Category Archives: Prose

Guest-editor Arts section Fortnight magazine

It has been a great pleasure to guest-edit the Arts section of issue 492 of Fortnight.

The politics, social affairs and arts magazine launched in Northern Ireland in 1970. Throughout the Troubles and beyond it was an essential forum for discussion and evaluation. Fortnight re-launched in 2020.

Out today, 15th January.

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Burns and the modern Ulster-Scots writer – Steve Dornan

A writer writes. But insights about cultural context are important and, for the writer, intriguing. We plash about in the stream of words. It’s good to lift the head and see what kind of a stream – or burn – it is.

Robert Burns and Modern Ulster-Scots Poetry Steve Dornan, in this enlightening essay  for the Burns Chronicle, {Burns Chronicle 132.2 (2023): 204–215, published by Edinburgh University}, explores “how Burns’s increased visibility in Ulster is replicated in the work of modern poets who use Ulster-Scots in their work.”

Burns has been increasingly foregrounded in recent years, as Dornan notes,  “in official presentations of Ulster-Scots by the Ulster-Scots Agency and other public bodies. High-profile Burns Night concerts are now a staple and TV programmes have been commissioned to mark the occasion. Burns’s image also features prominently on the Ulster-Scots Agency websites and promotional materials. Has this increased visibility led to writers re-engaging with Burns, or can modern Ulster-Scots poetry be viewed as definitively ‘post-Burns’?”

This making Burns visible, as it were, (actually on the streets in the presence of display banners in Belfast city centre, for instance) is perhaps a cyclical phenomenon.  Prof. Wesley Hutchinson, in his article ‘Constructing An Ulster-Scots Burns’ traces the ways in which Burns’s work and ‘heritage’, was ‘curated’, from the mid-nineteenth century to just after the First World War, to serve the interests of one or other social or political group. 

Image Zoo City Dressing - Ulster Scots
city street Burns banners. Image Zoo for Ulster-Scots Agency

Dornan himself is central in the current florescence of Ulster-Scots writing, being the author of the genre-busting poem, Tha Jaa Banes. As he says himself, “The title poem, ‘Tha Jaa Banes’, is a semi-ironic supernatural Ulster-Scots romp which alludes at several points to the unquestionable masterpiece of the genre, Burns’s ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. In terms of form, voice, language and theme, echoes of and dialogues with Burns might be apparent to readers familiar with the work of the Ayrshire Bard.”

Dornan traces how verse forms typical of Burns’s work appear, or do not appear, in modern Ulster-Scots writing.  And he examines Seamus Heaney’s acknowledgement of the influence of Burns and Heaney’s own use of the vernacular. Dornan’s own work engages directly with Burns’s, perhaps, he suggests, because he lives in Scotland and studied at a Scottish university.

He assesses the influence of Burns on the work of of several contemporary Ulster-Scots writers and how it compares to the generation of writers who came to prominence in the 1990s such as James Fenton and Philip Robinson. Their consciousness of Burns, he believes, ” tends to stop short of the direct engagement with his work that was evident in previous generations of Ulster-Scots writers.”

He invites the writers, Alan Millar, Robert Campbell and Anne McMaster to consider Burns’s influence on their work. Their responses are, it seems to me, invaluable insights into a working process that is happening right here and now in Northern Ireland, a place which is not, to state the obvious, Scotland. It shouldn’t be surprising that Burns registers in ways that are unlike, and like,his impact in Scotland.

Robert Campbell refers, Dornan writes, to “childhood memories of looking at the illustrations in his grand-father’s nineteenth century ‘Edina’ edition of Burns’s poems, a volume which he subsequently inherited. This is a nice symbol for the sort of organic folk culture that traditionally exists around Robert Burns in Ulster. Campbell talks about Burns’s role in convincing him that Ulster-Scots is a valid medium for writing. He says: ‘It was the validation of language that was most important. He was an icon of literature but we were stupid for using the same words.’

