Late Night Notes on David Hammond

This month marks the tenth anniversary of the death of David Hammond, the renowned Belfast film-maker and singer, and close friend of Seamus Heaney. We asked JOHN KELLY, writer and broadcaster – and friend to both men – to share his memories of this 'natural force masquerading as a human being'

 Seamus Heaney, John Kelly and David Hammond, 2003, photographed by Pat Lunny.

Seamus Heaney, John Kelly and David Hammond, 2003, photographed by Pat Lunny.

‘The door was open and the house was dark’ is the title of the third-last poem in Human Chain. Seamus wrote it in memory of his dear friend David Hammond, and to read it risks tears. I know the house well. I can see the open door, the hallway, the staircase, the street and the streetlamps. But what I don’t see is David, and the absence is devastating. He’s absent even from a poem in his own memory. The only figure present is Seamus himself, standing in the driveway and “wanting to take flight”. He’s shaken by the scene – confounded even – and the only release is an awareness that there can’t be any danger here …

“Only withdrawal, a not unwelcoming
Emptiness, as in a midnight hangar
On an overgrown airfield in late summer.”

It’s a tough poem for both poet and reader. The whole thing was dreamt and, true to the dream, Seamus hasn’t placed his friend with the Gods, or sent him to Valhalla or Tír na nÓg. Nor has he reached for Virgil or Dante to speak to David’s shade. Instead, all we have is darkness, silence and emptiness. I wish I knew the full meaning of that final image. It haunts me, and I regret that I never asked.

***

David Hammond was, at various times, a schoolteacher, a BBC man, a film-maker and a Director of Field Day Theatre Company. He was also, at all times, a singer.

“When I came here first you were always singing,
a hint of the clip of the pick
in your winnowing climb and attack.”

These lines are taken from ‘The Singer’s House’, published in Field Work in 1979, and the here is David and Eileen Hammond’s other house in west Donegal. It’s a perfectly situated cottage by the Atlantic Ocean and the Heaney family also spent summers there: a blissful alternative to the toxicity and drag of Seventies Belfast. But as Seamus explains in Stepping Stones, it was more than just a bolt-hole: “our sessions were conducted more, I’d say, as protest than as an escape. I guess I associate David with outbreak, a kicking over of the traces, an impatience with the ordinary.”

It’s also how I remember him. The larks, the pranks, the preoccupations, the songs and the films were all, in their own ways, protests against the state of things. He was a passionate man – rebellious, egalitarian, resilient and utterly committed to holding the line for decency and goodwill. He saw possibilities where none seemed to exist and for those of us lucky enough to be around him, he was a bulwark against despair.

I haven’t lived in the north for over twenty years and I can’t speak with any authority on the current dispensation, but during the late Eighties and Nineties, Belfast could be an extremely suffocating place. It was characterised by political dysfunction, violence, narrow-mindedness and a sectarianism that lurked just about everywhere. One of the few places where you wouldn’t encounter it was in David Hammond’s company. As Seamus described him, “he grew up in Belfast and belongs in it but he’s always had an extraordinary insouciance, as if he’d come through the sectarian fires and had the noxious stuff refined out of him.”

David’s was a philosophy he’d inherited from his parents. His father was Church of Ireland and his mother was Presbyterian, from a family with leanings towards Home Rule. And although they had moved to Belfast from rural North Antrim in search of work, they had remained country people, never fully embracing the city. By their example, they instilled in the young David, not only a great love for local language and song, but also an open-hearted approach life in the north.

“If they were alive now,” he told me once in an interview for The Irish Times, “and I described them as being sophisticated, they’d get a great laugh. But they were sophisticated people. They had some kind of vision of what life should be like, and even though they never talked in those terms, they had little navigational charts that they stuck to. There was a sense of oneness about them, nothing tribal in them.

Sometime in the early Forties, in what he often described as a “revelation”, David first read about the world of his parents in the work of the geographer E. Estyn Evans. School textbooks were filled with maps of English cities and the Amazon Basin but Estyn Evans was focussing on David’s home ground – on the very people and places his mother and father had talked about. And so, inspired by the riches right under his nose, David and a few friends began to cycle around Ireland armed only with bags of porridge.

 In 1956 he made his first visit to the United States, where he met Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax and Jean Ritchie. In Chicago, where he recorded an hour with Studs Terkel, he stayed with Big Bill Broonzy, spending time with the singer’s mother and aunt, both former slaves aged 105 and 107. Some years later, he met Liam Clancy for the first time at Jean Ritchie’s house on Long Island. The Clancys and Tommy Makem were about to become the most famous Irishmen on the planet and David joined them in places like The White Horse in Greenwich Village. Also in the room, soaking up the songs, was a future Nobel Laureate called Bob Dylan.

“Dylan didn’t strike me as someone who was going to be significant,” David once told me, “but that was my fault. After all, I thought Riverdance was going to be a failure.”

Back in Belfast, working as a schoolteacher at Orangefield, singing songs like Casey Jones’ to a classful of boys that included Van Morrison, David first began to appear regularly on the BBC, where he eventually took up a post as a producer. With the degree of authority that came with the role, and later as a film-maker, he was able to encourage and celebrate the local people he believed in, and literally transmit his love of the local place. At a time when the official tendency was to look elsewhere for confirmation, this was all radical stuff, and his maverick spirit made for a welcome change. Before long, people like Brian Friel – and Seamus – were contributing scripts to schools’ programming.

