Printer Friendly

Peatland and the Ulster-Scottish Culture of North-East Ireland in Thomas Beggs's Rathlin.


Peatland is a physical habitat, once of great abundance in Ireland, which has deep-rooted cultural associations with Ireland and the native Irish. Gaelic Irish, colonial, and Anglo-Irish literary engagements with bogland in Ireland appear to be well documented. Yet few critical studies have examined attitudes to Irish peatland in Ulster-Scots writing. This essay examines representations of peatland in the farthermost north-east region of Ulster, in a seminal poem, Kathlin (1820), by one of the foremost, labouring-class Ulster-Scots writers of the Romantic era, Thomas Beggs. This essay unearths evidence of underlying associations between Ulster-Scottish culture in north-east Ireland and depictions of the area's peatland habitats, in Beggs's poem Rathlin.

   To the mountaintop in my joy I have sped--
   In the heath and the fern I have made my bed,
   When the flowery land and the sunny sky
   Speak home to the heart, and attract the eye. Beggs,
     'The Mountain Top' (1)

This essay will chiefly examine Thomas Beggs's long poem Kathlin (1820), which was written following a walking tour of North Antrim in 1819. (2) Thomas Beggs (1789-1847) was born at Glenwherry, in the Glens of Antrim, and was the son of a small farmer of Scottish descent. (3) Beggs was part of several key Ulster-Scots literary networks and coteries in the north of Ireland, during the Romantic era. (4) Beggs was a cousin and confidant of the labouring-class poet James Orr, he subscribed to poetry collections by James Campbell, John Dickey, and John McKinley, and he was a member of the petite bourgeois Four Towns Book Club, in South Antrim, which included other poetic contemporaries such as Samuel Thomson, Luke Mullan, and Samuel Walker. (5) Beggs also exchanged poetic epistles with David Herbison and James McKowen, and corresponded with the literary antiquarian and poet William Hamilton Drummond. (6)

Rathlin is divided into two books and written using heroic couplets, in Standard English. The poem shares epic sensibilities and the topographical genre with Drummond's poem The Giant's Causeway (1811); but Beggs's poem is a much shorter work and focuses attention on a more specific region in the north of Ireland: the northern Antrim Plateau and Rathlin Island. The narrative of the poem begins with an unidentified speaker describing the prospect from Ireland's most north-easterly headland. The narration then proceeds through a series of loco-descriptive sketches: describing the cultural, mythological, and historical associations of places and landscapes within the region. The two books can be more or less distinguished topographically, with Book One generally representing parts of the northeast mainland of Ireland, and Book Two engaging more exclusively with Rathlin Island.

A significant feature of Rathlin is the upland environment of north-east Ulster, in particular a large tract of blanket bog. (7) Through a close reading, this essay will examine Beggs's representation of peatland in Rathlin, in relation to a number of underlying physical, cultural, literary, and social faultlines. Firstly, peatland is at times presented within picturesque views of north-east Ireland and western Scotland, and at other times, forms part of sublime descriptions of the Antrim Plateau, the Irish Sea and its environs. Secondly, a close scrutiny of lexical items in the poem reveals subtextual Ulster-Scottish linguistic-cultural experiences of bogland terrain. (8) Thirdly, large-scale agricultural improvement, driven by a chiefly Anglo-Irish landowning class, represented a major threat to blanket bog in Ireland, in the early nineteenth century, and this essay will argue that the physical threat to peatland had associated implications for Ulster-Scottish cotter-class cultures in north-east Ireland. (9)

The first part of this essay will examine how, in the opening passage of the poem, Beggs depicts bogland in an isolated area of north-east Ireland within accustomed topographical, picturesque, and Romantic forms of landscape representation. The second part of this essay will focus on further passages of the poem which relate Ulster-Scottish folklore surrounding the ruined Bonamargy Friary at Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, and its associations in the poem with boglands in the surrounding area. Ultimately, this essay argues that Beggs adapts familiar landscape tropes and infers vernacular, environment lexical items to subtly valorise bogland, which in turn can be read as a synecdoche for Ulster-Scottish cultural heritage in this region of Ireland.


An area of blanket bog is central to the environment depicted in the opening lines of Rathlin, which presents a twilight scene from the headland of Benmore, or Fairhead, in north-east Ireland: (10)
   The crimson flush of eve was shed,
   O'er heath-cowl'd Carey's wizard head,
   The grey goat bounded o'er the waste,
   To shun the traveller's path in haste;
   On pinions fleet of hoary blue,
   In ether far the heron flew--
   The wind was hushed--the clouds away,
   And nature looked as glad and gay
   As if an angel's smile had been
   With all its brightness o'er the scene; (11)

Ostensibly this scene (and the entire poem) belongs to the topographical genre, which Samuel Johnson designates as 'local poetry':, 'the fundamental subject is some particular landscape, to be poetically described, with the addition of such embellishment as may be supplied by historical retrospection or incidental meditation'. 'Local poetry' in Johnson's definition still meant more or less the Thames Valley, though as John Wilson Foster points out, throughout the eighteenth century, topographical poems began to feature places that were further afield in the British Isles. (13) This subsequently led to identifiable 'regional poetic traditions', with Ulster, according to Foster, being a prime example. (14)

It is worth pointing out that although expressed under the rubric, ' The Topographical Tradition in Anglo-Irish poetry'; Foster's essay includes a list of Ulster's Romantic-era exponents of topographical poetry, taken from John Hewitt's paper on Ulster Poets 1800-50 (1950), which in turn provided much of the material for his [Hewitt's] book Rhyming Weavers, in 1974. (15) In other words, part of Foster's essay, essentially engages in a scholarly discussion of an Ulster-Scots topographical tradition. (16) Kathlin, as will be shown, extolls the historical, cultural, and linguistic connections between north-east Ireland and the west coast of Scotland, and is very much part of a topographical tradition in Ulster-Scots poetry.

