Peter Johnston. 

The Caleb representatives raised several issues including how we might mark the 400th anniversary of the Authorised (King James) Version of the Bible, which was published in 1611.

Later in the evening I attended a DUP 'At Home' in the La Mon Hotel.  There was a very large attendance and the leader and deputy leader answered questions from the floor.  It was an excellent meeting and there was a real sense of harmony in the party.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Lesser Spotted Ulster

Next Tuesday night on Lesser Spotted Ulster on UTV Joe Mahon continues his exploration of the Ulster countryside with a visit to the homeland of W F Marshall, the Bard of Tyrone.

Rev William Forbes Marshall was a Presbyterian minister, poet, author and historian.  He had a deep affection for his native county of Tyrone and was also a fervent unionist and Ulsterman.

He died in January 1959 but the 50th anniversary of his death passed almost unnoticed.  There were no television programmes or festivals to mark the occasion and there were only one or two newspaper articles.  It is important that Marshall and his work are not forgotten.

The following poem is one of his political poems and it appeared in the Northern Whig on the day that the Ulster covenant was signed in September 1912:

The Blue Banner 

Firm-leagued we face the future, tho’ the road be dark and steep,
The road that leads to honour is the lonely road we keep,
And, though all the world forsake us, this is the course we hold,
The course our fathers followed in the Cov’nant days of old.

We fain would look for comfort to the land from whence we came,
Where still abide our kith and kin and clansmen of our name.
Where lives were deemed of small account by valiant men and true,
For Christ, His Crown, His Cov’nant and the war-worn folds of blue.

Long years have been and faded since the old-time banner waved,
See! How it flashes once again ere dangers must be braved,
The Cov’nant oath we now will swear that Britain may be told,
We stand for faith and freedom and the memories of old. 

For all they died for gladly in the homeland o’er the sea,
For blood-won rights that still are ours as Ulsterborn and free,
For the land we came to dwell in, and the martyr’s faith we hold -
God grant we be as leal to these as were the men of old!

Dublin diocesan report

In the Irish Republic a commission headed by High Court judge Yvonne Murphy has reported on the physical and sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in the diocese of Dublin.  It is a damning and devastating report and it reveals an appalling story of physical and sexual abuse.  Not only did the abuse take place but senior figures in the Roman Catholic hierarchy did not report these crimes to the police because of a culture of secrecy in the church and a desire to preserve the power and aura of the church.  As a result clerical rapists were able to continue their abuse of young and vulnerable children.

The Irish Times has provided good coverage and analysis of this issue and on Thursday (3 December) its religious affairs correspondent Patsy McGarry looked at the government's response to the report.
Is it not remarkable that the Taoiseach can be so sanguine about an institution which covered up chidl rape?
Listening to Taoiseach Brian Cowen in the Dail on Tuesday as he delivered his semper fidelis (always faithful) defence of the Vatican and the papal nunciature to Ireland over their lack of co-operation with the Dublin diocesan commission, was to be reminded of other days and another taoiseach.
In April 1951, during debate on the ill-fated Mother and Child Scheme, opposed by the Catholic bishops led by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, then taoisach John A Costello felt impelled to announce, 'I am an Irishman second: I am a Catholic first and I accept without qualification in all respects thet eachign of theh ierarchy and the church to which I belong.'  He told the Dail, 'I, as a Catholic, obey my church authorities and will continue to do so.'
It is hardly unfair to suggest that in his doughty defence of the Vatican's non-co-operation with a commission of this State, set up by a Government of which he was a member, our current Taoiseach has discovered he too is 'an Irishman second'.'

Pasy McGarry's article also highlighted the difficulty for the investigating commission in dealing with the Vatican and this was taken up by the Irish Times in its editorial.
The Vatican does not do things lightly.  When it refused to deal with the commission except through diplomatic contacts at the level of one state to another, it was not being precious.  It was asserting a claim that is rucial to its efforts to avoid the consequences of itso wn policies.  The insistence on being treated as a state rather than a chruch is the key to its claim of sovereign immunity.

The reputation of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the Vatican and the government in the Irish Republic have all been damaged by these revelations. 

In recent days there have been several other reports of sexual abuse.  One case involved a sports coach and another an elder in an evangelical fellowship.  Such cases are equally appalling and the suffering of the victims will have been just as great but the abuse in Dublin and other Roman Catholic dioceses in the Republic is different in several respects:
1. the scope and the scale of the abuse
2. the extent of the official cover-up, where men of authority put the reputation of their institution above the welfare of young children
3. the failure of the Garda Siochana to investigate reports of abuse
3. the reluctance of the government to confront the Vatican.

It will be some time before we really know the impact of this report on the Roman Catholic community and their relationship to the church.  Meanwhile questions are now being asked about the extent of clerical abuse here in Northern Ireland.