Sam Hanna Bell was born in Glasgow to an Ulster Scots family.
His father died when Sam was 9 and the Bells moved back to his mother's family farm near Strangford Lough.
This landscape would stay with him for the rest of his life.
Sarah Gomartin surveys it in ‘December Bride’: Now she paused with a sharp intake of breath at a gap overlooking the lough. Below her the islands lay like cattle shoulder deep in dark grass; flank beyond flank down the dull silver of the water until the last merged in the olive underdusk of the peninsula. In 1921 – when Bell was 12 - the family moved to Belfast and he left school two years later. He did a variety of jobs from warehouseman to clerk for the next 16 years.
He also acquired an impressive self-education during this time.
Belfast in the 1930s was a place of poverty, unemployment, and sectarianism and Bell was increasingly drawn to socialist politics. This would be the subject of ‘The Hollow Ball’ in 1961:
The man behind the table struck a push-bell and stood up.
“Comrades and friends, this meeting is called by the Unemployed Workers’ Organisation … to consider the problem of Ulster men and women.”
“Irish men and women”, said a voice from the front. Bell’s early writing included some scripts for radio and short stories for Sean O’Faolain’s progressive journal ‘The Bell’. These were collected in ‘Summer Loanen and other Stories’ in 1943.
In that same year he was one of the founders of the journal ‘Lagan’which was both a Northern counterpart to ‘The Bell’ and a centre of socialist and intellectual opposition to unionism.
With fellow writer Louis MacNeice's encouragement, Bell became a features producer for BBC Northern Ireland in 1945. His many programmes about life in Northern Ireland were pioneering, since the BBC had not previously paid much attention to folklore, country customs, or traditional music.
Bell was committed to history from below - the idea that everyday life was worth studying and recording, especially as he believed that:
… the old ways of our community are vanishing rapidly. When he wrote ‘our community’ Bell meant the whole of the North.
In the book based on his radio work, ‘Erin's Orange Lily’, from 1956, he dealt with activities from playing the Lambeg, to dancing at the feis, from poitin making to working in the shipyard - recording much that would otherwise have been lost.
Bell’s first novel, ‘December Bride’, appeared in 1951. It’s a story of rural life in the early twentieth century - enriched by Bell’s knowledge of folkways.
It was made into a film in 1990.
Sarah Gomartin and her mother are employed as servants by Andrew Echlin and his two sons, Hamilton and Frank.
Andrew sacrifices himself to save the others during a storm on the lough. Sarah has affairs with both Hamilton and Frank. Her refusal to say which is the father of her child - or to marry either of them - leads to social isolation and a battle with the Reverend Sorleyson.
The novel gives a carefully balanced portrayal of Sarah which leaves open the question of whether she is selfishly manipulative or strong-willed and independent:
… her desires were budding to fulfilment. A hearth, a home to preside over, the daily life of cattle and fowl in her hands, the desires of her own body… This balance allows the novel to be read as either an elegy for the passing of rural custom and community - or as a depiction of the necessary decline of primitive ways and superstition in the face of modern life.
Bell's other novels concentrate on Belfast. ‘The Hollow Ball’ depicts the parallel careers in 1930s Belfast of David Minnis and Bonar McFall as they seek to escape poverty and unemployment through football and radical politics respectively.
‘A Man Flourishing’ from 1973 follows the progress of James Gault, a United Irishman, who - like the Belfast which is the novel's setting - abandons radicalism for commercial success.
Bell is once again pioneering in his account of the urban life of Belfast:
… tens of thousands of urgent voices and hurrying footsteps, the roar and whine of cars … the crash and flicker of trams and buses, a great tide of sound flowing between the façades of banks and warehouses, shops and government buildings, hotels and theatres.
Sam Hanna Bell was a mainstay of the intellectual and cultural life of Belfast from the 1940s until his death in 1990 – his legacy is that he used his position at the BBC, and with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, to encourage many younger writers and broadcasters.