'To immortalize their own regional culture in verse' (19) was the modus operandi, one could argue, of the Ulster Scots poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Samuel Thomson, a hedge school master, known as the 'Bard of Carngranny', penned over two hundred poems between 1790 and 1810 and held what may be best described as 'poet laureate' status in the Northern Star, the newspaper of the Society of United Irishmen.
The Correspondence of Samuel Thomson (1766-1816), edited by Jennifer Orr, contains no letters in Thomson's own hand but rather consists of letters addressed to Thomson at his home in Crambo Cave, near Templepatrick in County Antrim. Divided into twenty-five sections, which includes 'Miscellany in Samuel Thomson's own Hand', the letters are grouped by correspondent and arranged chronologically. The correspondence includes letters from leading literary figures including Robert Burns, who Thomson met in 1794, and the critically acclaimed Ulster poet and United Irishman, James Orr, together with other prominent radicals and eminent Belfast printers and booksellers. Although it is believed that Thomson was not connected with the United Irish movement in the 1790s, it is evident from this edition that he had associations and friendships with those who were tangibly involved.
Orr provides a cogent introduction to Thomson, which is particularly useful for those who may be unfamiliar with the Ulster poet, eloquently establishing his importance and eminence within his locale, and clearly demonstrating that he was the poet at the centre of a significant literary circle in South Antrim. John Hewitt, who revived interest in the weaver poets with the publication of Rhyming Weavers and other country poets of Antrim and Down (1974), describes Thomson as 'altogether a more literary cast of mind than any of the other school masters of Antrim and Down' (Hewitt, 98); Hewitt also comments on Thomson's discrimination in reading, which undoubtedly influenced his own poetry. This is evident here, as the letters from Robert Callwell, founder of the Northern Star, provide a fascinating insight into the literature Thomson was himself perusing.
Thomson stood on the threshold of cultural and literary change, straddling two centuries which witnessed political upheaval and the emergence of new literary and cultural movements. He was a poet who celebrated Ireland in a [End Page 118] language rooted in the soil of Ulster and deeply connected to the mother-tongue of Scots, which balanced Scots and Augustan registers effectively; and this interconnectedness is evident in the letters penned by John Rabb and John Haslett, two proprietors of the Northern Star. However, within the language, within the culture and amidst the issues which were important to the men and women collected in this edition we witness a cultural independence and a coterie, which although may not rival that of Thomas Percy (1729-1811) the Bishop of Dromore, provides perspicacity into the literary and political history of the north of Ireland in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
This is the first comprehensive edition to provide access to primary sources located in Trinity College Dublin, University of Ulster and Sentry Hill, a historic house in County Antrim, demonstrating the literary importance of letters, as the correspondence frequently transcends congenial exchange and becomes the medium for political and sentimental expression. We recognise, as Orr contends, the 'fraternal process of promotion in which the bardic circle engaged' (100) and indeed relied upon, and it is interesting how the correspondence collected here helps redefine the letter as a feminine genre. Thomson's correspondence does include a few letters from women, and Dorothy Lamont, who was the wife of Aeneas Lamont, a poet and type setter for the Northern Star, demonstrates female autonomy when she refuses to use any of Thomson's suggested epigraphs following her husband's death. However, the majority of letters are from male associates and provide a fascinating insight into masculine relationships and epistolary exchanges between men of the period, who were clearly influenced by Romanticism and also perhaps utilising the language of the age of Sensibility. Many of the letters demonstrate...