From Church & State: Summer 2007, No. 89
John Hewitt's Centenary:
Part Two: A Stranger In The Glens
In the new Ireland we're being urged to celebrate diversity, even if diversity itself is an aimless state of affairs unless we look at why certain groups have come to be diverse and whether they want to go on being diverse. It may be that the Glens of Antrim (hereinafter called "the Glens") have been insufficiently celebrated as a cultural eco-system within Ireland and that we'll wake up to this after the cultural distinctives have disappeared entirely. Hewitt niggled over the Glens for many years, he was inspired by them, insofar as he was inspired by anything; and for this unfashionable persistence he deserves to be praised.
Geographically we're talking about a long coastal strip about eight or nine miles wide, starting at the ancient town of Glenarm on the south east side and finishing, I suppose, short of Ballycastle on the north coast. "Antrim Coast and Glens" is a Tourist Board designation. The villages in between, Carnlough, Waterfoot (Glenariffe), Cushendall, Cushendun and Ballyvoy have been linked up since the 1840s by the Antrim Coast Road which was engineered by Sir Charles Lanyon. Before that the various settlements had been cut off from one another, except by sea, as well as from the wider world, by a series of steep-sided valleys cut into the surrounding Antrim Plateau, so you have good agricultural land side by side with wilderness.
For me, from a child upwards, the Glens have exercised a kind of fascination as an alternative self-contained society just down the road, a Catholic society, although there are significant Protestant populations in the southern villages, declining as you go north. It seemed almost counter-intuitive that this north east extremity of Ireland's most Protestant County should be so blissfully uninfluenced by the rest of the County. Presumably Hewitt felt an attraction for the same reason, that this was an exotic and most unsuburban area. In fact it's doubtful if he could have fastened on a (for him) more antithetical area in the whole island to work out his preoccupations on. Yet it appealed to something in him too.
In this he was in good company, and self-consciously so, as we're told in The Poet's Place. The history and mythology of the Glens is of "old unhappy far off things and battles long ago." Thomas Moore memorializes the Children of Lir in his Song of Fionnuala:
"Silent O Moyle be the roar of thy water,
Break not, O breezes her chain of repose,
While, murmuring mournfully, Lir's lonely daughter,
Tells to the night-star her sad tale of woes."
And, just as Glenariffe is the Queen of the Glens, so Moira O'Neill (1865-1955, born Agnes Higginson) is the queen of the Glens poets, to whom Hewitt tips a slightly condescending hat:
"Her verse is quoted, and what's more, it's read;
she sells her thousands where we're glad of tens'.
I tried a brief quotation just to shew
they'd other poets that they ought to know.
'Och aye, ye mean the young Miss Higginson
stayed with Miss Ada round by Cushendun.
She was a decent girl. I seen her when
they held the first big feis here at the Bay,
and Roger Casement brought the Rathlin men.
She writ a book of pomes, I heard them say.' "
It's doubtful whether Hewitt really saw himself in line of succession to Moira O'Neill whose verse he probably would have regarded as somewhat chocolate-boxy. She wasn't perhaps totally authentic in her characterization of the locals, but they did seem to like it, as did lots of middle-class Protestants in the 1920s and 30s:
"Oh, never will I tell her name,
I'll only sing that her heart was true;
My blackbird! Ne'er a thing's the same
Since I was losing you.
'Tis lonesome in the narrow glen,
An' raindrops fallin' from the tree;
But whiles I think I hear her when
The blackbird sings to me."
That would at least translate into song. I don't suppose that Hewitt had any such ambition.
Hewitt was also self-consciously in the tradition of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Presbyterian—and often radical—"weaver poets" such as David Herbison of Dunclug and James Orr of Ballycarry. Indeed his Queen's University M.A. dissertation was on the weaver poets, none of whom at that time could be found in the University Library, so that his supervisor wondered at first if the whole thing was a hoax.
But two of the essayists in A Poet's Place have focused on the influence of Sir Samuel Ferguson. First we have Eve Patton with Samuel Ferguson: A Tourist in Antrim, then Greagoir O Duill's No Rootless Colonists: Samuel Ferguson and John Hewitt. Ferguson (1810-1886) has been largely excised from the popular imagination north and south but he was bracketed by Yeats as one of the inspirers of the Irish cultural revival, along with Davis and Mangan. The Encyclopaedia of Ireland gives him nine lines.
