Actor and writer who helped define the Ireland of his time: Romancing Ireland

Review: This detailed and affectionate account of Richard Hayward’s life restores a measure of prominence to a long-neglected figure

Romancing Ireland: Richard Hayward 1892-1964
Romancing Ireland: Richard Hayward 1892-1964
Author: Paul Clements
ISBN-13: 978-1843516248
Publisher: Lilliput Press
Guideline Price: €25

Who was Richard Hayward? When his book In Praise of Ulster was published, in 1938, he already had several careers behind him, and more ongoing. He was known as an actor, singer, stage producer, radio broadcaster, "famous Irish film star", collector of Irish songs and ballads, and sales representative for Needler's Chocolates and Fox's Glacier Mints.

Born in Lancashire, in 1892, Richard came with his family to Northern Ireland at the age of two. They settled in Larne and later moved to Greenisland. After his father’s death, in 1910, Hayward began work as a naval architect. He joined the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club, got married and produced a couple of volumes of terrible verse. He had two sons (separated by 17 years) but seems to have spent more time away from his home than in it.

He developed an enthusiasm for archaeology, botany and geology. Two nuns in Lisburn taught him to play the harp. He was a man of many parts. He acted with the Ulster Players and carved a niche in broadcasting and singing circles.

In the first sound picture made in Ireland, in 1932, he took the part of a homespun Ulster wit and philosopher named Sam Mulhern. You can’t help judging it an exceptionally appropriate role. There is definitely a touch of the Ballygullions about his performance in more than one field.


But it would be wrong to underestimate Hayward’s contribution to Irish cultural life in the middle years of the 20th century. He belonged to an Ulster generation that included BBC men, actors, folklorists, poets – Sam Hanna Bell, for instance, John Boyd, Joseph Tomelty, E Estyn Evans – and he remained a benign and respected presence among them.

Everything about the country (the whole country) was for Hayward a source of inspiration and affection. He relished its diverse landscapes, its ancient monuments and fishing villages, its historic towns, its birch, alder, rowan and holly trees, its romantic legends and dark disturbances, its humours and intrigues and eccentricities. His greatest achievement was the series of travel books, beginning with the beautifully produced In Praise of Ulster and ending, in 1964, with Munster and the City of Cork, which covered every corner of the county from Rathlin Island to the Skelligs.

Hayward's travel writing is informative and assured, with occasional swoops into whimsy and buttonholing patter: "But if you haven't heard the real story of the Pigeon Hole sit down there on the rock and I'll not be long putting my tongue round it for your benefit." And so on. He can't resist the colourful embellishment or supposedly indigenous impersonation. It's all of a piece with his fondness for the "ri fol, ri fol, kitty fol de" mode when it comes to the local song tradition.

What saves Hayward's books from undue blarney, though, is his eye for detail – a little inn at Maam Bridge, a pleasant lakeside road – and incessant awareness of architectural infelicity. Like Frank O'Connor, Hayward rightly deplores the national indifference to conservation, which strikes him forcibly in towns and cities, and among uncherished ruins all over the country. As he says in Border Foray (1957) – referring to Newry – "the all-pervading sense of neglect and dilapidation is sad beyond words".

But low spirits are quickly dispelled by all kinds of countrywide delights, and by the storytelling impulse that has Hayward in its grip.

Every back road and townland in Ireland has its history and its legends, and he knows them all. His 10 travel books add up to a heartfelt engagement with romantic Ireland – and he was lucky enough to work, in succession, with three illustrators – J Humbert Craig, Theo Gracey and Raymond Piper – whose drawings are perfectly attuned to the jaunty and ecumenical spirit of each undertaking. Hayward was, we should remember, an Ulster Protestant and eventual member of the Orange Order, but he never let either persuasion get in the way of his ingrained Irishness.

Paul Clements’s generous and attentive biography focuses on the public rather than the private side of Hayward’s life. The sparse personal information – residence in north Belfast, family life, prompt second marriage after his first wife’s death – is subordinate to the world of work, the changing emphasis of Hayward’s concerns and the social context.

Each chapter has at its centre a facet of the subject's protean activities – theatricals in Belfast and Dublin, broadcasting and recording, et cetera – and the scene is set with flair and thoroughness. The chapter "Name in Lights, 1935-1939", for example, includes a short history of the cinema in Ireland and records the verdict of the film censor on a Hayward production, The Early Bird. Shots of men in their shirts the censor found "disgusting" and exercised his right to impose cuts.

The Irish Press reviewer, on the other hand (and more typically), praised the "humour clean as the Bann breezes" that pervaded the storyline. Most were agreed that whatever Hayward turned his hand to, an outcome including "nothing sordid" was guaranteed.

Hayward's difficulties with publishers are documented in the chapter "A Stubborn Devil", with copious extracts from his letters testifying to a capacity for exasperation alongside the normally more jovial persona. "If you want neither foreword nor letter, say so"; "One sentence in your present letter enrages me beyond endurance." Usually a compromise was reached, and the books are produced to a high standard. They record a bygone Ireland, filtered through an easygoing, affable sensibility. Hayward, according to more than one commentator, liked to be the centre of attention, a position he frequently achieved because of his many talents.

His death, in 1964, in a car crash near Ballymena, was followed by an extraordinary outpouring of tributes and reminiscences – “There was a lot of shock and grief and we were all horrified”; “His humour sprang up like a fountain sparkling in the sunshine”, and so on – and then . . . nothing. Until now.

It has taken 50 years, but Clements's detailed and affectionate account of Hayward's life should restore a measure of prominence to a long-neglected figure, very much a product of his time but also someone who helped to define the mores of the time. Romancing Ireland is a product of great industry and astuteness, a social history, and a worthwhile exercise in reinstatement.