Furthermore, a common aesthetic register of topographical poetry is the picturesque, and as John Barrell has shown, in his discussion of landscape in eighteenth-century literature; the aesthetic techniques of French/Italian Claude Lorrain (1600-82) and other European picturesque landscape painters were increasingly adopted, domestically, by English writers like Thomas Gray, William Gilpin, Richard Payne Knight, and Uvedale Price. (17) Barrell explains that upon seeing a Claude landscape the 'eye, attracted by an area of light usually set just below the horizon, travels immediately towards it over a long and often steeply contoured stretch of intervening land'. (18) For the picturesque reader, this is where Beggs's poem begins, with attention focused on the horizon and the 'crimson flush of eve'. The subsequent lines rove (as an imaginative eye) over an area of Ireland's north-east headland, through a series of planes in the Claudian mode: 'O'er heath-cowl'd Carey's wizard head', 'o'er the waste', then up to the 'ether far', to a cloudless, windless sky.

Specifically, the landscape identified in this opening passage, 'Carey', is the name of the most north-easterly barony of Ireland, and the name given to a tributary of the Glenshesk River, near Ballycastle, Co. Antrim. Yet Beggs's notes reveal that Carey is also the name of 'a bleak and extensive moor between Cushendall and Ballycastle', which is most likely the blanket bog on Cushleake Mountain, outside Cushendun. (19) Coincidentally, English author and travel-writer Anne Plumptre (1760-1818) published a travel account of this region in 1817, and her description of this environment is markedly similar to Beggs's. (20) Crossing from Cushendun to Ballycastle, Plumptre writes:
   After a long-continued ascent, all among these scattered fragments,
   and having at length attained a pretty considerable height, an
   immense extent of boggy country is presented to the view: over a
   widely extended horizon nothing but continued bog is to be seen;
   not any thing like a village of human habitation, all is dreary
   waste. (21)

The ways that Plumptre depicts and describes the environment here and throughout her account, are predominantly mediated by the personae of amateur naturalist, geologist, landscape painter, and agriculturalist; which typically informed the ideology of travel writing.

Comparatively, considering their respective descriptions of this area of upland blanket bog, Plumptre and Beggs both also describe a picturesque prospect, at a summit on the north Antrim Plateau. A day after her trip across to Ballycastle, Plumptre ascends the nearby mountain of Knock-Laid (Knocklayde) and gives the following description from its peak:
   Benmore, which appeared so magnificent as I saw it from my window
   at the hotel, here seemed nothing [...]. We could see over the
   whole island of Rathlin as if it had been in a map, and the wide
   waste of bog over which we had travelled the day before, while
   appearing extremely contracted in extent, had at the same time lost
   half its dreariness.[...] The Mull of Cantire and some other parts
   of the Scotch coast appeared close by. (22)

Set into this picturesque view, the bogland has 'lost half its dreariness', demonstrating that bogland can be aesthetically pleasing under the proper conditions.

Following on in Beggs notes to the opening passage of the poem, he describes the prospect from a similar vantage point:
   The view was strikingly picturesque and beautiful [...] The
   mountain of Knocklade, to the S.W. towering in majestic grandeur to
   the serene blue sky--the point of Kenban, to the west, glittering
   with the rays of the declining sun--some of the western isles, part
   of the peninsula of Canty re, and Rathlin to the N.E. seemed as it
   were, to repose on the bosom of the breathless deep. "In such a
   place at such an hour," the poetical mind might reasonably conclude
   that something bordering on inspiration was indisputably to be
   imbibed from Nature. (23)

While Beggs does not directly mention the bogland, the scene depicted is praised for its stunning picturesque beauty. Yet there is an additional response to this prospect, an altogether more Romantic appreciation of the environment. The initial picturesque view of the scene develops into an internal contemplation of the 'poetical mind' and an alternative, emotive connection with nature.

Subsequently, in the ensuing lines of the poem there is a further shift in the traditional Claudian picturesque-landscape paradigm: 'When from that desert, dark and wild, / A lonely, musing, minstrel child / Stood gazing on the Celtic sea'. (24) The bleak isolation of the surrounding countryside and the mesmeric sea, suggest sublime rather than picturesque beauty. Picturesque beauty generally was the sum of a series of set rules, usually leading the viewer (in the case of a landscape painting) through a series of topographical planes--foreground, fields, hills--towards some distant point of luminary climax. (25) On the other hand, the sublime dealt in darkness and the terrifying impressiveness and irregularity of nature; the sea, vast mountains, or volcanoes. (26)

In addition, the minstrel or bard was an important literary figure that emerged in the eighteenth century, who became associated with picturesque-sublime landscapes and contributed to the rise of Romanticism. Katie Trumpener explains that 'the publication of Thomas Gray's poem "The Bard" (1757) and James Macpherson's Poems of Ossian (1760-65)' caused widespread enthusiasm for 'bardic poetry and for the picturesque landscapes of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland'. (27) Further, Liam McIlvanney argues that Robert Burns 'is an often forgotten influence on "bardic nationalism" in the late eighteenth century'. (28) McIlvanney quotes the following extract from Sydney Owenson's The Wild Irish Girl (1806) as evidence of the influence of Burns in Owenson's characterisation of the Irish bard: 'Here then is some specimen of Irish poetry, which is almost always the effusion of some blind itinerant bard, or some rustic minstrel, into whose breast the genius of his country has breathed inspiration, as he patiently drove the plough, or laboriously worked in the bog'. (29) As McIlvanney points out, 'Sydney Owenson, a writer who shows profound disdain for lowland Presbyterian Scotland and the "Scottish" parts of Ulster, nevertheless uses Robert Burns as a model for her portrait of the Irish bard'. (30) Significantly, there is a relative convergence of Scottish and Irish conceptions of the bard, via Bums and Owenson, in the minstrel's appearance in Rathlin.

In The Wild Irish Girl moreover, Owenson's sublime representations of the Irish landscape are epitomised by its wild heaths and bogs:
   To him who derives gratification from the embellished labours of
   art, rather than the simple but sublime operations of nature, Irish
   scenery will afford little interest; but the bold features of its
   varying landscape, the stupendous attitude of its "cloud-capt"
   mountains, the impervious gloom of its deep embosomed glens, the
   savage desolation of its uncultivated heaths, and boundless bogs,
   with those rich veins of a picturesque champagne [...] awaken in
   the poetic or pictorial traveller, all the pleasures of tasteful
   enjoyment, all the sublime emotions of a rapt imagination. (31)

A comparison with the opening passage of Eathlin shows that desolate heath, a picturesque prospect and a remote wilderness are all similarly present, and mediated alternately by a pensive poetic imagination and a pictorial traveller view. Yet a significant inclusive feature of Beggs's prospect is the Scottish horizon, which extends the liminality of picturesque and Romantic perceptions of the landscape into a transcultural and transnational --Irish and Scottish--scene, and which according to Mcllvanney exists as a kind of heteroglossia in Owenson's novel through the underlying presence of Burns.

There are moreover, further transcultural markers in Beggs's treatment of the peatland environment in the opening passages of Rathlin, which surface from a consideration of Beggs's command of Scots diction and his knowledge of Scottish poetic verse forms, as well as his proximity to, and credible familiarity with, the chiefly Gaelic-speaking districts of the Glens of Antrim. (32) The English word 'flush' for instance, used in the first line of Rathlin, has a meaning in Scots which specifically describes 'A piece of boggy ground, esp one where water frequently lies on the surface'. Another word 'Hough' meaning the 'top of the peat bank', which may be a related descriptor for bog or peat ground, is found in the Concise Ulster Dictionary? A In addition, Terence Patrick Dolan's Dictionary of Hiberno-English describes 'flush' as 'a pool of water extending almost across a road'; and the definition includes a literary example from another nineteenth-century Ulster writer, William Carleton (1794-1869), who provides this footnote to a passage from the short story 'Shane Fadh's Wedding' (1834): 'It is usually fed by a small mountain stream and in consequence of rising and falling rapidly, it is called "Flush". (35)

Furthermore, the Jonsonian definition for 'waste'--'desolate; uncultivated' ground--is pejorative, though 'heath-cowl'd' presents boggy terrain within a more picturesque frame. (36) The shortened 'cowl'd'--meaning covered--which sounds more like the Scots 'cauld' used for 'cold', is also a word in Scots that describes stiff, clayey, or agriculturally poor land. (37) Additionally, the Irish translation for Ramoan, the parish that surrounds Ballycastle in the barony of Carey, comes from the conflation of rath, a mount or fort and mora, a bog or plain--the fort of the bog'. The use of English and the inference of Scots and Irish bog-related words infuse the negative connotations of the bog with images of picturesque/sublime beauty, practical value, and historical-martial significance, and can be said to infer both the cadence of speech in this area of north-east Ulster and the same sense of bog as an unfathomable cultural repository that is attributed much later to Seamus Heaney's bog poems. (39)

Ultimately, in this analysis of Beggs's engagement with artistic and literary forms such as the topographical tradition, the picturesque, and the sublime; an ascription of value can be deduced from the depiction of peatland habitat in the opening scenes of Rathlin. Moreover a close-reading of the opening passages of Rathlin, and Beggs's representation of the peatland environment of north-east Ireland, reveals an Ulster-Scottish subtext of variable registers and hybrid literary inheritances, which recognises a rich vein of transcultural expression, and which evokes John Keats's notion that 'poetry should surprise by a fine excess'.


There are, in addition, major references to the historical connections between Ulster and Scotland throughout Rathlin: Beggs ruminates on Robert the Bmce's (later King I of Scotland) escape to Rathlin in 1306 during the Wars of Scottish Independence; and alludes to the feuding Scoto-Irish MacQuillan and MacDonnell families, who controlled most of north Antrim (known as 'the Route') prior to the Plantation of Ulster. (41) In particular, Beggs turns his attention to the history of the McQuillans, in a subsequent section of the poem, and to the story of the seventeenth-century Irish prophet and hermit Julia McQuillan, or Dubh ni Valone ('The Black Nun'), and the sixteenth-century Franciscan, Bonamargy Friary. (42)

As will be shown in this section, in Rathlin, the prophecies of the Black Nun are chiefly part of an oral Ulster-Scottish cotter tradition, which is interwoven with the bogland environment of north-east Ulster. This culminates somewhat in the poem, in a verse account of a bursting bog, which occurred on Knocklayde Mountain in the late eighteenth century, and which was prophesied a century earlier by the Black Nun. This section aims to extend an analysis of peatland in Rathlin, which sees this habitat increasingly valued, sentimentalised and associated with the region's Ulster-Scottish heritage; and which is set against the early nineteenth-century, industrial-scale reclamation of bogland and agricultural homogenisation of the landscape (and its cultural counterpart), in Ireland.

