candy apples, hard green pears, conversation lozengers

David Hammond singer, film maker, celebrant, mentor and muse, has died in Belfast after a long illness. A Belfast man to his fingertips, he nevertheless took on the character of the whole island as a folk singer and collector of the purest quality and rigour. He sang everywhere and knew everybody from Tommy Makem and Donal Lunny to Jean Ritchie and Pete Seeger.

His approach was that when simplicity conveys the essence, go for simplicity. His first audience was children. He was the great champion of the Belfast street song. And so it was that “My Aunt Jane” the very voice of Belfast without ever mentioning its name, became the lead song in his signature album “The Singer’s House,” the house being his lovely cottage down rutted tracks near Glenties.

I can hear him now:
My Aunt Jane she brought me in, she gave tea out of her wee tin
Half a bap, a wee snow top, three black lumps out of her wee shop
Half a bap, a wee snow top, three black lumps out of her wee shop

My Aunt has a bell on the door, a white stone step and a clean swept floor
Candy apples and hard green pears, conversation lozengers
Candy apples and hard green pears, conversation lozengers…

Often, Davy liked to follow a country custom and hide under a simple image. At times, he was the wee falorie man:
The Wee Falorie Man

I am the wee falorie man
A rattling, roving Irishman,
I can do all that ever you can
For I am the wee falorie man.

I have a sister Mary Ann
She washes her face in the frying pan,
And out she goes to hunt for a man
I have a sister Mary Ann.

I am a good old working man,
Each day I carry a wee tin can
A large penny bap and a clipe of ham
I am a good old working man.

From Songs of Belfast, Hammond

( One of his daughters is Mary Ann)

Davy not so much cross-cutted the sectarian divide as outmanoeuvred it. As a young teacher he was inspired by the non-sectarian ethos of the headmaster of Orangefield High School John Malone and Malone’s burning ambition for the non-selected. It worked: Orangefield also produced Van the Man, the best playwright of the Troubles Stewart Parker , the Beirut hostage and writer Brian Keenan and many others.

Davy moved to become a producer in the BBC Northern Ireland of the 1960s where at its best, it introduced neighbours to themselves and created what Davy’s old friend and colleague Douglas Carson has described as “an antiphon of voices round the hearth”. He was high among those who launched the best and brightest of creative talent that Ulster has ever produced. In the Schools department, these were days of high but simple idealism, when it was believed that children should have the best of culture and learning. And the best is what they got. Davy brought other young teachers like Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley to the screen and microphone. Friendships forged there lasted a lifetime.

Upon this world of surface innocence and inner complexity the Troubles hit hard . The academic Iain Twiddy recalled how Heaney first wrestled with himself and Davy over writing pastoral verse while violence raged at its peak in 1972 :

“This charge of fiddling while Rome burns, (was) a problem which Heaney discusses in his essay ‘The Interesting Case of Nero, Chekhov’s Cognac and a Knocker’, where he recalls how he and David Hammond felt unable to record a tape of songs against the immediate backdrop of explosions in Belfast.”

The close friendship with Heaney crossed fields and continents for a lifetime. In “Letters to David Hammond 1968-2005” it is recorded and lodged in Emory University Atlanta for future scholars to pore over.

But cultural ambition stretched beyond song and film. As another associate Tom Paulin recalls, in 1980 Davy, Heaney, Brian Friel and the actor Stephen Rea set up the remarkable cultural explosion that was the theatre company Field Day, to produce high classical plays and new, modern counterparts linked to the Irish experience like Heaney’s “The Cure of Troy”.”

“We aimed to challenge sectarian divisions in the North of Ireland, to put “ the traditions” as they’re called (protestant and catholic) in some sort of communion and to imagine a culture beyond partition”.

However close he was to Heaney, he was never in his shadow. He had his own muse and was too wily a networker for that. One of the most notable achievements of his independent production company Flying Fox was to record the social and musical contribution of Ulster to the evolution of America. Yet he stayed firmly rooted at home, as a celebration of his films at the Linenhall Library attested a few years ago.

Formal honours came to Davy in his old age ( even though nearly 80, it was impossible to imagine him as other than ageless) . The citation of Dublin City University captures him well : “Davy is, in that well-worn phrase, a man of many parts. But the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and the uniqueness of David Hammond is his Midas touch, the way he can discern art and poetry in the commonplace, and above all the way in which he effortlessly explores – I would almost say creates – a common ground on which Irishmen and women of every tradition and disposition, no matter how cantankerous or self-regarding we may be in other areas, can meet each other, and re-discover a vital part of ourselves.

In all of this, his wife Eileen has played a quiet but essential part. Their home in Belfast has for years been a magnet for cultural waifs and strays of every description, an embassy of song, its warmth and hospitality a standing rebuke to the image of the dour wee North that is most prevalent among people who have never crossed the Border.”

My thoughts today are with Eileen and the family.

.
“The singer’s house
by Seamus Heaney

To David Hammond

People here used to believe
that drowned souls lived in seals.
At spring tides they might change shape.
They loved music and swam in for a singer

who might stand at the end of summer
in the mouth of a whitewashed turf-shed,
his shoulder to the jamb, his song
a rowboat far out in evening.

When I came here first you were always singing,
a hint of the clip of the pick
in your winnowing climb and attack.
Raise it again, man. We still believe what we hear.”

My family and I once spent a day there with them both. I can vouch for the potency of the person and the place.
Raise it forever Davy.

  • Mick Fealty

    He had a (if not THE) hamely tongue. My favorites were “The Hills above Drumquin” and “I wish my love was a red, red rose”, when he guested on Artie McGlynn’s album from the early eighties.

  • Buile Suibhne

    A great tribute!

  • susan

    I agree, Sweeney. A lovely and genuine tribute. The Telegraph’s tracked down Seamus:

    “He was a great Ulsterman and a great Irishman, a man of rare energy, truly original, a man who was part of a whole generation of original spirits,” he said.

    Mr Heaney added: “He was one of the transformers in Irish life, as an artist in his contribution as a singer and performer, but also in his contribution as a broadcaster and educator and mentor. He added to the quality of life.”

  • Greenflag

    Sad to see another ‘great’ of Ireland’s balladeers pass on . The Belfast equivalent of Dublins late Frank Harte ? . I’m glad to say I have both their collections of ‘street music’ .

    And I even know what a ‘wee falorie man’ is which I’m sure some visitors to this site may not 🙂

    RIP David Hammond -gentleman, Belfastman , and muse .

  • Davy sang at my wedding. I had been trying to assure my wife that my rakish past was behind me and I cringed while Davy sang a song about a Wild Rover – not the usual one, but a version I haven’t heard since.

    I come from men who go hard and snarly when they drink whiskey, but it just seemed to make Davy glow and blush.

  • Doctor Who

    I met David on a few brief ocasions , the fact that he remembered my name filled me with even greater admiration for the man.

    He was a true Irish talent and in the month when Ireland has lost another great talent in Ronnie Drew, this makes David´s departure even more poignant.

    Uniquely Belfast, but loved by everyone in Ireland and further afield, I think his work is best remembered through his Brian Keenan film, although his range and talent was remarkable.

    I have heard it mentioned that he was responsible for introducing Van Morrison to music as he was once his teacher at Orangefield, for that
    alone he deserves immortality, however he is a man who in his own right is much a Belfast legend as the late George Best.

    My thoughts tonight are with his family.