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Frank Ferguson and Andrew R. Holmes (eds), Revising Robert Burns and Ulster: Literature Religion and Politics, c. 1770-1920

Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2009

198pp., ISBN: 1846821975, £45


Reviewed by Gavin Falconer


Frank Ferguson’s recent, copious Ulster-Scots Writing: An Anthology could be criticised for prematurely continuing what Ivan Herbison once described as the Field Day ‘dialectic’ in anticipation of the full recovery and diffusion of the Ulster-Scots literature on which it draws. Volumes of academic essays such as this, on the other hand, provide a more traditional vehicle for debate. In Revising Robert Burns and Ulster, Ferguson and his co-editor Andrew R. Holmes set out, if not to explode literary verities, then at least to shed light on some of their lost detail. The public acknowledgment, since the 1990s, of a distinctive and long-established linguistic community in littoral Ulster is itself a work in progress, with partition, cultural nationalism and cultural unionism conspiring to obscure a heritage that, as Liam McIlvanney has pointed out, straddles some otherwise neat divides. One politician has even claimed that before the effect of recent immigration the Irish were ‘a largely homogeneous, uniform ethnic group, with one small minority that we call Travellers’[1]. Had the academic study of Scots in Ulster been better established, no doubt, this volume might have arrived earlier.

In its opening essay, ‘Scotia’s Jewel’, John Erskine focuses on the reception of Burns in Ulster during his lifetime and the subsequent generation. Drawing on an intimate, hands-on acquaintance with both primary and secondary sources, his contribution is at once an overview, an analysis and a source of arresting anecdote. Like the other contributors, Erskine presents a considered case for Burns’s influence in Ulster, stating that his ‘poems […] endorsed and reinvigorated a literary tradition at the heart of the Ulster-Scots community’ (21). In diplomatic but unmistakeable terms, he also expresses regret at the vernacular’s absence from the curricula of many schools, referring to ‘the modern reader unused to the presence of specifically Scottish literature in the contemporary English literary syllabus’ (19). Later in the volume, with Frank Ferguson and Roger Dixon, Erskine expands his survey to include the commemoration and collection of Burns in Ulster up to Edwardian times.

Andrew R. Holmes writes lucidly of the complex relationships between religious faction, personal belief and literary achievement, taking pains to draw a picture altogether more nuanced than that offered by literary criticism hitherto. His essay, a useful corrective, might have benefited from a table showing the various groups seceding from the mainstream of Irish Presbyterianism of the kind appended to the Concise Scots Dictionary; to an international or secular reader, the divisions can seem arcane. Carol Baraniuk’s contribution on James Orr and his contemporaries is eloquent and immediate. Especially valuable are her insights regarding Orr’s use of the ‘anti-georgic’ and her deconstruction of his coded references to the 1798 rebellion. Her essay, which provides a good introduction to some of the more prominent Ulster poets writing in Scots, also confidently situates their oeuvre in a diachronic context. Comparing two poems on the potato separated by two centuries of sometimes painful history, she notes: ‘While Orr is affectionate, celebratory, and ultimately defiant, Heaney is shaken with horror, pity and rage’ (76).

If there is a weakness in the book, it is that more attention is not paid to language. Andrew R. Holmes notes that modern enthusiasts ‘mine the poetry produced before 1850 as the best source of vocabulary and grammar’ (39). While the works of the weaver poets are often a good source of lexis and morphology, Modern Scots poetry is notoriously reticent with regard to such issues as verb concord or even reproducing its native phonology, and the fact that there have recently been attempts to draw general conclusions about Ulster-Scots syntax on the basis of exclusively formal verse does not mean that such an exercise is actually possible. Carol Baraniuk points out that some of James Campbell’s lines ‘do not scan smoothly’ (69), but holds back from offering her own interpretation of their intended phonetic realisation, which may differ markedly from that of Standard English. The couplet below from ‘Adieu to Tithe’, for example, scans perfectly in Scots.

Quotation with IPA transcription

Likewise, if without in a quoted line of ‘Epicure’s Address to Bacon’ becomes the aphetic [θut] (listed in the SND supplement, which cites the Ulsterman Robert Huddleston, as ’thout), Campbell’s craftsmanship is revealed to be sound. Scots phonology of course figures even more highly with regard to rhyme. Baraniuk also accords surprising emphasis to the purely orthographic variants deel and clais, and her adduction, when discussing Scots boon, of a word found in today’s Irish as buíon seems superfluous, since its influence is, at most, one of reinforcement.

