Obituary of Robert Harbinson (Robin Bryans)

The first working class Ulster Protestant writer to be published to international acclaim

Belfast author Robert Harbinson was born Robin Bryans in 1928, just off the Newtownards Road in Belfast, his family moving shortly afterwards to Donegall Avenue.

Before becoming a professional writer, he had a variety of jobs including shipyard worker and cabin boy on a dredger. He was later to study at Barry Religious College in Wales and went to Canada as a missionary. Later in Canada, he lived as a trapper.

The common realities of his childhood among the Protestant working class in the 1930s – grinding poverty, mission halls, theatres, music, the ‘Bog Meadows’ – along with the desperate accident to his father which changed the life of the small family, became the subject matter of his most powerful writing.

‘We walked as though through a forest whose trees were made of steel, harshly etched against the morning sky. Instead of leaf-laden branches stretched out to catch the sun’s rays, I saw a multitude of cranes, swinging poles and a phalanx of gantries.’

During the 1960s and early 1970s, his output was prolific. Published by Faber and Faber and acclaimed by critics worldwide, he embarked on a series of travel books celebrating Iceland (1960), Denmark (1961), Brazil (1962), the Azores (1963), Malta (1966) and Trinidad & Tobago (1967).

His Ulster: A Journey Through the Six Counties (1962) has long been regarded as a perceptive introduction at a critical moment in the history of Northern Ireland and a classic of the genre.

In the same period came the books on which his reputation as a writer rests, the four remarkable volumes of autobiography: No Surrender (1960), Song of Erne (1960) – a vivid and moving account of childhood excursions to Fermanagh – Up Spake the Cabin Boy (1961) and The Protégé (1963) and two volumes of short stories, Tattoo Lily (1961) and The Far World (1962), also from Faber. No Surrender was hailed as the first book by an Ulster Protestant writer from the working class published by an international publishing house to receive national renown.

The Times described his autobiographical writing as ‘on all planes at once; humourous, detailed and objective as a Breugel village scene; quietly indignant over injustices practised by the toffs; puzzled, exploratory, expectant as a growing boy … He writes as one with a true sense of poetry.’

The volumes of autobiography have rarely been out of print since their first publication and are currently available from Blackstaff Press. A Selected Stories was published in 1996 by Lagan Press in Belfast which occasioned a memorable reading in the Old Museum arts centre in his native city.

In his later life, Harbinson was dramatically involved in sensational and sometimes scandalous events among Britain’s political aristocracy. A riveting account of these and of their parallels among Ulster’s political class from the 1940s until the 1960s can be read in his last three books The Dust Has Never Settled (1992), Let the Petals Falls (1993) and Checkmate, all from Honeyford Press under his own name of Robin Bryans.

A courteous, witty and gentle man, Robin Bryans’s last years were spent in London where, in addition to writing, he was involved in a school of music set up particularly to encourage the work of young composers.

Robert Harbinson died at his home in London on Saturday June 11, 2005.