An Irishman's Diary


IRELAND’S literary luminaries are honoured at many festivals and a new one is being added to the list. In the centenary year of his birth, the Sam Hanna Bell inaugural literary festival will be held next weekend. An Ulster-Scots author, Bell was a significant figure in the cultural life of Belfast and a broadcasting pioneer with the BBC. Born in Scotland in 1909, his family returned to Strangford Lough in Co Down after the death of his father in 1918.

During the autumn, an exhibition organised by the BBC NI Community Archive and named after one of his novels, A Man Flourishing, has been running in Belfast’s Linen Hall Library, showcasing his typescripts and different editions of his books along with his favourite hat and pipe rack. His ancient Olympia typewriter complete with carrying case sits in a glass cabinet alongside a BBC ribbon.

Bell developed an interest in socialist politics in the 1930s, contributing articles to local papers, and then began to write fiction and short stories. Some intriguing letters from fellow authors form part of the exhibition. Appropriately enough Bell contributed to Sean O’Faolain’s The Bell. O’Faolain liked his work and became a literary mentor. In April 1942 he wrote asking for more: “Have you a short story to send me? The one we printed was beautiful – one of the best we have ever had - and I have been hoping you would send another.”

Bell later sent O’Faolain the typescript of December Bride, the novel he was working on, asking him to “look over it”. O’Faolain replied saying the book “has a sturdy, solid animal quality of the land and the northern character”, and he offered some writerly advice: “You have, I feel, so far been a little fogged by the inevitable inarticulateness of peasants. I feel this is an old problem with Irish novels, and I am inclined to turn to Hardy to see again how he gets out of the difficulty.”

Bell managed to get out of the difficulty and December Bride, published in 1951, went on to be his most famous work. Partly inspired by his mother’s family, the novel is set in the early 20th century in Rathard on Strangford Lough and revolves around a servant girl Sarah Gomartin. Her tangled love affair with two brothers, Hamilton and Frank Echlin, attracts the wrath of the conservative community. The book was well received by the critics, but banned in the Republic in the 1950s because of its provocative content.

It was adapted for the stage as The Woman from Rathard, and in 1991 turned into an award-winning film directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan. Starring Saskia Reeves, Ciarán Hinds and Donal McCann, it was premiered at the fifth Dublin film festival in the Savoy Cinema. Bell, who died in 1990, wrote three other novels: The Hollow Ball(1961), A Man Flourishing(1973), and Across the Narrow Sea(1987), but December Brideis widely recognised as his best, ensuring him a place in the Irish fiction tradition.

Aside from his books, his work in broadcasting helped make him a household name. With Louis MacNeice’s encouragement he joined the BBC Home Service in Belfast as a features assistant in 1945 and developed the appeal of radio. His work opened up a world of fast disappearing folklore and folk music to audiences across the country.

Among his programme credits were It’s a Brave Step, Within our Provinceand Their Country’s Pride. His travels took him all over the North, from Rathlin Island to west Fermanagh, capturing the authentic voice of ordinary people. He also worked with the folklorist Michael J Murphy in a landmark series, Fairy Faith, an invaluable record of rural life.

Bell enjoyed getting out of the stuffy world of Broadcasting House. He felt that people in the BBC in Belfast “moved along corridors a little too conscious of their status and responsibilities”. He wrote: “The voices of men and women describing their daily work, their recreations, their hopes and troubles, are the life and breath of regional broadcasting”.

The range of his broadcast subject matter was staggering: he produced 400 programmes for the features department. His radio portrait of the Belfast shipyards, Islandmen, was based on over 200 recordings. Another programme, The Kist o’ Whistles, used dramatisation to describe the controversy surrounding the introduction of organ music in Presbyterian churches in 19th-century Ireland. Bell was also involved with the popular radio series The McCooeys and had a role in the early development of schools broadcasting. In those days, radio was the senior service, but the new-fangled world of television attracted him and in the 1960s he contributed interviews to local TV programmes.

Some weeks ago, a plaque was unveiled at his house in Crescent Gardens in Belfast; Blackstaff Press has just brought out his selected writings: A Salute from the Banderol, edited by his son Fergus. The book includes radio play scripts, essays, and articles from the Ulster Tatleras well as extracts from his unpublished diaries.

Castlereagh Council is organising the first Sam Hanna Bell festival over the weekend of December 4th and 5th. It will feature a showing of December Brideand some radio plays. His son will take part in a discussion on the legacy of his father’s work, looking at the impact on the literary geography of Ulster as well as the continuing historical and contemporary relevance of a man whom Michael Longley described as “one of our prophets”.

Details of festival