Ulster’s cultural heritage in lament, praise and prose

Red Sails In the Sunset by Jimmy Kennedy was a best seller worldwide.
Red Sails In the Sunset by Jimmy Kennedy was a best seller worldwide.

This is the second instalment of our quick tour round the counties to remind us of the pleasure that versifiers give us.

First to Armagh and the delightful village of Bessbrook as it is now was founded by John Grubb Richardson in the 1840s as a model village, with spacious streets and squares surrounding a large linen mill owned by the Richardson family. The motto of this Quaker family was - In essentials, unity....in non-essentials liberty and in all things charity. Among the principles on which the village was based was a philosophy of “Three P’s”: it was John Grubb Richardson’s belief that without a public house there would be no need for pawn brokers or a police station. His son James Nicholson Richardson (1846-1921) wrote:

Cecil Frances Alexander.

Cecil Frances Alexander.

From far-famed model Bessbrook,

Where Bacchus is unknown,

Where lack of public-houses

Has starved him off his throne

(Police, pawn-shop, nor publican,

Come nigh this realm of ease,

The envious call it in their wrath

“The city of three P’s”).

A little south of Bessbrook is Forkhill, the home of Peadar Ó Doirnín (c.1684 or 1704-1769), who wrote in Irish and some poems were, apparently, only suitable for very broad-minded adults. He will be best remembered for Urchnoc Chein Mhic Cainte, a haunting love poem.

Poets are highly respected in South Armagh and this is seen in the nearby parish of Creggan, which from 1480 was the burying place of the O’Neills of the Fews. The parish churchyard recalls three 18th Century poets: Art MacCooey (1738-1773), Séamus Mór MacMurphy (1720-1750) and Pádraig MacAliondain (1665-1733) and beside the churchyard is the beautiful Poets’ Glen, a 13-acre public park with a restored 18th century former rectory walled garden. Art McCooey, in his best known poem, Urchill an Chreagáin, immortalised this, the O’Neills’ last earthly resting place and it was a sad lament for the overthrow of this noble clan and of the despair and hopelessness of his people.

Ah my anguish, my wound! We’ve lost them, the Gael of our true Tyrone,

And the Heir of the Fews, unhonoured, sleeps under the cold gray stone.

Brave branches of Niall Frasach, whose delight were the lays of old,

Whose hearts gave the minstrels welcome, whose hands gave the poets gold.

Should I die in some far-off country, in our wanderings east and west,

In the fragrant clay of Creggan let my weary heart have rest.

Moving north to the city of Armagh, with its two great cathedrals dedicated to St Patrick, we are reminded of Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) and her beautiful hymn known as St Patrick’s Breastplate:

I bind unto myself today

The strong Name of the Trinity,

By invocation of the same

The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this today to me forever

By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;

His baptism in Jordan river,

His death on Cross for my salvation;

His bursting from the spicèd tomb,

His riding up the heavenly way,

His coming at the day of doom

I bind unto myself today.

In fact it was only after her death that her husband came to Armagh as the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. He too wrote poetry.

And so on to Tyrone.

Jimmy Kennedy (1902-1984) probably did more than any other son of Omagh to cheer the world up. As one of the world’s most prolific songwriters he wrote some 2,000 songs, of which over 200 became worldwide hits and about 50 are evergreens. Until John Lennon and Paul McCartney, he had more hits in the United States than any other Irish or British songwriter. Think of Teddy Bears’ Picnic, We’re going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line, Harbour Lights, The Isle of Capri, South of the Border and Red Sails in the Sunset, inspired by the boat, Kitty of Coleraine.

A resident of Strabane was Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895), who has already been mentioned as the translator of St Patrick’s Breastplate. She is best known as the writer of over 400 hymns, of which the best known are All Things Bright and Beautiful, Once in Royal David’s City and There is a Green Hill Far Away. Let’s have a verse of each.

All things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small,

All things wise and wonderful,

The Lord God made them all.

Once in royal David’s city

Stood a lowly cattle shed,

Where a mother laid her Baby

In a manger for His bed:

Mary was that mother mild,

Jesus Christ her little Child.

There is a green hill far away,

Without a city wall,

Where our dear Lord was crucified

Who died to save us all.

’Derry claims that she wrote the last of these while sitting by the bedside of a sick child and looking out from the Bishop’s Palace there to a green hill, however they were published in Hymns for Little Children in 1848, two years before she married the Rev. William Alexander and while she was living in Milltown House, now the Strabane Grammar School. Her husband was later appointed Bishop of Derry and, after her death, Archbishop of Armagh.

NIFHS events:

Do you have an interest in genealogy?

The North of Ireland Family History Society’s Research Centre, courses and branches, with their meetings, are open to all: see www.nifhs.org

For your diary:

Monday, April 10 at 7pm, Newtownabbey Branch AGM, in the Drama Theatre of Glengormley High School, Ballyclare Road, Newtownabbey, BT36 5HP. Queries to Newtownabbey@nifhs.org

Tuesday, April 11 at 7.30pm, AGM and Members’ Show And Tell Evening, at the Bridge Community Centre, 50 Railway Street, Lisburn, BT28 1XP. Queries to Lisburn@nifhs.org

Thursday 27, Friday 28 and Saturday 29, 10am-5pm (or 4pm on Friday), the society will have a stand offering free advice on family history research at the Crafting Live Show at the Titanic Exhibition Centre, Queen’s Road, Belfast, BT3 9DU. For information on the show see https://www.craftinglive.co.uk/shows/belfast/