Robert Burns and the Louth connection

There is a strong link between Scotlandıs National Poet Robert Burns and County Louth. His eldest sister Agnes came to live here with her husband and is buried in Dundalk while her home forms part of a nature park near Knockbridge. There is a monument to the poet in Dundalk and the local cigarette company, Carrollıs chose the name ŒSweet Aftonı for one of its brands.

Robert Burns was born in the little village of Alloway, Ayrshire on the west coast of Scotland on January 25, 1759. His family circumstances were poor. His father William moved there from his native Aberdeenshire nine years earlier in search of work which he found at Doonholm Market Garden.
William Burnes (the original spelling, pronounced Burn-iss was later changed by Robert himself) was granted the tenancy of a small plot of land which he tended while continuing as head gardener at Doonholm.

Burns father met and married Agnes Broun (pronounced Broon , the old Scots for Brown) and built the cottage that has come to be known as "Burns Cottage". The house was extended twice to accommodate a growing family. Robert had three brothers and three sisters.

Agnes Burns was born on September 30, 1762. Despite their impoverished circumstances their father believed in the importance of education. Poverty, hard work and study as well as an uncanny ability to observe everyday life were the cornerstones of Burn’s success.

In July 1786, Burns had his first work published. Entitled "Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect" it is considered one of the greatest collection of poems ever written. He composed hundreds of songs, poems and letters in the last 22 years of his life and he died in Dumfries in the south of Scotland on July 21, 1796 aged at the young age of 37 from rheumatic fever.

Just before his first collection was published he met with and fell in love with Jean Armour. But when she became pregnant her family disowned him and he also had to face the wrath of the local Presbyterian Council. An incident that inspired his poem, "Holy Willie s Prayer" which highlighted the hypocrisy he saw within the church.

Other famous works include, "Tam O Shanter", a chilling masterpiece recounting the thoughts of Tam from the village of Shanter as he makes his drunken way home on horseback one night.
"A Man’s a man for a that" (A Man’s a man for all that) is a poignant and potent description of what makes a true man. "My Luve is like a red, red rose" is one of the most famous love poems ever written, while "To a Mouse" exhibits Burns wonderfulgift for observation.

When he had established his reputation, he eventually married Jean in 1788 and they had nine children. His literary success helped him secure as job as a tax official that granted him a steady income for the rest of his life. In 1791 he gave up farming and moved to live in Dumfries.

Agnes Burns married William Galt in 1804 and they arrived in County Louth in 1817 when William was contracted by the Fortescue family to build the Stephenstown Pond on their estate near Knockbridge.
The pond was required because too much time and effort was being expended in ferrying water for plants, shrubs and trees on the estate during the dry summers that prevailed at the time and the Fortescues employed William Galt to build the pond on the recommendation of a friend.

So pleased was Matthew Fortescue with his work that he appointed William as Confidential Manager of the Stephenstown Estate with the then generous salary of 40 guineas per annum. The post also came with the use of a cottage as well as land for the keeping of a cow and growing vegetables.
Agnes received a personal allowance of 5 for working in the dairy. William and Agnes had no children but lived comfortably for the rest of their lives. Fortescue later built a school for the children of his workers.

Agnes lived to be 72 years old and died on October 17, 1834. Her husband survived her by almost 13 years and died on March 3, 1847. The couple are buried in St. Nicholas Cemetery in Dundalk.
One contemporary said of Agnes, "she was as unprepossessing a female as one would care to see. But, oh! to hear her read her brother s poems was a caution, with hard rasping delivery, that I question if many out of Ayrshire could make out the meaning of a word she said".

In 1859 admirers of Burns erected a monument in his memory near Agnes and William’s grave in St. Nicholas’s cemetery, to mark the centenary of his birth. Beneath the 30-foot high obelisk is the inscription;

"As a tribute to the genius of Robert Burns, the national bard of Scotland and in respect for the memory of his eldest sister Agnes, whose mortal remains are deposited in this churchyard. Erected by the contributions of the poets numerous admirers in Dundalk and its vicinity 25th. January 1859."
On first reading the inscription could infer that Agnes was older than Robert, but given that she was three years younger than him it must imply that she was the eldest of his three sisters.

The Burns connection was strengthened with the launch of the Sweet Afton" range of cigarettes by Carroll’s in 1919, an era when the health implications of smoking weren t realised.
The company believed that any new brand would only be successful in Scotland if it had a Scottish name on the packet.

The people of Dundalk were canvassed and opted for the name "Sweet Afton", inspired by the monument in the cemetery.

The first verse of the poem, inspired by Burns love for one Mary Campbell, was also printed on the packets and read;
"Flow gently, sweet Afton, amang thy green braes
Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise
My Mary’s asleep by they murmuring stream
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream."

The poet was romantically involved with the subject of the poem during his separation from Jean. Some accounts suggest they planned to emigrate to America but Mary Campbell died from a fever in October 1786.

The Stephenstown Pond is now the focal point of a Nature Park which has become a major tourist attraction in north county Louth since it was opened in 1996, which also happened to be the bicentenary of Robert Burns birth.

It comprises of a five-acre site with woodlands, walkways and fishing decks. The cottage William and Agnes lived in has been restored and its rooms explore the life and works of the poet as well as interpreting his sister’s life as a dairymaid on theestate.

Visitors to the cottage can hear voice-overs interpret Agnes and William Galt s daily routine. The local community in Knockbridge and its environs have contributed enormously in a voluntary capacity to the success of the project.

The Stephenstown Pond Trust has worked closely with the Burns Trustees in Ayr to develop the Burns Centre at Knockbridge. The restoration of the pond has won numerous awards including an AIB Better Ireland award in 1997.

In addition to interpreting the life of Robert Burns and the Galts the Lake View Cottage project also focuses on the history of Knockbridge, the Stephenstown Estate and the Fortescue family.
The centre also provides visitors with a multimedia experience highlighting the wildlife of the county as well as providing a playground for children.

Taken from Wee County 2003