Pretani Associates – Book Launch of Tracing the Ulster-Scots Imagination, by Wesley Hutchinson, Professor Emeritus (Irish Studies) Sorbonne Nouvelle

The following is an extract from Wesley Hutchinson’s speech delivered at the Irish secretariat, Belfast, 24th January 2019.

First and foremost, I would like to thank Kevin Conmy and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for their kindness and efficiency as well as for all the practical assistance they have given me in the organisation of this publication. I am especially pleased that the support for the publication of the book should have made possible thanks to the DFA’s Peace and Reconciliation programme. The objectives laid down for the fund – challenging stereotypes and encouraging dialogue between the traditions in Ireland – correspond exactly to the spirit in which this book was undertaken and written. I would like to underline how honoured I am therefore to have received funding from this particular source…

I would next like to mention two organisations, Pretani Associates and Dalaradia, represented here tonight by Helen Brooker and Robert Williamson. I would like to thank them publicly for their unfailing practical and moral support during what were sometimes trying periods. Both of them stepped in when energy was beginning to flag… I could not have done it without their dynamism and drive.

Helen and Robert should of course have been accompanied by a third person here tonight, Ian Adamson, who – sadly – passed away two weeks ago. Ian, a very close friend, was totally committed to this project. We spent hours discussing the evolution of the Ulster-Scots movement together. Ian was present at its inception through the impetus he gave to so many key structures – the Ulster-Scots Language Society, The Ulster-Scots and Ullans Academies, to name but a few; as Rev. Paisley’s advisor on history and culture, he pushed for the inclusion of Ulster-Scots in the St. Andrews Agreement; he acted as a publisher though his imprint, Pretani, publishing such key texts as the ground-breaking Folk Poets of Ulster series in 1992 and through his own work in which, in effect, he proposed an alternative narrative of Ulster-Scots history. His vision of Ulster-Scots as an open, welcoming culture, prepared to engage in dialogue with one and all will, I am sure, be carried on through Pretani Associates and through the latter’s long-established links into the community through such structures as Dalaradia.

I would also like to thank Ulster University as publishers of this book. There have been on-going contacts between the Sorbonne Nouvelle and Ulster University for years around Ulster-Scots and more generally around the theme of lesser-used languages in Europe. I was working on the book when I was Visiting Scholar at the University in 2014, and I am delighted that, thanks to constant support from Frank Ferguson, and the university’s interest in Ulster-Scots culture over the years, it has been possible to have it published there.

A particular word of thanks to the authors. The book would have been very different without the possibility of hearing what contemporary Ulster-Scots authors have to say “in their own words.” I would like to take this opportunity to give a heart-felt “thank you” to those of you – many are indeed here this evening – who spontaneously gave me permission to quote from their material; your contribution – and more particularly the positive and generous spirit in which it was offered – is much appreciated…

The book

Ulster-Scots has been the object of sustained denigration over the years. It has been alleged that both the language and the culture were “invented” by sections within unionism in order to construct a counter-culture capable of siphoning off funds that would otherwise have gone to the Irish language in the North. It is presented as highly divisive and is sometimes even accused of operating within a sectarian logic. The result has been an at times high-profile campaign in the media to ridicule any manifestation of the culture. This has been successful in limiting academic interest in the phenomenon and in alienating sections within, especially, the Protestant middle class who might otherwise have been attracted to Ulster-Scots. The result has been a certain marginalisation of the culture and the emergence within the movement of several poles reflecting a number of different – sometimes conflicting – strategies as to the best way forward. In what, by the standards of lesser-used languages elsewhere in Europe, is a particularly strident debate, there is a need for a dispassionate assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the tradition.

The book seeks to address some of these issues by charting the evolution of the Ulster-Scots literary and historiographical traditions from the 17th century to the present day. In so doing, it attempts to provide a “connected history” of the Ulster-Scots tradition from a cultural studies perspective, exploring the political, religious and social “subtexts” of the culture in order to better explain its underlying motivations and reflexes. Although there has been Dr. Ferguson’s landmark anthology of Ulster-Scots writing and although there have been a number of outstanding monographs, notably on individual poets from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there has been no attempt to provide a broad overview of the evolution of the tradition along the interface of its literature and popular historiography.

