Bab M‘Keen, The McKeenstown (Ballymena) Scotch Chronicler

Author: Stephen Herron

Date: 1998

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 6 Simmer 1998


Stephen Herron

Bab M’Keen is perhaps one of the most unsung Ulster Scots writers of national significance. He wrote for the Ballymena Observer for at least thirty years, from 1878 until at least 1910. He produced tens of thousands of words of material, from poems to a serialised history of England which took nearly a year to publish in full.

In one year alone — 1878 — there are 32 articles and letters written in Ulster-Scots from Bab M‘Keen, mostly in the form of his regular column, “Bab M‘Keen on Things in General”, wherein he discussed matters in the local and world news. His opinions and observations are usually wry and witty, using the voice of the Mid-Antrim farmer to make his points.

In later years, he is writing at least as many articles, though there are a couple of years where his work does not appear at all.

There was little that Bab M‘Keen didn’t write about — every 12th of July he would cover the events that occurred — he refers to the celebrations, in one article, as the “annual debate on Bigdrumology”.

Some years, on Halloween, he would produce an article in theme with that holiday. One year, his article describes a “spiritual experience” in the People’s Park in Ballymena. The “spirit” in question was probably purchased in a pub elsewhere in town. In this outing, Bab speaks with the statue that still stands to this day. She gives him the benefit of her wisdom:

“Tell me the meanin’ o’ this Inthermediate Eddication,” quo’ I.

“Oh,” quo’ she, “it’s derived frae the deed languages, an’ signifies, jest middlin’ at the best.”

“Hoo was it there was naebody went tae the train tae see Lord Dufferin the ither mornin’” quo’ I.

“Jest because,” quo’ she, “he was guid man. If it had been yin o’ the Glesgow Bank Directors the folk wad hae sat up a’ nicht tae get a glowk at him. It’s the wye o’ the warl.”

Sometimes, months would go by without an article from Bab M’Keen. This would not go unnoticed by the public, and Bab, upon his return, would often comment upon the concern shown, especially when it wasn’t his fault that he had been gone so long:

“It’s a guid lang while since I pit pen tae paper, an’ ’deed the raison o’ it was that I cudna get things prented when I did write. Some fouk can get the editor tae pit in whativer trash they sen’. Likely they hae some wye o’ comin’ roon him. But, as far as I was conserned, it was aye ‘left ower for want o’ space’, or ‘the subject was o’ nae public importance,’ or it was ‘a’ balderdash,’ or some pit aff or anither. I got very angry wi’ the editor, an’ I jest threatened that if he wadna pit in a letiher for me noo an’ then I wad start a wee paper o’ my ain, an’ I think that broucht him tae his senses.”

This is especially ironic, since it’s likely that Bab was a nom-de-plume used by one of the editorial staff of the paper, possibly John or Robert Wilson. But regardless of his actual identity, Bab M‘Keen had a character of his own, and had a long time to develop it.

Later, in 1889, Bab M‘Keen wrote, nearly weekly, his “History of England”. This was a fairly serious work, though it had Bab’s unmistakable voice:

“The English spent the nicht in drinkin’ an’ singin’ sangs, and the Normans at their releegious duties, an’ the nixt mornin’ they wur at it like sticks a breakin’. They foucht for six hoors, an’ at the last Harold got a dab in the ee wi’ an arrow an’ wus killed, an’ at the same time his twa brithers fell, and William the Norman won the day an’ the throne o’ England.”

The importance of this series of articles could be lost in the humour that pervades it. Such a literary work would be interesting enough, if it were not completely written in Ulster Scots. To the best of my knowledge, no similar literary or historical work has appeared before in Scots or Ulster Scots.

The coherency of the work over the years lends itself to the belief that it was one writer producing the work, though the thought that there were others was also considered at the time. Bab had a reply to those folk too:

“It has come tae my notish that there’s some folk statin’ that there’s mair Babs than yin writin’ for the Ballymena Observer. Noo, if I hear ony mair o’ it, there’ll be tumblers for fower an’ bottles for twa more some o’ these fine mornin’s. Let folk be wise the time, but there’s only yin Bab, an he’s M‘Keen.”

The sheer amount of material that Bab produced is impressive enough — probably more than McIlroy and W G Lyttle combined, but spread over more than thirty years. The humour and the intelligence within Bab’s work is worthy of serious consideration and now, a hundred years after he was in the prime of his writing, perhaps he will get the recognition he deserves.



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