Friday, 26 May 2017

'Knowing who we are' really matters

'Origin narratives form the vital core of a people's unifying identity and of the values that guide them.' Professor Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

So our origin narrative, where we come from, shapes our identity and our values!

Well if an 'origin narrative' is so important, what are children learning about their 'origin narrative' in the education system in Northern Ireland?

For those children from an Ulster-Scots tradition, do they learn about the following?
  • The arrival of Scottish settlers in east Ulster, under Sir James Hamilton and Sir Hugh Montgomery, which happened before the 'flight of the Gaelic earls'
  • The forced removal of many border reivers from the Scottish borders to Fermanagh by King James I
  • The role of the Earl of Antrim, a wealthy Roman Catholic landowner, who invited lowland Scottish Presbyterians across to become tenant farmers on his land
  • The official plantation of some of the counties of Ulster
  • The 1641 rebellion, when Protestant settlers were killed by Irish rebels or died from hunger and disease
  • The persecution of the Presbyterian Covenanters in Scotland, which led to more Scottish settlement in Ulster
  • The siege of Londonderry and the determination of the defenders to hold out against the Jacobites
If a radical American academic can recognise the importance of an 'origin narrative' why does our education system not give it the attention it deserves?

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

The Scotch-Irish origins of the US Railway Mail Service

Last year a book was published with the title How the Post Office Created America.  The author was Winifred Gallagher and the following extract (p 160) records the creation of the United States Railway Mail Service.
Two years later, a crisis brought on by the exigencies of war finally pushed the post to inaugurate the official Railway Mail Service (RMS).  General Ulysses Simpson Grant had made Cairo, Illinois, the headquarters for his western campaign because of its proximity to the railroad and the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.  The backlog of mail to and from the huge Union force stationed there forced Congress to allow the post to try something new.  Always quick to seize an opportunity, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair authorised George Armstrong, an inventive assistant postmaster at Chicago's huge distributing post office, to run America's first official railway postal route, which operated on the Chicago & North Western line.  The experiment was such a success that customised RPO cars were deployed on many routes between big cities.  The service was well established nationwide by the 1880s, and sending a letter from New York City to Raleigh, South Carolina, which had taken ninety-four hours in 1835, took just nineteen hours in 1885.  By 1910 the RMS would handle an astonishing 98 percent of America's intercity mail.
ColonelGeorge B Armstrong
General Montgomery Blair
Such was the success of the Railway Mail Service that well into the 20th century most of America's intercity mail was efficiently sorted as well as transported aboard rapidly moving trains.

It is noteworthy that the three names mentioned in the account, General Ulysses Simpson Grant, General Montgomery Blair and George Armstrong, were all Scotch-Irish Americans of Ulster-Scots descent.

General Montgomery Blair (1813-1883) was a lawyer and US postmaster general.  He was the eldest son of Francis Preston Blair (1791-1876), who was a member of President Andrew Jackson's 'kitchen cabinet', and a great-grandson of Rev John Blair (1720-1771), vice president of Princeton College, who was born in Ulster and emigrated in 1733.  He was also a descendant of John Preston (1699-1747), an Ulster-Scot who emigrated in 1738.

Colonel George Buchanan Armstrong (1822-1871) was born in county Armagh and emigrated from Ulster to America with his parents in 1830.  His mother was a Buchanan and so he had Ulster-Scots ancestry on both sides of his family.

Winifred Gallagher has explained the importance of the Railway Mail Service and it was a thoroughly Scotch-Irish enterprise with a principal founder who was 'born in Armagh'.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

'My cup runneth over'

Seth Sykes
There is an old chorus which I learned as a child and which is still sung in many Sunday schools today:
Running over, running over,
My cup's full and running over.
Since the Lord saved me, I'm as happy as can be,
My cup's full and running over.'  
The little chorus is based on the words of the 23rd Psalm where we read, 'My cup runneth over.'

