A Salute from the Banderol

Sam Hanna Bell's non-fiction is polished and precise but strikes a reactionary note, argues Joanne Savage

A Salute from the Banderol brings together a selection of writings by Sam Hanna Bell (1909 - 1990), a broadcaster and novelist of Ulster Scots connections. Bell, who was raised in Belfast, became features editor at BBC Northern Ireland during the 1940s and pioneered radio programmes that would explore the 'overflowing and mingling of tradition' in Ulster, from the folklore and music of rural locales to the not yet so cosmopolitan thoroughfares of Belfast.

He wrote radio scripts that attempted to map the cultural identity of the province, capturing rural dialects and regional practices, referencing old and emerging Ulster writers for their sense of the submarine currents of ‘orange’ and ‘green’ history as it whorled and eddied in perplexed antagonism.

Aside from his broadcasting work Bell wrote widely and his non-fiction ranges in his particularly pristine, precise prose on such multifarious subjects as Irish saints, William Carleton, Washington Irving and the Ulster Group Theatre.

In 1951, with John Hewitt and Nesca A. Robb, he edited  The Arts in Ulster, a symposium that described the rudimentary arts scene and lamented the 'effect that unsettled conditions and the lack of a leisured and appreciative urban community' had on the development of Ulster artists.

His novel, December Bride, published the same year, was risqué enough to have been banned in the Republic. It dealt with Sarah Gomartin and her tragic love for two brothers. The Hollow Ball (1961), A Man Flourishing (1973) and Across the Narrow Sea (1987) followed, variously exploring the tensions between family ties and self-assertion, socialist politics, the 1798 rebellion and the rights and wrongs of plantation.

A Salute from the Banderol frequently catches Bell in moments of fine, taut writing that evokes a real sense of the beauty of the land. Rural Tyrone has rarely been so lyrically pinpointed:

'The whole countryside was filled with light and silence. A lemon-coloured moon lay face up on the taut silk of the lough. And here, and there, and at the fringes of pebbles under our feet the silk was rippled and pin-pricked by midnight trout. Great slow circles seized and scattered the moon in liths' (‘The Microphone in the Countryside’).

Bell has magnificent technical skill, lavish gifts for dialogue and resonant historical anecdotes. A cultural archivist of sorts, he muses over Ulster’s divisions noncommittally, politely. Nevertheless, (when push comes to shove) he aligns himself with unionist tradition, (a disappointingly conservative manoeuvre) giving a salute from the banderol when asked to introduce the work of Ulster artists.

In his introduction to the collection, Fergus Hanna Bell points out that the BBC broadcasting house in the 1950s 'was a place where few Catholics were employed' and at senior management level, a 'beady eye was kept on programme makers in an attempt to block views at odds with those of the unionist ascendancy'. Sam Hanna Bell seems to have been happy to put up with this status quo – if he interrogates it he does so too subtly and archly for it to have much impact. Indeed, he uses a telling quote from W.R. Rodgers’ The Ulstermen and their Country when tackling Northern Ireland’s conflict of religious dogmas – finding a resolution that yet gives credence to a falsely pat dichotomy that gives thought and progress a Protestant stamp:

'…these characters, Protestant and Catholic are complementary…One takes a long view of life, the other a short and roundabout one. One is thoughtful and individual, the other is emotional and communal. One tends to a democratic and progressive way of life, the other to a hieratic and static. It is this diversity and interplay of opposites that makes Ulster life such a rich and fascinating spectacle.'

This is an elegant way of asserting the dominance and rationality of Protestantism over Catholicism, stereotypically invoked as excessively emotional and static. A Salute from the Banderol broadly claims inclusivity but, in practice, shows, in places, a bristling attitude to nationalist cultural practices, one that evokes it to reinforce its eccentricity (and subjection) within a Protestant/unionist orthodoxy.

Still, Hanna Bell tries to speak for good sense and equality elsewhere in the collection. His radio script of 1949, This is Northern Ireland, takes care to represent all denominations and all facets of rural and urban Ulster life, from fishermen lowering their nets in Ardglass to linen production in Portadown. Again, his descriptive powers are penetratingly lush, as when he describes Belfast, set in a blue haze, the 'slender gantries and cranes of the shipyard' like a 'fragment of jagged lace'; or the 'goosefleshed granite' of the Mournes, a kingdom with its own “rhythm of speech, a mythology, a pattern of living laid down on its sides'.

Bell manages to sum up the whole business of cultural division in one perfect image of Armagh, the 'ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, with its two Cathedrals, Protestant and Roman Catholic, raised over against each other on opposing hills, like the horns of a dilemma. And he gets to the quick of Ulster’s logic warp, recognising that as 'dogmatic, church-going people' we are yet separated by creed, 'though it may be only the thickness of a page of Indian paper that divides us'.

A Salute from the Banderol shows the polish of Sam Hanna Bell’s writing, his easy ability to rediscover Ulster in crystalline language and limpid imagery. He purges and refigures the province until it gleams like a precious stone or a slightly rarefied hinterland of the imagination, scrubbed of ugly sectarianism and facts that stick in the craw. His reflections on the Ulster ancestry of Steinbeck, the famed Guthrie haunting of 1913 or the differences in personality between St Patrick and St Colmcille make for spirited, revealing reading.

Nevertheless, the best of Sam Hanna Bell is to be found, not here in this sedate collection of non-fiction, but in the subversive, cooled lines of passion in December Bride. A Salute from the Banderol compels in places, but large sections of insipid examination of the history of the Ulster Group Theatre and the work of minor local playwrights leaves a flat, vapid feeling where wit and eloquence should prevail.

A Salute from the Banderol by Sam Hanna Bell is published by Blackstaff Press and can be purchased from our online store.