The Bard of Moneyrea: Robert Huddleston (1814-1887)

Author: James R Boyd

Date: 1993

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots: Nummer 1 Spring 1993

Robert Huddleston, the incredibly prolific ‘Bard of Moneyrea’, only had two books of poems published. These appeared in 1844 and 1846 when he was still a young man. Over the next 40 years he continued to produce hundreds of lengthy poems, ballads and songs, but never managed to have another volume printed. The era of ‘weaver poets’ had passed a generation before, but he was single-minded in his determination to continue using his own vernacular language. He deeply resented being accused of simply imitating Burns, and wrote that he was proud to “use the language which nature brought to his door at the first dawn of prattle, and which stayed with him through life.”

“An idea has struck me, and I shall record it” was the title of one of his songs and it might be taken as his signature tune. He tells us that “he felt as if he were ordained one of the priests of the oracle of rustic poetry.” That vocation was confirmed by the welcome accorded his early productions in his district, and indeed when he first went into print in 1844 with A Collection of Poems and Songs on Rural Subjects, no less than four hundred ordinary folk across North Down and from Belfast backed him and paid a half-crown each for a copy. Two years later five hundred did the same and that, in itself, is a tribute to a young man’s capability to entertain and to inform. Each name appeared with the book and this probably was worth more to him than the financial support. However, as a small farmer/weaver in those days of landlord oppression, there could be no other hope of publication. We find the same practice in the publications of other Ulster rhymers.

John Hewitt in Rhyming Weavers (1974) treats Huddleston warmly: “The sturdy Huddleston;” “the gusto of Boyle and Huddleston”; “the muscle and sinew of Boyle or Huddleston;” “The writer’s sincerity and his stout democratic attitude are never in doubt.” What Hewitt called “the cheerfully unselfconscious” Huddleston indicates the effervescent exuberance of so much of his work. His manuscript works are free-flowing, free from scratches and overwriting, which bears home the way in which he composed, while at other work, or when roaming the hills and vales which he loved. If he had second thoughts on some line or stanza that was entered as a ‘variation’ following the poem.

The Ulster poets were all linked inseparably to places. This was easily demonstrated in the case of Huddleston, whose love for ‘Mon’rea’ is shown in the detail with which he describes the familiar hills and vales, flowers and trees, birds and bird-song, seasons and weather, not to mention people: ministers, church elders, his “nibors and their fauts”, “guidman and guidwife”, lads an’ lasses, the church sexton, also those who peopled the almost over-populous realm of his fertile imagination. With “flysome tales” he set before apprehensive listeners a whole range of Broonies, Fairies, Kelpies, Warlocks, Witches, to supply what, in our day, TV horrors regularly are expected also to do!

Huddleston could help us to bask in summer or autumn as in:

Fair is the hawthorn i’ the morn’,

When tressy June uprears its head;

And sweet the oak when woodland lorn,

By Autumn’s yellowin’ winds do fade,

But her, the darlin’ beauteous maid.

All beauty’s centred at her ca’;

Nor virgin nymph so fair arrayed,

As her, the Lass o’ Creevy Ha’.

At the other extreme of weather he describes “the hurryin’, eddyin’, tempest blast”; “the doors weel steek’d again the win, That’s whistlin’ through the key-hole in”; “ ’Twas caul December r’ugh an’ drear, the shortest day closed on a year”; “The nights get crabbit, dark an’ bleak, The days but doncy shortlin’ peep.” At that season there was plenty of “smoorin’ snow and splashy sleet”.

Yet it was in just such conditions that ‘Doddery Willowaim’ had to face up to reality:

The pleugh maun gae for next year’s corn;

The pleughman’s brogues are giely worn;

And tho’ the night’s baith wild an’ dun,

This night they maun be soled by some.

On sic a night as we narrate,

Brave Doddery strowlin’ ta’en the gate,

Despisin’ a’ that blew, no’ght fearin’,

Unto a cobbler’s shap careerin’.

The cobbler nae less fam’d for drolls,

Than for substantial sheetin’ soles.

Lavish hospitality (of all kinds!) was followed in the wee small hours by Doddery’s terrible experiences at the hand of ‘Nick’ and his minions — a fatal encounter. So the moral is given:

Tak’ rede, and dinna headstrong rin

On stormy nights tae seek for fun

Tae smiddy hearths or cobblein’ shaps,

Tae hear o’ witty tales or cracks.

