Thursday, 14 May 2009

The Weaver Question

I've always had an interest in the history of hand-loom weaving in Ulster, as at least four successive generations of my Newtownards male ancestors (and some of the females) were hand-loom weavers, right up to the 1950s. Indeed, I still have a wee pram rug which my great-grandfather Hugh McDonald wove for my father in 1929. Hugh's obituary states, "He was one of the old hand loom weavers, working in his own home weaving fine linens, but latterly weaving tweeds and tartans for both local firms [including James Mairs of Newtownards and Hugh Mack of Belfast] and the Scottish house of Peter MacArthur & Co" [still trading in Biggar, Lanarkshire] Talk about taking coals to Newcastle! The family death notice also included the following excerpt from a poem entitled The Weaver by Benjamin Malachi Franklin (1882-1965)

Not till the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why.

Continuing the weaving theme, here's a wee Ulster-Scots poem called The Weaver Question by Thomas Given (c1850-1917) taken from G R Buick's Poetical Works Of The Brothers Given (Belfast, 1900). Thomas was a farmer from Cullybackey in County Antrim and one of three poetry-writing brothers. There is no indication that he ever worked as a weaver himself, but it's clear that he was familiar with the terminology and the issues of the trade. As Edward Sloan's poem The Weaver's Triumph also shows, life was not always easy for the weavers.

The Weaver Question by Thomas Given

We read o' meetings to support
The risin' nerra-guage,
Which is to be the strength and fort
O' every comin' age.
We read o' controversies lang.
O' puirhoose jaw and vapour,
But seldom does the weavers' wrang
Bedeck the public paper
On ony day.

Oor wabs are lang an' ill to weave -
Sometimes the yarn is bad -
Till scanty claes, wi' ragget sleeve,
Is seen on lass an' lad.
But noo guid fortune we'll attain,
For orators sae thrifty
Will gar the dreeper clip his chain
Wa' doon tae twa-an'-fifty
On ilka day.

Queels maun be wun when claith is wroucht,
An' pickers, shears an' treadles,
Tallow an' temples maun be boucht,
An' floor tae dress the heddles.
Then meat tae gar the wee yins leeve,
Maun come as weel's the tackle,
But shure the wages we receive
Wud hardly buy them treacle
Tae meal this day.

How aisy 'tis for men tae preach
Whun riches they hae got,
An' wae self-interest's purse-hurt screech,
Ca' us a sinfu' lot.
But, haud a wee! Ye men o' wealth!
Though noo for breath yer pantin',
We ax nae favours gained by stealth -
It's justice that we're wantin' -
Nae mair this day.

I ne'er was blessed wae gift o' gab,
Like some great learned men,
Instead o' school, I wove my wab,
Before that I was ten.
Though noo I'm auld an' gray's my hair,
I've studied weel the sense o't
For work let us get wages fair,
Nae matter 'boot the length o't
On ony day.


  1. Thomas Given was my great great grandfather :)

  2. Great to hear from you, Peter. Was that the first time you'd seen that poem? You wouldn't happen to have a copy of the brothers' book of poetry? I was wondering if all three wrote in Ulster-Scots.