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Robert Burns Lives!
A Young Irish Scholar's Transatlantic Pilgrimage to The Burns Club of Atlanta and Beyond by Dr Jennifer Orr

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

While sitting with Atlanta’s Consul General of Ireland Paul Gleeson during our Burns Supper last January at the Burns Cottage, I was able to tell him about Dr. Jennifer Orr, a young Irish scholar whose book, The Correspondence of Samuel Thomson, had become a magical one for me.  Her volume opened new doors about Robert Burns that I had been unfamiliar with until its publication. I explained to Paul that Jennifer was an academic who I hoped could one day speak to our Burns Club of Atlanta on the subject of Irish connections with Burns. Ever the helpful friend to Scots and naturally one of everything Irish, Paul volunteered right then and there to help with transportation costs if Jennifer could also speak to some Irish groups while in Georgia. Over the next few weeks we had the Burns Club of Atlanta onboard for additional expense money, thanks to club vice president Woody Woodruff, and along with a few other contributors, the trip became a reality.

Jennifer has had extensive experience at Oxford University, Glasgow University, Dublin’s Trinity College, and she recently became lecturer at Newcastle University in northeast England. She is Director of Ulster Romantic Thought and Practice, a project funded by the Irish Research Council. Word on the street is that she has another publication lined up, and I can’t wait! Jennifer was a hit with the membership of our Burns Club and that is sometimes not an easy audience to impress. She will win you over with her descriptive narrative below.  (FRS: 10.31.13)    

A Young Irish Scholar's Transatlantic Pilgrimage to
The Burns Club of Atlanta and Beyond…

Dr Jennifer Orr
Lecturer in Eighteenth Century Literature
School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics
Newcastle University
Newcastle upon Tyne, UK 

In the way life often works out, new experiences often come along together.  I first met my good friend Frank Shaw, along with his wife Susan, at Ross Roy’s Contemporaries, Contexts & Cultural Forms Robert Burns Conference in 2009. This was the ‘big’ 250th anniversary when many of us at Glasgow were giving approximately 10 papers each on the subject across the world.  Though Frank would be too modest to say so himself, he is a fine Burns scholar and has made an impressive contribution to the subject, having dedicated so much of his time and resources to building a jaw-dropping collection of Scottish materials.

Your introduction to my talk

Following my experience as Dr Roy and Dr Patrick Scott’s guest at the University of South Carolina, I had long envied my colleagues at the University of Glasgow in the Centre for Robert Burns Studies who had been able to travel out and spend time in the South with our Burnsian friends. The Burns Club of Atlanta has previously hosted several of my colleagues, particularly Gerry Carruthers, my doctoral supervisor and my colleagues Pauline Mackay and Kenneth Simpson, a dear departed friend whose untimely passing we mourned at his home church in West Kilbride on 7 October. I was delighted, therefore, when Frank contacted me in January to mention the possibility of facilitating a trip to Georgia to speak at the Burns Club of Atlanta, with the generous assistance of the Irish Consulate of Georgia.

At this time I was undertaking a year-long fellowship at Trinity College Dublin and was also lecturing at the University of Oxford, unsure of where I would be in September in terms of employment. So in addition to getting to speak at the Burns Club of Atlanta, which many of my colleagues had done before me, it was wonderful opportunity to present the findings of my work at Trinity College and to see my fellowship to its conclusion.

In a generous partnership, the Irish Consul Paul Gleeson, Frank and Susan Shaw and the Burns Club of Atlanta partnered together to enable me to travel over to Atlanta and spend 10 days across the state, with two days in South Carolina also, giving a series of lectures on my research. During this time I was kindly hosted by Frank and Susan Shaw as well as Woody and Sheila Woodruff, all of whom are now treasured friends with whom I have kept in contact regularly since. No-one could have asked for better Southern hospitality. 

I have put together a little diary of my trip that Frank has kindly agreed to share on Robert Burns Lives!.

Day 1 & 2 - Atlanta

I arrived into Atlanta on the evening to be met by Frank and Susan at the airport and spent my first evening in Dawsonville, catching up on some sleep. I got to know Dawsonville the next day with a trip to the Shaws’ favourite Starbucks, followed by a lovely lunch at a local restaurant.

Tom Collins & Tricia McLaren, Crab Shack, Tybee Island (Irish Heritage Association

That evening, we travelled back into Atlanta for my first talk at the Burns Cottage. It was amazing to see an exact replica Cottage tucked away in a modern Atlanta neighbourhood – especially one called Alloway Place, which Frank took great delight in pointing out to me. Inside it was like stepping into another world. Here I was introduced to Woody Woodruff and Bill Tucker, among many other distinguished members of the Club.  It was a wonderful evening of fun, good humour and an unexpected surprise from John P. Imlay who read a poem on Burns by his own ancestor John Imlah.