Beggs's bog natural disaster is foregrounded by a passage set in the ruins of Bonamargy Friary. Beggs explains that this locality is 'rich in yore, / With glory in the light of lore': (43)
   'Twas there, when silence hushed the craik,
   And reigned recumbent o'er the lake, (44)
   When daisies drank the twilight dew,
   And Hesper's gem was brightly blue,
   That sparkled o'er the tinkling rill,
   And glimmered on the misty hill,
   Then Dubh ni Valone, weird-like Nun,
   Of ringlets dark, and visage dun,
   Mysterious tiding often gleaned. (45)

Beggs uses a mixture of rhyme ('craik'/'lake') and alliteration ('daisies drank') together with the personification of Hesperus, the evening star in Greek mythology ('Hesper's gem'), to develop in the lines a sense of transition from nature to the supernatural, in anticipation of 'Dubh ni Valone, weird-like Nun'.

Notably, the word 'weird', according to the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, was extended from 'the ability to foretell or control destiny', to also mean 'unearthly or supernatural', in the early nineteenth century. (46) This was, according to the definition, motivated by a line from William Shakespeare's Macbeth, 'The weird sisters, hand in hand' (Mac. 1.3.32). (47) It seems likely therefore that through use of this word, Beggs is inferring the witches of the Scottish Play, their prophetic (weird) powers and supernatural associations. The intertextual reference of Macbeth helps to reinforce the Scottish heritage of the Black Nun; while the physical environment of north-east Ulster and the Irish name, Dubh ni Valone, support the Irishness of the tradition.

Moreover, several other accounts of the Black Nun appear in early nineteenth-century Irish literature. Two examples come from long poems about the north coast of Ireland, by two Ulster-Scots contemporaries of Beggs: William Hamilton Drummond's The Giants Causeway (1811) and John McKinley's The Giant's Causeway (1819). (48) Drummond and McKinley both include verse lines on the ruined site of the friary at Ballycastle and provide notes pertaining to the tradition of the Black Nun. (49) In addition, Sydney Owenson's novel O'Donnel: A National Tale, published in 1814, involves a tour by the characters of the novel to the north Antrim coast, where they encounter the ruined Bonamargy Friary.

O'Donnel, according to Joep Leerssen, portrays a visit to Ireland by 'the vapid character of Lady Singleton and her circle, an English noblewoman who [...] lures the eponymous hero, heir to the O'Donnel chieftaincy, to her coterie in London, where he is ridiculed by snobbish socialites'. (50) Crucially the meeting of Lady Singleton and her party occurs at Bonamargy's ruins:
   Lady Florence, trailing the drapery of an Indian shawl, which
   breathed of Indian roses, over the long rye-grass that rustled
   above the consecrated earth [...] talked of the place, its
   wildness, and its gloom, with romantic enthusiasm; and throwing her
   shawl over her head, folding her hands, and placing herself under
   the arch of the broken aisle, with no feeble effect, repeated: 'In
   each low wind methinks a spirit calls, / And more than echoes talk
   along these walls:'. (51)

It appears that the physical description of this passage owes much to Drummond's The Giant's Causeway, indeed Owenson cites Drummond's poem as a source to this part of the novel.' (52)

Moreover, Lady Florence's lines, quoted above, are from Alexander Pope's poem 'Eloisa to Abelard' (1717), and comparably follow the flow of thought in subsequent lines from The Giant's Causeway, where once 'some Eloisa strove', though 'Now all is hushed, and silent as the grave, / Save when the tempests through the lone aisles rave'. (53) Owenson echoes Drummond's act of literary palimpsest, converting the Black Nun to the more widely recognised medieval nun from Pope's 'Eloisa to Abelard'. (54) Further, Owenson's image of rustling ryegrass also appears to have been sketched from lines in Drummond's poem, situated at Bonamargy: 'Where Margy's walls, unroofed and mouldering stand, / Mid the long rye-grass rustling o'er the sand'. (55)

The ryegrass (lolium perenne) is significant in this instance, because it was Reverend William Richardson, a fellow member of the Belfast Literary Society with Drummond, and a member and contributor to the Royal Irish Academy; who almost singlehandedly and rather eccentrically promoted this type of grass along with florin grass (agrostis stolonifera) as a solution to bog reclamation in Ireland. (56) Richardson presented several papers to the Belfast Literary Society and the Royal Irish Academy on grasses, culminating in his treatise A New Essay on Fiorin Grass (1814)/ Richardson's work on grasses was a direct response to 'the aegis of the Dublin Society [...] to contribute to the improvement of agriculture in Ireland', and his work gained the support of the English chemist Sir Humphrey Davy and English naturalist and botanist Sir Joseph Banks. (58) Patrick Jackson explains that Richardson gained larger fame as an agriculturalist for his publications on growing grasses to support livestock in winter and a 'scheme for draining and reclaiming the bog of Allen and other bogs to the north for use as meadow grazing'. (59)

Crucially, the early nineteenth-century included the most comprehensive study of Ireland's bogs thus far: the four Reports of the Commissioners Appointed to Enquire into the Nature and Extent of Several Bogs in Ireland: and the Practicality of Draining and Cultivating them, were published between 1810 and 1814. The House of Commons (read Anglo-Irish) surveys of this period regarded bogland as unproductive wasteland, which should be transformed into homogenous, cultivatable soil. (60) Ryegrass was thus increasingly used in this process of improving bogland in Ireland, in the early nineteenth century, and in this sense Drummond's and Morgan's attempts to graft the Popean, Anglo-French tragic story of Eloisa onto the local Ulster-Scottish tradition of the Black Nun, can be seen as a literary parallel to the use of ryegrass in reclaiming bogland.