Huddleston was a citizen of Ireland — proud to write:

From the broad swelling Shannon to Lagan’s slow tide,

From Foyle to the Liffey throughout the isle wide.

He was also patriotic enough to claim that Erin ‘carried the bell’ for scenery:

Can Britain boast, or Britain show

Can haughty Gaul’s proud pampered germs

Compare with Erin’s vernal glow?

Where are the landscapes or the downs

The heathery heaths, or dappled vales

The rugged mounts, or flowery mounds,

So fit as Erin’s hills and dales?

He liked to be known (as in the title of a song) as ‘The Merry Boy, Bab’. A glance at forty pages of his MSS poems yields terms like: gaily: joy: blithe(some): happy: glad: glee: mirth: bliss(ful): rapture: licht heart: cheer: sport: extacy (as he spells it): glowing heart: smiling. On the other hand he had sufficient and sustained experience of the worst of human nature’s pride, greed, lust and hypocrisy and could satirize such attitudes and practices. The opening tour de force in the 1846 ‘Collection’ on ‘Tam Tearaway’ does that to perfection. Tam was a church elder, holier than Holy Willie! sprung from a “hardy race, but fit for nowadays: Bred by two staves, Hypocrisy and Self”.

All they cared for or sighed, was earth and wealth —


Though they’d have the world believe, ’twas grace and health.

As for Tam:

Though he profess’d a friend of God’s to be,

Tam and the seasons never could agree;

Ane was too dry — another was too wat,

’Twas aye too something for himself or crap.

In those times when scarcity of crops was only too frequent, Tam found that he had no seed corn and set out to steal some by a nightly raid in the dark of the moon. This inspired one of the funniest accounts one could find of the downfall of a hypocrite, and the author’s moral is this:

What then, fond man? use all the means you can,

Of doing good, and watch designing men;

And learn till death, as on through life you wend,

A rigid bigot’s but a midling friend;

Of all the sinners that you chance to meet,

The o’er godly knave is aft the greatest cheat.

A realist Huddleston was, but yet he was not cynical as regards true religious faith and integrity of practice. In a generation plagued with theological dispute and religious triumphalism, he wrote:

Religious mad the people grown,

So many different creeds they own…

…While Truth and Virtue, far awa’,

Bewail that men so far should fa’.

He could sincerely pen a remarkable prayer: “But Oh! Thou gracious plastic Friend, To harshness not inclined — Thy Sovereign will being misery’s end, With bounty great and kind”. ‘Plastic’ conveys the fundamental idea of God who, in Holy love, deals gently, in an understanding way — not a cold, unyielding fatalistic deity. Social justice was worth seeking and it was often in Masonic Lodges that those who cherished such notions shared them. The same was true of Burns and many of the Ulster rhymers. Here is Huddleston’s solution, naive as it may appear: —

’Tis for Sammy, the farmer wha’s harrassed wi’ rise rents,

And Jonnie, the slave, who maun toil till he dee,

To say whether great folk has ever done ought for them…

Would the poor folk, together, aye cling to the poor folk,

And ne’er to the rich folk go bending the knee;

Soon the great folk, more humble, would look on the poor folk.

The poor in their turn, then, might laugh and be free.

There was always “The dear land o’ freedom” in the west, to which so many had to emigrate, wearied by the delayed reforms, so long promised in vain:

By landlords, and clergy, and tax, and tax charges,

our isle’s every product is all from us torn.

However, for Huddleston home remained sweet:

Oh! when I’m at home I can roam through the fields,

Without either heartbreak or hardship;

No sore heart have I, nor to-morrow pain’d head,

Nor ought sad to trouble my hardship;

I can laugh in the face of my neighbours like fun,

Nor neighbours have I that will shun me;

I’m never so happy as when I’m at home,

And there with my old clothes on me.”

He certainly liked to keep his old clothes on him, as this rather unfair account describes when two other poets came down from Belfast to meet him:

Our host met us at Ballygowan station with a rale owl shanrydan — a covered cart without a top — musical for want of oil and preserved from ruin and the cleaving influence of the sun by the clabber which its wheels had mercifully bedaubed it. “That’s the wy A pents my carriage. A jist let the new wash aff the owl,” said the country bard as he bade us get in, and mounted the dickey himself to steer us to his home. I could not give a much better description of our host than to say he was very much like his own carriage.

James R Boyd

(This article will be concluded in the next issue of Ullans)


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