Hummingbirds in Woody's garden

I got to know lots of very interesting people whose Scottish heritage and love of Burns shone through. It was also a real pleasure to be toasted by my Oxford colleague Stephen Hammack, a second-year archaeology doctoral candidate at St Cross College whom I had gotten to know through Frank’s introductions.  My Oxford High Table etiquette was definitely slowing down my progress with the wonderful food that the ladies had laid on, but Woody kept me right, “Now, Jennifer, you are in America, you don’t eat fried chicken with your knife and fork!” Always looking out for me and he still does! It was a pleasure to have Woody on my left and Irish Consul Paul Gleeson to my right, a remarkably intelligent and sociable young man who is an absolute credit to Ireland as a diplomat and a politician. We found we had lots of friends in common from our work in Irish politics, particularly in Paul’s role on the North-South body in recent years.  The State of Georgia is lucky to have a Consulate that is so knowledgeable about their shared Irish and Scottish history. 

Sheila and me - Monastery of Holy Spirit

It was also fitting that Frank introduced me, telling a cheeky story or two about some of the interesting experiences I had enjoyed as a lecturer. The talk on Burns and the United Irish poets was wonderfully received by the audience and I was honoured to hear the concluding remarks of Dr Jim Flannery, a scholar whom I have long admired. Fittingly, he closed with some words by our late, great Seamus Heaney who knew only too well the shared heritage of the Ulsterman in Scotland and Ireland. I was also immensely grateful to the members who purchased my book and my thanks to Woody for taking charge of the logistics.

During my stay, Susan prepared several delicious meals for me, including my favourite watermelon and Frank even cooked haggis on the barbeque for breakfast – a real treat!  We had a lovely time chatting about work and family. As he knows I am into bird watching, Frank also showed me the local blue heron who perches on the lakeside opposite the house. 

Frank also very generously showed me his incredible collection of Burns and Burnsiana, not to mention the many other resources on other Scottish cultural themes that he has built up. Many a University archive would envy the collection that Frank has put time and resources into creating and his generosity in sharing this material with Burns scholars cannot be underestimated. He is too humble to say so himself, but he is a shining example of the dedication and scholarship that has kept Burns alive in the minds of so many in the United States. Ably assisted by Susan, they run things from this office/treasure trove and it was my privilege to get to see it. 

Days 3-6: Savannah, GA and Sun City, Bluffton, SC

With Sheila Woodruff, Atlanta Historical Center

Frank and Susan kindly flew me to Savannah, a city I fell instantly in love with. I enjoyed a wonderful day exploring Savannah on foot, visiting old graveyards, photographing the beautiful houses and visiting the odd boutique and art gallery. Here I was collected from the airport by Tom Collins and Tricia McLaren, two irrepressibly energetic and wonderful leaders of the Irish Heritage Association of Sun City, an association of Irish Americans living in the Sun City community.  Tricia returned to the harbour to pick me up on Saturday and took me across the state line to Hilton Head Island.  We explored a local Anglican church and I found that the gentleman who was stewarding had visited my home town of Bangor, Northern Ireland and had lots of friends in the Church Missionary Society.  Small world. 

Irish Heritage Association talk, Sun City, Blufton SC

On arrival in Sun City, I had the pleasure of a lively and animated audience, most of whom were pleasantly surprised by the account I gave of the Presbyterian role in Irish Republicanism and the reasons why Northern Dissenting Protestants - who had been the architects of the 1798 Rebellion - became so hostile to the Irish Free State. They were curious to know what I thought about some of the current issues facing Ireland, particularly the economic downturn and the recent abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. Afterwards, we returned to Tom and Madeline’s home for a get-together than involved traditional Irish hospitality and a good dose of song!  Even here we were singing a mix of Scottish and Irish folksongs.  Sun City Irish Heritage Association members were a wonderfully fun and engaged group of people who were not afraid to argue and who retired all friends at the end of the evening. It was so encouraging to know that such good people continue to be involved in Savannah’s Irish heritage scene (a million dollar business in itself) and so well connected with cultural figures in Ireland and throughout the US.

Independent Scottish Presbyterian Church in Savannah

The next day, Tom and Tricia took me to church in Savannah at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist - a stunning cathedral established in 1873. After a beautiful morning Mass, we headed off to Tybee Island where I was treated to lunch at The Crab Shack. I can safely say I have never eaten alongside live alligators before, but I enjoyed the experience!  After this we headed out to Tybee Island which was buzzing with people.  For the first time, I saw the Atlantic from the Western side and watched the cargo ships coming towards Savannah. When we returned to the city, the ship was coming up the river into the harbour. I spent the evening by the pool, swatting away love bugs and reading over my paper for Statesboro the next day and ended up chatting to a young nurse practitioner, a conference delegate from Minnesota, who was also traveling on her own. We went across the river to River Street and enjoyed dinner together and talked about our careers and families. Another unexpected and lovely experience.