The chorus was written by the Scottish evangelist Seth Sykes (1892-1950), who visited Ulster on many occasions and wrote a number of popular hymns and choruses, including the wonderful 'Thank you Lord, for saving my soul.'.  

There is also a Scots version of the chorus, which may also have been written by Seth Sykes.  I learned it from the Thompson Brothers and they had been taught it by their great-aunt Rhoda Wilson, who had learned it from Charlie Maine, one of the many Scots evangelists who preached in the Ards peninsula in the early 20th century.

They were taught it as,
Fu an skailin, fu an skailin, Ma wee bicker's fu an skailin. Since the Lord saved me, A'm as blythesome as cud be, Ma wee bicker's fu an skailin.'
I never imagined that the Scots words 'Ma bicker's fu an skailin' would have gone as far as New Zealand but they appeared in an account of a church service in Wellington New Zealand, on 10 April 1932.
St John's Presbyterian Church in Wellington
The report in The Evening Post (11 April 1932) was headed UNUSUAL SERVICE, HELD IN BRAID SCOTS and it was an account of a service in St John's Presbyterian Church.  Here are a few extracts from the report:
Memories of services in the parish churches of their native land were brought back to many local Scottish people last evening when a service in broad Scottish was held in St John's Presbyterian Church by  the Rev T W Armour of Knox Church, Christchurch.  Many New Zealanders, not all of Scotch extraction, also attended the service and could not fail to be impressed by a feeling of simplicity and devotion.
It was not merely that the service was conducted in the vernacular that made it unusual, as the psalms, of which there were more than is customary,  were sung without assistance from the pipe-organ.  The metrical version of the Psalms were sung, and the choir and congregation were given the note by the 'precentor', Mr James Haggitt, who then beat time for the singing.
The Scriptural readings, which were given by Mr Armour in braid Scots, were the 23rd Psalm, and the parable of the prodigal son.  For the text of his sermon he took the line, 'Ma bicker's fu' and skailin,' which in English is 'My cup runneth over.'  Despite the broad dialect in which the preacher spoke, there were few in the congregation who could not follow the drift of his remarks, and none who did not listen with the closest attention.
New Zealand was a popular destination for Ulster-Scots emigrants, just as it was for Scots emigrants, and I wonder how many Ulster-Scots there were in the kirk that night all those years ago.

Friday, 5 May 2017

A second republican commemoration in Cappagh

The IRA men who were killed at Loughgall in 1987
Last Sunday Sinn Fein held a 30th anniversary commemoration for the IRA men who were killed while they were attacking the RUC station at Loughgall.  The IRA members who carried out the attack were from the East Tyrone Brigade of the Provisional IRA and the commemoration was held at the IRA memorial in the little village of Cappagh.

IRA memorial in Cappagh
This weekend it is the turn of the 1916 Societies, one of the smaller republican organisations, along with member of the families of the IRA men who were killed at Loughgall.  They will gather on Sunday afternoon at Galbally and then make their way along a two mile route to Cappagh.

That part of Tyrone seems to be popular with the 1916 Societies because they held their inaugural spring conference in 2014 in the community centre in Galbally.  There was a report of that inaugural conference on the Facebook page of the 1916 Societies (27 May 2014) and it caught my attention for a number of reasons.  

1916 Societies inaugural spring conference 2014
The first was that it was headed 'Round Cappagh's Braes', an interesting use of the Ulster-Scots word 'brae'.  However just as interesting was the reference to those who had been invited.
Frank Dempsey at a D-Company parade
On Sunday past, 25th May (2014), the 1916 Societies gathered in the heart of East Tyrone, with the McCaughey Suite in Galbally community Centre playing host to our inaugural Spring Conference.  Invited guests including D-Company Lower Falls Belfast and several independent community activists and republicans joined over 100 delegates from all across Ireland to debate the theme 'Self determination and Sovereignty - 2014 and beyond'.
So members of D-Company in the Lower Falls, closely associated with the Falls Cultural Society and the ubiquitous Frank Dempsey, were invited and attended.  There is a spectrum of republicanism and that helps to explain where D-Company and Frank Dempsey are on the spectrum.

