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Robert Burns Lives!
The Correspondence of Samuel Thomson (1766-1816). Fostering an Irish writers’ circle By Jennifer Orr, Editor.

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

This has been a fun book to read and writing the book review has been equally enjoyable! It weaves an interesting story of a group of Irish poets corresponding with each other. A big topic of conversation among some of them is the Scottish poet Robert Burns. The poets write about books, buying and borrowing them, “the expense of postage”, and ‘the selfish consideration that the sooner I write to you, the sooner I will be gratified with the receipt of a letter from you”. Naturally their writings are about each others books or poetry and the political situation where writing by code became, for obvious reasons, the order of the day for some of them.

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. One poet interjects a time limit on how long his friend can borrow his book, three months actually, and it must be returned by August 1st which comes and goes – another reminder is sent - and then another later on. I have found no record the book was ever returned. Lesson? Be careful who you loan your books to, even good friends, much less your family! The correspondence of this circle of bards centered on Samuel Thomson’s cottage, Crambo Cave. Thomson was the one at the center of the poets group and was described as “the father of a northern school of Irish poets.”

But all is not fun and games in this book by Jennifer Orr, and soon tension builds concerning the political climate in Ireland. Before too long a few of the poets find themselves living in Philadelphia or Charleston or other countries for their own safety as well as that of their families. Unfortunately an execution or two takes place, cooling the radical arguments about freedom from some of them, Thomson included. The poetry they write raises eyebrows and the government takes action against some of them after they publish their poems in newspapers like the Northern Star, a radical United Irishmen publication which has its press destroyed. Thomson is described as “practically the poet laureate” of the newspaper.

His friend James Dalrymple felt the Irish political situation would mean “much blood (to) be spilt before you enjoy political freedom and whether it is worth the sacrifice you in Ireland must judge.” Again, some in the group paid with their lives! The 1798 Rebellion was a trend setter, and they were aware of the thin ice they walked upon leaving Thomson and others in the circle more cautious about publishing their writings from then on. The United Irish Movement was not so united but the United Kingdom was.

Editor, Dr. Jennifer Orr

For Burnsians like myself, lay people, I found the correspondence about Burns to be exciting because these poets were contemporaries of his and their comments make the book come alive as they discuss Burns just as you and I would discuss a friend among our own circle of acquaintances. Let’s take a look at a few instances regarding Burns and these poets as we skip among the references.

Burns received a couple of letters from Thomson discussing political subjects, thus reminding us that both were radicals at times.

Samuel Thomson found his way from Co. Antrim to Dumfries in 1794 to meet with Burns in his home and he leaves with several original poems by Burns, among them was Clarinda, Mistress of My Soul. You have to wonder what political topics were discussed by these two outspoken men.

Packet boat owner James Lemon carried a number of parcels to Burns from Thomson, but unfortunately there is no mention of what they contained.

Here is an interesting item. Did Burns dip snuff ? Either he did or he passed it on to someone because mention is made of suggestion to “send him a pound of snuff known by the name of  Blackguard. Lundy Fool in Dublin is the famous Manufacturer of it.” This occurred in 1791 and we know Thomson also sent another packet of snuff to Burns in March 1794. (It is reported that Burns requested the first gift of snuff after giving Thomson a copy of Fergusson’s POEMS.)

John Rabb, another Irish poet, writes Thomson asking “will you call and tell me where Burns lives now?” as Rabb is interested in opening correspondence with Burns.

Evidently James Hogg was not the only one who felt he could replace Burns as Thomson would later market himself as the successor to the Scottish bard just as Burns felt he could establish himself as Fergusson’s successor.

Our old friend William Magee shows his ugly head in the book as a Belfast printer working with Thomson and other poets publishing their works. Those familiar with Magee know he pirated the works of Burns and published them in Ireland with poor Burns never receiving a penny. The greedy Magee got it all!

Burns actually met Irish poet Thomas Sloan while traveling from Ayrshire to Ellisland and a delightful friendship developed. Burns later had to inform Sloan that he was unable to resolve financial assistance Sloan needed when Burns turned to John Ballantine on behalf of Sloan.

John Gillespie visited Burns carrying snuff from Thomson. “I’m just going to scold Mr. Burns this mail”, Thomson wrote, but nothing in Thomson’s letters backs up his claim of scolding Burns. Thomson does pen the words of Italian poet Ariosto at the end of this letter saying, “No form so graceful can your eyes behold / For nature made him and destroy’d the mould.”     

In a post script, Luke Mullan writes this to Thomson: “I have seen Mr. Burns and spoke to him…I endeavoured to learn as much about his character as possible - he is not much respected in Dumfries on account of his infidelities to his wife - but as an officer of the excise he is said to be very humane to poor people. I believe he writes little now - he offers some to the Dumfries Papers and is not accepted - so little are great men thought in their own country and in their lifetime…”

I must conclude with these little gems about Burns and refer you to the book where the beat goes on and on and moves, according to John Gray, from “adulation to discord”.

