Sophie Hillan King, ‘“A Salute from the Banderol”: Sam Hanna Bell’s Contribution to Ulster’s Cultural Life’, in Writing Ulster [‘Northern Narratives’ special issue, ed. Bill Lazenblatt], 6 (1999), pp.1-11

For Sam Hanna Bell, as for Patrick Kavanagh, the regional, or parochial, and the universal were interdependent. Remembering the place of his childhood, Bell saw that a whole world of custom and ceremony was disappearing before his,eyes. ‘The old ways of our community’, he wrote in 1956, ‘are vanishing rapidly.’ [1] A sense of responsibility to the past and its customs, and, again in his own words, ‘a lively curiosity in what my fellow citizens do and how they do it’, informed his work as novelist, television producer and gatherer of ‘the traditions and customs of the Nine Counties of historic Ulster’. [2] In the faithful pursuit of these demanding activities, he became, as the poet Michael Longley described him after his death in 1990, ‘one of our prophets’. [3]

Sam Hanna Bell, born in 1909 in Glasgow, came on the death of his father in 1918 to live with his maternal grandparents in Raffrey, Co. Down, where he was, in his own words, ‘in time to catch a glimpse of a vanishing way of life’. Raffrey was a small isolated village, some seven miles north of Crossgar in County Down. ‘It would have been possible’, he later recalled, ‘for an eighteenth century countryman to recognise nearly all the furniture we used, and some of the clothes we wore.’ [4] The community was mainly Presbyterian, and the life sober and conformist, though Bell’s grandparents were by no means as strict as some of their neighbours. The school he attended was of the old-fashioned kind, with more than one class taken by one teacher, ‘the master’, and Bell remembered in 1970 that the children wrote on slates, 1 great square grey things, as large as a roof slate’. [5] At the same time, he did not have much time to waste after school because, as he explained, ‘you can’t go tramping across four or five fields just to ask a neighbour to come out to play. And more important, when a fellow got home from school he had to take his share of the work around the farm’. [6]

There was time, however, for observation and the mental recording of detail. Places and incidents from that formative period stayed clear in Bell’s mind for the rest of his life, finding their way into his early short stories and, later, into his novels. In 1963, he recalled the childhood experience of seeing his uncle put a pike into a well, in a hot dry summer, to keep the water free from insects:

1 cadt remember now whether it was an effective scavenger or not, but 1 do remember that every time I was sent for a ‘go’ of water 1 always drew up a brimming bucket in fear and trembling that I might see, coiled, in the bottom of it, that fish watching me with a glittering eye. [7]

Almost thirty years after that was written another prophet, Seamus Heaney, would use in his poem, “Station Island”, a similar image to conjure up the voice of the long-dead Tyrone writer, William Carleton, who advises Heaney’s poet-pilgrim to keep a distance between himself and the world, while maintaining a sense of tradition:

All this is like a trout kept in a spring

or maggots sown in wounds
another life that cleans our element

We are earthworms of the earth, and all that
has gone through us is what will be our trace. [8]

Bell had an instinctive sense of the importance of local tradition, even as a boy, and would later use his knowledge of it, not only in his fictional writings, but in his work for the BBC where, as a pioneer of the outside broadcast, he would commit to tape and film many of the customs of the countryside which might otherwise have been lost. ‘Having had the good fortune to spend most of my childhood on an Ulster farm’, he wrote in 1962, ‘I had a pretty thorough knowledge of how country people live their lives.’ [9] In his work for the preservation of the ‘vanishing ways of the countryside’, he supported and brought to a wider audience, through the medium of radio and later television, the work of other pioneering spirits, such as Estyn Evans, Professor of Geography at QUB who, in a fashion then unheard of within the academic world, went out into the countryside, spoke to the people who worked the land, recorded his findings in words and in sketches, and played, as Bell did, a major role in the preservation of a vanishing way of life.

