This is the text of my address to the Ninth William Carlton Summer School held in Corick House, Clogher (a) on Monday 7th August 2000. There are four more parts to come.
The Inklings – Mythological Voyagers
Could I first of all thank you for inviting me to speak at the Carleton Summer School, renowned as William Carleton is for his interest inn the traits and stories of the Irish peasantry. The link of course is that I myself an Irish peasant who would like to tell you of his own traits and stories.
I was born in Bangor, County Down, on 28th June 1944 , my father being English and my mother Scottish, so I am definitively British . My two grandmothers were Irish and were sisters. They were great-nieces of Edward Sloan, the Weaver Poet, the Bard of Conlig, and were collateral in descent from Sir Hans Sloane of Killyleagh (b). My Aunt Maggie was Welsh in name and in origin. My Scottish grandfather was a socialist and follower of Keir Hardie. My English grandfather was so High Church that my Aunt Maggie, who was Catholic, thought that his views were extreme and for the whole of her life worshipped God in her garden. My two Grannies originally belonged to a strict Brethren sect which was so exclusive that even God was denied entry. My great–grandmother Lambie’s family originated from Islay and spoke Ulster Gaelic, which I call Ulidian.
I was reared in the little village of Conlig which lies on the Old Monk’s Road connecting the ancient monasteries of Bangor and Movilla in Newtownards. My friend Mary O’Fee traced this road to the sea in Bangor, and her son James has stimulated my abiding interest in C S Lewis. It is said that a young monk in those days was grazing cattle in the area when a local king evicted him so that he could let his horses run free on the monastic lands. So the Monk called on the name of the Lord and changed the horses into stone. So it was that the district became known in Gaelic as Gort-na-Lig, the Field of Stone and part of it Conlig, of The Stone of the Hound, (Cuchulainn) (c), an old Standing Stone which can be seen near the village to this day.
Conlig was a village of family and friends. My father and mother ran the family store, selling everything from a needle to an anchor and I used to deliver the Belfast Telegraph for them, visiting along the way Danny O’Neill , the artist who lived with his family in 4 Hall Street, and who painted there with George Campbell and Gerard Dillon. I also passed Conlig House or Little Clandeboye, so beloved in the boyhood memories of William James Pirrie, who became Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1896 and built the Titanic in 1912.
Then I walked along the Tower Road, which led to Helen’s Tower built by Lord Dufferin in 1861, constructed, perhaps, with the aid of labourers made destitute by the recent Great Famine in Ireland. It enshrines today the memory of Helen, the Dowager Lady Dufferin who died in June 1867. The Tower is a particularly beautiful one. One room contains poems, written about it, by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, the Duke of Argyle, Rudyard Kipling and Helen, Lady Dufferin herself. A replica was built in Theipval, France in memory of those who fought and died in the First World War. These included Aunt Maggie’s fiancé, and my grannies’ cousin, William Sloan, who died on the first day of Battle of the Somme, 1st July, 1916.
But in those days Conlig was a typical little Irish village and whatever the modern religious affiliations of its inhabitants, we were all country people or peasants at heart. Memories of the fairy folk of Sidhe pervaded our lives in superstition and story. When it was decided to build an extension to the village, which was mainly of small houses and cottages, they chose Turner’s Field. However, in the middle of Turner’s Field stood a Fairy Thorn which the villagers protected day and night. It is still standing today in its own reduced field surrounded by modern housing. Sacred Trees, indeed, were an important element of Early Irish tradition. In 1004 a great battle was fought Craebh Tulcha, now Crew Hill near Glenavy, between the Ulidian people and the Tyrone O’Neills in which many of the princes of Ulster were killed. In 1099 another battle was fought between the same parties at the same place, the invaders again gained the day and afterwards cut down the Craebh, the Sacred Tree. This desecration was avenged by the Ulidians when they cut down the Sacred Tree of the Tyrone O’Neill’s at Tullaghoge.
As a boy my favourite book was Adamnan’s Vita Columbae, Life of Columba edited from Dr Reeves’s text with an introduction on Early Irish Church history by J.T. Fowler, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1894. I was intrigued as one biographer translated Adamnan’s name as Adamson. Within its footnotes I found my first reference to William Carleton. His assertion that the bulk of the uneducated peasantry really believed that the priests had the power of translating Protestants into asses, I found deeply worrying. I loved the stories of Saint Comgal of Bangor, of the British Saint Finnian or Uinnian of Movilla and of Adamnan’s association with Aldfrith, the Northumbrian prince who succeeded his brother Ecgfrith as king in 685.
My other favourite books included Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica and the Northumbrian addendum known as the ‘Continuation of Bede.’ Bede stated that the five written languages of Britain were “Anglorum, Brittonum, Scotorum, Pictorum, et Latinorum” and the four spoken tongues to be “Brittonum, Pictorum, Scotorum, et Anglorum.” Some of the Saxon chronicles speak of English, Brit-Welsh, Scottish, Pictish and Book-Latin. In the Amhra of Colmcille is a stanza referring to the labours of the Saint for thirty years among “the people of Alba to the Ictian Sea (British Channel), the Gael, Cruthin, Saxo-Brits.” These languages and peoples all remain important to me as integral parts of the hidden heritage of lowland Scotland and of the British Islands in general, the islands of the Pretani.
Furthermore, the ”Continuation of Bede” placed Oengus, King of the Picts, in the mid eighth century within the tradition of the Brytenwalda, which means ruler of Britain and all its islands, including Ireland. The Roman legacy in Britain had created two quite different zones. The Pictish federation to the north of the Forth/Clyde line appears to have been created by frontier conditions. So the Picts owed their identity to the Roman frontier in Roman Britain and were as much Britons as the Votadini, whose great poem, the Gododdin, written in British or Welsh is the oldest Scottish poem. The limes therefore, which had the major role in the shaping of North Britain was not Hadrian’s Wall but the Antonine one.
Ever since childhood, I have, indeed, read a lot but the single most important event for me was my meeting with Kerry (d) at a Titanic function with her Mum and Dad, when I was Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1997. It was so good to meet people who knew Latin, the Venerable Bede and the history of Roman Britain. And their sitting room reminded me immediately of the smoke-filled meeting place of the Inklings at Oxford.
(a) in Co Tyrone
(b) Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753). Wikipedia has – an Ulster-Scot physician and collector, notable for bequeathing his collection to the British nation which became the foundation of the British Museum. He also invented Drinking chocolate and gave his name to Sloane Square in London, and Sir Hans Slone Square in his birthplace Killyleagh. i.e. Killyleagh, Co Down.
(c) Cuchulainn is Cúchulainn or Cú Chulainn, the great hero of the greatest Irish epic poem ‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’, one of the ‘Ulster Cycle’. See Sétanta, Friday, January 12. 2007.
(d) Kerry is today Ian’s wife
To be continued: