Poet’s grandson dusts off Ulster-Scots ballads

Patrick Gregory

Shelley Marsden

Patrick Gregory didn’t know his grandfather, the Ulster-Scots poet Padraic Gregory (1886-1962), but he has become so intrigued with his late relative that he has spent years working to rediscover and republish the poet’s work.

Thanks to Patrick’s efforts, the centenary edition of Ulster-Scots poet Padraic Gregory’s Collected Ballads was re-published by Belfast’s Lagan Press on August 22, something his grandson hopes will lead to a rediscovery of his work

An architect, writer and snapper-up of folk songs, Padraic Gregory was a founder of the Ulster Theatre in the first decades of last century His poetry was known, even studied back then, but gradually fell out of print.

Born in Belfast, Gregory was educated in Ireland and America. He designed the Catholic cathedral in Johannesburg and many ecclesiastical buildings in Ireland, and among his publications are Old World Ballads; Love Sonnets; Ulster Songs and Ballads and The Anglo-Irish Folk Songs of Padraic Gregory in two volumes.

“He died exactly nine months before I was born”, says Patrick, until recently the managing editor of political programmes for the BBC.  “And, allegedly, I look like him!” he laughs. “He and my father were architects and, curiously, my son is also training to be an architect. But all I seem to have in common with him, apart from my genes, is the ability to write. That’s one thing I can do at least, help him along the way with a few words.”

Patrick says: “By the time Padraic qualified as an architect in Belfast in the first decades of the last century, he was as interested in writing and the culture of pre-partition Ulster. He threw himself into it with great gusto, and became one of the leading voices of the northern wing of the Irish Revival.”

The poet’s first collection, in 1912, was The Ulster Folk. As Patrick explains, he wrote about poetry, art history and more, but his great interest was in helping lend an authentic, northern voice to the Irish Revival. He and others wanted to capture a vernacular which was going to make the Ulster dialect and voice distinct from what was happening in the south of Ireland:

“He went into the country areas of Antrim and Down collecting snippets of poetry, songs and ballads, a line here and a line there”, explains Patrick. “He wanted to preserve them, often written down for the first time, and give these people a voice. He then wrote around these snippets, turning them into fully formed poems or ballads or songs in the same style and thus capturing the Ulster of the 1880s and 1890s.”

What captured his grandson’s attention was that Padraic felt he was preserving something important, yet it was something that was now slowly disappearing.“I became aware, gradually, that in the fifty or so years since his death, Padraic’s writing had gone out of print. He was becoming better known simply as an architect. He did some great ecclesiastical buildings, but I was determined that what he had written shouldn’t be forgotten. In a curious way, I wanted to help him finish what he started.  His collection had gone out of print and now it’s going back in print – so I hope we can give it some electronic-age permanence.”

Another aspect of Padraic’s work which captured Patrick’s attention is that he was very self-consciously Cathoilc and Nationalistic in outlook, yet he was equally very devoted to Ulster: “He was writing in a medium that has traditionally been viewed as a Protestant Unionist style. I think there’s something lovely about him writing in a manner which is used as a common celebration of everyone in the North of Ireland.”

The poet was also outward-facing, it seems. Border ballads such as The Water-Witch and Fause Laird Forbes o’ Tyne show he was conscious of a shared culture and language with Scotland, and the fact that the dedication of his 1920 Ulster Songs and Ballads to “To the Ulster Peo­ple in Amer­ica.To ye, the Brave-Hearted Ones, to whom the Spirit of Rest­less­ness whis­pered inces­santly call­ing ye over the seas” shows him reaching to the Diaspora in America.

Patrick hopes to restore the musical element of his ancestor’s work. From the outset, it was Padraic’s hope that in a suitable moment his ballads, for the most part whimsical sketches of ‘Ulster Folk’ that swing between humour, the historical and the religious, would be set to music.

Various composers took him up on this in the twenties and thirties, the first being John Larchett – one of the Abbey Theatre’s first Musical Directors. Larchett took a little ditty called ‘Padraic the fiddler’ and recorded it with the world-famous Irish tenor John McCormack and Austrian composer Fritz Kreisler, one of the most famous violin masters of his or any other day.

Others followed suite, including the fascinating Carl Hardebeck, responsible for one of the two volumes of Padraic’s Anglo-Irish folk songs. London-born with a German father, Hardeback, who was blind and 6 foot 4, moved to Belfast as a young man where he became known as the ‘Bard of Belfast’.

Says Patrick: “I’m really keen on hearing some of this stuff performed again in public, maybe even reinterpreted and recorded. Larchett’s daughter, Larchett Cuthbert, is Ireland’s most celebrated harpist and she came along and played at the launch of this book, which was wonderful. She’s a direct link to Padraic so in a way it’s like closing the circle.”

Padraic Gregory: Complete Ballads is published by Lagan Press. Visit www.lagan-press.co.uk.





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