Sam Hanna Bell

Novelist, short story writer and broadcaster

Novelist, short story writer and broadcaster, Sam Hanna Bell was born in Glasgow in 1909 to an Ulster Scots family. Moving to Belfast in 1921, he worked variously as a night watchman, a potato grader and a laboratory technician, finally securing the post of features editor with BBC Northern Ireland in 1945.

Alongside John Boyd and Bob Davison, Bell co-founded the left-leaning literary journal Lagan in 1943, and co-edited The Arts in Ulster (1951) with Boyd and Nesca Robb.

Bell was also the author of several works of fiction, including The Hollow Ball (1961), A Man Flourishing (1973) and Across the Narrow Sea (1987). A number of his short stories written for The Bell were collected as Summer Loanen and Other Stories in 1943.

Though all well received, Bell is known primarily for his 1951 novel of Ulster rural life December Bride. Inspired in part by his mother’s family at the turn of the century, the plot focuses on Sarah Gomartin, a servant girl at Rathard on the Ards Peninsula, whose tangled and tragic love affair with two brothers attracts the wrath of the local community. 

The book was considered so controversial that it was banned in the south of Ireland throughout the 1950s. Nevertheless, it was selected for Picador’s The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English since 1950, defined as ‘a book which everyone interested in modern fiction should read; it shows what can still be done’.

In 1990, December Bride was made into a film for Channel 4 by Thaddeus O’Sullivan. Reviewing the film in The Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole found it to be, ‘not just a remarkable artistic achievement, but also a remarkable political one ... [it] opens up a community’s sense of itself, restoring a richness and complexity to a history that has been deliberately narrowed’.

Further Reading:
The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English since 1950 (2000) edited by Carmen Callil and Colm Toibin.

© Lynne McMordie