Long before he took his place, however, among those who would record those traditions, the young Bell had to experience another great change. While he was still a youth, his mother moved her children to Belfast, where she made a living by sewing and taking in paying guests. This time provides the background to his 1961 novel, The Hollow Ball, in which he evokes the sights and sounds of Belfast in the thirties, when many thousands were unemployed, and young boys like his hero, David Minnis, were glad of the most menial position, conscious that they could be thrown at any moment into the dole queue. To the knowledge of farm and countryside, Bell added a sense of the harsh realities of existence and survival in a period of economic depression.

It was at this time that he began to discover as much as he could about theatre and folklore and art, in the last of which he was then greatly interested. ‘My original intention’, he later wrote, ‘was to be a painter.’ [10] Although he did not pursue these studies, he retained the artist’s eye in his later prose pictures. His earliest stories date from this period, the mid-thirties, and explain in part why he abandoned his ambition to be a painter. His first stories were accepted by BBC’s Children’s Hour and then by Sean O’Faolain, editor of The Bell. It was in this prestigious magazine that his first short story, “Summer Loanen”, was published, soon to be followed by another, “This We Shall Maintain”. In both of these, Bell draws on his childhood in Raffrey, evoking a sense of sheltered peace:

The feathered quicken-grass and nodding goose-grass with its wheatlike head grew into the loanen, making shaded arbours between the ancient blackthorn roots. It was the vivid crimson jersey of the boy which caught the strawberry hunter’s eye. He sat with his back to the ditch, cushioned on the lush grass, and he juggled three white stones, letting them run through his fingers and fall on the ground between the crook of his chubby knees. [11]

The setting could be that of one of the early stories by Michael McLaverty, but there the similarity ends. Both draw on a deeply felt sense of place and on a knowledge of the importance of place and tradition in shaping the mind for good or ill. Yet, where McLaverty’s people, and in particular his children in the stories of the thirties, face up to the loss of a kind of prelapsarian innocence, Bell’s characters in these first stories, even the children, are rather more secure, much less tormented by conscience. Moreover, where McLaverty’s work is properly rooted in his knowledge of the Catholic tradition, Bell’s belongs, with an equal sense of propriety, within the Presbyterian world in which he grew up. In the writing of both, there is love of land and custom, and a deep sympathy for those suffering through separation from the fundamentals of home and people.

In the title story of the collection Summer Loanen, published by Richard Rowleys Mourne Press in 1943 (as was McLavertys first short story collection, The White Mare), children from two sides of the religious divide play together and sum each other up. In “This We Shall Maintain”, a child is humiliated by an aunt - straight out of Saki - for having failed to keep up the family tradition of coming first in a scripture examination. His joy in the book he has won as third prize - an interesting book, Bell tells us, ‘like many third prizes” - is removed from him. Thereafter the reader is no longer in the world of children. Three stories concentrate on the problems of adolescents, finding and losing a job (in “Bound Limp Cloth”), and again being penalised for a joy in reading; finding and losing a girl (in “A Fish Without Chips” and “Thursday Nights”) through a mixture of fear and adolescent self-consciousness. Several involve funerals (”Always Raise Your Hat To a Hearse”; “Two Blades of Grass” and “Old Clay, New Earth”), and the tone ranges from the broadly comic to the quietly reflective. Two darker, more cynical stories, “Dark Tenement” and “The Broken Tree” show, respectively, a Joycean visit to a city brothel, and, in a McLaverty-like story, the breaking of a man through the loss of his farm and way of life.

In these early sketches - for some are sketches rather than fully rounded short stories in the tradition of Maupassant or Chekhov - Bell begins to explore the themes later developed in his four novels. In its
own right, however, the collection is worthy of attention. In 1942, having published “Summer Loanen”, Sean 0’Faolain wrote to Bell:

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. [12]

When Bell did send another, he received a postcard bearing the words: ‘”This We Shall Maintain” Beautiful! Beautiful!’. The first ‘beautiful’ was underlined once, the second four times. [13] What author could fail to be encouraged and delighted by such praise?

