Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Belfast storyteller Sam McAughtry: Uniting city's poor by charm and with eloquence

Maurice Hayes looks back on the extraordinary life of an ordinary hero

Belfast writer Sam McAughtry has died at the age of 91
Belfast writer Sam McAughtry has died at the age of 91

Sam McAughtry, who died yesterday aged 91 after a long illness, was a really remarkable man – a writer and a political activist who had learned both trades in the hard school of life, a seafarer at heart who had survived many a stormy passage to reach serene old age as a dispenser of wit and wisdom, an advocate of civility and decency in public discourse, and a charitable concern for the underdog and the casualties of society.

Belfast-born and bred, he was a citizen of the world, a fine writer, a critic of wit and discrimination, a delightful companion, a raconteur with charm and style and a wry, self-deprecating humour.

Sam was born in 1923 at Hillman Street in north Belfast and it was that area, Tigers Bay, York Street and the adjoining Docks and Sailortown which was to provide him with a cultural and imaginative hinterland for the rest of his life – along with an endless fund of stories.

There he was to learn the facts of life, and of living, the hard way in the hungry Thirties.

One of a family of 10, the son of a merchant seaman who was often away from home (which made his homecoming, bearing trinkets and small presents, so memorable to the little boy), he left school at 14 and became a riveter.

So ended his formal schooling and began a long, varied and remarkably effective education.

When war came he volunteered for the RAF, rising to Flying Officer.

Demobbed, like so many of his contemporaries, he found few openings on civvy street and, after a spell labouring on building sites, he returned to Belfast and joined the Ministry of Agriculture as a temporary civil servant.

Immersion in the Civil Service trade union, under the influence of the inimitable Brendan Harkin (also a shipyard graduate), led to writing in the trade union magazine, newspaper columns and local radio, and he became involved in politics with the Northern Ireland Labour Party.

Thus began the public life of Sam McAughtry as journalist and political activist, and a succession of delightful books which opened the door on the formation of the public man and into that hinterland of inter-war Belfast, where Buck Alec walked his lion cubs, and where the docklands, seen through the eyes of the men who built, manned and loaded the ships, was altogether more brutal than that projected by the shipowners and the Harbour Commissioners in their Venetian palazzo.

It was filled, too, with pubs and betting shops, with craic and camaraderie and, at times, enmity and hostility as sectarian passions ebbed and flowed. The summit of Sam's political career was his membership of the Irish Senate in 1996.

Unlike the other northerners who got there as Taoiseach nominees, Sam had the greater distinction (and democratic legitimacy) of membership by election on the industrial and commercial panel.

His maiden speech in the Senate could still serve as a manifesto for any decent political party.

He declared himself to be a hybrid unionist, happy to live in the United Kingdom, but happier to be Irish.

His vision was for an island of five million Irish people, living in two jurisdictions, but with institutions established to emphasise their Irishness.

Who says he didn't hear Ireland's Call?

His other great act of demonstration politics was in organising the Peace Train, chartered and filled with interesting fellow travellers to assert their right of passage on the railway to Dublin and to protest the interruption of service by Provo bombs and bomb scares.

Sam was acutely aware of the irony of an organisation which professed to be fighting to unite Ireland spending so much time and effort to ensure that it remained divided.

It is for his books that he would wish to be remembered – for he was a fine writer.

The Sinking Of The Kenbane Head is a minor classic of the sea and of Belfast life.

It is a personal narrative which recaptures the people, the sounds and the smells of his childhood and, more importantly, it is a moving and appropriate hymn to the brave men who faced the perils of the sea and of modern warfare.

Sam was a wonderful storyteller with a rich voice that resonated on radio – raised always in the cause of decency, fairness, respect and human rights, a voice for the poor and the oppressed.

Death should not silence it – nor will it do so.

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