Last evening in Savannah

3. Day 7 - Georgia Southern University, Center for Irish Studies 

My next visit was to Georgia Southern University at Statesboro. Very kindly, doctoral student and Events Coordinator Tiffany Manning came all the way in to pick me and drove me to the campus.  It’s clear that Georgia Southern is really picking up the torch of Scots-Irish studies with Dr Howard Keeley (a native of Wicklow) at the helm of the Center for Irish Studies. The first thing we did was meet a class of undergraduates and sell to them the opportunity to study abroad in Ireland and also a bit about Irish Romantic poetry. It was actually a very interesting experiment in team teaching as the three lecturers in the room - myself, Howard Keeley and Joe Pellegrino - team-taught the class and it worked very well. After chatting for a bit to Howard about his work, we identified some interesting possible link ups with my new institution at Newcastle University.  Here’s hoping we might be working together in the future. I then met with two of Howard's talented masters students, who were writing on Sarah Leech, the Ulster weaver poet. How amazing that some of the most intensive work that has been done on Leech is being undertaken in the state of Georgia. It was great to hear these enthusiastic women talk so knowledgably about Irish writing. At 7pm I gave the campus lecture to the largest group of students I had, to that date, spoken to. Though many of them would never have heard of these poets before, hopefully it may have sparked an interest with some of them to look into it further. It was a great privilege to be able to lecture to the undergraduates on such a new topic for many of them. We celebrated the day at a local restaurant with a cocktail. I think Georgia Southern’s Center for Irish Studies will be making headlines before too long with their fabulous projects and opportunities for students.

4. Days 8-10: Atlanta & Athens

I was welcomed back to Atlanta by a couple who have been great friends to me, Woody and Sheila Woodruff.  I had not had the opportunity of meeting Sheila at the Burns Cottage so it was lovely to get to know her. By the end of the visit I wanted them to adopt me!  I was so delighted that they had planned dinner with the Shaws that evening so all five of us got to get together and discuss how the trip had gone.  I was glad to have the opportunity to spend more leisurely time with Frank and Susan now that there was just one more speaking engagement to go.  Before this, we paid a visit to the Atlanta History Museum, including a tour around the Swan House which was a real treat.  We also found yet another Orr who had been active in Atlanta society - the previous Orr was one Augusta Orr of Savannah who had been involved in the creation of Forsyth Park. This has whetted my appetite for some family history research.  We returned to Lilburn and I got to meet the beloved Woodruff family cat, Bonny Dundee. Sadly I was one of the last people who met her as she passed away about a week later. 

Woody kindly accompanied me to Athens for my final talk, which took place at the Cobb House Museum in Athens, Georgia. The talk was organised by Dr Nicholas Allen, Franklin Professor and Director of the Willson Center, a celebrated scholar who has been based at the University of Georgia for some time. I was looked after by Dr Stephen Berry of University of Georgia and Sam Thomas of Cobb House who has done lots of work in the area of Ulster and the Scots-Irish in the US and, again, we knew many of the same people. I was delighted that Sam had hung both the Irish and Ulster flags out for my arrival - a sensitive and very personal touch! The intimate audience of enthusiasts and academics were so encouraging and it made it one of the most enjoyable talks. I enjoyed meeting some local ladies who have been faithful supporters of Cobb House and were, themselves, authorities on local history. I was also delighted to be accompanied by Woody, who accompanied us to dinner at a local restaurant. I would be keen to travel back to Athens again as it seemed like a happening place. I have promised Sam that I will try and make it over for the Ulster-American Heritage Symposium in June 2014. 

The next day, Woody and I had lunch in Buckhead with Paul Gleeson, Consul General who was delighted with the feedback he received from the various societies after my talks. Paul’s sensitivity to and knowledge of the complexities of Irish culture makes me very confident that our cultural future is in safe hands. He is coming to the end of his term as Consul General and he will definitely be missed, but wherever he ends up next will be lucky to have him.  Afterwards, Woody and I spent a lovely afternoon exploring the Atlanta Botanical Garden (another amateur enthusiasm of mine) before hitting Stone Mountain on the way home. Stone Mountain is definitely on my to-do list for the future and my friend Gillian Hunt of the Ulster Heritage Foundation will shortly be making her way there for the Highland Games. The number of connections between Ulster and Georgia never ceases to amaze me.

Dr Howard Keeley and Tiffany Manning (Georgia State)

Our final trip on the day of my departure was to the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit outside of Conyers, GA.  Sheila had spent a retreat here recently and had got to know many of the monks who were dedicated to the running of the Monastery. We met Fr. Antony Delisi, an octogenarian monk who had just returned after illness. He blessed some charms for me and prayed for my safe journey back home. Those charms, a gift from Sheila and Woody, are now on my bracelet.  It was quite a moving and spiritual experience at the monastery and I took the opportunity of praying for friends and family back home as well as my new friends here in Georgia whom I knew I was going to miss.

It really was a once-in-a-lifetime trip and I have been privileged to meet and reconnect with some wonderful people. My thanks to Frank and Susan Shaw, Woody and Sheila Woodruff, and Tom and Madeline Collins for showing me hospitality in their homes; to Paul Gleeson, the Shaws, Howard Keeley, Woody Woodruff and the Burns Club of Atlanta for making the trip possible. Finally my thanks to all of the people whom I met along the way and who made me so welcome, particularly Tricia McLaren, Tom and Madeleine Collins, Bill Tucker, Howard Keeley, Dustin Anderson, Tiffany Manning, Marla Bruner, Nick Allen, Stephen Berry and Sam Thomas.  If I have left anyone out, I can only apologise - the fault is mine.

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