Therefore Beggs's omittance of ryegrass (whether conscious or unconscious) within the Bonamargy environment supports the interpretation of a predilection for the area's natural peatland. It might also be argued that the physical description of the Black Nun is tainted with bog imagery: 'Of ringlets dark, and visage dun'. The description of small dark rings or circles suggests the appearance and colour of boggy ground, and the Scots word 'dun' can mean 'dull brown', which altogether evoke the image of a bog body. (61) While this imagery anticipates the bog bodies that Heaney describes in several of his poems, in 'The Tollund Man' (1972) for example; it is worth noting that even before Rathlin was written, Elizabeth Rawdon (Lady Moira, 1789-1808) had published the first known scientific investigation of a bog body in the journal Archaeologia, following a discovery on Drumkeeragh Mountain, County Down, on Lord Moira's land in the 1780s. (62)

Bog allusion in the description of the Black Nun leads thematically into an account of a specific foretelling by the seventeenth-century prophet, of a bursting-bog natural disaster:
   And lands o'erwhelmed with watery pest,
   From bleak Knock-laida's bursting breast:
   An yet forsooth her sayings pass
   With mountain kerne and cottage lass.
   There east may searching tourist trace
   The pitchy entrails of the place,
   Which glow upon the cotter's hearth, (63)

The disastrous event, which Beggs explains in notes to the poem, is gleaned from an account given in a topographical publication, the Hibernian Gazetteer, as having occurred at Knocklayde, in May 1788. (64) The article quoted by Beggs reveals that an eruption took place on the mountain: 'announced by a noise resembling a continual crash of thunder' and followed by 'a column of fire and smoke, which ascended about sixty yards into the air, after a shower of ashes and stones, which extended a quarter of a mile round the hill'. (65)

Beggs concludes the account (from his notes) of the eruption at Knocklayde, by asserting that the 'author gives his authority, but does not vouch for the truth of the preceding article'. (66) Beggs casts some doubt over the topographical account and instead extols the stories favoured by 'mountain kerne and cottage lass': the local cotter-class community. Ironically the cotter's hearth is lit by the peat cut from Knocklayde Mountain: the 'pitchy entrails of the place, / Which glow upon the cotter's hearth'. The word 'entrails' again evokes a bog body or suggests that the bogland be thought of as a living landscape. Yet what becomes clear in the succeeding lines is that the peat is a vital part of the ecology of this Ulster-Scottish cotter community: 'And swell the soul encircling mirth--/ The children's and the crickets' song, / When nights are wintry, wild and long'. (67)

Indeed, during her scholarly discussion of Robert Burns's 'The Cotter's Saturday Night' (1786) and James Orr's 'The Irish Cottier's Death and Burial' (1817); Carol Baraniuk relates these poems as very much part of what she calls 'The Cotter Tradition'. (68) Burns's poem strongly echoes Robert Fergusson's 'The Farmer's Ingle' (1773), and links into a broader eighteenth century, Scoto-British tradition of pastoral, cottage life that includes poems by James Thomson, Thomas Gray, and Allan Ramsay. (69) And yet, Beggs, like Orr, extends the literary tradition of cotter life to a northern Irish milieu and to an Irish literary context, along with a host of other major labouring-class, Ulster-Scots poets during the Romantic era. (70) Beggs may not explore the 'Ulster-Scots community's experience of poverty, injustice and marginalisation', to the same extent as Orr in 'The Irish Cottier', as Baranuik argues; yet Beggs does offer an alternative cotter-narrative, to the homogenous aims of the bog surveys and agricultural improvers, which obliquely endorsed an Anglo-Irish cultural standard. (71)

In conclusion therefore, the cotter scene is a fitting espousal of the relationship in this region between Ulster-Scottish cultural heritage and the peaty boglands of north-east Ulster. This is a rural idyll, where peat is a valuable source of fuel, heat and light, though which is also a kind of cultural fuel to which the 'soul enriching mirth' of the community relies. As a comparison of peatland and culture, Richardson's mission to physically engineer bogland in Ireland and Drummond's and Owenson's analogous grafting of an imported literary fable to north-east Ulster are challenged culturally and environmentally in Rathlin.


(1) Thomas Beggs, 'The Mountain Top', The Second Tart of the Minstrel's Offering (Belfast: Hugh Clark & Co, 1836), p. 15.

(2) Thomas Beggs, Rathlin; A Descriptive Poem, Written After a Visit to that Island, in the Autumn of 1819 (Belfast, 1820). A second illustrated edition of Rathlin was published in Belfast, in 1840, with a song added to the main body of Book Two of the poem. Thomas Beggs, Rathlin; a Descriptive Poem, Written After a Visit to that Island. Illustrated with Notes (Belfast: Hugh Clark, 1840). The second edition has been digitised and is now available in the book collection of the Ulster-Scots Poetry Project,

(3) For an extended biographical account of Beggs see John Fullerton, 'Life and Writings of Thomas Beggs', in The Ulster Magazine and Monthly Review of Science and Literature, 2:18 (Belfast, 1861), pp. 243-49.

