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Jon Bartlett Origins: Bonny Portmore (28) RE: Origins: Bonny Portmore 16 Sep 08


I reproduce below two short articles I wrote about this song in our local newsletter, in hopes that this might throw a little more light on the origins of the song:

Three-Quarter Times: The Newsletter of the Vancouver Folk Song Society
Vol XXIII, No. 8: 29 November 1993

The song "Bonny Portmore" is very popular these days, having been introduced to Canadian audiences directly and indirectly by Saskatoon singer Paddy Tutty on her cassette "Paddy Tutty" (1983) and on her second album, of songs of the land, "Who Liveth So Merry" (1986). But where is it from and, precisely, what is it about, with its curious words about the "ornament tree"?

It first appears in print in 1840. Edward Bunting, in his Ancient Music of Ireland (available in more recent years collated with its predecessors of 1796 and 1809 in a volume published by Waltons' of Dublin in 1969) prints the tune as he collected it at Glenoak in Antrim from a blind Ulster harper, Daniel Black, the year the latter died (1796), and he marks it as "very ancient, author and date unknown".

Bunting's headnote locates the site of Portmore ("an old residence of the O'Neills") as on the shores of Lough Beg (to the north, on my map), a small offshoot of Lough Neagh. He says that "on the plantation of this part of the country in 1611, Portmore became the property of Lord Conway, who built a mansion here, of which there are still some traces." The "plantation" was begun immediately following the final defeat of gaelic Ireland by the English. The English land-holding system was transplanted to Ulster and overlaid on the Irish landscape, and those who could not prove title (i.e. those who did not hold English title) were dispossessed, the same system used against the Anglo-Saxons by the Normans after 1066, against North American native peoples since Contact, against the Metis of Manitoba in 1871, against the inhabitants of the West Bank following 1968.

"The air," says Bunting, "is probably as old as the time of the O'Neills, of Ballinderry, to whose declining fortunes there would appear to be an allusion in the first stanza of the English words, which are still sung with it:

Bonny Portmore, you shine where you stand,
And the more I think on you, the more my heart warms;
But if I had you now, as 1 had once before,
All the gold in all England would not buy you, Portmore!

This is close to the words sung by Paddy Tutty, and when I wrote to her recently to find her source, she very kindly directed me to Sean O Boyle's The Irish Song Tradition (Toronto, 1975: Macmillan of Canada). She had found the book in Ireland in 1978 and had learned the song from its pages.

O Boyle had the song from Robert Cinnamond, of Aghadalgan in 1952. The tune Cinnarond had sung was, says O Boyle, "an impoverished version" of Bunting's tune, so he re-set it to the 1796 original. But his headnote is curiously at odds with Bunting's. Here is the set as he collected it (p. 50):

Oh! Bonny Portmore, you shine where you stand
And the more I think on you the more I think long.
If I had you now as I had once before,
All the Lords in Old England would not purchase Portmore.

0 Bonny Portmore I am sorry to see
Such a woeful destruction of your ornament tree
For it stood on your shore for many's the long day
Till the long boats from Antrim came to float it away.

All the birds in the forest they bitterly weep
Saying: "Where will we shelter or where will we sleep?"
For the oak and the ash are all cutten down
And the walls of Bonny Portmore are all down to the ground.

First, he locates Lough Beg to the east, instead of to the north, of Lough Neagh. He has the "castle" (not "mansion") built by Conway in 1661 (surely a long time after the plantation) on the site of a more ancient "fortress". He goes on: "But after his death, Portmore became neglected and finally, in 1761, the castle and other buildings were removed and the only vestige that now remains is a portion of the wall. Among the many trees sold on the breaking up of the estate was the Great Oak of Portmore which was blown down in 1760. This is the oak referred to in the song as the "ornament tree". It was fourteen yards in circumference. A single branch of it was sold for nine pounds; the trunk fetched ninety-seven.

Though there is no hint in the song of the deliberate destruction for military purposes of the woodland surrounding the castle, the final disappearance of Conway's estate is regarded in such the same way as the destruction of Kilcash in the South:

What shall we do for timber
The last of the woods is down.
Kilcash and the house of its glory
And the bell of the house are gone...'

These notes raise more questions than they answer: and O Boyle gives no source in his boot for the new information he brings forward. For instance:
1. If the oak (the 'ornament tree") was blown down in 1761, what are we to make of the text's "woeful destruction"? I note in passing that a tree with a circumference of fourteen yards has
a diameter of just over thirteen feet: a wonderfully huge tree, if the measurement is right;
2. In whose mouth is the song supposed to lie? Hardly an O'Neill, a hundred and fifty years after being dispossessed, nor, surely, a Conway, since Conway the builder clearly had no heirs (but it must have been someone who "had you once before");
3. What are we to make of the "deliberate destruction for military purposes of the woodland surrounding the "castle"? Was this logging to provide timber for ships, and if so, why the overblown language? And why does O Boyle say that "there is no hint in the song" of this? What else can the third verse suggest?

Three-Quarter Times: The Newsletter of the Vancouver Folk Song Society
Vol XXIII, No. 4: 27 May 1998

I promised back in November 1993 to keep looking for more information about the song "Bonny Portmore". I can now report some progress. While looking at books in Don Stewart's bookstore, my eye fell upon a full set of the Ulster Journal of Archeology (Belfast, 1853) selling I think for $400 or so. A quick glance through the index revealed the following information at pp. 250-1 of Vol 1:

On the eastern bank of the little lake of Portmore, an ancient castle of the O Neills occupied a gentle elevation. .... This spot.... is held in veneration by the rustic inhabitants.... In 1664, the castle of Portmore was rebuilt on a scale of great magnificence; and here Lord Conway, now an Earl, continued to dispense his generous hospitalities for nearly twenty years..... When the Lords Conway became extinct, and the new proprietors did not feel inclined to make Ireland a place of residence, the glories of Portmore departed. The castle and other buildings were removed about 1761, and the only vestige that now remains of them is a portion of a wall ..... The beautiful deer park, said to have contained 2000 acres, is now changed to corn and pasture fields; and of the gigantic oaks (FN) , that were the pride of the neighbourhood and the wonder of all who saw them, not one remains.....

(FN)The great oak of Portmore was blown down about 1760. To the first branch from the ground was 25 feet, and the circumference measured 14 yards! A single branch was sold for 9, the stem for 97; and the principal part of the remainder, bought for 30, built a lighter of 40 tons' burthen. Many articles of furniture were made of it, and are held still in great estimation.

Jon Bartlett


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