Celebrating Burns Night in wartime Northern Ireland

Burns Night is still celebrated in parts of Northern Ireland annually on 25th January. In wartime, traditions would continue with or without haggis.

Burns Night dates back to 21st July 1801, the 5th anniversary of the famous Scottish poet's death. The Burns Supper is now a common celebration across Scotland, Northern Ireland, and further afield. The supper, accompanied by traditional haggis and whisky takes place each year on 25th January. This date marks the known birth date of Robert Burns, taken from Ayr Parish Records.

During the Second World War, the tradition of the Burns Supper continued. However, on 25th January 1941, the Larne Times reported some bad news for those celebrating Burns Night that year.

Hitler has killed the haggis but Scotsmen will resurrect it when the barbaric hordes are routed.

The “killing” of the haggis was caused by the rationing of onions and other main ingredients of the dish. On the same date in 1941, the Belfast Telegraph reported that the Scottish of Belfast would have their haggis.

A Burns Supper without haggis would, to a Scot, be like bricks without straw.

The dish was deemed an inscrutable mystery by the writer, who enquired as to the reason behind the traditional Scottish meal.

In the poet’s day, Scotland was a poor country. The people had to live largely on potatoes, oats, and mutton, which were not too plentiful, and the thrifty housewife made these go as far as possible. To this end, she chopped the heart, liver, and lungs of a sheep and mixed them with fine herbs, suet, and oatmeal, using onions or leeks or spices for seasoning. This mixture boiled in the sheep’s stomach was called haggis because its ingredients had been chopped.

The 1941 celebration included food, drink, and the singing of Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin, Scots Wha Hae, and Green Grow the Rashes-O. Food and agriculture were topics addressed at Thompson’s Restaurant, Donegall Place, Belfast in 1943 where the annual Burns Supper took place.

Rev. Professor Scott Pearson suggested historical research into the life and works of Robert Burns might profitably take place in Ulster. He was impressed by the passion of the people of Northern Ireland for the poet, in particular, their publishing of his poetry in 1858. Other speakers dealt with the topics of the war and how Northern Ireland would be in a strong agricultural position compared to many continental nations at the end of the conflict.

In 1944, the annual Burns’ Supper again took place in Thompson’s Restaurant. An evening full of speech, poetry, and song featured the entry of the haggis. Professor T. Walmsley of Queen’s University Belfast proposed The Immortal Memory.

Mr. Robert Drysdale – President of the Belfast Burns Association chaired the evening. Other attendees included Mrs. D.J. Thompson, a descendant of the great Scottish poet. William Milne, formerly of the Highland Light Infantry and now a worker at the Harland and Wolff Shipyard piped in the haggis. Captain T.H. Roughead delivered the address to “the chieftan o’ the puddin’ race”.

The poet’s genius was the wideness of his humanity – the themes of all his writings were the themes of life, of the need of rest, of death and dying, and the simple hope to go on living afterwards. His writings told of man’s need to combat tyranny, but he took it deeper than mere resistance to external oppression, knowing that the loss of power would become the scourge, and that it was hidden, secret, creeping sense of acquiescence that could most corrupt the heart.

Mr. R. Clement Wilson proposed the toast of Our Native Land, stating that were Burns alive today, he would have admired and supported the part played by Scotland and its Allies. Mr. James Armour proposed the toast of The Land of Our Adoption paying tribute to the people of Ulster and their kind welcome to the American Forces.

Further toasts were Our Gallant Defenders, The Lasses, and The Chairman. The evening rounded off with a poem composed and read by Mr. H.H. Thompson, songs from Mr. R. Aitken and Mr. W. Magill and a duet from Mrs. Aitken and Mrs. Turnbull.

Burns Night celebrations continue in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and throughout the world each year on 25th January.

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