This is Hame: Two Modern Ulster-Scots Poets

James Fenton and Philip Robinson have been recently re-published by Ullans Press. Their books offer a window into that world – its language, humour, culture, religion and politics

The term ‘Ulster-Scots’ can provoke strong reactions. Its detractors are often noisy: it is an easy target for satirists and comedians, and it can elicit a surprising level of vitriol. At times it seems that the term is so powerful that its very mention turns half of social media into linguistic experts. Despite this, however, it has its enthusiasts, and it is an object of fascination for many others.

One of the best ways to explore Ulster-Scots is simply to read the texts that its writers, particularly its poets, have produced since the eighteenth century. It is welcome news, therefore, that work of its two most accomplished modern poets, James Fenton and Philip Robinson, has been recently re-published by Ullans Press.

On Slaimish and Oul Licht are collections which showcase the best of contemporary Ulster-Scots poetry. James Fenton is a key figure in the Ulster-Scots movement due to his work on language, especially his ‘Hamely Tongue: a personal record of Ulster-Scots in County Antrim’, which is a thorough lexicon of modern Ulster-Scots. The medium of Fenton’s poetry might be strange to most Irish poetry aficionados, but the landscape in which it is rooted is familiar enough.

Fenton is of the same generation as Seamus Heaney and his Belnaloob (Ballynaloob), County Antrim, is no more than half an hour from the landscapes in which Seamus Heaney set his poetry. Fenton's poems, like Heaney's, have a guttural musicality and a sharply observed sense of the textures and shades of rural Ulster. Fenton's poetry is of wet, dimly-lit, Ulster townlands: their mingled timelessness and fragility. It is also a poetry of the people, and the creatures that inhabit these places, and of their habits and interactions.

In ‘The Watter Quail’, Fenton describes the intimate experience of disturbing a resting bird (a water rail), and its panicked flight:

A fissle unther the deed, saft-hingin thatch, 

A strippit shedda, a wheekin scad, 

Ye jook crootched an shairp an quait 

Amang the queelrods.

The rich description of the bird flitting into the bullrushes segues into a poetic address. The poem culminates with the speaker listening to the bird’s call from across the bog and projecting his own, very human, feelings of despair onto its melancholy tones.

This is typical of Fenton’s art: the universal and the transcendental is rooted in locality. Another example of this is from ‘Dunloy’, a village with a fractious reputation due to contentious parades. But Fenton’s ‘Dunloy’ describes a civil and understated meeting between Rabbie and Paddy, ciphers for different parts of the community in Ulster.

The speaker reflects that 'The yin wat clie haps up the deed, / The dark lang hame o ether creed'. This is a pithy Ulster-Scots articulation of the democracy of the grave. Mortality certainly features prominently and an elegiac tone which has added poignancy given the critically endangered tongue that gives it expression.

In the title poem, which opens the collection, several of Fenton's threads coalesce. The speaker stands on Slemish, the distinctive Antrim mountain, and looks back, both literally and figuratively. He considers the visible, though distant, hills of Scotland which represent its cultural, linguistic and religious proximity. He then considers the rich historical associations of the mountain as the home of a youthful Saint Patrick, the ‘hirdin weetchil’ of the poem, and the place where the United Irishman and Ulster-Scots poet, James Orr, fled after the failure of the Antrim rising in 1798. These reflections on cultural inheritance culminate in the final line, emphasised by enjambment:

This is hame.

Philip Robinson is another significant figure in contemporary Ulster-Scots circles as the author of a grammar and several novels. The title of this collection, Oul Licht, suggests a focus on traditional Ulster-Scots issues, with its allusion to the theologically conservative faction of Presbyterianism. But the most remarkable poems are those that make bold international parallels and engage, sometimes confrontationally, with contemporary politics.

In ‘Alba and Albania’, Robinson’s speaker reflects on the Balkan Wars of the 1990s with an implicit eye on Northern Ireland's own conflicts. He considers the destructive, triangular, ethnic conflict between Serb, Croat, and Albanian in Kosovo, drawing parallels with Ulster’s competing groups:

Ticht wee Serbs, tha peep-o-day clan
Mooslim dissenters, black-moothed an thran
Papish Croatians bigged their ain lan
Thirteen an Echtie-Nine.
Weemin girnin owre deid guidman
Wrangs aye in mine.

Ulster-Scots here problematises prevailing narratives of the Northern Ireland conflict as one between ‘two traditions’, by re-introducing the specifically Scots dimension. The description of the weeping bereaved, and raw memories of historical grievance resonate in Northern Ireland.

The poem culminates with the speaker being reminded of a conversation with an elderly Ulster-Scots speaker who says 'Bal’albanna’s whar A cum fae'. The Irish etymology of Bal’albanna, or Ballyalbanagh, is the townland of the Scotsmen, and therefore, hints at an ancient connection that has a modern parallel in the the old man's Ulster-Scots.

On watching news footage of a Kosovan refugee, the speaker seems to recognise this old man:

A thocht A seen him yinst agane
Thon wee auld man frae bak abane
Hirplin Kosovo braes his lane
Tha gate tae bield.
Hiein frae his hairth an hame
Wi heirskip skailed.

Once again the local shifts to the universal as the ambiguity over the aged sufferer's identity, Ulsterman or Kosovan, gives him the status of an everyman. He becomes a universal symbol for suffering created by ethnic conflict, and perhaps a sobering reminder of a worst case scenario that Northern Ireland, despite everything, avoided.

‘The Gaelic Archipelago’ is another poem that engages boldly with its political moment. The poem was written after the referendum on the Belfast ‘Good Friday’ Agreement, when the first multi-party executive was created. It is a startling critique of that moment of apparent consensus.

The poem displays a postmodern linguistic playfulness as the speaker wryly juxtaposes positive responses to those who resisted the ‘Yin-Pairty State’ in Russia with Ulster’s tradition of independent self-reliance and the modern vilification of the thran dissidents and dissenters who remain resistant to the ‘Brave an guid New Warl’ of the peace process: ‘Lang Kesh thaim?’, the speaker suggests, referring to the infamous Troubles era prison.

The poem ends with the speaker ironically parroting the sentiments of the winners: 

Whut richt hae they

Keepin on sayin Na

Nane ava.

A doot.

The voice in this poem is subtle, shifting from a folksy, bantering tone to an acerbic one, in a way that is typical of the Scots poetic tradition. Ulster-Scots, the often invisible, subaltern, culturally marginalised tongue, here becomes the perfect vehicle to discuss the political marginalisation of the recalcitrant and maligned 28% who became effectively voiceless.

These two collections are more than a repository of language. Fenton and Robinson are accomplished poets whose talents have been neglected because of their chosen medium, because of their Ulster-Scots. The language can be challenging for readers; even people familiar with the spoken tongue can find the experience of reading it in print alienating. But Fenton’s ground-breaking record of spoken Ulster-Scots, ‘The Hamely Tongue’, is now online on the website of The Ulster-Scots Academy.

In any case challenge is hardly an excuse for neglecting good poetry; the frisson of anxiety that some notion is just beyond our conception is, I imagine, familiar to even the most astute reader of poetry. Fenton and Robinson’s extraordinary poetry deserves more critical recognition, and certainly a wider readership.

The Hamely Tongue is available as a paperback and e-book and can be purchased here.

James Fenton, On Slaimish (Ullans Press, 2017)
Philip Robinson, Oul Licht (Ullans Press, 2017)