This is a magical book, and Jennifer Orr has done a masterful job of portraying the relationship between these Irish poets as well as their relationship to Burns in their correspondence. In response to an email of mine, Jennifer wrote, “I too was amazed at the reflections on Robert Burns contained within and, particularly, the idea that Thomson may have had a key role in shaping the Bard’s reputation in Ireland.” Indeed he did. BUT, you should remember there is much more to this book than just the relationship between the Irish poets and Robert Burns. Much more! (FRS: 5.4.12)

Now I want to share with you some of Jennifer’s thoughts which will be a great asset to you regarding The Correspondence of Samuel Thomson.  In an email dated April 30th, Jennifer wrote…

L-R: Dr. Gerard Carruthers, Dr. Jennifer Orr upon receiving her PhD, and Dr. Rhona Brown, all from the University of Glasgow.

Regarding your questions for the article, my attraction both to Burns and the Ulster poets was strongly rooted in a shared sense of mixed identity. Scottish and Irish heritage has always been strongly bound up together in Ulster and, like Samuel Thomson; I have always had a strong sense both of my Irish and Scottish heritage. Names within my family include Shields (which I'm told is a Donegal name), Bell, Campbell, Mechan and Duncan.  Most of them had been around in Ulster for centuries but the latter were coal merchants from Scotland and moved to Ireland in the Victorian ear when Belfast became a central industrial city within the British Empire.

We grew up in Bangor, County Down, just 12 miles across the North Channel from Scotland where the hills of the Galloway peninsula can be seen on a clear day. My grandparents took my mother and aunt on holiday to Ayrshire, visiting Robert Burns's cottage in Alloway, which seemed to be a frequent site of pilgrimage for Ulster holiday makers. Robert Burns was as natural a part of my literary heritage as William Shakespeare or William Yeats. I had little trouble understanding the Scots language as I had heard variants of it spoken in rural parts of Ulster. 

While I was an undergraduate at Oxford, I studied Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature but when it came to researching my undergraduate thesis, I fancied doing something different and closer to home.  I decided to write on the topic of Irish poetry and to explore something that was personal to me.  My aunt Dr Carol Baraniuk had taken a secondment from her job as a school teacher to work on a project with the Ulster Scots Academy at Stranmillis College Belfast and told me of an exciting tradition of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ulster poets who wrote in the language of the people.  She was particularly interested in the poet James Orr and was about to embark on a PhD at the University of Glasgow.  She mentioned that Orr's friend and fellow poet Samuel Thomson was also an interesting figure who had corresponded with Robert Burns.  

The research that we were undertaking coincided with an exciting resurgence of Scottish Literary studies at the University of Glasgow on the approach to the Bicentenary of Robert Burns's birth. In May 2005 I traveled to Glasgow to meet with Professor Gerry Carruthers who agreed to supervise a doctoral thesis on Samuel Thomson pending my successful graduation from Oxford.  Two years later, I was successful in obtaining funding and from 2007 played a full and active role in the exciting intellectual environment of the Glasgow's Department of Scottish Literature, where I was also able to gain teaching experience while undertaking research.  Following my viva in May 2011, I produced The Correspondence of Samuel Thomson.

Five years ago, even those familiar with Irish literature would have struggled to name more than five Ulster poets. Heaney, certainly. Maybe Michael Longley and John Hewitt. In fact, it has been a commonly-held belief that the Romantic period missed Ulster completely.  While Robert Burns was active in Scotland, why should there not have been a similar movement in Ulster, particularly when the newspapers were full of revolutionary and nationalist verse? Many of Thomson's poems are as good as Burns's and some might even be better, like the masterful political allegory 'To a Hedgehog' and 'O Scotia's Bard, my muse alas!', Thomson's skilful parody of Burns's 'Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat?

To a Hedgehog
Samuel Thomson

Thou grimmest far o gruesome tykes
Grubbin thy food by thorny dykes
Gude faith, thou disna want for pikes
Baith sharp and rauckle;
Thou looks (Lord save's) arrayed in spikes,
A creepin heckle.

Sure Nick begat thee, at the first,
On some auld whin or thorn accurst;
An some horn-fingered harpie nurst
The ugly urchin;
Then Belzie, laughin like to burst,
First caad thee Hurchin.

Fowk tell how thou, sae far frae daft,
Whan wind-faan fruit be scattered saft,
Will row thysel wi cunning craft
An bear awa
Upon thy back, what fares thee aft,
A day or twa.

But whether this account be true
Is mair than I will here avow;
If that thou stribs the outler cow,
As some assert,
A pretty milkmaid, I allow,
Forsooth thou art.

Now creep awa the way ye came,
And tend your squeakin pups at hame;
Gin Colly should oerhear the same,
It might be fatal,
For you, wi aa the pikes ye claim,
Wi him to battle.

Both poets shared a belief in the common humanity of all men regardless of class status and exploited their hybrid knowledge of the Scots and English languages to contribute to the rich cultural tapestry of Scottish and Irish identity within a dislocating British constitutional context.  Thomson consolidated a group of writers during the Irish revolutionary period 1790-1798 as a means of resisting the British state but once the Anglo-Irish Union came about in 1801, he modified his tactics to preserve Irish identity by promoting her unique artistic and cultural status.  Thomson was deeply in tune with the print culture of his day and he knew that cultural identity was a complex and unstable concept and could include a range of identities. His pragmatic poetic response to turbulent historical events preserved a sense of Irish dissenting nationalist culture that might have been swallowed into the cultural stereotypes of Prostestant-unionist and Catholic-nationalist which are so familiar to us from the troubled Twentieth Century. 

Sorry - a bit of an essay for you here - but hopefully it will be useful!

Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your book as well as yours thoughts with us. This is a subject that was begging to be presented.

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