By Richard Gwynallen
James Campbell of Ballynure
(1759 – 1818)
Relationship to Fawn: 1st cousin 10x removed
I have not spent a lot of time looking at various family lines that extend from aunts and uncles much beyond my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. There’s just so many of them. However, I got drawn to James Campbell because of his involvement in a very interesting period of Irish history, that of the 1798 uprising and the working class literary movement known as the Weaver Poets.
I briefly introduced Mary Campbell in the story, The Sloan Journey to America. Mary married George Sloan in 1714 and was the mother of Fergus and possibly Mary Sloan. It is unclear who her parents were, but her brother John Campbell became the grandfather of James Campbell, the subject of this story.
James Campbell of Ballynure
James Campbell was born in Cairncastle, County Antrim. He learned to weave, and moved to Ballynure, County Antrim, where he worked as a journeyman hand-loom weaver of linen, and then to Ballybracken, County Antrim. Campbell married a woman of the surname Stewart from Carrickfergus and had seven children. His life as a family man, however, is not the focus of this story.
He was a supporter of the Society of United Irishmen, and was arrested following the 1798 rebellion. His papers, which contained all his poems written up to that point, were seized by the authorities. He was released after no hard evidence against him could be obtained, but his papers were not returned. Except for what survived from circulation to friends and subscribers to his work, everything was lost up to that point.
What could be collected was edited by Alexander McDowell, and the Posthumous Works of James Campbell of Ballynure was published in 1820, two years after the poet’s death. The collection was republished in 1870 with unpublished poems added, a copy of which can be downloaded through the University of Ulster’s online collection: The Poems and Songs of James Campbell of Ballynure.
From John Fullarton’s “Memoir” in the above referenced collection we learn that our distant cousin enjoyed drinking and celebration, regarded his duty to be to his own working class community and demonstrated no use for upper class wants or sensibilities to the day he died. He was, I was would say from this accounts, a feisty man.
Fullarton’s “Memoir” provides a good introduction to James Campbell, and you can read that for yourself, but I will highlight a few quotes.
First, Fullerton describes the poet’s method of work: “The principal part, if not all, he wrote was composed on the loom. It was his custom to keep an inkhorn and paper always within reach, and jot down his verses the instant they were formed in his mind.”
Fullerton notes that James Campbell was a hand-loom linen weaver, and wrote of the occupation as follows:
“Although in his time this branch of business was deemed prosperous, the earnings of a good workman seldom averaged ten shillings weekly; occupying his entire time from thirteen to sixteen hours a day. And yet, even with this low remuneration of their labour, the hand-loom weavers of Ulster are or were a light-hearted, intelligent class of men, industrious, unshackled in mind . . .”
I focus on the above remarks because I think they offer a good transition to the Ulster Weavers as a context for James Campbell’s life.
Who were the Ulster Weavers?
The importance of poetry and song in weaver communities was remarked upon by John Kirk in Cultures of Radicalism in Britain and Ireland. Kirk quotes from Recollections of 1844 by William Thom, a hand-loom weaver in Aberdeen in the northeast of Scotland. Thom described the dull environment of the weaving shed, and “recorded his indebtedness to the gloom-lifting ‘Song Spirits as they walked in melody from loom to loom.’ When ‘the breast was filled with everything but hope and happiness’, he recalled, ‘a vigorous chorus of A man’s a man for a’ that’ cheered the fagged weavers.” Kirk’s book also includes a lengthy discussion of the inspiration of Robert Burns’ work on the weaver poets of Ulster and Scotland.
The Ulster Weaver poets, and their compatriots in Scotland, dubbed the Rhyming Weavers, of the 18th and 19th centuries were an important part of a working class, mostly Protestant, literary movement which was led by men who were writing mostly in vernacular Ulster Scots. Between 1750 and1850 more than sixty volumes of Ulster Scots poetry was published.
The movement helped preserve the Ulster Scots language, but it also represented an adaptation of vernacular Scots literature to increased use of standard English. By the late 18th century most of the poets were functionally bilingual and writing in both Scots and standard English, as was the case for James Campbell.
Though their movement was referred to as the Weaver Poets and the Rhyming Weavers, their ranks included schoolteachers, and other artisans in addition to weavers, though most were involved in the textiles industry in some form. They were supported within their own working class communities, and titles associated with the more prominent, such as the Bard of Ballycarry (James Orr), the Bard of Dunclug (David Herbison) and the Bard of Carngranny (Samuel Thomson), were given them by their own people.
In Ulster, the weaver poets, like the textile industry, were mostly concentrated in County Antrim and County Down. Like the much better known Robert Burns, these poets worked hard for a living, knew poverty and oppressive working conditions, and wrote in addition to grueling work days. They were literate but not necessarily formally educated.
Unlike local poets in England and Scotland, these poets did not benefit from the patronage of landed gentry or early capitalists, but were supported by locals across the social spectrum. Their poems were published by subscription.