The book looks closely at the publications and communication strategies of the various official structures like the Ulster-Scots Agency as well as at those of independent groups or individuals behind the recent revival. It identifies areas of preference and tries to assess how the resulting “clusters” of texts and activities generate and anchor representations in the collective imagination. Indeed, as the title suggests, the book’s primary purpose is to explore the ways in which the Ulster-Scots community has imagined itself over the centuries. As I said, it takes an inclusive approach to the material, examining work that has been made available thanks to the re-editions of out-of-print texts and other writing that has been “excavated” and put on line in the form of poetry and prose archives such as the John Hewitt On-line Collection or blogs maintained by individual activists, or indeed in material compiled for use in schools. It also of course looks closely at the full range of recent writing from the contemporary revival in an attempt to identify continuities and breaks between the past and the present day. It therefore does not confine itself to a given period or a given genre, but tries to give the reader a general idea of what has been produced within the tradition. Needless to say, one of the basic lines of argument within the book is that there is a valid Ulster-Scots tradition that is worthy of serious examination…

The book identifies a number of broad spatial frames: the Ulster-Scots “core areas” in the north-east of Ireland, the cross-channel “culture province” stretching from north-east Ulster into the western areas of Scotland, the spatial constructs around the moving frontier that emerged out of the mass migration of Presbyterians to North America from the early 18th century and the ways in which biblical space is incorporated into the popular imagination through what are omnipresent religious frames. In the final chapters, the book moves on to examine how the literature represents the various spaces that are characteristic of the Ulster-Scots community – their farms and farmhouses, their schools and churches, their lodge-rooms and cemeteries.

Wherever possible, the frames used to imagine these domestic and public spaces are compared with parallel representations in the “Irish” tradition. This is done to demonstrate not only the differences – but also the strong similarities – between the two cultures. Indeed, the book demonstrates the extent to which the Ulster-Scots and Irish traditions have shared many preoccupations in their self-representations, and, equally importantly, underlines how Ulster-Scots has, historically, by no means been the preserve of a single religious tradition.

From the outset, the book tries to establish the specific characteristics of Ulster-Scots space – in other words, what makes a given space Ulster-Scots space? It explains how what Ivan Herbison has called the “sense of place” develops as much in the collective memory and in the imagination of the local community as it does through the work of any individual author. This community dimension, the fact that the perception, the conviction of belonging, is ingrained in the collective imagination, is fundamental to an understanding of why Ulster-Scots material continues to be relevant to large sections of the population in Northern Ireland and the border counties today. Ultimately, the book is about how the community imagines itself in and into the landscape. What is important is that that connection is culturally specific. The landscape may be in Ireland; but it is perceived, it is “imagined” as Ulster-Scots.

It is important to point out that the book concentrates its attention exclusively on writing produced by people working in Ulster and the ways they have imagined these various spaces to which their communities are so intimately linked through family connections or through shared cultural experience. The evolution of Scots-Irishness is an entirely different matter and would require a different approach – indeed a separate book…

One of the things to emerge from the book is the high level of variety both within the tradition and within the contemporary revival. It shows that – despite efforts to the contrary – there is no single orthodoxy, no “authorised” version of the Ulster Scot or of Ulster-Scottishness. This should come as no surprise to anyone. After all, the history of the tradition has been infinitely varied – in Ireland, the Ulster Scot has been by turns a republican, a radical, a conservative and a loyalist; when he crosses the Atlantic, he is to be found at once in the White House and on the frontier, in the amphitheatres of Princeton and in the whiskey riots in the late 18th century. Similarly, the contemporary Ulster Scot is – thankfully – far from being homogeneous. He is to be found singing metrical Psalms in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, but he also goes to the hoolies organised by Willie Drennan and his band; he is a member of the DUP, or he works in organisations like Dalaradia – but he is also in the Alliance and the SDLP; he walks in the ranks of the Orange Order, but he – and she – also goes to the launch of the poster campaign in Ulster-Scots against homophobia in Northern Ireland… The book shows that there is no “one-size-fits-all” image of the Ulster-Scot, that things are far more varied – and therefore far more equivocal – than some would like us to think. I, for one, am delighted to see such variety as it is through variety of this sort that the movement has the best chance of survival and development…

… Ulster-Scots has become a part of the collective imagination, and an inescapable facet of the cultural scene not only of Northern Ireland, but also of the island of Ireland and indeed much further afield.