‘Ah Jist Wunner’

Ulster Scots poet Wilson Burgess with his book of poems Dae Ye Dee. Picture: Diane Magill
Ulster Scots poet Wilson Burgess with his book of poems Dae Ye Dee. Picture: Diane Magill

Ulster Scots wordsmith Wilson Burgess has a measured approach to those who argue ‘the hamely tongue’ is not a language.

“I’m in no doubt that I am bilingual,” the Derry based poet told the ‘Sunday’ this week.

“I write in the vernacular that I grew up with in Aghadowey, the dialect that Seamus Heaney talks about in his poem a ‘Birl for Burns’.

“What Heaney says is that the Ulster Scots brought the hamely tongue ‘wi’ them.. to still in County Antrim.... From East of the Bann it westered in On the Derry air.’

“No less a man than Heaney is saying that it is spoken still, that this is a language.”

Now widely regarded as a leading exponent of Ulster Scots verse, Burgess’s star has risen quickly since his first collection ‘Dae Ye See’ was published in 2007.

Indeed, that debut anthology was the first collection of poems to be published in Ulster Scots, and would later be selected as the key textbook for the Queen’s University Belfast’s Reading Ulster-Scots Poetry course.

A second collection ‘Ah Jist Wunner’ was equally well received and both books have since been accepted by Belfast’s prestigious Linenhall Library for their Languages of Ulster Collection.

He has become a regular reader and presenter on radio and more recently television, received awards and accolades and been asked to read all over Ireland, including at a packed to capacity Waterfront Hall.

Last month, he met President Mary McAleese, presenting her with copies of both collections.

He told her she was a “a great wumman” who was doing a “quare job as President.

Rubbing shoulders with Presidents is a far cry from life as a child in his homeland of Aghadowey, from where he still draws much inspiration.

“Our biggest claim to fame was that Aghadowey was Ireland’s biggest townland,” he says.

“But for us it was the centre of the universe. I suppose it has never left me, the people that stood on the corners and talked about things like sneddin’ turnips, about looking forward to drinking Guinness on a Saturday evening.

“I try and bring a bit of that, a bit of home spun philosophy to my poems, try to keep that linguistic heritage alive.”

For many of those around him a trip to Derry once a year for the Apprentice Boys’ parade was the only time they left the confines of their townland.

But Wilson’s father, a military man who was well used to travel, had instilled in him a sense that there was a life beyond Aghadowey.

After a grammar school education - wherein there was a stigma attached to the vernacular a young Wilson had readily adopted - a career in the textile industry would take a young Burgess to England before returning to the North and a position at Derry’s Star Factory.

Derry, which Wilson says, “has an energy unlike any other place”, has been home ever since

“Right through my career in the textile industry,” he says, “I was only really dabbling in writing but reading a lot. I’ve always been a great lover of books, and have gathered thousands over the years.”

Post retirement, Wilson returned to education, reading English at the University of Ulster. Pen was put to paper in earnest, he says, about ten years ago.

“I remember reading that Samuel Beckett had a poem rejected by publishers 43 times, and thought if Beckett can get rejected that much then maybe a few knock backs would do me no harm.

“The first thing I ever had published was nothing to do with Ulster Scots, a story called Grim Horizon, that was published in Ireland’s Big Issue. I was like F Scott Fitzgerald who went out and stopped traffic when The Great Gatsby was published.

“I felt like running out onto Clooney Terrace and stopping the cars,” he says.

The urge to return to the language of his youth proved too strong. Soon he was writing in Ulster Scots.

“To be honest for a long time I didn’t know it was called Ulster Scots, I was just writing in Aghadowey language, when I started to write it was never far from my mind.”

The politicisation and criticisms of the hamely tongue, he says are at time a sense of ire.

“Many times I am asked is it a language or a dialect and many times I think the people asking me are of a second class intellect,” he says.

“It annoys me that there are many people involved with Ulster Scots who do not speak it, who seem to be using the language as part of a wider political agenda and I hate the perception that it is a language for Protestant people.”

At times Wilson says the language and wider “Ulster Scots culture has been made to look ridiculous by people who don’t even speak it.”

It is, he says, a language spoken by thousands of people across the nine counties of Ulster, a language of the people.

“Where I grew up everyone spoke this way and ultimately that’s one of my objectives, to have it seen for what it is, a cross community language,” he says.

Indeed when the poet met the President a few weeks back, “she spoke at great length about a relative who was a fluent Ulster Scots speaker.”

Presidential matters aside, it is a connection with the common chords of the human condition, with the minutiae of daily life, with an overheard conversation, that underpin much of his work as a poet.”

A husband pestered into a bit of DIY - ‘Whan the nights are gettin’ longer an Spring is in the air. The wife is gettin fidgety an she’ll no sit in her chair...’ - a women’s follies for dying their hair, cheating the benefits system, and working the land - ‘Whan we wur drappin’ praeties in a wee mossy fiel - are among the myriad of topics covered in his work.

His tribute to sporting hero Alex Higgins hangs proudly in Belfast’s Royal Bar - a favourite watering hole of the People’s Champion.

“I think I have always been a people person, in the main it is the people and places that inspire. And I get a real sense of enjoyment when people tell me a poem met something to them personally.”

He is quick to acknowledge to role those who have inspired and those closest to him have played as he pursued his ambitions as a writer.

“None of this would have been possible without the people who I’ve encountered along the way and of course without Celine, a constant source of support and encouragement.”

A special reading in Bushmills is planned for Remembrance Sunday, and a Burns Night event at the Linenhall Library are on the immediate agenda.

And with his niche as a poet now firmly carved out, the man widely regarded as the Ulster Scots bard is set to turn his attention to penning a debut novel - “ a Derry based take on Catcher in the Rye,” he says.