(4) See Jennifer Orr ed., The Correspondence of Samuel Thomson (1766-1816) (Dublin: Four Court Press, 2012), p. 25.

(5) See Francis Joseph Bigger, 'Thomas Beggs, an Antrim Poet: and the Four Towns Bookclub', Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 8: 3 (Belfast: the Linenhall Press, 1902), pp.119-27.

(6) For further discussion of each of the poets mentioned in this passage, see also John Hewitt, Rhyming Weavers & other Country Poets of Antrim and Down (1974; Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2004).

(7) Blanket bog is a main type of peatland, predominantly found on poorly drained upland, which is thought to have once been covered by forest. See Jonathan Pilcher and Valerie Hall, Flora Hibernica: The Wild Flowers, Plants and Trees of Ireland (Cork: The Collins Press, 2004), pp. 71-72. According to Paul Lyle, the Antrim Plateau is an upland region of County Antrim that 'descends steeply to form the renowned nine Glens of Antrim, cut by fast flowing rivers running east and north-east towards the sea'. Paul Lyle, Between Rocks and Hard Places: Discovering Ireland's Northern Landscapes (Northern Ireland: Geological Survey of Northern Ireland, 2010), p. 2.

(8) Beggs was an Ulster-Scots poet and he frequently wrote in Ulster-Scots vernacular. Beggs's verse also displays an interest in the ostensibly Irish Gaelic names and place-names of the Glens of Antrim, though as Eamon Phoenix reveals many of 'the original [Ulster] Plantation settlers were native Scots Gaelic speakers, capable of conversing with the native Irish of Antrim'. Therefore this is very much an area of mixed Scoto-Irish and Ulster-Scottish heritage. Eamon Phoenix, 'Introduction', in Feis na nGleann: A Century of Gaelic Culture in the Antrim Glens, ed. by Padraic O Cleireachain, Eileen McAuley and Nuala McSparran (Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 200;), p. xii.

(9) Peter Foss and Catherine O'Connell, 'Bogland: Study and Utilization', in Nature in Ireland: A Scientific and Cultural History, ed. by John Wilson Foster (Dublin, Lilliput Press: 1997), p. 192.

(10) The Irish name an Bhinn Mhor (Benmore) means 'the big cliff' or 'the big peak'.

(11) Beggs, Rathlin, p. 7.

(12) Arthur Murphy, The Works of Samuel Johnson LL.D., Vol. 9 (London, 1792), p. 78.

(13) John Wilson Foster, 'The Topographical Tradition in Anglo-Irish Poetry', Irish University Review, 4:2 (1974), 169-87 (p. 170).

(14) Foster, 'The Topographical Tradition', p. 170.

(15) Foster, 'The Topographical Tradition', p. 184.

(16) Other more recent, and more specific, scholarly discussions of Ulster-Scots topographical poetry include Jennifer Orr, '"In Costume Scotch o'er Bog and Park, My Hame-Bred Muse delighted Plays': Samuel Thomson's Poetic Fashioning of the Ulster Landscape", Scottish Titerary Review, 2:1 (2010).

(17) John Barrell, The Idea of landscape and the Sense of Place 1730-1840: an approach to the poetry of John Clare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972).

(18) Barrell, The Idea of Tandscape, p. 8.

(19) 'Note I', Beggs, Rathlin, p. 34. Cushendall and Cushendun are two villages on the north-east coast of Co. Antrim, and Ballycastle is a small town on the north coast. The blanket bog on Cushleake Mountain, Co. Antrim is now part of a conservation project managed by the National Trust.

(20) Anne Plumptre, Narrative of a Residence in Ireland, during the Summer of 1814, and that of 1815 (London, 1817).

(21) Plumptre, Narrative, p. 11 3.

(22) Plumptre, Narrative, pp. 116-17.

(23) 'Note I', Beggs, Rathlin, p. 34.

(24) Beggs, Rathlin, p. 7.

(25) See Barrell, The Idea of Landscape, pp. 1-63.

(26) Edmund Burke's essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and beautiful (1757) was a seminal publication in the emergence of the sublime. See also Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (London: Harper Perennial, 2004), pp.447-62.

(27) Katie Trumpener, Bardic Nationalism: The Romantic Novel and the British Empire (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 6.

(28) Liam McIlvanney, Burns the Radical: Poetry and Politics in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2002), p. 222.

(29) Sydney Owenson, [Lady Morgan], The Wild Irish Girl: A National Tale, ed. by Kathryn Kirkpatrick (1806; Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999), p. 89.

(30) McIlvanney, Burns the Radical, 222. It is worth pointing out that it is a character in The Wild Irish Girl that shows disdain for Ulster Scots.

(31) Owenson, The Wild Irish Girl, p. 1 8.

(32) Regarding the use of Ulster-Scots in his poetry, in the preface to The Second Part of the Minstrel's Offering, Beggs explains: 'Should the reader of the following effusions suppose, that in some parts the Author has imitated the Scottish dialect,--he would wish to correct the idea by alleging that he has written in his own style--in the language of his native glen--not constrained, but spontaneous as the lispings of our first speech'. Beggs, 'Preface', Minstrel's Offering.

(33) 'I. Flush', Dictionary of the Scots Language, [accessed 3 March 2014]; see also 'flush', The Concise Scots Dictionary, ed. by Mairi Robinson, 1987, and 'flush', Concise Ulster Dictionary, ed. by Caroline Macafee (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996).