Ferguson was the archetypal Victorian gentleman-scholar and antiquarian: product of Belfast "Inst." and Trinity; barrister, Unionist, Gaelic scholar and Hibernophile (query: can you be one if you're already Irish?); and an establishment (or Establishment!) figure, so that in later life he joined the Church of Ireland. His family roots though were in Glenwherry, a rather wild district in the Antrim hills that was settled by Presbyterians, and in the slightly more civilized area of Donegore in South Antrim, just off the M2 motorway. And the ancient graveyard there is where he chose to be buried, despite the offer of a place within the walls of St. Patrick's Cathedral Dublin. The area round Donegore and Templepatrick had been at the core of United Irish activity in the generation before Ferguson.
O Duill argues that the non-threatening religious homogeneity of the demographic makeup of South Antrim in Ferguson's youth led him (unlike Hewitt) to move beyond Ulster regionalist concerns and embrace the Gaelic literary tradition, which held few charms for many of his peers. It may just have been that he was a romantic with a flair for the Irish language. Even his Ulster Unionism expressed itself in novel ways, as O Duill tells us:
"As time passed he wrote longer poems, set in the remote past, peopled not with planters but with Gaels. A recurrent theme of this poetry is that Ulster is different. It is less dominated by priests and is kinder to poets. It is under attack from the other provinces, and is heavily out-numbered. It suffers from enemies within, and the real Ulster is that which can be seen from the summit of Slemish. The future lies in love and marriage across the divisions of religion and race. His later poetry can be read as Ulster unionist particularism in Gaelic mode."
Slemish is of course that spectacular (for its size) hill in the middle of County Antrim associated with the youthful Patrick.
The Glens had been 'opened up' while Ferguson was still a young man and were becoming a holiday hotspot for English as well as Irish tourists. Excursions by charabanc were arranged from Larne by the enterprising Henry McNeill. The trip to the Glens was supposed to appeal to the romantic sensibilities; and Ferguson no doubt aspired to be the Walter Scott of his time, promoting and interpreting a district that for him was a miniature version of the Scottish Highlands. The English Lake District is another parallel but its scenic beauty isn't matched by equivalent historical resonances.
The nineteenth century attitude is neatly summed up in Wordsworth's poem The Solitary Reaper, where the poet speculates that the Highland girl with the scythe is singing about "old unhappy far off things, and battles long ago". We're in the land of blood feud, desperate struggles against hopeless odds, and bitter collective clan memories. The Homeric element in the history of the Glens obviously stirred up something in Ferguson and he tried to magnify it in his poetry.
O Duill's attempts to make connections between Hewitt and Ferguson seem somewhat strained, and it's not clear to me that the two men would have had much in common, poetically or otherwise. The young Yeats was closer in time to Ferguson and probably understood better what Ferguson was trying to do. Anyway, the Glens in their romantic and epic aspect don't feature largely in Hewitt. The one heroic figure Hewitt fastens on is Ossian, the Merlin of the Fianna cycle, whose grave, as recognized in the Ordnance Survey maps, stands up off the Glenaan Road. I hope my readers need no reminding about Ossian and how he was enticed away to Tir-na-Nog by the stunning but slightly dodgy Niamh, returning after three hundred years to find that the heroic age had passed away and he was about to follow. John Marshall in his Forgotten Places of the North Coast (Clegnagh Publishing 1987) states that "Ossian was a warrior poet from the Celtic Early Christian Period, and his connection with this Neolithic site is purely romantic".
According to Hewitt it's "megalithic"—but maybe that's just the poet's archaeological licence:
"The legend has it, Ossian lies
beneath this landmark on the hill,
asleep till Fionn and Oscar rise
to summon his old bardic skill
in hosting their last enterprise."
Hewitt is agnostic about the legend as about most other things:
"I cannot tell, would ask no proof;
let either story stand for true,
as heart or head shall rule. Enough
that, our long meditation done,
as we paced down the broken lane
by the dark hillside's holly trees,
a great white horse with lifted knees
came stepping past us, and we knew
his rider was no tinker's son."
Like the late Fred Trueman, I just don't understand what's going on out there. Whatever it is, it doesn't work. It would make as much sense if they had seen King Billy on the white horse. He recounts the story as objective fact, not in a 'hoping it might be so' sort of way. So we move from a shadowy world of we know not who, when or what, to a very real white horse with a lordly rider, which is supposed to mean something.
Homestead has a fuller treatment of the Ossian theme:
"Ossian, I said, is my symbol, that shadowy man,
warrior and bard returning again and again
to find the Fenians forgotten and unforgotten,
rising when bidden on the young men's lips
to face defeat and go down and sleep in their cave.
Ossian, who baffled Patrick, his older faith
tougher than the parchment or the string of beads:
Ossian after the Fenians."
This is an interesting poem and I wouldn't want to dismiss it at all, but at its core is a false disjunction between Gaelic culture pre- and post-Patrick. Long after the coming of Christianity, Hewitt implies, the old ways lingered on subversively:
"Yet it's Ossian also after Patrick's legions;
the vestments fray and tarnish, the crafty man
makes a show of genuflection, but in his heart
still rises to the rhythms his Fenians knew."
This isn't so much sub-Yeatsian as sub-Swinburnian. Hewitt doesn't seem to have any idea about how Gaelic culture was rejuvenated in the Christian context, and how the Christian gospel found powerful expression in the Gaelic context, so much so that much of the Anglo-Saxon as well as the Celtic world was shaped by the Columban Church. The parchment was a lot tougher than Hewitt imagines. What did for the Gaelic Irish was the series of hammer blows they experienced from the time of James I onwards: the Flight of the Earls in 1607; the Plantation of Ulster; the Cromwellian conquest; the Williamite wars; the Penal Laws; the Famine; and finally, the remoulding of the Catholic nation under Cardinal Cullen. The wonder was not that Gaelic Ireland crumbled but that it had lasted so long.
Here, as elsewhere, Hewitt seems to be simply taking a sideswipe at Catholicism, and maybe at religion in general. The Catholicism of the Glenspeople he finds unsettling or irritating, but his objections to it are almost nihilistic because he's not suggesting anything better to put in its place. It's as if he feels that as a socialist and a secularist he has to make these noises every so often. Hewitt's brand of devout scepticism isn't likely to attract many adherents in the Glens. So he's not really interested in the mythological significance of Ossian except as a kind of counterbalance to the prevailing Catholic culture of the Glens.
The actual history of the Glens, with its complex relationships of MacDonnells, O'Neills and MacQuillans, isn't prominent in Hewitt's poems. Insofar as he deals with it his approach is very allusive. MacDonnell's Question is one such poem, celebrating the retaliation of Sir James MacDonnell, son of the famous Sorley Boy ("yellow Charles"), twenty years after the cold-blooded massacre of most of the inhabitants of Rathlin Island at the hands of Sir John Norris, Sir Francis Drake and their crew in 1575. In November 1597, near the village of Glynn in south east Antrim, Sir John Chichester was apparently decapitated by MacDonnell who is later supposed to have addressed the effigy of Sir John at St. Nicholas's Church, Carrickfergus, but the story isn't quite right:
" 'Whaur gat ye your heid, Sir John? I mind the day
I clippt it aff ye, when you'd hae ambushed me.'
Those footnote addicts, the historians,
assert this is some legendary fiction,
offering proper dates as positive proof,
and anyhow James never spoke in Scots
but in the Gaelic of the Western Isles.
I do not care. My heart takes it as true;
There's little justice enough in our history."
For me this is Hewitt at his slightly sardonic best, quizzical and questing, and acting as a sort of conduit for a collective consciousness.
Maybe Hewitt was attracted to the Glens farmers because they shared to an extent his own dry, reserved nature. Here to illustrate are two stanzas from Country Talk:
"You will remember that woman whose house we passed,
The last house close to the road going up to the moss,
The whitewashed gable a lattice of flashing leaves,
And across the yard and over the flowing stream
A squad of children calling and running about;
And you said, 'You have a lovely wee family here',
And she, 'Och well, they all have their features thank God.'
