Reviving Shan Bullock
James Doyle, founder of Turnpike Books, on reprinting the Fermanagh writer's final novel and his hopes to do the same with other 'lost' authors
Last year I went home to Fermanagh to visit my mother. One day during that visit I noticed a plaque, in the grounds of the hotel where we had just had lunch, which commemorated a writer named Shan Bullock, who had grown up nearby. I also grew up in Fermanagh, but I had never heard of Shan Bullock before.
When I went back to London, with my interest aroused in this unknown (and long forgotten) writer, I went to the British Library to investigate Bullock’s work. I found that he had been born in 1865, been a literary journalist as well as a prolific novelist who held down a full-time job in the civil service and was, seemingly, a very affable man. The Times' obituary also noted that he was as 'an excellent cricketer and golfer'.
Bullock was one of those unfortunate writers who was respected during his lifetime, even acclaimed, to some extent, but whose work never reached a wider public. In 1901 the New York Times had described Bullock as 'one of the leaders in the modern Celtic literary movement', but his work disappeared from public interest long before he died in Surrey in 1935.
Following his death, a Fermanagh newspaper, The Impartial Reporter, summed up the prevalent attitude to Bullock's work: 'A Fermanagh novelist little known in his native county.' Succinct and accurate. Yet I found that I admired Bullock as a professional writer who was determined to succeed: he could turn his hand to anything, and if one book failed then he simply wrote another.
Publishers today take an unforgiving attitude towards writers whose books don’t sell in sufficient quantities. And so too did Bullock’s, particularly given that he rarely wrote more than one book for any single publisher. (He also self-published his poetry at times.)
But now, all these years after his death, his sales figures hardly matter. Reading Bullock’s work, I was particularly struck by some of his short stories and his final novel, The Loughsiders. It reminded me of something Seamus Heaney once wrote: 'One perceptible function of poetry is to write a place into existence.' With The Loughsiders, Bullock did just that to Fermanagh.
His best writing was set in one particular corner of Fermanagh, along the Fermanagh-Cavan border. Bullock’s characters are perhaps similar to those of Thomas Hardy's fictions – the unhappy lives of peasants and the failed ambitions of small farmers dominate his plots – but his characters speak in a Fermanagh accent and pursue destinies shaped by their stubborn Northern Irish character.
It is his portrayal of the Northern Irish personality – its intractable morality, rarely troubled by religious feeling, and materialism – that make Bullock’s work, and in particular The Loughsiders, memorable.
In writing Fermanagh into existence, Bullock shaped a very specific Ulster identity. Only The Loughsiders, his final novel, was written after the creation of Northern Ireland, but even in the 1890s his short stories were dominated by the feeling that across the Fermanagh border, in Cavan, was a foreign country whose people came from an entirely different tradition.
Growing up near the border, decades before it became the Northern Ireland-Free State border, Bullock was defining those political conflicts that still lead to riots in Belfast in 2013. It is this that drew other Ulster writers to Bullock, especially Sam Hanna Bell (author of December Bride) who wrote: 'What has been done to set down those tensions and loyalties and swift angers that agitate us?... A few stories by Shan Bullock.'
Having discovered Bullock through several very old editions of his works, I decided to start a small publisher funded by some personal savings, to be called Turnpike Books, to make Bullock’s fiction available to the reading public for the first time in almost a century.
The first publication is a new edition of The Loughsiders, and the second will be a collection of Bullock’s short stories. I have worked for an independent publisher for 12 years (and I am on the board of directors of another publisher), so it was straightforward to get the book into print, though it will be much harder to get Bullock's work to the attention of the public.
There are generations of Ulster writers whose work has been forgotten, not only Shan Bullock but St John Ervine (whose first play Mixed Marriage is being revived at the Lyric Theatre from January 30 to February 23, 2013), and even Sam Hanna Bell. If their books are not available to interested readers, or interested academics, then they will, perhaps, lose any chance of discovery.
This is why it seemed important to publish Bullock’s work in the old-fashioned way, as a traditional, printed, hard copy book that could be stocked and stored and held in a warehouse. It is the more expensive and time-consuming method, compared to uploading an ebook file to Amazon, but it shows that I am commited to what I am publishing.
Print-on-demand books, or those only published as ebooks, always give the impression that their publishers (who are often their writers as well) are not entirely convinced of the book’s merits, and, as a result, perhaps, feel that it might be worth limiting how much money they risk on the venture. That is how I see it, at least.
Independent publishers are rarely founded purely as businesses. Instead they are based on enthusiasm and a faith that one person’s taste will be shared by hundreds of other people. 'Publish it and they will come.'
Turnpike Books is based on the hope that if a writer has something of value to say, even if they have fallen out of print, then that is reason enough to publish their work afresh. And my ultimate intention, after publishing Bullock’s work, is to bring some of the other ‘lost’ Ulster writers back into print.
So far, there are signs that others are interested in discovering Bullock’s work. Later this year, at the annual William Carleton summer school, Bullock’s work will be discussed, and there are copies of The Loughsiders on sale in 'his native county' for the first time since the 1920s.
If nothing else, it is highly satisfying to see the book stocked in Fermanagh bookshops, and to see a copy of it on my bookshelves, among other Fermanagh writers, between the novels of John Kelly and Eugene McCabe.
The portrait of Shan Bullock above is published here with the kind permission of Queen's University.