Yet, Bell was not content to confine himself to writing. In 1943, realising, as he put it, ‘the need of some outlet of expression for Irish writers at home and in the forces’ he founded, with his friends Bob Davidson and John Boyd, a new journal, Lagan, as a vehicle for Ulster writing. [14] In this they published the work of such new and established writers as W R. Rodgers, Michael McLaverty, Joseph Tomelty, John Hewitt and Louis MacNeice. Writing in 1951, Bell recalled the extraordinary cultural revival of the forties:

Perhaps it was a sudden sense of interrupted isolation, of being cast from the fringe of Europe into portentous happenings. But whatever the alembic through which this new awareness passed, it is a fact that the decade has been one of importance as far as creative art in Ulster is concerned. [15]

His appointment in 1945 to the position of Features Producer with the BBC, combined with his strong sense of living in a time when something could and should be made of the artistic life in Ulster, served to place him in an ideal position to explore his wide range of interests. It is both significant and appropriate that the test piece which he presented as an applicant for the BBC - and on the basis of which he was employed - entitled “Their Country’s Pride”, and was concerned with migration from the country to the city. [16]

In the BBC he say it as his function, using his knowledge of country ways, ‘to introduce the pattern and occupations of the Province into broadcasting.’ [17] In 1949, in “The Microphone in the Countryside”, he described the function of the new outside broadcast, bringing into the homes of listeners ‘the voices of men and women, their recreations, their hopes and troubles’. [18] With the folklorist, Michael J. Murphy, he worked to create an archive of scripts and recordings, publishing examples of his findings in 1956 in a volume entitled Erin’s Orange Lily: Ulster Customs and Folklore. In his introduction, Bell wrote:

The old ways of our community are vanishing rapidly. A visitor to Ireland wishing to enrich the cathedral of his native city asked a bishop where he might secure relics of an Irish saint. The bishop replied: ‘Go into any graveyard, the most remote in the land, and take a handful of dust. So you will have your relics.’ In another generation the same answer will hold for those who search Ulster for the relics of men lesser than saints. [19]

The chapters in the book have such titles as “To Chap the Lambeg”, “I Work Down the Island”, “Travelling to the Fair”, “Respect the Good Neighbours”and “Dancing at the Feis”. In the publication of this volume, and his later miscellany of writing about life in Ulster, Within Our Province [20], in his work with Michael J. Murphy and Sean O’Boyle in the establishment of archives of folklore and Irish music, and in his radio work for schools, Bell did much to prevent the disappearance of ‘the old ways of our community’.

He knew exactly how important this work was. When he carried out in 1951 and 1952 a survey of fairylore and superstition in Ulster, and broadcast the findings on the BBC’s Third programme, he was conscious that, as he put it, ‘this was the first serious investigation into this field for many years’. [21] Copies were later kept in the archives of the Irish Folklore Commission and in the Irish Folklife Association. Similarly, with Sean O’Boyle, well-known as a Gaelic scholar and teacher and an authority on Irish music, he worked to record and deposit in archives in Ireland and London ‘over two hundred pieces of music’. He was, moreover, responsible for some of the earliest television films to be made in Northern Ireland, including the justly famous “Rathlin Island”, subsequently broadcast both in Europe and America. [22] Yet, his greatest joy in the BBC was in the bringing forward of other writers. ‘But above all’, he wrote in 1962, ‘I consider that my job is being properly fulfilled when I am successful in encouraging Ulster men and women to write for their Region.’ [23] This was, to him, his finest achievement:

I have produced the work of almost every Ulster writer of note, and the earliest radio scripts of John D. Stewart, Roy McFadden, John O’Connor, Nesca Robb, Norman Harrison and Sam Thompson were feature programmes. It was at my suggestion and invitation that Joseph Tomelty wrote his highly popular family series, “The McCooeys”. Particularly I look back with pleasure on the outstanding programmes which authors have written for me or on which I have collaborated. [24]


