The Bard of Kilpike’s ‘ghostly blast of hot air’

I’VE been reading poems written by Joseph Carson, the Bard of Kilpike, who lived in what we now call Seapatrick.

They’re a ghostly blast of hot air, a voice from the early part of the 19th century!

Obviously Joseph had no fear of being sued for libel or defamation of character or anything like that. Admittedly he didn’t spell everything out but from what he says who he is saying it about is unmistakable! He makes it obvious he did not like some of the doctors working in Banbridge in the early 1800s in his ‘Address to Some of the Doctors of B---b---ge’ which was written in 1826.

‘Avaunt, ye quacks of B--b---ge town,

And lay your apparatus down,

Your diacodium pills and lances,

That lull people into trances.’

I think Joseph was, in his own way, expressing the final embers of the dying ancient Celtic bardic tradition.

The ancient Bards were treated like pop stars are today. They were feted and courted in a way that resembles how our politicians and others have recently courted editors of national newspapers such as ‘News of the World’.

Ancient Irish bards, if they didn’t like you would write a set of insulting or amusing verses about you that would spoil your reputation or make people laugh. The political set up in Ireland was very different from today. Each tribe had its own king and kings have to maintain their dignity. Having people splitting their sides laughing at your expense would have been humiliating.

A toffee nosed king would have done anything to avoid that and the demands of the bards became more and more outrageous.

They were known to insist on having three beds, each one lower that the last so if drank too much and rolled out of bed they would not hurt themselves by falling on the floor!

Eventually their demands became so bizarre the kings became fed up, the power of bards declined and the final embers were extinguished by the Great Famine (1845-1847).

This verse of Joseph’s ‘Address to the Doctors’ is as hurtful as any satire written by a bard of old.

‘You brawny ploughman, Dr. B---s,

The god of physic at you spurns;

Go home to your old native hovel,

And grasp again the spade and shovel.’

I wonder who Dr. B---s was? I’d guess Burns.

As for Doctor T---r---l, alias T---r---y. He sounds like a very unpleasant man.

‘You, Doctor T---r---l, alias T---r---y,

You’ve shown yourself too proud and surly

To fill your present situation, -

I’ll point some other occupation,

Which will, no doubt, with little pains,

Far better suit your addle brains -

As you’re so dapper, neat and nimble,

Take up the lap-board, goose and thimble,

And seated on the tailor’s boss,

You may be taught without delay,

To stitch the louse and jag the flea.

How harmless you may pass your time

To murder then will be no crime.”

Personally having read that I’m even more grateful for the expert care and attention I’ve received from Banbridge’s Group Surgery. The last thing I would do is suggest my doctor become a tailor and murder lice and fleas instead of patients!

The first poem Joseph Carson had published was an Elegy, on the death of Mrs. McCaw, of Greenhill, near Banbridge. It was the first piece he ‘offered for publication’ and he sent it to the ‘Newry Telegraph’. He wrote in the preface of his book, ‘Poems. Odes, Songs and Satires’, ‘and oh!, what a fluttering my heart kept, and how proud I was, when I saw it in print, and even at that time I had to employ a young man to write it out for me.’

Today children are taught to read and write simultaneously. In the past children could be taught to read but not to write. Reading was thought to be a useful skill while writing was dangerous! If you could read you could receive and understand written instructions. Writing empowered you to be able to get in touch with other people. That from the point of view of an employer was counterproductive.

Years ago I taught in Wallace High School and the then headmaster T.C.C. Adams told me that one of the Barbours of Barbour Threads, (I cant’t remember which one) was one of the school’s board of governors. Mr. Barbour did not want his workers to be educated. He said, ‘It gives them ideas above their station and destroys good mill workers.’ Barbour Threads once owned Gilford Mill so he would have had a local infuence.

Joseph Carson said he learned to write when he attended a school, in Banbridge, for five weeks after he was married. Before that his writing, ‘more resembled Egyptian hieroglyphics than anything that goes by the name of writing.’

Mrs. Alexander McCaw had a tremendous influence on him. He wrote an elegy on her death and frankly if any man wrote that kind of thing about me I’d be embarrassed. I’d think people would believe I’d been up to no good!

‘Grim death has blasted all her charms.-

He tore her early from my side.

And left an empty void my arms.’

That does sound a bit suspicious, doesn’t it?

But then he wrote :-

‘O man, thy views on earth are vain-

Real happiness is not here below,

Soon death has changed my joy to pain,

And sorrowing days of dropping woe :

er love for me was pure as snow.

‘Tis that, and death’s dire sudden blow,

Which makes the parting so severe.’

I have come to the conclusion that Mrs. Alexander McCaw was simply a gifted teacher who did what all good teachers do. She loved her pupils in an innocent way. He said -:

‘In her each virtue was combin’d,

Sweet darling truth was her guide,

An innocent and conscious mind,

And modesty, a woman’s pride.’

We must remember language in the reign of King George IV was very different from today.

Joseph Carson wrote an ‘Address to Banbridge Reading Society followed by ‘An Epistle‘ in which he thanked them ‘for their generosity by ‘voting him the privilege of using the books of the society gratis.’

I find it interesting to realise today we are still being encouraged to do what people in the 1830s did. The old Reading Society has been replaced by Banbridge Library where we can borrow books and attend reading groups and storytelling events. We are lucky to have Banbridge Council, who encourage rliteracy by working with the John Hewitt Society to bring literary events to The Old Town Hall and the F.E. McWilliam Gallery and put on theatrical productions in Solitude Park.