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Robert Burns Lives!
Rehabilitating the Radical: Robert Burns in the Belfast Press in the Period of the Irish Act of Union by Dr. Carol Baraniuk.


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Email: jurascot@earthlink.net

I met Dr. Carol Baraniuk while attending the annual Robert Burns International Conference at the University of Glasgow in 2010. While at a post-conference dinner for the symposium speakers, we were able to talk a wee bit about family, friends and Burns. I learned that Dr. Baraniuk is the aunt of Jennifer Orr who recently published The Correspondence of Samuel Thomson (1766-1816) which has many references to Burns. (See Chapter 138 in the index to Robert Burns Lives! for a review of this magical book.) I met Jennifer several years ago at the University of South Carolina while attending one of Ross Roy and Patrick Scott’s outstanding conferences. This is the first time I have had the pleasure of publishing articles by family members, an aunt and a niece in this case, and it is a joy to do so.

Carol Baraniuk was a school teacher for many years and had the pleasure of teaching her niece Jennifer when the latter was preparing for university. Carol moved into university academic life when appointed to a position at Stranmilis University College in Belfast. She was awarded a PhD by the University of Glasgow for her thesis on the Ulster-Scots poet James Orr. She has been widely published on the Ulster-Scots poetic tradition and has delivered conference papers in Ireland, Scotland, Europe and the United States. Carol has a particular interest in the relationship between Robert Burns and the Ulster poets who wrote in the Scots tradition. She is currently a researcher with the Ulster-Scots Poetry Project at the University of Ulster and a member of the Ministerial Advisory Group for Ulster-Scots. Carol recently visited British Columbia and the Yukon, following in the footsteps of her grandfather and great-grandfather, both of whom spent time in Canada as young men – her great-grandfather helped lay the Canadian Pacific Railroad. We are all glad he found his way back to Ireland, otherwise we would not be writing this story. I think you will enjoy this connection of Burns and Ireland as we continue to celebrate the fact that Robert Burns Lives! after all these years. (FRS: 5.23.12)

Rehabilitating the Radical:
Robert Burns in the Belfast Press in the Period of the Irish Act of Union

A version of this paper was delivered at the Burns International Conference, University of Glasgow, in January 2009.


Dr. Baraniuk's Ph.D. graduation at Glasgow in June 2009. Daughter Marianne on the left and and niece Jennifer on the right

During the 1790s two Belfast newspapers, the News-letter and the Northern Star frequently reproduced items from the works of Robert Burns in their poetry columns. These sections, designed to entertain and to stimulate creativity among readers, featured more or less constantly alongside the usual reports on local and international news. In politics, the editorial stance of both papers favoured the establishment of a liberal regime in Ireland, a more just representation of all the people in Parliament and further relaxation of the Penal Laws, a system which kept the Catholics of Ireland in subjection and severely disadvantaged the Presbyterian majority in Ulster. It was, however, only the more circumspect, temperate and cautious News-letter that was to survive into the nineteenth century.

The Northern Star was the mouthpiece of the increasingly revolutionary and separatist United Irishmen, a movement largely of Catholics and Presbyterians, who had derived inspiration from the American War of Independence and hoped to establish an independent Ireland with assistance from post-revolutionary France. Unsurprisingly, when featuring poetry by Robert Burns, the Star had shown a preference for radical works, such as ‘Is there for honest poverty’ which appeared to challenge the prevailing social order. The paper’s vigorous and outspoken defiance of what its editors perceived as government repression was abruptly silenced when the printing presses were was smashed by British ‘redcoat’ forces in May 1797.

United Irish opposition to British rule in Ireland culminated in the disastrous, failed Rebellion of 1798, after which the Irish Parliament in Dublin was dissolved and Ireland was fully incorporated into the United Kingdom. In the difficult period following the suppression of the Rebellion, the surviving Belfast newspaper, the Newsletter, carried details of the lengthy, hard-fought Act of Union debates in the British and Irish parliaments. But this was by no means the only issue exercising the minds of the Ulster population. Many rural communities lived in fear of predatory and often murderous banditti, some of whom included diehard United Irishmen who had evaded capture and taken to outlawry. There was an understandable desire in such places for strong government and the enforcement of law and order. In addition, with regard to the international scene, Napoleonic France was increasingly perceived as a burgeoning, predatory imperialistic power. Many Ulster people came to believe it was vital to support patriotic preparations for resisting a French invasion that looked extremely likely.

Burns, to the United Irishmen a radical poet, retained popularity in Ulster throughout the Napoleopnic era. So how were his works deployed in the Belfast News-letter during this tense and highly sensitive transition period? How was his poetry presented in a style acceptable to an audience disillusioned with rebellion, facing the prospect of Union with Britain, and overshadowed by the threat of a French invasion?

