Thursday, 27 November 2014

A Scots-Irish Thanksgiving story.

Courtesy of the Bangor Daily News, Maine. 

Every American kid knows the story of Thanksgiving, as told in schools across the land.
There’s the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, the winter of hardship, the helpful American Indians and the triumphant and thankful meal at the end of that first year. The story has become part of the national mythology, and influences what we think about the nation’s founding.
In Maine, they have their own tale of Colonial-era suffering and woe that is leavened with cruel villainy, a heroic rescue by the Passamaquoddy Indians, and maybe a miracle or two. Hardly anyone knows this story, and some Mainers think it’s time for that to change.
The action began in Northern Ireland in July 1741, when a group of about 200 Scots-Irish Presbyterians boarded a ship, called the Martha & Eliza. They departed from Londonderry and were bound for North Carolina by way of Philadelphia, in search of economic opportunity and religious freedom from the Church of England. They no doubt sailed from the old world with hope in their hearts about the new lives they could make in America. Times had been tough in Ireland after a volcanic eruption in the late 1730s created a mini ice age, in which winter stayed for two years, freezing the River Shannon solid. The group sailed under an emigration scheme that likely was called “the Grand Design”.
After about three weeks at sea, the passengers were struck down by a serious illness which proved fatal for many. Then, after surviving a hurricane which disabled the masts and swept the ship off course for weeks, the Martha & Eliza finally foundered in late autumn near an island with sand beaches and high cliffs.
 The passengers were stranded on Grand Manan in the Bay of Fundy off the coast of Washington County.

Grand Manan island

 The captain, Matthew Rowan was a scoundrel. He & his crew abandoned the passengers, taking the ship's longboat. The shipwreck survivors were left to scrounge for clams and make crude shelters on the deserted island.  When the captain finally returned several weeks later — mainly to salvage the goods off the boat -  most of the men from the emigrants camp had left on a quest for help, never to be seen alive again. Some of the remaining women had gone farther afield in search of more food, and the crew left them behind without a search. Captain Rowan did take a group of 48 hungry, debilitated survivors to St. George, where he took their clothes, goods and money before leaving them to the mercy of the villagers.
Meanwhile, the women left behind faced extreme privations, including hunger, cold, death, despair and fear of the Indians. But as fate would have it, the island on which they were marooned was sacred to the Passamaquoddy, the people of the dawn. John Bear Mitchell, a lecturer in Wabanaki studies at the University of Maine, said that Grand Manan features prominently in the Passamaquoddy creation story. Dawn, the daughter of the sea and sky deities, was chased to sea by wolves and became the island.
“It’s believed to this day by Wabanaki men and women that that island has the spirit of Dawn in it because it is her,” Mitchell said, “Men will go out there and do their first hunt. Women do after-winter ceremonies there.”

A Passamaquoddy indian huntsman

In the spring of 1742, Passamaquoddy hunters were shocked when they paddled to the island for their hunt and heard an English speaking voice — a mother carrying an infant. When they learned the 10 or so women had survived all winter on food they literally pulled from the rocks – edible seaweed and shellfish such as clams, periwinkles and mussels, they were astounded.
“They knew the only way the women had survived was that Dawn had taken care of them and the baby,” Mitchell said.
Instead of bringing the women to the relatively close French settlement (who were at war with the British Isles at the time) and ransoming them there for profit, the Passamaquoddy hunters decided instead to deliver an SOS letter to the nearest British settlement.
That they would paddle over 100 miles in an open canoe, risking their lives on the women’s behalf, is even more remarkable.
A ship from St. George went to Grand Manan to pick up the last survivors, bringing them back. Many stayed in St. George, not wanting to risk anything else in the name of adventure. They married local men and put down deep roots in Maine. It’s said that the women from the shipwreck kept a good relationship with the local Indians.
There was a huge prejudice against the Indians at the time. But the people the emigrants had trusted — the captain & his crew, had let them down. The people who had rescued them were the Indians.
Mitchell said people can learn a lot from the stories of positive interactions between Europeans and Indians, like the story of the rescue of the women from the Martha & Eliza, instead of concentrating on the myths of settlement and conquering.
“Focusing on positive interactions is sort of like Thanksgiving,” he said. “It refocuses Thanksgiving from Pilgrims and Indians to family time. We’re taking care of people. As humans, this is what we do, and this is what we should be doing.”

Read the full story at BDN maine. and at

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Halloween & the Ulster-Scots (Haleve Nicht)

'A Haunted Halloween In Northern Ireland'

"...Ulster-Scots traditions are not simply a melange of Scots and Irish phenomena. Significant elements are exclusive to Ulster and perhaps most significantly, these communities appear to have generated a distinctive pattern of calender customs with it's own set of cyclical balances and relationships"... American folklorist, Jack Santino, Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life.

The word Hallowe’en comes from a Scottish term for All Hallows’ Eve. It is also know as Haleve Nicht in Ulster-Scots.  The date of 31st Oct. was  adopted & Christianised by the church in the 8th century as the eve of All Saints Day, but the day originates with ancient pagan festivals held by the Celtic speaking peoples of Ireland & Britain, particularly the Gaelic festival of Samhain  & the Briton festival of Calan Gaeaf .  Halloween was and still is one of the most important festivals of the year throughout Scotland & Ireland.  It was the climax of the harvest and throughout the upland areas of Ulster it also marked the traditional date of the return of cattle & their herds from the summer pastures on the mountains. The 1st of November was the New Year of the Celtic calendar and as such was the most important day of the Celtic year. Halloween was the only one of the ancient Celtic quarter days observed by the Presbyterian communities (the other quarter days being Lughnasa /Lammas, Imbolc & Beltaine).

