Romancing Ireland

Paul Clements' biography of Richard Hayward reveals a forgotten renaissance man

Richard Hayward had a romance with Ireland, as this comprehensive biography reveals. Born in English Southport, he secured a second passport, giving him a bogus Irish provenance. He learned the harp and proclaimed the importance of Irish. Much later he became an Orangeman without foreswearing previous enthusiasms. It is surely an interesting trajectory.

Hayward was a major cultural player in Ulster for 40 years in an extraordinary variety of fields, yet he disappeared almost without trace following his death in 1964. This was partly for the saddest of reasons – his grieving widow jealously guarded his memory – and his extensive archive only surfaced after her death.

Paul Clements makes full use of this archive, and has interviewed many contemporaries. In Romancing Ireland: Richard Hayward 1892-1964, he stitches together the multifarious aspects of Hayward’s colourful life in one coherent narrative, and is well served by his publisher, Lilliput Press, in this extensively illustrated tome.

Hayward made a false start as a ‘bad’ poet. More promising was his emergence with his first wife, Elma, as talented actors with the Ulster Theatre. This gave Hayward the entree to the BBC at its very foundation in 1925 under Tyrone Guthrie. He acted, wrote scripts and was accidentally discovered as a folk singer.

His Ulster Songs and Ballads (1925) was well received and from 1929 onwards he was extensively recorded by Decca.

He branched out, as with humorous monologues in Hands Across the Border (1934), recorded with Dublin comedians Jimmy O’Dea and Harry O’Donovan, and, whether as singer or as variety star, was able to attract large audiences well into the 1950s.

In 1929 he founded his own Belfast Repertory Theatre Company. Its most notable achievement was the discovery of Thomas Carnduff, whose plays put working-class life on the stage. Yet Hayward's hopes for a new ‘national’ theatre came to nothing.

From 1935 onwards, Hayward masterminded the production of a number of feature films. He aimed to avoid familiar Irish caricatures, yet in the attempt to penetrate America risked falling into the same trap. It was the first attempt to create a Northern Irish film industry, even if short lived.

His most enduring role, however, was as a travel writer. Starting with In Praise of Ulster (1938), Hayward eventually covered all four provinces. The work involved epic tours, and Hayward brought many strengths to bear whether in archaeology, folklore or the use of Irish place names.

His simple love for the country was conveyed in engaging style. The books were enhanced with copious illustration, and most notably by Raymond Piper.

Hayward foreswore politics, a stance welcomed by the Northern Ireland government, which saw his benign view of Ulster as ‘excellent propaganda’, but Dundalgan Press in Dundalk also urged him ‘not to rake up old animosities'. Middle Ireland, whether north or south, felt safer that way.

It was left to the Earl of Antrim in the Times Literary Supplement to note the omission of ‘bigotry’, and Louis MacNeice was also less than enamoured.

Richard Murphy, the Mayo poet, came closest to identifying Hayward’s weakness in another TLS review: 'his landscape is… placid and fixed. Instead of being alive, it is insipid. Where is the animation?’ There was nothing on the current condition of the people. Clements fills in social and political background, but cannot disguise Hayward’s silence.

Hayward’s views were in fact hardening, perhaps influenced by the vicious boycotting of his Kilkenny friend, Hubert Butler, in 1952. Hayward told him, ‘You know what RC countries are… Why the hell did you shoot out your neck?’

Border Foray (1957) reflected this rougher edge. True, the border is first characterised as farce – ‘it does indeed look as though the lurching Irish drunkard made the lurching Irish border’ – but then we learn that it was pre-ordained by the Black Pig’s Dyke, and that it is an inevitable demarcation line between ‘anti-authoritarian Ulster’ and a Republic, subject ‘to the dictates of an authoritarian Roman Catholic hierarchy'.

Inevitably those engaged in the IRA's 1956 campaign were ‘terrorists’, but Hayward failed to notice that the overwhelmingly Nationalist population immediately north of the border bitterly opposed its existence. He made much fun of smuggling, or of pieces of territory completely cut off, but missed the wider consequences for towns like Newry and Derry (yes, he called it Derry) of losing their hinterlands.

He went on to join the Orange Order in 1957, opening up another aspect to his singing career just as his general style began to seem old-fashioned. Now he was to be found recording ‘Orange and Blue’ with The Loyal Brethren.

In the meantime, Hayward had opened up yet another sphere of activity. As President of the Belfast Naturalist’s Field Club in 1951-2, he had forwarded an extremely active dialect section. Their work was ultimately to make a significant contribution to the Concise Ulster Dictionary (1996).

Hayward was immensely popular with a variety of audiences in his time, and both north and south, but was too populist for academics, and was never recognised by Queen's University or by the Royal Irish Academy.

He was ousted as President of the BNFC because of anti-lightweight prejudice, but also because of jealousy about his devotees, ‘an army of ladies of a certain age’, derided as his ‘pussies’. He wasn’t appointed as a Trustee of the Folk Museum because he was seen as too ‘pushy’ and ‘self made’.

How does he stand now? Clements does no more than state a case for increased recognition – amen to that. The large crowd at the Ulster Museum launch for this book willed the enterprise on, and Damien Smyth, head of literature at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, described Hayward as ‘transformative’, but perhaps that was launch hyperbole.

It is something that will be explored further during Hayward's 50th anniversary with a BBC exhibition, a television documentary and an autumn symposium planned. By then, we can draw our own conclusions.

Romancing Ireland: Richard Hayward 1892-1964 is out now, published by Lilliput Press.