(34) 'Flow, flough', CUD; see also 'flough' in the glossary of Frank Ferguson ed., Ulster-Scots Writing: An Anthology (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2008), p. 508.

(35) A Dictionary of Hiberno-English, ed. by Patrick Terence Dolan (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2006), p. 94; 'Shane Fadh's Wedding', William Carleton, Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, Vol. 1 (Dublin, 1834), p. 152.

(36) 'waste, def. 2', Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, 10th ed., (1792).

(37) 'cauld, def. 2: of land stiff, clayey'; CSD.

(38) Samuel Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, Vol. 2 (London, 1837), p. 483.

(39) Bruce Stewart explains Heaney's 'appropriation of Irish bogland as an image of profound interiority, unfathomable depth [... which] frames the culturally enriching (if historically questionable) idea that "our pioneers keep striking/Inwards and downwards" '. Bruce Stewart, 'The Old Bog Road: Expressions of Atavism in Irish Culture', Writing Ulster, 6 (1999), 162-93 (p. 167).

(40) See the letter from Keats to John Taylor, 'Hampstead, February 27th, 1818', (2000), [accessed 25 March 2014]. In addition, Seamus Heaney describes 'fine excess' as the poet's ability to offer 'a general gift for outstripping the reader's expectation, an inventiveness that cannot settle for the conventional notion that enough is enough, but always wants to extend the vocabulary of emotional and technical expression'. Seamus Heaney, 'Extending the Alphabet: On Christopher Marlowe's "Hero and Leander" in The Redress of Poetry (London: Faber & Faber, 1995), p. 36.

(41) Beggs, Rathlin, p. 14; pp. 16-17; 'Notes xiii; xvii; xxv'. For a thorough discussion of the Bruce campaigns in Ireland, see Sean Duffy, Robert the Bruce's Irish Wars: The Invasions of Ireland 1306-1329 (Stroud: Tempus, 2002). The MacQullians/McQuillans were a Scoto-Irish clan, who ruled parts of the north-east of Ireland and whose fifteenth and sixteenth century feud with the neighbouring O'Cahans and subsequently the MacDonnells/McDonnells (who defeated the McQuillans), are crucial to the Ulster-Scottish history of this region.

(42) For a full account of The Black Nun see Francis Joseph Bigger The Ancient Franciscan Friary of Bun-a-margie, Ballycastle, on the north coast of Antrim (Belfast, 1898), p. 19. Bun-na-Mairge means 'the foot of the Margy (River)', which is the combined Glenshesk and Carey rivers at Ballycastle. Stephen Gwynn, Highways and Byways in Donegal and Antrim (London: Macmillan and Co., 1903), p. 252. This Franciscan friary was established by Rory MacQuillan in the early sixteenth century, and was later taken over by the MacDonnells. It was an important religious headquarters for Irish Franciscan missionaries to Scotland in the seventeenth century, and according to David Stevenson by 'the 1630s hundreds were visiting Bonamargy'. David Stevenson, Scottish Covenanters and Irish Confederates: Scottish-Irish Relations in the Mid-Seventeenth Century (Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2004), pp. 6-8.

(43) Beggs, Rathlin, p. 1 2.

(44) It is possible that Beggs is inferring a lake that is often associated with the prophetic visions of Julia McQullian, which is called Loughareema, or 'the Vanishing Lake'. The lake has a distinct natural plughole, which when packed with peat means that the water slowly filters through the chalk bed creating a visible lake. However, the peat can suddenly disperse, allowing the entire lake to drain rapidly. See 'Loughareema, The Vanishing Lake', Ceograph Ireland, [accessed 14 Aug 2012].

(45) Beggs, Rathlin, p. 12.

(46) 'weird def. 2', A Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, ed. by Elizabeth Knowles, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press, 2006, html?subview=Main&entry=t214.e7651 [accessed 15 September 2012].

(47) See 'Macbeth's encounter with the witches (From the History of Scotland)' The Holinshed Project,, [accessed 10 Sept 2012]. Similarly, accounts of the Black Nun generally date her time at Bonamargy to the early seventeenth-century. Some accounts mention mysterious events concerning a sister of the nun and one prophesy where two large standing stones some distance apart would become united--they were later used in the construction of Ballycastle harbour. Some elements such as the sisters, feuding Scottish clans, prophesies and the seemingly impossible movement of natural phenomena (Birnam Wood) are certainly comparable.

(48) William Hamilton Drummond, The Giant's Causeway, a Poem (Belfast, 1811); John McKinley, Poetic Sketches, Descriptive of the Giants' Causeway, and the Surrounding Scenery (Belfast, 1819).

(49) Drummond cites an account of Bonamargy Friary and the Black Nun that appeared in the Belfast Magazine for April 1809. See 'Note XXIII.', in Drummond, The Giant's Causeway, pp. 134-36. McKinley cites verbatim the Belfast Magazine account of the Black Nun, and relates the following prophecy: the 'mountain of Knocklaid, according to her assertion, contains in its centre an immense body of water, which at some future period is to burst forth, and deluge the surrounding country to the extent of seven miles round'. See 'Notes, At Bona Margy's roofless mouldering pile--', in McKinley, The Giant's Causeway, pp. 46-47.

(50) Joep Leerssen, 'Fiction Poetics and Cultural Stereotype: Local Colour in Scott, Morgan, and Maturin', in The Modern Language Review 86:2 (1991), p. 277.

