Saturday, 24 August 2013

Once Upon a Time in the West of the Bann II: Catholic Lambeg Drummers and Protestant Ceilidhs

Once upon a time, when things were simple and it was permissible to label people by their religion/former religion rather than infuriating an acronyms such as PUL or CNR your humble narrator stood and listened to a discussion regarding the pubs of a neighbouring village.

100% Protestant village

100% Catholic village

This village was at the time 100% Protestant (the fashion at the time being to ignore people not of Judeo-Christian persuasion and hand out ‘get-out-of-jail-free-cards’ to European foreigners whose religious views would not have be otherwise tolerated were they Irish, in the case of this village the recipient of said card was a Catholic Belgian woman).
Belgians: Exempt from South Londonderry bigotry

Your narrator paid particular attention to the conversation as it was a stomping ground and was the domain of his grandmother and a sprinkling of various cousins, distant cousins and in-laws and an evil auntie.
What baffled your narrator the most was the casual labeling of one of the pubs as the ‘fenian’ pub.
Now, this is not through an ignorance of the local lexicon of slang.

What he said...
Your humble narrator knows his jungle Jim from his hun, his soap dodging bead rattler from his black bastard, his apron kisser from his Douglas Haig, his Mick from his Billy and readily  knows that Paddy is almost certainly a tim to boot.

What confused him the most was that the patrons of said pub were certainly nearly all Protestant as were the owners.
How then chilblains, did said pub acquire such an unenviable reputation in the marketplace of the Protestant shilling?
For no better reason than it held onto some of the character that has seemingly been cast onto the cultural bonfire by the Protestant community.
In other words, it looked ‘Irish’.

          It retained (or rather retro-applied) old Irish script for its signage, had the audacity to put a couple of carriage wheels out front and the leftfield brass neck to put hanging baskets of flowers out the front. All in all, none of the hallmarks of a typical South Londonderry, Protestant, drinking, establishment.

Mid Ulster property developer, post-crash
For its sins said pub has went the way of mercurial Ulster property developer and is no longer with us.
It suffered a fate worse than death: that of being a ‘fenian Protestant’.

It held on to the submerged and hidden culture of local Protestants and was shunned as a result along with folk music, celidh dancing, the Gaelic language(s) and numerous folk instruments.

Your narrator has wondered many times as to when the ‘burning of the ceilidh books’ occurred as in when was the time when Protestants collectively turned their back on their culture or at least the parts that were similar if not shared with their Catholic neighbours.

 He knows for certain that 30 – 40 years before hand that very same village did host village meetings to the accompaniment of a ceilidh band that played all manner of ‘fenian’ jigs and reels as a warm up (or cool down) to the meetings.

Said brothers were not natives shipped in from the neighbouring Sperrins and given an entry-pass on account of their musical skills and cheeky Celtic ways.


These were Protestant  brothers descended from planters who went higher up the hills than your typical colonist.

They were also devoted Christians, B Specials and (such were the times) Loyalists.

Your humble narrator knows this as his grandfather was one of the multi-skilled musicians.

                         He played: the accordion, fiddle, Jew’s harp, drums, penny whistle, fyfe, spoons and if it was your 4th birthday maybe the saw & bow. (No, not all at the same time, smart-ass).                                                                                                                   

De Valera: Gave culture 'The Treatment'
(Though he was much opposed to Irish dancing, this may have been due to the ‘treatment’ that Irish dancing and traditional Irish folk culture received decades beforehand when the new found Irish Free State was ‘purifying’ its culture).

Back then there was no such contradiction in being a Protestant and playing ‘Irish’ folk music, it was just folk music.
To walk into a modern day Protestant pub or church hall and play a jig on a fiddle without the protective talisman of Ulster-Scots sponsorship or at the very least a St Andrew’s Cross or Ulster Flag would raise all manner of eyebrows and bequeath unfinished egg & onion sandwiches and cups of tea to the poor church hall that was forced to witness such an affront.

Somehow we've went from folk music, fiddles and dances to being the playthings of everyone to them being the preserve of themuns and then to the modern day demarcation of different camps with Ulster-Scots flying the flag (well, fiddle) for Protestants. 

Now, lest there be any misconception, your humble narrator is a fan of the Ulster Scots Orchestra and of Willie Drennan in particular, having met oor Willie at a cultural event once and discussed the practitioners of lambeg drum repair. Your narrator was struck by Willie's intelligence, modesty and musical skills.                                                                                                                                                                                    Regardless of one’s criticism of the ‘exclusivity’ of Ulster-Scots and its current trajectory, Willie Drennan will go down in history as a force for good. He has led a resurrection of folk music in Protestant quarters and this is a fine achievement and a foundation to from which we can bridge the cultural gap.                                                                                                                                                                                
IF we want to…

Lambeg Drum 'Owen Roe O'Neill'
Decades ago there was no need for Ulster-Scots as everyone danced, jigged, reeled and played the same music on the same instruments, not forgetting that some Catholics also played the lambeg drum. Gentlemen pipers and Protestant clergymen were more agiven to playing the Uilleann pipes.                                                                                                        

      No doubt there were different musical styles in each region, but such is the quirks of distance, demographics and geography, hence Antrim and East Down would be particularly Scottish orientated.

Your narrator would love some enlightenment on the matter and is appealing for help & facts to help his small mind fathom the change and the reasons behind it.

Should you know something about the matter then he would be most obliged for pointers, references, books, photos and general low down dirty gossip about how and when things changed because all he can hear are whispers of how things used to be.

Actually, Willie Drennan’s books are a good place to start:

But for hard core perception busting concise history your narrator strongly recommends  'Handed Down: Country Fiddling and Dancing in East and Central Down'


How and when did the cultural split start?

Was there a cultural split at all and that your narrator’s observations are mere one off exceptions?

Are there anymore Protestants who play the Uilleann pipes?

Why are there practically no more Catholic lambeg drummers?

Where did they go?

What forced the Shankill Protestants to turn their back on their Gaelic heritage (aside from your narrator’s previous conjectures)?

Is it the fault of overzealous nationalism?

If so, then does overzealous nationalism harm the culture it’s trying to promote?

What is 'Protestant' culture if an individual is no longer religious and cares little for politics and Orangism?                                                                                                                                                                                            He/she may find musical appeal in the Ulster Scots musical scene, but it is weighed down with Union Flags, Ulster flags and the shadow of politics not to mention a sense of contrived re-invention.

Surely he/she would consider the path of least resistance, the path of traditional folk?     

                             The music of his/her ancestors which belongs to us all and ironically the very same path which is now considered to belong to ‘themuns’.

The Oul' Days: Dancing was for Protestants and Catholics.

1 comment: