The first edition of the poems of Robert Burns, known as the Kilmarnock edition, was published in July 1786 and extracts from it appeared in the Belfast News-Letter just three months later on 31 October. The News-Letter was the first newspaper in Ireland and, so far as can be ascertained, the first in the British Isles to quote from that first edition. Thereafter Burns’ poetry appeared frequently in the pages of that newspaper. Indeed, it published many pieces by the ‘Ayrshire Ploughman’ before they appeared in any collected edition of his works.
So great was the impact of Burns in Ulster that the first edition of his poetry which was printed outside Scotland was printed in Belfast. The Edinburgh edition appeared in 1787 and James Magee of Bridge Street, Belfast, reprinted and republished it in the same year. He printed two hundred copies but these were sold within ten days and so Magee re-set the press and continued printing. However Magee was a rather unscrupulous man and Burns received nothing in royalties from him.
There are two copies of that first Belfast edition in the Linen Hall Library and the library has recently produced a limited edition facsimile of the Belfast edition. This was launched tonight and I spoke at the launch.
However there is an interesting sequel to that original Belfast edition. A few years later, in 1792, James Magee's son William Magee helped to finance the radical Belfast newspaper, the Northern Star, which was the newspaper of the Society of United Irishmen. Indeed it is surely not unreasonable to suggest that the money which Magee's father accrued from the sale of the Belfast edition of Burns may have helped to finance the Northern Star.
The Northern Star was notable for publishing from time to time some of the poems of Robert Burns as well as poems written by some of the Ulster-Scots weaver poets. However this was not the only connection between the United Irishmen and the Ulster-Scots poets.
Samuel Thomson (1766-1816), the bard of Carngranny as well as a schoolteacher, was one of the Ulster folk poets who was influenced by Burns. He wrote several poems about Burns including an Epistle to Mr R[ober]t B[urn]s, which was published in 1792. Thomson sent a copy of the poem to Burns who expressed his appreciation and sent a present of books to the Ulster poet. He dedicated a volume of his poetry published in 1793 to ‘Mr Robert Burns, the Ayrshire poet’ and in 1794 he travelled to Dumfries to meet Burns and exchange poems. Thereafter he corresponded with him until the death of Burns in 1796.
In 1793 Samuel Thomson published Poems on Different Subjects, partly in the Scottish Dialect. This was the earliest volume of collected poems published by any of the Ulster folk poets and it had a list of subscribers that included quite a number of prominent Belfast gentlemen. Among them were Samuel Neilson and Henry Joy McCracken, who were members of the Society of United Irishmen.
Indeed can it not be argued that the United Irishmen in Ulster did more for the Ulster-Scots language than they did for the Irish language?