Leslie Montgomery

The Downpatrick bank manager was the first Irish writer appointed to the Censorship Board in 1936 and a major influence on early 20th Century Ulster theatre

Born in Downpatrick on October, 5 1873, Leslie Alexander Montgomery was educated at Dundalk in County Louth. He commenced work as a bank clerk at the age of 16, and remained with the Northern Banking Company, working in locations such as Keady and Cushendall before a transfer to the quaint seaside town of Skerries. There he became branch manager until his retirement in 1934.

Aside from this rather straight-laced, white collar career, however, Montgomery fostered a life-time passion for writing in various forms and genres, and his contribution to Ulster literature in the early part of the 20th century should not be underestimated.

Montgomery was part of the Ulster Literary Theatre movement founded by Bulmer Hobson and David Parkhill in 1902, and early works included Love and Land, a play that was produced at the Little Theatre in London and represented Montgomery's first critical success.

Other works during this decade included The Summons and The Lilac Ribbon. By the beginning of the 1920s Montgomery was a leading northern playwright. He was best known, however for the Ballygullion series, 20 books which fondly caricatured Northern Irish village life. The first in the series was published in 1908 and the last in 1957.

He wrote the first book, which would lend its title to the rest of the series, in Dublin. This was followed by other works every few years such as Mr. Wildridge of the Bank, Lobster Salad, Dear Ducks, Me and Mr. Murphy, Rosabelle and Other Stories.

Written in the dialect of the east Ulster region, where Montgomery came from, the stories celebrate an imaginary townland area in the Slieve Gullion region of County Down. They reflected Montgomery's early years there and in Dundalk. The books also revealed a lot about contemporary Ulster life, as the following example, written in the Ulster-Scots dialect, from Ballygullion illustrates:

'Wan afthernoon I was workin' about the yard, whin who should come intil it but wee Mr. Anthony, the solicitor, an' Mr. Harrington av the Bank. Good evenin' to yez both, sez I; what has sthrayed ye out av Ballygullion the day, gintle- men? Pat, sez Mr. Anthony, are ye on for a night's sport? That'll depend, sez I. I wasn't goin' to let on what I'd do till I knowed what they were afther.

For if it's shootin', sez I to meself, I'm otherwise engaged. Mr. Anthony's as dacint a wee man as iver stepped? divil recave the betther; but a bigger ould dundherhead niver wint out wi' a gun in his fist. Between his short sight, an' his ram-stam way av runnin' at things, it was the danger av your life to go within a mile av him.

Didn't he blow in the end windy av the Presbyterian meetin'- house wan prayer-meetin' night in the month av May, thryin' to shoot a crow off ould Major Dennison's tombstone in the buryin' ground outside; an' wanst he thralled me two miles to Bally- breen bog afther a flock av wild geese he said he seen, an' before I could stop him he 'tilled ould Mrs. Murphy's gandher that lives in Drumcrow, an' had to pay her a cowld pound, forbye a new gandher he bought her.'

Montgomery adopted a pseudonym for his writing, using a homophone of ‘linseed oil’. Supposedly, he chose the name after seeing a large tin of linseed oil in a paint shop, initially signing 'Lynn C. Doyle' but later dropping the 'C'.

The versatile writer had also produced poetry during the 1930s. Ballygullion Ballads, published in 1936 was illustrated by the famous Belfast artist William Conor, as were several of the later editions of his books.

Montgomery had the somewhat dubious honour of being the first Irish writer to be appointed to the Censorship Board, in 1936; he resigned within two years of accepting the job, however, claiming that it was ‘so terribly easy to read only the marked passages, so hard to wade through the whole book afterwards'.

Following his retirement from the Northern Banking Company, he gained further notoriety as a lecturer, and also regularly broadcast his stories for the fledgling BBC in Belfast; indeed his most productive period as a writer was in his 1960s, during which time he wrote his autobiography, An Ulster Childhood, in 1954.

Leslie Montgomery died in Dublin on August 18, 1961, but his legacy is preserved in the Lynn Doyle Collection at Belfast Central Library – which consists of a series of archival boxes which were purchased by the library. The collection is extensive, and includes broadcasts and lecture transcripts, manuscripts, essays, short stories, poetry, personal correspondence, photographs, land leases and legal documents.

Cathal Coyle

Books by Lynn C. Doyle are available for purchase in The Culture Shop! Culture Northern Ireland's Amazon store.