Genealogy: Our antecedents were not averse to poetry and song

Each summer, the Belfast branch of the North of Ireland Family History Society has an outing to several places of interest. For a number of years a guide was produced covering all sorts of things: history, notable people, customs, churchyards (the members are amateur genealogists and like nothing more than mossy old tombstones) and many other aspects of life.

Tuesday, 28th March 2017, 4:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 9th May 2017, 6:56 pm
Where the Mournes sweep down to the sea.

One such aspect was that everywhere seemed to have a poet or songwriter. This is the first instalment of a quick tour round the counties to remind us of the pleasure that such people give us.

Co Antrim:

Some time ago I was researching Andrew Kennedy, JP, CC (1843-1926) of Tullyreagh House, Glarryford, a son of Andrew Kennedy and Elizabeth Given. In trying to disentangle the various Given families of Cullybackey and elsewhere, with various spellings, I came across Elizabeth’s cousin John Given (1813-1883), principal of Cullybackey National School and then Ballymena Model School. He did much writing, including poems.

They had a contemporary, James Given, also of Cullybackey, who, with his wife Jane McKee, had, inter alia, three sons: Patrick, Samuel Fee and Thomas. The older two died in their twenties, but not before the three of them had written a number of poems, which Thomas published in 1900 as Poems from College and Country.

I never succeeded in unravelling the Kennedys and Givens to my satisfaction, but I was able to inform the lady for whom I was doing the research that she was related to the 21st American President, Chester Alan Arthur (1829-1886) – a second cousin of Elizabeth Given.

It did, however, make me want to find out a little more about the Ulster Weaver Poets of Antrim and Down, such as James Orr of Ballycarry (1770-1816), who was a United Irishman and whose Ulster-Scots verses, such as The Passenger, the first verse of which is given here, tell of the plight of the exiles after 1798.

How calm an’ cozie is the wight,

Frae cares an’ conflicts clear ay,

Whase settled headpiece never made,

His heels or han’s be weary!

Perplex’d is he whase anxious schemes

Pursue applause, or siller,

Success nor sates, nor failure tames;

Bandied frae post to pillar

Is he, ilk day.


While we are on the subject of the 1798 Rebellion, most of the leading United Irishmen were Belfast Presbyterians involved in the linen trade, but there were also two Southern Anglicans, Theobald Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell, Librarian of the Linenhall Library and known as The Man from God Knows Where, immortalised in the verses of Florence Wilson (1874-1946), of which the first is:

Into our townlan’, on a night of snow,

Rode a man from God-knows-where

None of us bade him stay or go,

Nor deemed him friend, nor damned him foe,

But we stabled his big roan mare:

For in our townlan’ we’re a decent folk,

And if he didn’t speak, why, none of us spoke,

And we sat till the fire burned low . . .

And how can we ignore that old folk song I’ll Tell Me Ma, with its local lyrics called The Belle of Belfast City?:

Tell my ma when I go home,

The boys won’t leave the girls alone,

They pulled my hair and stole my comb,

But that’s all right ‘till I go home.

She is handsome, she is pretty

She is the belle of Belfast city,

She is courting, one two three

Please won’t you tell me who is she?

Co Down:

The Weaver Poet, Robert Huddleston (1814-1887), known as the Bard of Moneyrea, was one of the most productive of all the Ulster-Scots writers of poems, ballads and songs, although he insisted on the term Ulster-Irish. In 1844 and 1846, he published two volumes entitled Poems and Songs on Rural Subjects and Poems and Songs on Different Subjects. The first poem was Doddery Willowaim, which begins:

T’was caul’ December r’ugh an’ drear,

The shortest day closed on a year –

A farm unlaboured rented prox,

Guid faith’s a muzzle for a fox.

The pleugh maun gae for next year’s corn;

The pleughman’s brogues are giely worn;

And tho’ the night’s baith wild an’ dun,

This night they maun be soled by some.

When we think of verse and Co Down, we immediately recall Cathal McGarvey’s famous song, which begins:

Near Banbridge town, in the County Down

One morning last July

Down a bóithrín green came a sweet cailín

And she smiled as she passed me by.

Joseph Scriven (1819-1886) was born in Banbridge and is known for his popular hymn, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, although it was not originally written as a hymn, but to his dying mother:

What a Friend we have in Jesus,

All our sins and griefs to bear!

What a privilege to carry

Ev’rything to God in prayer!

Oh, what peace we often forfeit,

Oh, what needless pain we bear,

All because we do not carry

Ev’rything to God in prayer!

The artist John Butler Yeats (1839-1922) was from Tullylish near Banbridge and was the father of Jack Butler Yeats, the leading Irish artist of his day, and William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), considered one of the finest poets of the 20th century; his poems covered various themes including Irish folklore, for example The Wanderings of Oisin; a well know poem is The Second Coming:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Not a resident of Co Down, but permanently associated with it because of his song The Mountains of Mourne, was Percy French (1854-1920):

Oh, Mary, this London’s a wonderful sight,

With people all working by day and by night.

Sure, they don’t sow potatoes, nor barley, nor wheat,

But there’s gangs of them digging for gold in the street.

At least when I asked them that’s what I was told,

So I just took a hand at this digging for gold,

But for all that I found there I might as well be

Where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

Last, but towering below all others, that Grande Dame of Literature, Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860-1939), from near Ballynahinch. She was a formidable woman and because of her bizarre writing she attracted a cult following including many of the leading literary figures of the day. She also wrote poetry – here is a lovely example from Fumes of Formation: the first verse of On Visiting Westminster Abbey A ‘Reduced Dignity’ Invited Me To Muse On Its Merits:

Holy Moses! Have a look!

Flesh decayed in every nook!

Some rare bits of brain lie here,

Mortal loads of beef and beer,

Some of whom are turned to dust,

Every one bids lost to lust;

Royal flesh so tinged with ‘blue’

Undergoes the same as you.

Wealth and lands were theirs to boast,

Yachts lying nigh to every coast,

Homage from the million theirs

Clad in gold and gorgeous wares.


Monday, April 3, 7pm, AGM & talk: 10,000 Years of Lough Swilly History, at Central Library, Londonderry (queries to [email protected]).

Monday 3, 8pm, AGM & talk: Killyleagh – its Castle and Celebrities, at Masonic Hall, Killyleagh (queries to [email protected]).

Saturday 8, 10am, AGM & talk: Updates in DNA for Family History, in the Library, Omagh (queries to [email protected])