By the way if anyone is wondering why the room in the community centre is the McCaughey Suite, it may refer to Martin McCaughey, a member of the East Tyrone Brigade of the Provisional IRA, who was killed by the army at an IRA arms dump.

This second event at Cappagh will be an embarassment to Sinn Fein and it is certainly a reminder of the fragmentation within republicanism.  It also helps to explain why Sinn Fein has started to take a much more abrasive and aggressive stance in recent months.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Mairtin O Muilleoir and an Irish Language Act

Sinn Fein by-election winners, Fra McCann & Mairtin O Muilleoir
Thirty years ago Mairtin O Muilleoir was elected to Belfast City Council in a by-election for Upper Falls.  On the same day Fra McCann was returned as a councillor in Lower Falls.  An Phoblacht/Republican News (29 October 1987) reported the 'Sinn Fein victory' and the photograph of the two new councillors shows a young Mairtin O Muilleoir at just 28 years of age.

O Muilleoir had already been active in Sinn Fein for some years as a cultural officer and earlier in 1987 he had been sent by the party on a four-day visit to Wales to meet Welsh language activists.  The visit was controversial but it received the support of a number of Labour Party politicians, including Jeremy Corbyn MP and Ken Livingstone.

He was accompanied on the Welsh visit by another Sinn Fein cultural officer Padraig O Maolchraoibhe.  He was known to many outside Irish language circles as Pat Rice and was elected as a Sinn Fein councillor in Lisburn in 1989.

Both men were cultural officers and as such had been involved in an infamous Irish language seminar held on 26 May 1982 in West Belfast.  They had organised the Sinn Fein event and Padraig O Maolchraoibhe had told those at the seminar: 
I don't think we can exist as a separate people without our language.  Now every phrase you learn is a bullet in the freedom struggle.
The proceedings of the day, including this notorious statement, were later published by Sinn Fein as a booklet, Learning Irish, with an introduction by Mairtin O Muilleoir. 

The Sinn Fein demand for an Irish Language Act is the culmination of a campaign that has been ongoing since 1982 and Mairtin O Muilleoir has been a major driving force behind that strategy since the very start.  

He has been involved in Irish language publishing projects and job creation initiatives, the Gaeltacht Quarter development in West Belfast and the £8 million Irish language capital fund An Ciste Infheistiochta Gaeilge.

There can be little doubt that his knowledge and experience in the field of Irish language and culture will be a major asset to the Sinn Fein negotiating team when negotiations recommence after the forthcoming Westminster election.  He knows the strategy because he was there at the start when it was formulated and he understands the way in which a free-standing Irish Language Act would empower Sinn Fein to advance their republican agenda.

Monday, 1 May 2017

He brought me through

Some time ago a Christian friend shared with me a story about his mother.  She experienced some difficult times in her life but he recalled that she would often speak of God's help in those difficult situations and would say 'He brought me through'.  The words stuck in my mind and over the course of the next week I wrote the following verses on that theme.

When they were completed I sent the words to another friend who pointed out that they could be sung to the tune of the Londonderry Air.

He brought me through, when I was lost and broken,
When burdened down with all my sin and shame.
He brought me through from death to life eternal
Oh what a Saviour, praise His holy name.
He brought me through, oh what a wondrous Saviour.
He brought me through, as no one else could do.
He brought me through, oh what a wondrous Saviour.
That's how I know that He can do the same for you.
He brought me through when burdened down with sorrow,
When all my trials seemed too much to bear.
He brought me through and walked the road beside me.
Oh what a Saviour, He is always there.
He'll bring me through when life on earth is over,
And take me on to heaven's golden shore.
He'll bring me through the gates into that city,
Where I will praise His name for evermore.
He'll bring you through, if you will turn to Jesus
And ask Him now to be your Saviour too;
To be the One who walks each day beside you.
He'll bring you through, oh yes, He'll bring you through.

                                                                        Nelson McCausland