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

Author: James R Boyd

Date: 1994

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 2 Spring 1994

(A conclusion of the article commenced in Ullans 1)

Among the host of friends (and foes) that Huddleston addressed poetic ‘epistles’ to were a number of his ‘brother bards’. Naturally he composed tributes to poets he never knew, including the inevitable ones to Robert Burns, also indeed one called Lines written on Ramsay, Scotch Bard, as well as another to Samuel Thomson, the Bard of Carngranny in Co Antrim, who died in 1816. He wrote numerous poems to David Herbison, the Bard of Dunclug, including an Epistle to David Herbison on receiving from him a poetical effusion, but later we find lamentations on Herbison’s death and Verses on the monument erected to David Herbison. Other titles of interest, in that they show the extent of his literary connections, are an Epistle to James M‘Keown, poet, Lambeg, alias ‘Kitty Connor’; Epistle to Francis Davis, poet, ‘The Belfastman’; Letter to Thos. Cunningham, Crossen, a ‘brother poet’, 1848; and an Elegy for Joe Carson, poet, Ardoyne, Antrim.

He also had one poem, ‘The Bard’, which was dedicated to “my old friend, Henry Flecher, poet”, as well as several poetic epistles to Flecher himself.

He was fortunate in his neighbours indeed. In his middle years one special friend was the poet Henry McDonald Flecher (born Ballinderry, 1827, still alive in Texas, 1909). Trained and well-read for his work as teacher, Flecher became the respected master at the Mill School in Comber and shared religious and socio/political views with Huddleston, with whom and with another local neighbour, Gavin (‘Gawn’) Orr, many a song and poem would be ‘polished’. When Flecher published his 200 page ‘Poems Songs and Ballads’ in 1866, Huddleston paid tribute to him as a bosom pal and one whose knowledge of language and aptitude for rhyme had been of great assistance. While still ‘the Master’, much respected in the district, Flecher might be tempted by the welcome likely for his poems to scale greater heights. If so he would be much missed, not least by the bard of Moneyrea.

Account must be taken of John Hewitt’s description of the visit of Flecher, together with Francis Davis and Hugh Leslie Stewart, to Huddleston in May 1868 and conveyed by Huddleston from Ballygowan railway station the three miles to Moneyrea in his dirty farm cart. Stewart (dubbed by Hewitt “a young literary dabbler”) found in some of Huddleston’s verses “not infrequently … a sterling idea chastely and well expressed”. However he went on to quote Flecher as regarding this as being like finding “diamonds in a dung-hill”. This did not lead to severing the warm friendship and mutual respect of Flecher and Huddleston and we have evidence of an interesting exchange of thought between them in 1874.

Huddleston submitted to the Northern Whig a touching memorial tribute following the death of the two young daughters of his ‘cronies’ — Henry McD Flecher and Gawn Orr. The covering letter to the Editor read as follows:

Sir, The following poem may not be up to your taste. Nevertheless, as you will pircieve, it is a heartfelt tribute of affection to bereaved and mourning parents.

Henry D. Flecher and Gawn Orr Esq., a short time ago, lost a daughter each they doted on. They were great cronys, when Flecher was in this country, and their families fast friends. They are also warm friends of mine. Before poor Flecher went to America, we were “unco pack an’ thick thegither”, visiting each other often. In fact, when he kept school at Moneyrea, we were scarcely ever asunder.

If the piece be aught to your pleasing, I would like to see it print. It will gratify our old friend much in different wilds to think we have not forgotten him in his trouble.

Yours with difference & respect

Robt Huddleston


McKnight Esq.

Editor, Northern Whig, Belfast

N.B. Mind the variations. I have marked them. Select the best and blot the others.

A note at the end of the poem added:

Henry D. Flecher. Mr Flecher the father of the fallen Minnie, emigrated a few years back with his wife and family to Texas U.S. America. He contributed at one time practically to the Northern Whig. And ere he left Ireland printed in Belfast a volume of poems of no ordinary ability.

Huddleston’s poem, called In memory of Miss Elizabeth Orr and Miss Minnie Flecher, was published and a copy sent to Flecher, by then settled in Texas. In his response he wrote thanking Huddleston but relied sufficiently on their friendship, not only to identify those stanzas which he regarded as best, but also to write out a revised version of one stanza. The double relationship of trusted friend and respected schoolmaster could not be more clearly displayed. Furthermore, just as they had shared the scenery, bird song, and seasons at Moneyrea, so Flecher commented on what he missed, just as any emigrant would: “Our woods are strangers to the harmony of an Irish grove. Another feature of beauty common in Ulster, the mountain, is entirely wanting here.” To an extent such deficiencies were offset by “a moonlight night in spring: a sight of wonderful splendour … the intensity of the blues of the Texan firmament.” Similarly, details of family circumstances were embodied in the letter, together with references to Huddleston’s family which showed that correspondence had probably been maintained.

Five years later, when Huddleston was a mature man in his mid-50s, he was still writing lengthy poems to Flecher in America. By this time Flecher had become a close friend, though parted by many miles. The following verses from his Epistle to Henry McDonald Fletcher, poet and teacher, Texas US America, 1879 represent only a few of the 47 verses in this poem:

Dear Flecher, kind heart far awa’

I hope you’re weel and doing bra’

To you my pl’ughman mouth I thraw

My love to humour

And tho’ my sang be rude and raw,

Call it a bloomer. …

Are many tales that might you please

Round Moneyrea, baith truth and lees

But wi sic things I’m ne’er at ease

And clinking slaves

And Gawn has wrote you up on these

And that me saves.

(It seems that Gawn Orr was also writing to Flecher in America.)

Dear Fletcher, thorough teaching chappie,

I ax you ance mair are you happy

Nae blockhead thou, or gillygawpie

Man ’mongst the many

That laughs to scorn the ignorant tawpy

And senseless ninney. …

Poor Fletcher shipped — God send him luck —

Nae kinder lad was e’er Muse struck

Awow! he was the chap o pluck

Could tamed the gull

And tauld the knaves our heart’s blood suck

Their ain in full. …

Our sorrows keen, our loves as well

But these are things we needna tell

Oh Fletcher, do you mind the spell

You nursed poor Rabin

Wha o’ his life here made the h—l

That leaves him sabbin’.

(Frequently in this poem, Huddleston switches mood and returns to the theme of earthly mortality, and the hope of future reunion with loved ones in heaven).

Then Mistress Fletcher you shall gain

Poor Minnie, Howard — all your ain

And I shall get my sair mourned wean

My poor, wee Mary

And we shall never part again

And a’ ‘ll be cheery.

I’se gaun to say — forget, and marry,

But that’s a thing you’ll shirk and tarry

’Twad be a poor way grief to parry

Tae tak’ anither

The second wife wad be ower hairy

For you, my brither!

An essay like this cannot begin to do justice to the rich vein of material relating to Huddleston’s place in our heritage. However, enough has been introduced to whet the appetite, at least for some of the songs with tunes likely soon to be published.

James R Boyd


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