Comedian Tim McGarry tells JOANNE SAVAGE about putting his preconceptions to one side to discover more about Ulster-Scots - the history and the language
Tim McGarry, who describes himself as a ‘lapsed Papist’ and has previously got comedy milegage out of the Ulster -Scots language, has now, most interestingly, taken an Ulster- Scots journey of discovery which emphasises just how historically enmeshed our two ‘divided’ communities are here in Northern Ireland. The north Belfast stand-up has put his preconceptions to one side for a two-part historical documentary exploring Ulster’s Scots connection and the much-contested language.
“The problem with Ulster Scots, as someone once said to me,” confides the comedian and member of the Hole in the Wall Gang, “is that people either take it too seriously or simply dismiss it on principle.
“At first I was a tad sceptical, being a natural-born cynic, but as I love history and we started to investigate Ulster’s longstanding connection to Scotland I became intrigued. Whatever your views on the language, there is no denying when you look into the history of it, that Northern Ireland has a historical link to Scotland that the rest of Ireland does not share – Ulster is unique in this respect.
“So we looked into the roots of the Ulster-Scots connection and we researched back in my family tree, to discover that I am one of a great many people here who has Ulster-Scots ancestors.”
One of many intriguing facts unveiled throughout these two jaunty documentary programmes for BBC Northern Ireland (with added jokes and banter in keeping with McGarry’s typical approach) is that the first Scots settlers arrived in Larne and that Scotland in some sense takes its name from the Irish who arrived there to raid and plunder - whom the Romans called ‘Scotties’. Here too the programme deals with the history of the Plantation and of some of the myths that accompany this seismic historical moment.
McGarry – assuming he had thoroughly Roman Catholic roots in Rasharkin – was fascinated to find out that three generations back in his family, his “great-grandmother was the result of an illicit affair between a Presbyterian assistant farmer and a Catholic maid on the Ards Penninsula.
“Both of them had Ulster- Scots surnames. My great grandmother, a very highly respected Catholic school teacher from Rasharkin, was their daughter.”
I tell McGarry this is what I find most interesting about these documentaries – how it shows the entwined nature of Protestant and Catholic, orange and green traditions throughout history – marriages and connections where you least expect it; it shows that however we enforce a polarity between these communities they are actually linked in so many different and unexpected ways.
On his historical odyssey McGarry also talked to the Ulster Historical Foundation which specialises in family trees; there he meets a man named Bill Rosen who is particularly interested in the history of surnames.
“What he loves to do is to go around during election times looking at DUP and Sinn Fein posters and working out how their surnames often hail from the opposing side of the community to the one they currently seek to represent.
“Adams is actually a Scottish name; we have a Ken Maginnis and a Martin McGuinness; somewhere along the line in our histories the divisions we uphold today become blurred.”
And the north Belfast comedian even begins to develop a certain respect for the Ulster-Scots language, even if he can’t resist the necessary joke and jag en route.
“I try to be honest about the language. I mean I have got quite a few jokes out of it for my stand-up. But I met a really lovely guy called Jackie Thompson, an Ulster-Scots speaker from the Ards Penninsula, and we go into the history of it and see that there was a language a few hundred years ago that was spoken in certain parts of Ulster.
“There’s a book written in 1865 by a certain very snobby Englishman who complained at the words that people in Belfast were using – and what they were speaking was some kind of Ulster-Scots.
“Even the great Seamus Heaney can be said to have used some Ulster-Scots words in his poetry.”
But Tim is keeping the humour firmly in place throughout: “We did ask ‘Is Ulster Scots just something for angry unionists to promote or is it in fact a valid part of our culture that has taken a lot of flak?’
“I met an Orangeman from Ballycarry and I asked him: ‘Could a lapsed Papist like me ever be considered an Ulster Scot? And he said, ‘Absolutely – why not?’
“But this is also about broadening the whole issue of Ulster-Scots and saying look, don’t go into this with your Troubles-tinted glasses thinking this is only something that is relevant to the Protestant/unionist side of the community – actually this history touches all of us here in Ulster and we should open our minds to it without prejudgment.”
Tim McGarry’s Ulster Scots Journey, BBC One NI, December 11, 10.35pm.