Somehow, in the middle of this punishing schedule of work, there appeared in 1951 his first and best-known novel, December Bride [25]. Originally intended as a short story, it became a vehicle for an affectionate but unblinkered depiction of the ways of the Raffrey folk of his childhood. Its heroine, Sarah Gomartin, is described by Bell as ‘secretive and restrained and self-absorbed’. Unconventional and ambitious, Sarah manipulates the two brothers of the Echlin household, bearing two children while refusing to name either brother as the father, and turning her position into one of power by refusing to entertain the idea that she should be ashamed of her position. In the end, she becomes the ‘December Bride’ of the title to satisfy the need of one of her two children for conventional parental behaviour. It would be an oversimplification to suggest that the attraction of the novel lies solely or primarily in the heroine’s freedom from conventional morality. She is very much her own woman, but she is not Hardy’s Tess, doomed to destruction: Sarah knows the strength of the woman in the house, and it is her intention to hold that power to herself. Therefore, she will neither belittle either brother by marrying the other, nor risk losing her position of influence by freeing either brother from her control. Gradually, she is accepted, by the men, if not the women of the neighbourhood:

But the women, those sharers of opinion and prejudice, would hear nothing in Sarah’s favour, and the men for peace’s sake, agreed that she was a shameless bisom and worth the watching. Yet, among themselves, as they gathered at the crossroads, there could be detected a tickled humour at the idea of this matriarchal household set up among them, and one man expressed the opinion that if there was any truth in the old saying that “a man maun ask his wife’s leave to thrive” then the Echlins would do rightly with Sarah Gomartin’s girl. [26]

Bell does not shy away, in this study of the balance of power between the sexes, from his knowledge of sectarian bias in the community from which he came. He shows Sarah’s vindictive behaviour towards her Catholic neighbours, the Dineens, when she has them evicted in order that she may have their land for storage barns:

Not one of them honestly believed that it was necessary to turn the Dineens out. Had it been any other family the brothers would have put themselves to any inconvenience to find another storage house. Yet they, and even Sarah, liked Owen Dineen. But deep down in all three the centuries-old enmity against the papist stirred, and neighbourliness and a more ancient kinship were forgotten. [27]

This recognition of ‘neighbourliness and a more ancient kinship’, combined with a clearsighted understanding of ‘centuries-old enmity’, and a balanced view of the ways in which all of these contradictions mix within Ulster people, inform all Sam Hanna Bell’s work, fictional and non-fictional. The same sense of digging into the past, which would characterise Seamus Heaney’s North, seems to have sent Bell into the history of his region and of his own family in two later, historical novels, A Man Flourishing and Across the Narrow Sea. [28]

A Man Flourishing is set in 1798, and follows the fortunes of a young man caught up in the compromise and disillusionment of the rebellion. It is a valuable study of place and time, but gives an impression of unevenness, perhaps because a longer manuscript was cut. A study of the original, presently in the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, may reveal more of the author’s intention when writing it. Across the Narrow Sea goes even further back in time, to 1608,and the arrival of a young Scot in the townland owned by the Scottish planters, the Echlins, clearly the ancestors of the brothers in December Bride. Recalling the style and settings of Sir Waiter Scott, it is a well-crafted novel in that romantic tradition. Indeed, Bell describes it on the title page as ‘a romance’. His papers reveal that it began life as a series of radio plays, steadily growiiig into one of his last projects. [29]

Neither of the later novels, well-written and highly readable though they are, is as good as December Bride or the lesser known The Hollow Ball. [30] This latter, a realistic novel, unsparing of people and their weaknesses, bears some resemblance to Michael McLaverty’s Call My Brother Back (1939). Like McLaverty’s novel, it charts the progress of a young man, not much more than a boy, whose life as a lowly clerk in a city drapery store bores and frustrates him. His escape comes through his gift for football. In the end, he escapes not only the grey, unforgiving Belfast of the hungry thirties, but his one chance of love and happiness with a girl who grieves for the loss of him and all he might have been. In one succinct passage, combining knowledge of the city with love of home and countryside, Bell suggests the boy’s first inkling, shortly before he leaves to play for an English football club, that he may be losing in exile more than he can hope to gain:

The curlew’s cry betrayed its passage high above the house. He strained his hearing to follow the bird in its midnight flight to the dark hills that ringed the city. As a child he had snuggled into his mother’s flank as it had passed over in its mournful pursuit. Now he followed the sound, his lips framing silently the liquid keening. There might not be hills and birds encircling Maitland. [31]