***

I first met David outside the Broadcasting House, sometime in the late Eighties. I was on my way into work and he stopped me, introduced himself and said kind things about my radio programme. It was a welcome boost. Praise for my efforts were fairly limited inside Broadcasting House and, of course, he’d have suspected as much. He no longer worked there but he kept in touch with the place, and had the full measure of the people I was up against. By inviting me to visit the office of his company, Flying Fox Films, he was generously suggesting a much more salubrious milieu. In fact, he was throwing me a lifeline, and he knew it.

Seamus described David as “a natural force masquerading as a human being. Halfway between a lord of misrule and a tuning fork” and I was in bad need of just such a pal. All the ‘scenes’ I’d known in Belfast had turned out to be traps – but here was liberation. Yes, I’d already been making my own small (and increasingly self-destructive) protests, but in David I saw a much better way. Thanks to him, I learned to move from frustrated stand-off against one thing, to participation in another – something that was full of possibility, decency and endless sport. Above all, here was a world where ‘being yourself’ was not only valued, it was compulsory.

And the milieu was indeed salubrious. My first encounter with Brian Friel was when I answered the phone in the Hammond house, pretending to be David’s butler. When I realised it was Brian, I just had to hold my nerve and keep it up. As did he. Paul Brady and Arty McGlynn playing tunes in the kitchen is another night I’ll never forget. And David singing ‘The Hills Above Drumquin’ with his favourite line: Drumquin you’re not a city/ but you’re all the world to me.

I’d already met Seamus in a signing queue and later in the stress of a BBC scenario, but it was only through David, in the relaxed circumstances of his home, that an actual friendship was made possible. Seamus had previously said nice things about poems I’d written and had, of course, already run me through his own personal scanner – but David’s imprimatur was no small thing. In fact it was at David’s suggestion that I made my first visit to the Heaney home which was, as you might imagine, a very special day. First we exchanged bits of Hammond lore at the kitchen table and then Seamus took me to the attic and showed me all the journals and ledgers. The attic. The second-last poem in Human Chain. After that we went to Sandymount Village where, in what might seem like a surrealist experiment, Seamus bought a lightbulb and a fish. Then a couple of pints in Gleeson’s of Ringsend and I went on my way, utterly blessed.

Be assured I was never blasé about any of this. I knew exactly the company I was in and I appreciated the privilege. I especially loved it when when Seamus and Marie were in Belfast, and after all the crowds and queues at some literary event, we would all adjourn to David’s house for a more relaxed ‘aftermath’. In fact, during one late night gathering, in a rare performance, Seamus sang a song. In my memory it was his version of Marie’s party piece ‘Slieve Gallion Braes’ – although Neil Martin believes it was Sir John Suckling’s ‘Why so pale and wan, fond lover?’. Or it may have have been ‘The Boys of Mullaghbawn’. That some confusion exists is no great surprise – yellow whiskey, rather like ‘being yourself’, was also compulsory.

And drink too is perhaps the excuse for David’s habit of phoning his friends around the world, at all hours, and then passing the phone around the room, obliging us to speak to the disturbed voice on the other end of the line. It might be Tom Paulin. It might be Tommy Makem or Jean Ritchie. It might be the man in Newfoundland who had just been named Cavan Man of the Year. I say disturbed because with the company so flown with Powers that the time difference or, in the case of Oxford, the lack of it, never seemed to matter. But this was David in his element – seated in a circle of friends, running the show and teasing those who had to get home before dawn: “What? Leaving so soon? You’re a mug!”

And then there were the postcards. I regularly received, as did Seamus, Brian Friel and others, dispatches from assorted Orange Lodges, or from a mysterious woman called Sadie. What the postmen, especially any from a Loyalist background, made of my apparent relationship with the then Taoiseach is anybody’s guess – Best wishes for your driving test, love Albert Reynolds being a fairly typical message. I also got quite a few from Edwin Poots of the DUP. Head-shots of BBC presenters were another favourite. In fact, one of me turned up quite recently in the papers of Bill Cole – an editor at Knopf in New York who also happened to be the grandson of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. Laminated airline safety cards were also sent through the mail, customised with speech bubbles coming from the mouths of passengers in the brace position. And airline sick-bags too. Boke bags, he called them. The rare ones he kept. The rest he posted.

There was, of course, method in all of it. David was connecting people and then with infectious energy and humour was keeping the lines of communication open. It was important to him. In his own subversive, unshackled and joyous way he was keeping things going. He was keeping us going.

***

In a place where the talk is often of division, and where culture itself can be split into two camps of us and them’uns, David always gave good example by being resolutely his own man. Seamus called him “a one-man peace process”. He was easy with everyone and threatened by nobody. He chipped into tribal defences and encouraged people to share, enjoy and celebrate the best of each other. Like his parents before him, he had a vision of what life could be like and he devoted his own life to pursuing it. He was a rare and mighty force for good.

He was also my dear friend, counsellor and co-conspirator and I’m a lucky man to have known him. He changed my life. I treasure the memory of every night spent in that house in Cregagh with himself and Eileen, and I marvel at how fortunate I was to have been in such company.

David is ten years gone this month, Seamus five, and I miss them both very much. I sometimes think of them laughing together and raising a glass. It’s always outdoors, in a wide open space. It could be farmland in north Antrim or County Derry, or maybe it’s a field above a beach in west Donegal. It might even be, athough the poem gives me no such permission to picture it, an overgrown airfield in the brightest sunshine of late summer.

John Kelly is a writer and broadcaster. Notions, his first collection of poetry, is published by Dedalus in October 2018. 

Hammond: Duais an Dorais/A Parting Gift, a documentary about the life of David Hammond, will air on BBC1 Northern Ireland on 26th August at 10pm and on TG4 on 29th August at 9.30pm.