A New Year message from wartime Northern Ireland

Your ma, your da, and "ats us nai" featured in a Christmas and New Year message broadcast by the BBC as a new decade brought forth hopes of peace in 1940.

In December 1939, the BBC broadcast a message to The Empire. Voices from around the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland talked of family life back home. Readers of the Belfast Telegraph newspaper were quick to voice their disapproval of the segment from Belfast.

Among the complaints were some who claimed, the voices were actors rather than real working class people from the city. Others cringed at the use of Ulster dialect, particularly to the usage of “ma” and “da”. A segment of the script follows. In 2020, it is worth noting that some people in Northern Ireland still use an even more colloquial version of the opening line. Ats us nai.

Johnnie: There! That’s us now.
Mary: Be quiet. All of you.
Johnnie: Go on da, you begin.
Jimmy: Well, that’s another Christmas dinner over, and danged good one too.
Lily: It was indeed.
Johnnie: Aye, ma knows how to make a fellow cat all right.
Mary: I should think I do; dear knows I have been at it long enough.
Jimmy: Twenty-six years.
Mary: Twenty-seven Jimmy.
Jimmy: So it is. Twenty-seven years. It’s a long time.
Lily: Well, it’s great you’re all able to be together in your own home.
Jimmy: It is indeed. Sure we hardly ever see each other these days.
Mary: You see, Lily, Jimmy’s working on the Island all day. I work from six to eight in the evening at The Barracks, and Johnnie there works all night at the aeroplane factory.
Lily: Do ye tell me.
Johnnie: We’re lucky getting off at all.
Jimmy: Aye, we’re working day and night. And it’s a sight for sore eyes, but it’s a pity it takes a war to do it.
Mary: Aye, indeed.
Jimmy: Did you ever go down the Lough on the Bangor boat when things were slack? The yards looked terrible miserable.

The Gray Family - Christmas 1939

British Newspaper Archive Photo: James Gray, his wife, and son leant their authentic Belfast accents to a script by Thomas Carnduff for a BBC Broadcast in December 1939. Copyright Belfast Telegraph - 30th December 1939.

Jimmy and Mary were James Gray and his wife. Their son James Gray Jr. played the role of Johnnie. Only Lily was a BBC voice actor from Belfast, Co. Antrim. James Senior really did work at the Harland and Wolff Shipyard and the whole family played their role in the war effort. It was exciting for the Gray’s to take part, as not only did they get to be radio stars for a day but it also meant their real-life daughter could hear their voices at Christmas. She was in Egypt at the time.

New Year's Eve, Belfast, December 1939

British Newspaper Archive Photo: Even with the blackout in force, hundreds of residents of Belfast attended a gathering on New Year's Eve 1939 by the Albert Memorial Clock in Belfast. Copyright Belfast Telegraph - 1st January 1940.

The Script Writer's Defence

The script was the work of local writer Thomas Carnduff, known in Northern Ireland as "The Shipyard Poet". He spoke up in defence of the Gray family and the use of Ulster colloquialisms throughout the piece in a letter published on 1st January 1940.

Sir, your repot of the Northern Ireland broadcast to the Empire which appeared in Saturday’s issue of the Telegraph is quite true. Now that the boradcast has ceased to be anonymous I may be allowed to write a few words on the subject.

Both Mr. Gray’s family and myself considered it an honour to be asked to participate in a broadcast message from Ulster to our people in all parts of the globe. Jimmie Gray and I were not strangers to each other. For 12 years and more we worked in separate squads in the same engine room of many ships built in our locl shipyards. We both have reared our families within a stone’s throw of each other.

The script of the broadcast was written in the kitchen of a working-class house and broadcast from the kitchen of a similar house in the next street. The Gray family couldn’t hide their Belfast accent no more than I, even if they tried; and my own in particularly fierce. Why should I be ashamed of it? I was born in Belfast. Reading from the script may soften it somewhat, but the substance remains.

As for the broadcast itself, 3 minutes isn’t what you would call an adequate period to give a perfect picture of home life in Ulster, to include a message to the Empire. I think our local station tackled rather a difficult problem. The BBC could have faked a beautiful picture of Ulster life had they wished. They have dozens of Ulster’s best actors on their roll. But their choice fell on an ordinary Belfast shipyardman’s family, none of whom had ever faced the mike in their life.

There was a fair amount of criticism levelled at the “Ma and Da” aspect of the broadcast. I used the phrase in my natural speech till I grew up. My 4 boys used the same phrase till they grew up. I hear children in the street use it every day. There is no disrespect in a youngster saying “me da works in the shipyard”.

It was certainly a big honour for Jimmie Gray and his family to be chosen as representatives of Ulster family life in an Empire broadcast. But it wasn’t all the honour. The microphone was honoured to have such a family facing it. 7 Hanover Street, Belfast, Co. Antrim.