The curlew’s cry is rarely heard any more, even in Ireland. It is yet another example of the ‘vanishing ways’ of life in this country. Sam Hanna Bell was in the forefront of the movement in the second half of this century to understand and record the declining customs of the older people of Ulster, and to preserve the disappearing rarities of the natural world. It must be remembered, however, that though Michael Longley may have seen him as a prophet, he did not see himself as such. Rather he chose to be, as he described himself in his introduction to The Arts in Ulster, as the carrier of the banderol or banner at the head of a procession:

Not for him the music, the dancing banners, the operatic halberds. His duty is to herald the great procession to its destination. Clearly he must not canter ahead and decapitate the procession, nor meander so slowly that far behind thousands of perplexed and sweating brethren mark time. His expression must reveal sufficient vivacity to indicate that this is a day of rejoicing and yet convey a nice sense of pride in the honour done him. If he suffers from any trepidation he must conceal it. His position is not an enviable one. [32]

Sam Hanna Bell was the carrier of that banner, but he was also a leading member of the procession, as author, anthologist, tireless collector of folklore and local history and, latterly, patient and helpful editor of the work of new authors. ‘With a salute from the banderol’, he ended that introduction in 1951, ‘I leave you to the poets, the painters, builders and musicians.’ [33] The task for the rising generation of poets, painters, builders and musicians may be to find a fit replacement for the carrier of the banderol.

1. Erin’s Orange Lily: Ulster Custom and Folklore (London: Dennis Dobson, 1956), pp. 7-8.
2. Ibid., pp.8.
3. Fergus Linehan, “Prophet in his Land”, in Irish Times (24 Feb 1990).
4. “Here in Ulster: Teachers’ Notes” (London: BBC Publications, 1973).
5. “I Remember,” January 1970, MS, Bell Papers, in possession of Fergus Hanna Bell, Belfast.
6. Bell, “I Remember”.
7. Deborah Keys, “Sam Hanna Bell: A Study of his Contribution Toward the Cultural Development of the Region,” [Diss.], Queen's University Belfast, 1982, p.3.
8. Seamus Heaney, Station Island (London: Faber 1984), p.66.
9. “Sam Hanna Bell: Rough Notes of Information Supplied to QUB at J. J. Campbell’s Request. Oct 1962”, MS, Bell Papers, in possession of Fergus Hanna Bell, Belfast.
10. “Rough Notes”.
11. “Summer Loanen” (Newcastle, Co. Down: The Mourne Press, 1943), p.15. “Summer Loanen” first published in The Bell, 3 (1941), pp.203-08; “This We Shall Maintain” first published in The Bell, 4 (1942), pp.235-40.
12. Sean O’Faolain, letter to Sam Hanna Bell, 28 April 1942, in possession of Fergus Hanna Bell, Belfast.
13. Sean O’Faolain, postcard to Sam Hanna Bell, 12 June 1942, in possession of Fergus Hanna Bell, Belfast.
14. “Rough Notes”.
15. ‘A Banderol: An Introduction’, in The Arts in Ulster: A Symposium, ed. Sam Hanna Bell, Nesca A. Robb & John Hewitt (London: Harrap 1951), p.19.
16. “Rough Notes”.
17. “Rough Notes”.
18. Douglas Carson, ‘The Antiphon, the Banderol, and The Hollow Ball: Sam Hanna Bell, 1909-1990,’, in Irish Review, 9 (Autumn 1990), p.96.
19. Erin’s Orange Lily, p.8.
20. Within Our Province: A Miscellany of Ulster Writing, compiled by Sam Hanna Bell (Belfast: Blackstaff 1972).
21. “Rough Notes”.
22. “Rough Notes”.
23. “Rough Notes”.
24. Bell, “Rough Notes”.
25. December Bride (London: Dennis Dobson, 1951).
26. December Bride [1951] (Belfast: Blackstaff 1974), pp.164-65.
27. Ibid., p.184.
28. A Man Flourishing (London: Gollancz 1973 ); Across The Narrow Sea (Belfast: Blackstaff 1987).
29. “Rough Notes”.
30. The Hollow Ball (London: Cassell 1961).
31. The Hollow Ball [1961] (Belfast: Blackstaff 1990), p.192.
32 The Arts in Ulster, p.13.
35. Ibid., p.21.

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