Sam McAughtry: An Appreciation

Anne Tannahill, former managing director of Blackstaff Press, remembers the warmth and wit of the late writer

Since his recent death at the age of 93, much has been written about Sam McAughtry’s considerable contribution to the peace process, particularly his chairmanship of the Peace Train and his work as a member of the Irish Senate.

Both positions demonstrated his unconventional take on being a northern Protestant: he was in his own words a ‘hybrid unionist’, comfortable in his own skin as both Irish and British.

Less has been written about Sam McAughtry the writer and his unique style, at once tender and tough, hard-boiled and unflinchingly honest. I first encountered it when, as a trainee editor at Blackstaff Press, I was asked for my opinion of a submitted script about the Battle of the Atlantic.

Gloomily anticipating a dry read, I found myself electrified by the opening pages about a north Belfast family in the Hungry Twenties. This extract gives something of the economy and power of Sam’s writing:

Next thing we knew Betty died. Of whooping cough. She was four years old. I was about seven at the time and I can remember the fire being lit in the bedroom – a sure sign of sickness. The women of the family were tiptoeing about the house and the night before she died there was talk of The Crisis.

I remember thinking The Crisis was a man. In a white robe, like Christ. This was probably because Mother kept telling people in a whisper: ‘The Crisis is coming tonight.’ It didn’t half come. When it left Betty, went with it.

The book was The Sinking of the Kenbane Head, and what McAughtry had done, brilliantly, was to interleave vivid personal memories with a grim historical account that moves inexorably towards the moment when the SS Kenbane Head is sunk by the German battleship Admiral Scheer, and his adored brother Mart dies in the cold waters of the Atlantic.

Blackstaff published it, of course. That was in 1977, and a stream of books flowed over the next few decades – memoirs like Play It Again, Sam (1978), McAughtry’s War (1985) and On the Outside Looking In (2003).

Then there was fiction like Blind Spot and Other Stories (1979), and the novel Touch and Go (1993). Recognising his talent, the Irish Times gave McAughtry a regular column and soon his distinctive Belfast voice was familiar on both side of the border on BBC Radio Ulster and RTE Radio.

Although he never claimed to be a highly literary writer, McAughtry was a committed, hard-working professional, rightly proud of his ability to produce vivid, impressionist prose and authentic dialogue – work that left some rather more lauded writers in, as he would have said, ‘the ha’penny place’.

He sometimes felt more appreciated in Dublin than in Belfast, and there is no doubt that southern readers and listeners, conditioned to expect northerners to be on the dour side, were surprised and delighted by his dynamic warmth and wit.

One of his best friends was the nationalist politician Paddy Devlin – like himself, a lifelong trade unionist and socialist. What they had in common far outweighed their different backgrounds, and to be in their rumbustious company of an evening was an experience not easily forgotten.

Devlin’s 1993 autobiography is called Straight Left, a term from the boxing ring that also sums up McAughtry – hard-hitting, fiercely direct and a compassionate man of the people. With his passing some liveliness and energy has gone from the air. I’ll miss him.