Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Études Irlandaises

Review by Eull Dunlop [For Issue 14 of The Ulster Folk]


Under the direction of a Ballymena man long based in Paris, a widely-refereed academic journal published by the Presses Universitaires de Rennes and dedicated to reviewing the history, civilisation and literature of Ireland has shone an intense spotlight on matters close to home and heart. 


In the latest edition of Études Irlandaises (Autumn/Winter 2013: 38.2), under the title ‘Ulster-Scots in Northern Ireland today: Language, Culture, Community’, Wesley Hutchinson of the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3 has gathered contributions from various pens on matters pertaining to what more than one article renders concrete as ‘the Modern Revival Period’, a term of obvious presupposition. Against a wide-ranging theoretical background, Hutchinson’s own prefatory piece, ‘Ulster-Scots in Northern Ireland: From Neglect to re-Branding [sic]’, indicates fronts being explored very seriously in a context which, at street level, has in the past had its moments of derisive notoriety, often but not wholly caused by tabloidery.




In 202 serious but not always uncontroversial pages (of the extent of whose editing one is unaware), the main categories are ‘Ulster-Scots in Literature and Publishing’ (four articles) and ‘Ulster-Scots in the Community’ (six articles), followed by ‘A Selection of Ulster-Scots Literature’, with Hutchinson’s commentary on this material chosen from eleven different sources dating fae the eighteenth century to the present. There is much in this compilation which deserves extensive discussion elsewhere, but in the present narrow confines and at very short notice one can extract from a great mass of material, including many rich footnotes, only a few points of personal interest, perhaps even manifesting prejudice about presentations of what this writer claims - critically - as his own matrix. 




Let us start on the street. Living just off a route favoured by stop-start, often late-night, band parades, I would warm to the sound of accordions from Dunloy and melodious flutes from my ancestral Kellswater, as I do to the grand blatter of the mighty Lambegs. I hear the argument that marching bands are a positive force for discipline, harnessing young male energies in a wayward age. But, risking accusations of subverting others’ cultural rights, ah honestly hae wile aural bother wae the brittle bakelite cacophony of today’s side-drums. I am therefore relievedly taken back to softer boyhood sounds by a refreshing reference in a local Gordon Ramsey’s excellent anthropological article to ‘rope tensioned’ rather than ‘screw tensioned’ drums, with fundamental implications for tone. No musicologist, one nevertheless notes from two articles the far larger, far from simple, place of musical performance in the campaign, no less, of revival. As well as big nights, as we say, there have been differences, divergences and sometimes dissolutions, something not altogether unexpected in a culture which, despite sometimes seeking solidarity, naturally includes very individualistic genes. Related matters arising include sociological comment on the tastes of the rural lower-class, alleged cultural invention, the vexed issue of ‘funding’ as a pre-requisite or not for action and, behind that, the question of what some might not want to recognise as state-sponsored culture. Then, in Willie Drennan’s retrospective on a crusading life since return (1997) from New Scotland (Nova Scotia), his growing conviction that young musicians are disadvantaged by the label ‘Ulster-Scots’.  Other retrospectives for careful reading, placed at opposite ends of the journal, are offered by the lexicographer Anne Smyth on publishing ‘the invisible language’ and the far-travelled Ian Adamson, here arguing a culturally ecumenical case. 




Theological metaphors, those of quasi-doctrinal disputes, have sometimes been provoked by reports, whether balanced or not, of diversity within the Ulster-Scots camp(s).  Of course, religion in the full sense and in more than one kind has, historically, to be part but not the whole of the story. Philip Robinson’s timely article on Psalmody may positively interest those Presbyterians discomfited by what they see as declension in musical worship. What, in parallel, is the reaction of one who, long since, publicly expressed his fear that any Ulster-Scots Academy (and is not that another story, with several tropes?) would be a Bible college, or thereabouts?  Meanwhile, in reviewing poetic categories, is a learned contributor (ready to admit that the very name of Calvin produces an immediately adverse frisson) correct in immediately seeing double predestination in a phrase (‘Doubly-dyed in Adam’s fa’’) in a political poem by Thomas Given of Markstown, Cullybackey?  That highly specific query exemplifies how there is so much upon which to ruminate in a compilation which also raises questions about educators’ attitudes to Ulster-Scots literature. Recollections here of public claims by a rurally-rooted headmaster, himself nae goat’s toe, that his aspiring suburban customers definitely did not want their offspring to taak broad. But that need not rule out contextualised study of what has been. Critical reflection on the past need not amount to attempted repristination.




Not a few living outside the Six Counties of Northern Ireland-in, for example, pockets of Counties Cavan and Monaghan, or in the Laggan of Inner Donegal - may rightly react to the apparent ring-fencedness of this volume’s title. But maybe we could interpret ‘Northern Ireland’ in a geographical and not merely jurisdictional sense, in effect (if contentiously, for some reacting to others’ deliberately politicised usage) ‘the North of Ireland’. Better still, ‘Ulster’!  The present writer, sunk up to the oxters and sometimes beyond in the frequent Ulster-Scottishness of Ballymena’s environs, while increasingly wondering about linguistic and other trends in the town itself, recognises that certain religio-political equations have easily been made. Who is/is not an Ulster-Scot?  That question is relevantly raised in ‘The Irish Ulster [noticeably un-hyphenated] Scot’ by an erstwhile political candidate in the Nationalist interest in North Down, who raised a Roman Catholic, knows many of the holes in the hedges in his native North Antrim and can broadcast with a vernacular ease which, if sometimes sounding a weethin’ exaggerated for effect, could never be acquired in metropolitan evening-classes. Authenticity is a major issue in the plain man’s ear.  Savour the short story contributed by WJ Davison of Ballinacaird townland in the Braid (a quate district lately somewhat disenfranchised in name by other PR-driven, big-spending usage well downstream).







Precisely because this meaty miscellany raises many questions, all deserving serial discussion in some exercise in adult education (mounted, say, in Greyabbey, Slievetrue, Stranocum on the Slemish side of Broughshane), it is greatly to be welcomed and its begetter and contributors are to be commended.  Deserving wide consideration, it offers both a record and a challenge.  Goot tae the Braid and test realities

No comments:

Post a Comment