Patriotic verse in the Belfast press during the 1800s frequently urged a close identification with England as the mother country. The routing of the United Irishmen, and the exposure of their intentions to engage the assistance of France in fulfilling their aims, gave many post-Rebellion loyalist writers the opportunity to present the projected Union as a means of ensuring peace and security in the face of the threat from French imperial ambitions. In this climate Napoleon himself could be represented as a ‘bogeyman’ figure. An early example of such verse is provided by Thomas Stott, a prosperous linen merchant from Dromore in County Down. Stott was a leading member of a literary circle encouraged by the loyalist Anglican Bishop Percy and he regularly contributed pieces to metropolitan publications such as the Gentleman’s Magazine and the London Morning Post. There was certainly no question of Stott admiring a Jacobin or radical Burns. Quite the reverse. Instead, Stott adopted something of Burns’ cocksure, subversive tone and his favourite stanza form, standard habbie, for a jingo-istic ‘Address to Buonaparte’ published in the News-letter on 17 January, 1800.

Stott assumes a Scots vernacular register in which to address Napoleon. This is interesting for several reasons. First because vernacular speech and verse were, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Ulster, associated primarily with the labouring classes for whom broad Scots was also the normal speaking mode. It had been employed in the Northern Star by local poets with radical political messages who wished to challenge the British government - one even called himself Paddy Burns. It was certainly not Stott’s natural mode of expression, either in speech or in verse, but by showing that he, the refined amateur, could ‘do vernacular poetry’, he may have been attempting to divest it of its exclusive, labouring-class radical chic.  

It is a style of composition particularly appropriate to Stott’s purpose. In countless satirical works Burns had shown how effective Scots was as a medium for cutting one’s opponent down to size. Here Stott employs it to present Napoleon reductively as a crafty trickster, but also as a restless, implacable and uncanny figure. There are, surely, deliberate echoes of Burns’ ‘Address to the Deil’ in this portrait, evident in some of the phrasing. For example, where Burns begins ‘O Thou! Whatever title suit thee - / Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick or Cloutie’, Stott concludes:

Now ca’ yoursel what name ye please
Consul – Dictator – or Praeses
Supported by the pious Sieyes
                                      In council dark
TYRANT, perhaps some folk will guess,
                                       Shou’d be your mark.

Stott appears to be claiming he can deliver what Burns the staunch patriot (in Stott’s version of him) would have said to Napoleon, while endorsing the conservative view that revolutionary leaders inevitably grow into tyrants.

For Hallowe’en 1801 Stott contributed a ‘Sonnet to the Shade of Burns’ in which he celebrated Burns the poet, and had no hesitation in imagining him now communing with Fergusson and ‘Scotia’s elder bards’, demonstrating that a strong sense of the Scottish poetic tradition and Burns’ deserved status within it would have been understood by Ulster readers.

Taking advantage of the appearance of James Currie’s edition of Burns Life and Works which appeared in 1800 the Newsletter continued to exploit the public’s taste for the Scots bard’s works.  Roscoe’s stirring, dignified but naturally idealised ‘Elegy on the Death of the Scottish Poet Burns’, which designated him ‘the Sweetest Bard […] That ever breath’d the soothing strain’, was printed on August 5, 1800. Readers were urged to admire the piece, ‘the merits of which’ they were informed, ‘no one epithet can describe’. It is noticeable that a re-kindling of interest in Burns appears to have had the effect of reviving the poetry column which had lapsed for many weeks earlier in 1800 and subsequently became lively again. The poetry editor was not slow to remind the public that so far as recognition of Burns’ genius was concerned the News-letter had been in at the kill, claiming that it had been ‘the first in Ireland to introduce the poetical productions of the celebrated Robert Burns to public notice’. The defunct rival, the Northern Star was therefore relegated to the status of a ‘Johnny come lately’ as far as adulation for Burns was concerned.

From August through to October of 1800 as the eighteenth century closed and Ireland stood on the verge of Union the Newsletter reproduced compositions that included ‘The Banks O’ Doon’, ‘Hail, Poesie! Thou Nymph reserv’d’, ‘Address to the Woodlark’ and ‘By Allan Stream I chanc’d to rove’. If the choice of such pieces appeared to promote a pastoral, often lovelorn, non-threatening Burns, romantically engaging with the Scottish landscape, it should be recalled that, as the Ulster vernacular poet James Orr asserted after the Union was an accomplished fact, ‘to sing the Burns and Bowers’ of one’s own ‘fair lan’’ could serve as a means of asserting an independent national spirit.[i] Probably such works were chosen, however, because they are delightful in themselves, and likely to have universal appeal.


Carol admiring the Burns statue in Stanley Park, Vancouver

Two more obviously daring pieces, however, were included in August 1800. One was ‘Kind Sir I’ve read your paper through’, which incorporates Burns’s pithy review of political news abroad and at home c. 1790 and exhibits a distinct lack of deference. The consitutionally reformist Newsletter clearly had no intention of projecting Burns as an anodyne, unchallenging figure. Potentially more dangerous, because of its enthralling, romantic power and its potential contemporary application was ‘A Vision: As I stood by yon roofless tower’. Here the poet muses well after nightfall in an eerily beautiful Scottish landscape, rendered all the more picturesque by the presence of the ruins of the twelfth century Lincluden Abbey. In this powerful, sacred place Burns, the reader may infer, is re-connected with independent Scotland’s pre-1707 Union, pre-Glorious Revolution and indeed pre-Calvinist Reformation past. A gothic element is supplied both by the Mediaeval ruin and the appearance of the mournful ghost of a minstrel, who sings with joy of former times but grieves over ‘latter days’. His message is mysterious and secret. The poet dares not report it in his rhymes but he does reveal that a sacred symbol on the minstrel’s bonnet identifies him with ‘liberty’. Liam McIlvanney calls this one of ‘Burns’s most vehemently radical pieces.[ii]

In Ireland, of course, the word ‘liberty’ resonated with very recent United Irish associations and the inclusion of a poem in which ‘liberty’ is represented by a ghost grieving over present circumstances, just as Ireland was facing incorporation could have been interpreted as deliberately subversive, even potentially inflammatory. No wonder the editor appended a note that set the work within the contexts of antiquarianism, picturesque writing and romantic fantasy. The note concluded: ‘Though this poem has a political bias, yet it may be presumed that no reader of taste, whatever his opinions may be, would forgive its being omitted.’ So there was clearly an attempt to show that Burns’ more troubling works could be rehabilitated by making them the property of the tasteful literary connoisseur.  

In the autumn of 1800, several readers enthusiastic about the well-nigh completed Union project contributed verse designed to express their satisfaction. In his ‘Poem on the Union’  a Mr Dibden assembled an array of national symbols – St George, St Patrick, St Andrew; the Thames, the Tweed, the Shannon; the Rose, the Thistle, the Shamrock. The writer, clearly with the French threat firmly in mind, expresses certainty that ‘the world’s admiration and fear are excited, / To see Ireland and Scotland, and England united.’

‘A Song on the Union’, January 16, 1801 is even more triumphalist in tone:

Arise mighty Kingdom,
Enjoy thy proud fate,
And hail the blest aera
That renders thee great!
May each year increase
Thy Prosperity’s store
And Union befriend thee
Till time be no more.

On 6 January 1801, however, when the Union was only days old in law, the Newsletter had again turned to Burns for a mot juste, or at least to a poem for which Burns had expressed admiration. Readers were offered the anonymous, ballad-like ‘Keen blaws the wind o’er Donnocht Head’, and informed that it appeared ‘in Dr Currie’s edition of Burns’s works printed at Liverpool’. Here too the minstrel trope is employed; this time a homeless, lonely, last bard type figure who, wishing to escape appalling winter weather in a desolate, highland landscape, begs for shelter at the home of a kindly couple. The setting, the minstrel’s bereft condition and the state of the country depicted must have suggested strongly to Ulster readers in January 1801 the condition of Scotland following the Rebellion of 1745, but also, inevitably, the condition of their own land post-1798. The piece concludes:

Nae hame have I, the minstrel said
Sad party strife o’erturned my ha’;
And weeping at the eve of life,
I wander through a wreath of snaw.

Does the News-letter’s inclusion of this work encode a plea for resignation to the fact of the Union and an end to further violence and bitter division within Ireland, given the trauma that the country had just endured? If so, the jingo-istic certainties of loyalist patriots are absent, but the message seems clear – continuing party strife will serve only to perpetuate ruin and desolation.

Burns is reported to have said he would have given ten pounds to have written ‘Donnocht Head’. Perhaps the News-letter’s inclusion of the information that Burns had ‘entertained a high opinion’ of this ‘affecting poem’ was intended as a signal: as if ‘that celebrated author’, from beyond the grave, was encouraging his Ulster readers to give up “sad party strife” even if many of them felt unable to rejoice in the wake of the Union.


[i] Orr, James, ‘Epistle to S. Thomson of Carngranny in Collected Works (Belfast: Mullan and Son, 1935), pp. 122-5.

[ii] McIlvanney, Liam, Burns the Radical: Poetry and Politics in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland (East Linton: The Tuckwell Press Ltd., 2002), p. 232.

Carol Baraniuk
University of Ulster
May 2012


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