Many people would associate Ulster-Scots culture with bards, bands and bonies. I certainly would not argue against that, as culture can mean different things to different people, but in my view, it represents so much more. Ulster-Scots culture is reflected in the food we eat, the music that we listen to and the literature we read. It has contributed to rural life and influenced the way many of us speak today.
Ulster-Scots can have an impact on all of us and can contribute to, but not, on its own, define our identity. We should all be free to appreciate the words of Robert Burns or enjoy listening to sounds of the pipes. Likewise, enjoyment of the Irish language and traditional music.
On this bit of sod, where we reside today, we often have a very narrow view of our history, culture, and identity. Some Catholic Nationalists fought in wars for the British Army. Ulster-Scots Presbyterians were dominant figures in the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798.
In America, people are proud to say that they are part German, part Irish, part Lithuanian or any other nationality that their ancestors may have held. In Ulster, we are not as appreciative of any diversity in our own ancestry.
A bit of research into our family trees may well reveal many surprises. Our histories are often more complex than they seem. I have always identified as Irish, but family tales revealed past ‘mixed marriages’, Orange Order connections and a Great Grandfather of mine who served in the British Army. Young people today have more diverse bloodlines than their predecessors, as marriage along religious lines becomes less common.
By exploring diverse cultures, we expand our knowledge and become more understanding and respectful of our differences. I took an interest in the vocabulary of Ulster-Scots some years ago and began to compose my own poems. I was influenced by the words and phrases of the rural community of Carnlough, where I grew up. The older people had a great sense of humour and, in their retirement, a relaxed way of life, in contrast to an earlier existence of hard graft.
One elderly group of Carnlough men, were known as the “Too-Too” club. They gathered at the harbour wall and uttered phrases like, “It’s too warm,” “too cauld,” “A’m too auld,” “She’s too guid for thon boy.” They would yairn about horses, doags, weemen or anything else to pass the time. As time passed, so did they, soon replaced by others, who continued the tradition.
I try to capture the spirit of the “Too-Too” club and other local characters in my poems. For me, observations of rural life are central to my writing. Recently, however, I have taken an interest in the Weaver Poets, particularly, the work of James Orr and I discovered that the portrayal of rural life was prominent in much of his work.
In his poem, “The Death and Burial of an Irish Cottier,” Orr reflects the harrowing grief of a rural family, witnessing the death and burial of their loved one. Having just recently read this poem, I was struck by the similarities to “The Passin O Wully John McCalla,” a poem that I wrote in early 2022, following the passing of my mother.
Whilst Orr’s piece was written over two hundred years ago, comparisons can be made between both poems. Orr portrays the hospitality at the wake:
An’ now a striplin’, wi’ becomin’ grace, Han’s the wauk-supper, in a riddle, roun’; Hard bread, an’ cheese, might nicest palates please, Bought frae a huxter in the nyb’rin’ town; An’ gi’es them gills a piece o’ rum sae brown
Similar reflections are evident in “Wully John McCalla”:
“Did ye hear who’s deid?” sez Sadie
“Naw,” sez Aggie
“Wully John frae up the brae”
“Awa on, sure a wis takkin tae him just the ither day”
Wully John lived on his ain
Hadnae a Wife nor any weans
He sweeped the roads for mony years
Weel respectit amang his peers
The news had spread all ower toon
That Wully John was nae langer aroond
A chairacter knawn tae yin and aw
Nae Mair they’d hear bauld Wully’s bawl
At the wake fowk came frae miles aroond
Afore Wully John wis pit in the grund
Tae pray and mak the sign o the cross
And say, “I’m sorry for yer loss”
Weemen wad blether ower tay and juice
Wonderin who wis gittin the hoose
The men fowk talkit o great nichts oot
As they supped their drams an bottles o stoot
In the room were the boadie lay
His greetin Sisters had little to say
Struck by grief they sat and stared
As the murners came and left their cairds
“He leuks just like himsell” sez wan
“Wasnae a bad boadie” sez a man
Some said his passin wud mak ye think
Ithers mentioned that he liked the drink
The next day was mair o the same
Whiskey and stoot in Wully John’s hame
Murners dippin biskits in tae their tay
Yarns and a song at the end o the day
On the day o the buiryin, the chaipel wis bunged
Wae freends o a faimily who were grieving and numbed
They prayed for Wully, yin o the best
Then carried him oot and laid him tae rest
Soon the murners were on their way hame
Leavin the faimily tae grieve on their ain
As the days go by, life will go on
But naebody will e’er forgit Wully John
Both poems, though written so far apart, are set in a rural community and are observations of the feelings associated with death, such as grief, loss, and sadness. Perhaps the contemporary Ulster-Scots writers are influenced by the same type of people and places as influenced the Weaver Poets of the nineteenth century.