In his survey of Ulster kailyard literature, Norman Vance offers a much-needed counterbalance to the contemporary academic focus on ‘rhyming weaver’ poetry, arguing that ‘to ignore such work is to be ignorant of a significant cultural idiom and a significant aspect of the Irish past’ (164). Vance is an astute and incisive analyst of the thematic and stylistic features of the genre: a rural and consistently local focus; concern for verisimilitude in the capture of dialect; the celebration and in some cases critique of Presbyterian culture — the whole marked by a sense of nostalgia that in some of the less successful examples can tend towards sentimentality. Discussing a work by Archibald M’Ilroy, Vance pithily refers to ‘the description of the death of the old precentor during a beautiful sunset while the mill band plays a hymn-tune’, remarking that ‘either the sunset or the hymn could perhaps have been omitted’ (158). Vance does not, however, address the question of the extent to which kailyard literature embodies and reaffirms the division between Scots, in the domain of speech, and English, in the domain of ‘neutral’ description, and his mention of ‘kailyard’ plays (where that division is hidden and effectively non-existent) might have benefited from further comment. Neither is there an analysis of which character types use the vernacular and which Standard English. Similarly, he stops short of deciding, based on linguistic analysis, in which of the Ulster works the dialogue actually constitutes a Scots system, instead stating that ‘following the pattern of Scottish settlements, Ulster-Scots would have been the characteristic speech of country people in north Tyrone’ (151). His essay provides a valuable panorama of the genre in Ulster that must surely act as a spur to further research and criticism.

Two of the pieces in the volume offer a response in their titles to the recent, groundbreaking scholarship of Liam McIlvanney. Baraniuk’s ‘No Bardolatry Here’ is her faux-Paisleyite rejoinder to his claim of ‘unrestrained bardolatry’ in Ulster, while Ferguson answers his Burns the Radical with ‘Burns the Conservative’. In fact Ferguson’s contribution uncovers Irish parallels to the patronage, co-option and political tension that marked the final years of the Ayrshire poet, whose impact ‘on radical elements in Ulster poetry in the late eighteenth century cannot be disputed’ (105). Overall the contributors, particularly Baraniuk, the collection’s star turn, make better headway in refuting the generalised charge of Ulster mediocrity summed up in McIlvanney’s odd reference to Orr and Thomson as ‘significant, if undoubtedly minor, poets’ (quoted by Baraniuk, 64). On occasion the volume’s essays discuss the same lines of poetry, sometimes with slightly divergent interpretations. Baraniuk sees in the ‘costume Scotch’ worn by Samuel Thomson’s muse an ‘embrace of his Scottishness […] so wholehearted that one hesitates even to employ the term hybridity’ (74), while Jennifer Orr’s study of the poet interprets it as expressing a ‘mixed and insecure affinity’ (125).

The collection includes several allusions to the value of the archivist as burrower, gatekeeper and guide, and to the unfinished work of recovery. Colin Walker remarks that ‘much of the literature was ephemeral and is now not easily available’ (165). Erskine, a professional librarian and long-time advocate of Ulster-Scots cultural issues, thanks others, including incoming Culture Minister and Linen Hall Library member Nelson McCausland, for alerting him to sources (15), while Holmes refers to ‘a wealth of untapped material’ (63) and Jennifer Orr to ‘a poetic culture that should be fully explored and safeguarded in the literature of these isles’ (126). Walker’s contribution is a bibliography of Presbyterianism in nineteenth-century fiction, a worthy complement to John Erskine and Michael Montgomery’s recent Ulster-Scots bibliography.[2]

The book’s relatively high price (£45) and small number of contributors may discourage some potential purchasers and to others suggest a niche interest, but the standard is uniformly high, and one cannot escape the conclusion that this is an important volume — one in which home-grown Ulster academia, at least in literary criticism, has come of age, its members qualifying or challenging the opinions of top-flight Scottish colleagues on their own terms without recourse to the defensive artifice of declaring Ulster Scots a language. It would surely be a worthy addition to any bookshelf.



[1] Brendan Howlin TD, Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights, 16.11.06.
[2] John Erskine and Michael Montgomery (2006) 'Annotated bibliography of Ulster-Scots language and literature' in Anne Smyth, Michael Montgomery and Philip Robinson (eds) The Academic Study of Ulster-Scots: Essays for and by Robert J. Gregg (Belfast: National Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland, Ulster Folk and Transport Museum), pp. 99-117.