Alan Millar, according to Dornan’s interview with him, recognises “the indirect influence of Burns. Millar is an enthusiast of writers from the Ulster-Scots tradition, who are much less globally recognised than the Scots tradition’s iconic poster boy. He says, ‘I approached Burns through the likes of (Samuel) Thomson and (James) Orr, the Ulster-Scots tradition. So his influence on me has an indirect element.’ The influence of these Ulster-Scots writers, sometimes collectively known as ‘The Weaver Poets’, or ‘The Rhyming Weavers’, is evident in several of his poems that use traditional stanza forms such as standard Habbie. In 2020 his poem ‘Wee Weaver Birdie’, which won the Scots Language Association’s ‘Tassie’ prize for best poem in 2021, alludes to this tradition. This poem uses the image of the wee weaver birdie as a metaphor for the Ulster-Scots tradition and its decline.”

Anne McMaster “also speaks of an indirect connection to Burns. In a statement that it is difficult to imagine a Scottish writer producing, she says: ‘I came late to reading Burns, and understood him as a pre-Romantic poet who had a real affinity with nature and the human condition.’ Anne McMaster appreciates the emotional impact of Burns’s language. She says: ‘It’s totally different from English – there’s a visceral response in reading his work (and in doing my own creative work in Ulster-Scots) that I don’t / can’t feel when writing in English.’ (I agree.)

part of the Gibson Collection of Burns’s work in Belfast’s Linen Hall Library

Steve Dornan interviewed me. Angela Graham, he writes, “feels influenced by some of Burns’s aesthetic choices and in particular his propensity for combining contrasting elements in his work: ‘I’d say I am influenced by those poems of his which appear simple in sentiment and rhyme but which carry a strong current of feeling; also his humorous poems. I don’t seem to come across much contemporary poetry which is deliberately light, amusing and double-layered, entertaining while conveying something solid.’

“This inclination,” Dornan says, “towards contradiction and paradox is something that has been mooted in critical writing on Scottish poetry from as far back as G. Gregory Smith’s famous characterisation of Scottish poetry as embodying a ‘zigzag of contradictions’.  This suggests that Burns, for writers of Ulster-Scots, can represent wider aesthetic possibilities that go beyond the linguistic.”

Steve Dornan concludes:  “A modern poet from Ulster, in contrast to a Scottish counterpart, is likely to have experienced a different level of exposure to Burns in educational settings and popular culture. This perhaps means that there is less necessity for writers of Ulster-Scots to engage with Burns, whether in emulation, or ostentatious bouts of bardoclasm. Writers from Ulster, therefore, have the freedom to engage with and re-discover Burns on their own terms.

“On the other hand, of course, good poetry cannot exist in a vacuum and is often in dialogue with tradition. Whether the traditional forms used by Burns are present or not, Burns can act as a useful avatar for writers who use Ulster-Scots in their work: the confident non-standard voice, the unabashed celebration of the marginal, the subtle, elusive artistry of his personae and the thrawn recalcitrance of his language and social commentary are all of value to any of us.”

As a writer in Ulster-Scots I’ve found Steve Dornan’s questions thought-provoking. My initial encounter with Burns’s work was in my childhood through songs, whose words we copied from the blackboard. So the words reached me as verse and as music. They were, therefore, ‘mine’ from my earliest years. Over the years I’ve enjoyed traditional Scots verse forms, often encountered through Burns and these have become mine also and form part of my writing repertoire. I find the technical challenges they set and their vernacular demand for authenticity and avoidance of pretension invigorating.

A very useful insight from Steve Dornan onto an aspect of the current Ulster-Scots writing scene.

And to meet some Ulster-Scots writers in person – 

left to right: Robbie McIlhatton, Angeline King, Morna Sullivan, Robert Campbell, Alan Millar and Ann McMaster


The Linen Hall 17 Donegall Square North, Belfast, United Kingdom

This year, The Linen Hall is proud to mark the Ulster-Scots Language Week with an evocative poetry reading event. Six distinguished poets—Robert Campbell, Angeline King, Ronnie McIlhatton, Anne McMaster, Alan Millar, and Morna Sullivan—are coming together to take us on a journey of words and emotions. Join us for a celebration of the Ulster-Scots heritage and talent.

Poetry & Current Affairs

The pace of current events worldwide seems to have accelerated. That is probably not the case, merely an impression, since what qualifies as an event must depend on the point of view from which circumstances are being judged. Undoubtedly , the upheavals in Russia and their impact on other countries are major events. Their impetus shifts bewilderingly fast. How can poetry keep up?

I felt compelled to write a poem in immediate reaction to news that Yevgeny Prigohzin had launched a march on Moscow. I had scarcely finished it when the headline was that he had called it off.