Subjects of their work were commonplace matters of their community; including food, beer, tea, whiskey, crops, local people, work, the local landscape, and their political feelings, though the latter were often referenced often in code.
Many of these poets were regarded as politically radical poets and there are many radical sentiments in their work, such as Orr’s poem ”To a Potatoe.” Their radicalism was expressed as supporters of the United Irishmen and involvement in the 1798 uprising. Many of them published in the Belfast United Irishman newspaper Northern Star until the paper was closed down in 1797. Their publications brought them to the attention of the government.
The Ulster Scots poets created an inner circle where they were corresponding with each other. Much of their exchange was about each others’ writings and the political situation where writing by code became a norm. None of James Campbell’s letters, if there were many, survive. What we know about Campbell is through his poems and references by others. A reviewer of Jennifer Orr’s book, The Correspondence of Samuel Thomson, wrote that “The relationships of the inner circle seems to border on the ‘you buy mine and I’ll buy yours” scenario or the “here is a list of subscribers for your book or your poem, and I hope you can do the same for me” idea.” Thus, their correspondence supported each others’ publications as well sharing ideas.
United Irishmen and the 1798 Uprising
One reason I chose to post a story about James Campbell is that it addresses what often is regarded as a conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, with the latter stiffly loyal to the United Kingdom. In fact, in the late 18th century Protestants were integrally involved in Irish independence, provided numerous now famous leaders, and were highly significant in the failed 1798 uprising.
The American and French Revolutions encouraged a group of radical Protestants and Catholics in Ireland to work for an independent republic with democratic ideals. In 1791 a group of Protestant liberals in Belfast founded the Society of United Irishmen and they became the main organizing force behind a coming rebellion.
The organization crossed the religious divide with a membership comprising Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, and other Protestant “dissenters” groups. The Society openly put forward policies of democratic reforms and Catholic emancipation, reforms which the Irish Parliament had little intention of granting. Suppression of their political activity following the outbreak of war with France in 1793 forced the Society underground and toward armed insurrection. The avowed intent of the United Irishmen was to “break the connection with England.” The organization is thought to have had at least 200,000 members by 1797, and linked up with Catholic agrarian resistance groups, known as the Defenders.
One of the principal leaders of the1798 rebellion, Wolfe Tone, expressed the United Irishmen perspective that would have certainly characterized the attitudes of the activist Weaver Poets and certainly our James Campbell:
Our freedom must be had at all hazards. If the men of property will not help us they must fall; we will free ourselves by the aid of that large and respectable class of the community – the men of no property.
James Campbell’s Village of Ballynure
“Ballynure” comes from the Gaelic, Baile-an-lubhair, ‘The town of the Yew’. It is sometimes known as Toberdowney, although the village also straddles Dunturkey. A group of current Ballynure residents has a wonderful website promoting Ballynure Village. Though hardly from James Campbell’s time, below are two photos from the website showing the same scene from the past and today.
The Tradition Continued
Poetry in Ulster Scots fell into neglect, but it’s revival was stimulated greatly by the publication in 1974 of John Hewitt’s book, The Rhyming Weavers and Other Country Poets of Antrim and Down.
John Hewitt (1907 –1987) was an anthologist of traditional weaver poetry and of Irish working class poetry in general. In The Poetry of Rural Ulster, Darran Anderson describes Hewitt’s focus on the landscape and humanity in a way that I imagine held true for a large number of the weaver poets of 1750 – 1850:
“Hewitt claimed, ‘I have turned to the landscape because men disappoint me’ (‘The Rams Horn’) a knowing white lie, since he was a tireless socialist who never gave up his faith in humanity. Indeed he continued in the same poem to demonstrate his compassion seeing, ‘the horned ram, glowering over the bog hole / though symbol of evil, will step through the blown grass with grace’ thus seeing the soul even in those damned as monsters.
“Hewitt took great solace from the countryside particularly the Ulster glens and headlands where he sought refuge from the city.”
What I find amazing about James Campbell, as well the other Weaver Poets, is that they produced their writing while working long hours at grueling tasks, not unlike Robert Burns who provided an inspiration to many of them. These were not trained bards or aristocracy with free time. They were hard working people who drew art from the well of their spirits and experiences, and expressed the meaning in common lives, the aspirations and perspectives of working people, and deep appreciation for the landscape of their lives. They lived the subjects of their poetry. Their society valued poets and musicians, and the mutual support of their community helped them create their art.
Today, what depths of thought and beauty lie in people we never think of as artists? How many poets do we lose to poverty?
Inscription on a Musician
Here a musician lately did descend
Down to the grave, who was my faithful friend
On his perfections now I will not lecture
But just from reason hazard a conjecture:
I hope to heaven he has gone to dwell
For no musician ever went to hell
– James Campbell of Ballynure