Ulster-Scots were superstitious people and belief in fairies & the supernatural world was wide-spread. Writing in 1821, the Rev. John McCloskey of Banagher parish, Co Down proposed that the Scots who migrated to Ulster in the seventeenth century came with the "whole train of witches, the tribe of fairies, the overlooking (bewitching) of horses and cows." Some believed that "the Irish & Scots fairies fought regularly every year for control of the magical realms of Ulster.". 

Ulster-Scots Halloween traditions included lighting bonfires, parties with special food & games, practical jokes and children visiting houses guising (wearing a disguise) & rhyming - all with a heightened sense of the supernatural. Turnips were hollowed out and faces carved into the flesh. They were then illuminated by candlelight and put outside the home to ward off evil spirits.

Turnip lanterns
 In Fermanagh it was believed that on the Eve of All Hallows the dead would take revenge for any hurt done to them while alive. So people with troubled consciences avoided graveyards or if they heard steps behind them did not turn around for this meant instant death.

Hallowe’en was more celebrated for fortune-telling than any other night of the year. In Armagh pairs of nuts were put on the hearth and named after courting couples. The behaviour of the nuts was supposed to be indicative of the future of the couples: if the nuts jumped apart it meant arguments and infidelity, if they stayed together, long life and happiness.

Children went around neighbours houses rhyming in the hope of receiving apples or nuts (or in more recent years, money). The most popular rhyme was a slightly altered version of a Mumming rhyme usually associated with Chritsmas:

"Hallowe'en is cumin' tha goose is gettin' fat.
Wud ye please put a penny in tha oul man’s hat.
If ye havnae got a penny a ha’pney wull do.
If ye havnae got a ha’pney God bless you.
And yer oul man too."

A 1817 description from Islandmagee, County Antrim read: "On Haleve, alias Hallow-e'en, apples & nuts were eaten, with which young boys & girls often play some harmless tricks, for the purposes of prying into futurity about sweethearts; boys also go about and strike the doors of dwelling houses with cabbages, or the like.". One of the more popular pranks was to remove a gate from a field or garden and place it on a roof to make it look like the work of a devious supernatural being.

Halloweve – An Ulster-Scots poem by Adam Lynn of Cullybacky in Co Antrim, describing typical Halloween customs (circa Oct 1900).

Haleve comes bit yince a year, 
The auld folks used to say ; 
So Wully axed me ower yin eve 
To drink a cup o’ tae; 
So ower goes I, and, boys a dear, 
We had a desplr’t time, . O’ which I wush tae gie some hints 
In this bit simple rhyme 
On Haleve Nicht.

The table sure it almaist groan’d 
Wae iverything you’d name; 
If anything wus left ava 
It was nane 0’ oor blame; 
The tableclaith was then fouled up, 
The fun it did begin, 
I hope the tricks the youngsters played 
Wur tainted not wae sin 
That Haleve Nicht

" Bless me," said I, " what noise is that? " 
The door it got some slaps; 
Said I, ” If this ere hoose wus mine 
I’d go’ot an’ choke them waps.”
J est then we all begun tae sneeze,
No’ yin 0’ us could speak
The hoose it was completely filled
Wae pepper and tow reek
That Haleve Nicht.

As soon as this had cleared  awa’ 
The big tub wus brung in, 
Then for a red-cheek’d epple, ‘od, 
The dookin’ did begin ; 
Anither yin swung frae the roof, 
Beside a lichted split, 
And many a bluidy mooth was got 
By hanching for a bit 
That Haleve Nicht.

A turnip peelin’ was hung up 
Withoot a crack or fla’
An’ yin young lad he’ it’ a her’n,
The heed and banes and a’.
Some roucht at tricks wae luckin’ glass,
An’ ithers wae a plate,
The hale idea was tae ken
Wha’d likely be their mate
Some Haleve Nicht.

Bit naethin’ bate the burnin’ nits, 
And hoo they bleezed thegither, 
'Twas very seldom, I should think, 
They seemed tae like each ither ; 
But is the cause no’ at the heart, 
As some 0’ them hes nane, 
And some hes bad and some hes guid, 
And weer we no’ the same 
This Haleve Nicht ?

Halloween in the USA. 

Although the Christianised All Hallows' Eve was observed in America in the early days by English Anglicans & Catholics the modern spooky holiday & its supernatural traditions were brought to America by Ulster-Scots, Irish & Scottish immigrants.  Halloween didn't take off as a mainstream secular holiday in the USA until the early 1900's. Up until that point it was more commonly associated with people of a Scottish background than any other ethnic group.

illustration for Robert Burns' Halloween
The first book on the history of Halloween in America ‘The Book Of Halloween’  (1919) describes festivities such as hosting a ‘Scotch party’, using Robert Burns’ poem ‘Halloween’ as a guide to costumes and party games. Burns' poem of 1785 was influential in spreading the customs of the holiday to a wider American audience. Today's American customs of wearing costumes, carving pumpkins and Trick 'r Treating are evolutions of old traditions from Scotland & Ireland.

Early 20th century Halloween cards in the USA frequently included symbolism such as tartan, thistles and men in kilts (see samples below). They reveal just how closely Scotland was associated with Halloween in American minds…