I wrote this article about my experience of crafting a poem about events that were changing with extraordinary speed.  It was published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs. It includes my poem, Prighozin’s Galley Slaves.

Poetry and Current Affairs

Zoe Brigley, co-editor of Poetry Wales, edited the first draft of this article.

Peterloo Massacre, print published by Richard Carlile, 1 Oct 1819 (Manchester ArchivesCC BY-NC 2.0)

‘IRISH STREET’ by Damian Smyth, my review

My review of Damian Smyth’s latest poetry collection appears in The Cardiff Review but as that site is temporarily unavailable please see below

Irish Street follows Damian Smyth’s pamphlet and six collections of poetry. Once again, he roots himself in a specific place, his homeplace. This is the Ulster equivalent of y filltir sgwar, the square mile, that intimate locus of birth and growth, where one knows and is known. The three streets at the centre of the small town of Downpatrick near Strangford Lough on Northern Ireland’s east coast epitomise the three cultural strands of the locality: English Street (the title of Smyth’s preceding collection), Scotch Street and Irish Street. From this core, Smyth takes the reader deep, high and wide in terms of location, time and perspective. This is also a collection which exalts compassion and reciprocity.

The book’s structure is essential to its success. Its three epigraphs signal cultural boundaries, cultural assimilation and the manipulation of minorities, and the dangers of colonialism – in my view; they are allusive, after all. The 123 poems are divided into 4 parts. There is no index but a section, In Other Words, which is a glossary of explicatory or allusive references germane to many of the poems. This is a technique Smyth has used before. The section’s title indicates that it exists, not because the poems have failed in their task, but because reality is so rich that there is more than one way of communicating it.

Unusually, a specific title may be shared by several poems. There are, for instance, 3 poems entitled, Hero, 2 in the Lumen section and 1 in Metempsychosis, surely an invitation to cross-reference. This unabashed re-visiting of a topic typifies the poet’s confident handling of the material and, also, his remarkable spiralling approach to it: a moving through a topic and a return to it at some different level or point of access.

The book is also a kind of palimpsest: accounts are re-presented; a place is re-visited, a character re-appears or is re-considered. This sense of experience and place existing at many levels and within many time-frames gives the work great coherence and depth.

The collection’s scope is flagged from the start. The opening six poems are Mappa Mundi, Downpatrick, Irish Street, Blood, The Past, Unhome. There you have it: global, local, specific, internal/familial, time/inheritance, and home. We are in the hands of a poet who both knows where he’s going and also knows that there will be surprises for him, and us, along the way.

The final section, Marks, lists the page numbers of 189 topics or things that feature in the book. For instance, Home comes in at 23 references; Angels 15; Lyra McKee 1, Robotussin 1, Wrapped in a rag 1. This listing and enumeration reinforce the book’s perception of the variety and plenitude of life.

Mappa Mundi, the first poem in the book, in describing the sketching of directions for a tourist, deftly introduces us to the bewildering fact that we exist and are capable of seeing ourselves existing: the subjective and objective perspectives:

The Quoile as broad as the wide Missouri, your own street emerging

Detailed to such an extreme that, indeed, that is yourself you see appear

In miniature at the end of the road beside a car that’s pulled up,

In your tinier hand a sliver of paper on which you are already sketching

Yet another version of things you again feature in, which deeper scrutiny,

Nuanced enough, will verify as perfect in every account, right down

Into the microscopic valleys and peaks of the manila; and so on

Forever, even when you – that must be you – finally realise the sense it makes:

Endings are beginnings: that every road out and round is also a road in.

There are several unreliable narrators. We meet the late Paddy The Bump (who features on the cover) in the seventh poem and in five others. In Vladimir Komarov Paddy asserts he has seen a doomed Russian space capsule fall to earth:

When Paddy The Bump

Was convinced he had seen that capsule spin,

 Already a Catherine wheel, in the sky over the Dam Hill,

We were ripe to believe the intimacy of witness:

That was his news, though it didn’t happen –

Not as he told it. There had been the radiance of Soyuz

Dropping like a tooth out of God’s mouth …

 Paddy is ridiculous in his assertions and his appearance but, in the long poem, Apparitions, the poet scrutinises closely that photograph of him which is on the book’s cover:

My face as close to his face now as the face

Of John Doris, optometrist, who settled upon

Those orotund cheekbones and along that bald pate,

Long-legged glasses, lenses so thick they left him surprised

For the rest of his life, the better to see with.

This is closer than any could have wished for at the time,

Or tried for: flesh has its own luminosity, a light

 Proximity will make unbearable, if not shielded by love.

 By the poem’s concluding lines, the poet has reached a microscopic level of engagement:

In the woods of his brain, where I am now, listening, …

 At this depth, the depth which love affords, Paddy has his dignity, his admirable selfhood.

In Buried Treasure, one of many poems about the proximity of the dead and the living, local characters live on:

There are dips and hollows where no marker is, but if you wish, I can map

Where people reside inside the planet, perplexed, their bony earthenware heads,

Turned like seashells to pick up the chatter of the living down in the town,

In the Arkle Bar or the John de Courcy, though no attraction will draw them out,

Deposited as they are behind a locked door, just yards from the stool they had sat on.

What comfort there is in their company, in their entirety guardians of the commonwealth.

We are offered many excellent images to savour. Of whins: They switch their floodlights on from dawn … and the canopy of those gnarly and small woods; or a path which drowns face down in a foot of river … and the black baby… / (Her fists like tulips, the soles of her feet already ruched as maps) …

Smyth favours long lines of free verse, carefully parsed in a variety of stanza lengths. Diction is colloquial and fluid except when he exploits recherché vocabulary for effect, as in Flight Into Egyptthe foliate spandrels of the Rococo tondo frame, with tiered rocaille cartouches…. There are successful sonnets, in both strict and looser form, and several poems in rhyme.

He is fond of bracketing a long parenthesis between an assertion and its conclusion. For instance, Flight Into Egypt opens with the line: But if this isn’t the single most important artefact in the possession of Ulster … – and concludes 11 lines later with: … then I don’t know what is. Pale Blue Dot goes further during its 25 lines: It is one thing … And it is another thing … But another thing entirely …The effect of this is breath-taking and dizzying but in a virtuoso way. The poetic control demonstrated justifies our hope that, having taken us far and wide, we will be landed safely on new ground.

Touches of wry humour abound, my favourite being the perceptive 5-line poem, Dipper which treats of a sheep in terms of the Egyptian royalty and a figurine from Ur / Gold leaf and lapis lit from within; those ankles, slim, elegant, worshipped.

The collection’s second poem, Downpatrick sets the tenor of the book by its depiction, as though in a miniature, of the single thing that might save its soul / When pestilence falls, rescue each mean inhabitant from ruin in every century / To come … and that is the kindness of the inhabitants towards the son of a pharmacist who tended to those who had nothing, for nothing. He has been merciful to them; they reciprocate by being gentle and generous towards his vulnerable son. Smyth makes clear that this reciprocity is in the reach of any town and, by implication, any of us.

Irish Street, Downpatrick

Photo below, the junction described in ‘St Brigid’s Day’

Because you could drop a rushy cross on the towncentre

And it would fit its articulate legs up each of the four streets,

Like its hips are broken, it’s clear that all the tales are true,

Especially the most unlikely.

Irish, English and Scotch Streets meet in exactly this way, as anyone who has ever seen them, or seen a St Brigid’s Cross, will agree.

Junction of Irish, Scotch and English Streets, Downpatrick

Available from Irish Street – templarpoetry in paperback 12.00 or hardback 14.99.

Fellowship from Institute of Welsh Affairs

It was a great pleasure to be awarded an Honorary Life Fellowship by the Institute of Welsh Affairs. The citation reads:

For supporting our shared objective of a strong, confident democracy in Wales by chairing and leading our media policy work to foster robust debate in Welsh society, laying the groundwork for our current citizen-centred  media and democracy work.

Left to right: IWA Chair, Bethan Darwin; Founder members Geraint Talfan Davies & Huw Roberts; Director, Auriol Miller

Continue reading Fellowship from Institute of Welsh Affairs

YARNS contemporary writing in Ulster-Scots

In time for Ulster-Scots Language Week (22nd – 27th November) the Ulster-Scots Community Network has brought out a very welcome collection of prose and poetry. The work of 25 writers, a few writing in Scots, is represented here.  It bills itself as ‘celebrating contemporary writing’ in both tongues.

I am very pleased to have 2 poems and an extract from my novel-in-progress Thoarn included.

The significance of this publication is that it sets today’s writers in Ulster-Scots firmly under the spotlight. Is the writing genuinely ‘contemporary’? How wide is the range of style and of subject-matter? What is the gender balance? What hope does it give that there is more high-calibre work to follow on?

The main editor, Dr Frank Ferguson stresses in his introduction that he sees the book as a spring-board.

‘Evidence of so many committed to their work begs the question of how we might work towards fanning single poems to pamphlets and collection…’

‘Such creative verve, as displayed in this collection requires recognition, support and nurturing from tha mainstream.’

Indeed, it does need such support and this collection demonstrates why such help is deserved.

Such support from the mainstream presumably means that Ulster-Scots will want to enter that mainstream,  claiming its place – or rather re-claiming its place – in the literature of the island and beyond. This means taking advantage of a developing openness to multi-lingual publication.

The last two years have seen a marked increase in the publication of new Ulster-Scots work. For instance, a year ago, Steve Dornan’s stylistically ambitious Tha Jaa Banes was brought out  by the Ulster-Scots Language Society.

The  Ulster-Scots elements in Anne McMaster’s moving poetry collection Walking Off The Land were rightly welcomed by her publisher Hedgehog Press. One of my poems in ‘Yarns’ was first published (in an earlier version) in the English-language Bangor Literary Journal. I found no editorial barrier to submitting in Ulster-Scots.  In my collection of short stories, A City Burning the Welsh publisher did not baulk at including a story with an Ulster-Scots-speaking character.

The resistance to multi-lingualism has lessened. For instance, I notice poems in Irish appearing in collections from Welsh publisher Black Bough Poems. I see a welcome drive towards fostering the creative expression of  writers who are among our newer citizens, bringing non-European languages to our cultural life. Today’s editor is increasingly likely to be presented with work in languages other than English.

A striking example is Arachne Press’s bilingual Welsh/English poetry anthologies such as the upcoming  A470 

A470 Poems for the Road -Cerddi’r Ffordd

and its anthology What Meets The Eye poems, short fiction and scripts from UK Deaf, deaf and Hard of Hearing writers in which another language, British Sign Language, shares the stage.

Multi-lingual publishing requires, of course, additional editorial expertise and it demands more of critics, and readers. It’s not too much to expect publishing to reflect the society – the writers and readers – it springs from.

It’s heartening that during Ulster-Scots Langauge Week 22 – 27th November the theme of the workshop for writers in Ulster-Scots is Future Tense

That is, Scots / Ulster-Scots as a language of the now, of evolution of all its speakers of all ages, and its words and relation to the modern world.

Yarns is available from [email protected] or [email protected]

On The Wall: Place and Displacement 1st draft

“Get it up on the wall,” Des Jones says of plaster. “You can do what you like with it later.” He’s married to my husband’s cousin, Susan and he’s handled a quare few walls in his time. So I’ve got my book on Place and Displacement ‘”up on the wall’ this afternoon, tens of thousands of words, and I’ll put the finishing touches to it when I’ve had a metaphorical cup of tea. (The illustration is the cross-section of the house from the speculator’s submission to Belfast City Council. It’s the dream of the house before it became a reality, one of thousands of parlour houses built for the expanding city.)

I’ve had to go and have a bit of a lie-down too because the work has covered several years of research and preparation and centuries of event and my head is full of architectural and historical details. I received a Support for the Individual Artist Award (SIAP) from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in 2019 towards research for this book.

This piece of work started as ‘a bit of context’ for a set of poems I’ve written about the house of my childhood and my experiences of growing up in east Belfast in the Sixties and Seventies. It gave me the opportunity to focus the search for my paternal grandfather which I’ve been carrying out, off and on, since the Eighties when I made a TV documentary which touched on some of the material. My grandfather was almost never spoken of in my childhood and it has taken much careful research, over many years, to tease out his story. I kept everything I came across and, over time, connections have matured, as I have, and I feel I am more able, at this stage, to see the broader picture.

It also became a forensic investigation of, not only the house, but the area, the field in which it was built and the people who put up the money for it, designed it, built it and first lived in it. It’s an account of belonging, and not being allowed to belong. Continue reading On The Wall: Place and Displacement 1st draft