And that famous day when the national leader came
to attend the commemoration along the coast,
stopping for lunch at the convent, the village crammed,
we met the long-boned old man on the mountainyroad,
and I said, 'You didn't go down to see him come in?'
'He didn't come up to see me, why should I go down?'
and strode with his one man republic back to the hills."
This comes close to how I, and we as a neighbouring community, have imagined the Glens as a cultural entity before they became largely submerged in modernity and affluence.
The Glenspeople weren't quite like the rest of the Ulster Catholics. If they were a subjugated people they didn't know it. It never occurred to them to ingratiate themselves with anybody. Their attitude was like that of the Jews as reported in John's Gospel: "We be Abraham's seed and were never in bondage to any man." Although not without its Scotticisms and Irishisms their speech approximated more to standard English, while they had the reputation of being aloof, and quick to take offence; and of being more learned, more inscrutable and less talkative than would be common in Irish country districts. In short, a people not to be trifled with, although with old-fashioned virtues as well. I suspect, though I don't know, that Vatican II didn't penetrate as far into the Glens as into other parts of Ireland.
Politically they were strongly nationalist but never fitted easily into either the SDLP or the Sinn Fein mould. The people weren't natural recruits for the "armed struggle". The party that perhaps came closest to expressing their political outlook was the now almost forgotten Irish Independence Party, whose leader John Turnly came of a line of Protestant landowners around Cushendall. Moira O'Neill's mother was a Turnly. He was murdered by the UDA, with some security force collusion, in 1980 on his way to address a meeting in Carnlough. He was forty-four. Another fateful murder, that of Joe Campbell, the Catholic station sergeant in Cushendall, took place in 1978. The motives are opaque to this day and nobody talks about it now. A serving RUC officer was convicted but the conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal in 1984.
Anyway, apart from these distressing incidents the Troubles were really a non-event in the Glens, where life just continued as normal. I was told once that there was a tacit understanding between the police and the Nationalist community, that neither would annoy the other. In this the Glens were very unlike South Armagh. These Catholic regions seem to have developed in very different ways.
The one politician of national renown produced by the Glens was of course Professor Eoin (born John) MacNeill from Glenarm (1867-1945), son of Archibald MacNeill and Rosetta McAuley. He embodied some of those political contradictions that seem to be peculiar to the Glens. Notoriously he countermanded the order for the Rising in 1916, thus possibly changing the course of Irish history. It was the news of the capture of Roger Casement that swayed him, so it might be argued that the whole disaster was the fault of two County Antrim men. I don't think so somehow!
Elected both south and north in the Sinn Fein landslide of 1918, he subsequently fell in with the Treaty side, albeit his son Brian was killed fighting for the anti-Treaty forces in the Civil War. As the Free State representative he was humiliated by the failure of the Boundary Commission in 1925 to achieve any territorial gains, and his political career was abruptly terminated two years later in 1927 when he lost his seat. (His grandson Michael McDowell has likewise suffered an unexpected reversal in more recent elections.) MacNeill spent the last active period of his life as an academic, with a title like keeper of the Irish Manuscripts.
The story of Eoin MacNeill might have its own logic, not easily fathomable to normal thought processes. Fitting into no discernible category, with no appreciable following, he was his own one man republic. That figures in the context of the Glens. If you stand on the top of Knocklayd and look north you would get the impression that you were on a small island in a vast archipelago, encompassing Islay, Jura and the Argyll hills, with Rathlin Island in the foreground. The Glens are insular in an Irish setting but they open out to the sea and the Hebridean islands from which their Scots Gaelic culture is largely derived. So at times they can be equally mysterious to Ulster Unionists and Irish Nationalists alike.
Hewitt has given his name to the annual John Hewitt Summer School held in the Glens and which attracts writers and academics from all round the world. To his credit he explored the fruitful fields of cultural identity, perception and self-perception, with mixed success no doubt, but at a time when there was no cross cultural circus going on. He did it because it was a felt need for him. And whatever else he was he wasn't pretentious. So despite all the harsh things I've said about him I think we should honour him on his centenary for his rooting around in all the right cupboards even if he didn't always find what he was looking for or what we think he should have found.
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