(51) Sydney Owenson, O'Donnel: A National Tale, 3 vols., Vol I, (London: Henry Colburn, 1815), pp. 167-68.

(52) Regarding Drummond's account of Bonamargy, related from a local man named Robert Stewart; Morgan notes: 'I have borrowed this note from Dr Drummond's beautiful poem of "The Giant's Causeway'". Morgan, O'Donnel, p. 165.

(53) Drummond, The Giant's Causeway, pp. 27-28. Eloisa and Abelard is a twelfth-century story, based on the lives of Helo'ise d'Argenteuil and Peter Abelard, which provides the inspiration for Pope's heroic epistle 'Eloisa to Abelard' (1717). Eloisa or Helo'ise is a medieval nun who, along with her teacher and lover Abelard, is punished by the authorities for having an illicit relationship. In their respective passages, Eloisa represents a high culture, archetypal repressed medieval-abbess for Drummond and Morgan.

(54) In the story the character Lady Singleton reacts to a Ballycastle innkeeper's account of the Black Nun: '"I rather doubt a nun's claim to celebrity." [...] Lady Singleton, having asserted that it must be all a mistake, as she knew the Calendar of Saints pretty well, and no such name as Saint Shelagh was among them, she complied, notwithstanding, with the wishes of the rest of the party, to visit this ruined abbey'. Morgan, O'Donnel, p. 164-65.

(55) Drummond, The Giant's Causeway, p. 27.

(56) A recent book by Allan Blackstock offers the most comprehensive study thus far, on Richardson and his experimentation in the agricultural improvement of bogland using perennial grasses. Allan Blackstock, Science, Politics and Society in Early Nineteenth Century Ireland: The Reverend William Richardson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013). William Richardson (1740-1820) was a Trinity College Dublin-educated 'cleric, geologist, agriculturalist' and a prolific author and pamphleteer. Patrick N. Wyse Jackson, 'Richardson, William', in Dictionary of Irish Biography, ed. by James McGuire, James Quinn, Cambridge University Press, 2009; online edn,, [accessed 9 October 2012].

(57) William Richardson, A New Essay on Fiorin Grass, including The History of its Discovery and An Account of its Valuable Qualities, and Mode of Culture (London, 1814). This was originally published as Memoir on Fiorin Grass in the first fasciculus of select papers given by the Belfast Literary Society, in 1808. See George Smith, 'Historical Sketch', in The Belfast Literary Society 1801-1901, Historical Sketch with Memoirs of some Distinguished Members (Belfast: The Linenhall Press, 1902), p. 10.

(58) David Cabot, 'Essential Texts in Irish Natural History', in Foster, Nature in Ireland, p. 484.

(59) Jackson, 'Richardson, William', DOIB.

(60) While the government shifted from Dublin to London, many of the surveyors and engineers who carried out the work were members of the Irish Ascendency, such as Robert Lovell Edgeworth, the father of the novelist Maria Edgeworth. Charles Carson, Technology and the Big House in Ireland, c. 1800-f. 1930 (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2009) 241-42.

(61) '1. Dun', DSL, [accessed 21 December 2013].

(62) P. V. Glob, The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved (1965; New York: New York Review of Books, 2004), p. 86. Incidentally Glob's The Bog People inspired many of Heaney's poems about bog bodies. See Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 39. See also Countess of Moira, Elizabeth Rawdon 'Particulars relative to a Human Skeleton, and the Garments that were found thereon, when dug out of a Bog at the Foot of Drumkeragh, a Mountain in the County of Down, and the Barony of Kinalearty, on Lord Moira's Estate, in the Atumn of 1780', Archaeologia (The Society of Antiquaries of London), 7 (178;), 90-110.

(63) Beggs, Rathlin, p. 13.

(64) 'Note X', Beggs, Rathlin, p. 3;. The Hibernian Gazetteer (1782/1789) was a topographical publication by William Wenman Seward, which was a forerunner to Seward's substantial Topographia Hibernica (1795). See John Wilson Foster, 'Encountering Traditions,' in Foster, Nature in Ireland, pp. 62-63.

(65) 'Note X', Beggs, Rathlin, p. 3 5.

(66) 'Note X', Beggs, Rathlin, p. 35.

(67) Beggs, Kathlin, p. 13.

(68) Carol Baraniuk, 'Challenging Burns: James Orr's 'The Irish Cottier's Death and Burial', The Ulster-Scots Language Society, challenging-burns-james-orr-s-quot-the-irish-cottier-s-death-and-burial-quot/, [1 June 2014].

(69) See Nigel Leask, 'Robert Burns', in The Cambridge Companion to Scottish Literature, ed. by Gerard Carruthers and Liam Mcllvanney (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012), p. 77. See also Claire Lamont, 'House and Home in Burn's Poems', in Burns and Other Poets, ed. by David Sergeant and Fiona Stafford (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2012), pp. 80-90.

(70) Other major Romantic-era exponents of Ulster-Scots cotter, or cottier, poems include Samuel Thomson, Sarah Leech, Robert Huddleston and David Herbison.

(71) Baranuik, 'Challenging Burns'.

University of Ulster
COPYRIGHT 2014 Association for Scottish Literary Studies
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Gray, David
Publication:Scottish Literary Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Sep 22, 2014
Previous Article:James Morison, book illustration and The Poems of Robert Burns (1812).
Next Article:Politics and Art: James Kelman's Not Not While the Giro.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters