Neil Martin remembers film director and singer David Hammond
Ahead of tomorrow's BBC Northern Ireland documentary to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of film director and singer David Hammond, composer and musician Neil Martin pays a personal tribute to his extraordinary friend
I was aware of David Hammond before I ever met him - he was that sort of a presence. Somehow he was just there. An individual colour.
I knew his singing of "I wish my love was a red, red rose" from the radio, with his unique vibrato timbre and himself fully committed to the song… that caught my ear as a teenager interested in traditional music.
I was also aware of him via Field Day Theatre Company, that extraordinary gathering of artists and thinkers which emerged in 1980. Founded by Stephen Rea and Brian Friel, the other board members were Seamus Heaney, Seamus Deane, Tom Paulin and David Hammond - as a student at Queen's back then I can remember the excitement and anticipation of what they might collectively bring.
Then, at a concert in the Arts Theatre, I remember seeing Davey for the first time. He was in the audience close by to where we were sat, and the singer, Maura O'Connell, thanked him for a song and he stood to take a bow - a big man, tweed cap, sideburns and yellow boots with Cuban heels... an individual colour.
A few years after that, in 1986, I was having a drink with the guitarist Arty McGlynn in Belfast - he had just come off the Opera House stage where he'd been performing with the legendary Makem and Clancy. I was coming from a band rehearsal, uilleann pipes with me. We sat in the Crown for an hour and as last orders were called, Arty asked me to come up to David Hammond's house. I quite naturally refused, not having been invited by the man himself.
McGlynn insisted, I caved in. We arrived up and David and his wife Eileen could not have been more welcoming. Eileen offered me my first-ever sloe gin that night - I'm forever grateful to her. It was only at this point that I discovered that Makem and Clancy were in the house too… those now mounting gate-crasher feelings were, however, simply banished by the Hammonds' genuine hospitality.
As then often happens when musicians sit down together, we all of us played music and sang songs late into that night, and some bond sparked between Davey and myself.
We stayed in touch through many hilarious phone calls and would meet occasionally and then, in 1988, Davey invited me to join him on stage at the Guildhall in Derry for a Field Day evening.
The honour was inexplicable - I was to share a stage with Deane, Friel, Hammond, Heaney, Paulin and Rea. Davey's invite introduced me to that array of world-class artists and from then on, everything changed. My perspective shifted, I was able to think about theatre and music and poetry and literature in a different way. And that was what Davey did so genuinely and so caringly - he opened up the world, he tried to make things better for people. His zeal for life and art was a force that couldn't be ignored. I got fired up by it and loved it.
In 1990, Davey asked me to do some research for a film he was making, The Magic Fiddle, a film that celebrated the fraternity of fiddle music from various parts of the world - you can imagine my delight at the prospect of that travel and engagement.
What initially started out as a three-month contract gracefully morphed into a 15-year working relationship with his independent film company, Flying Fox Films.
Along with his daughter and son, Catherine and Conor, we made many films, worked hard, played hard, laughed a great deal and all the while, and almost unbeknownst to myself, I learned an awful lot.
Not just about film-making, but about the world, people, things. Lots of things. And the learning was just by being in his company.
I learned about fields and trees and saddles of bikes and lawnmowers and language and literature and painting and songs and boots and Gladstone bags - more on that last couple later - and scores and hundreds of other things.
He knew a great deal and as he said himself, he was "either cursed or blessed with an almost flawless memory".
He shared his knowledge so very selflessly. Davey could draw out from you things you'd never thought to voice yourself but that were lurking somewhere in the recess of the mind, untapped.
He was that sort of a man - an individual colour. An endlessly fascinating, ever-inquisitive soul. We had many, many car journeys together around this island. The conversations were energising and you always emerged feeling better. We talked for hours and hours, we played music, we made films.
We also sat up late on many's the night, in his wonderful upstairs glass-walled room that overlooked Belfast, his arms folded, chest out, puffing on pungent cigars ("stinkeroos", he called them), supping yella whiskey, singing songs, sharing thoughts, engaging with life.
My God, those days and nights were good. The very best.
The enrichment came from Davey but also via Davey. Through him I was introduced to and got to know well the artists Basil Blackshaw and Neil Shawcross and my vision and appreciation of the artworld enhanced hugely.
Similarly through Davey I met farmers and fishermen in Donegal, the jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, the blacksmith Barney Devlin, the American singer Jean Ritchie, a number of presidents of Ireland, poets, novelists, film-makers and poteen makers, rogues and lords. For Davey, all were equal. He accorded each and everyone the same grace and elevated nobody above anyone else. He was an egalitarian through and through.
He extended the same generosity to my own children and as they grew up, they too gleaned much from Davey. He truly adored the company of children - he found them utterly fascinating. A most generous man. As a Christmas present one year he brought my daughters along with his own grandchildren into a recording studio and they all were given their lines to say in a mummers' play, an experience my girls still cherish deeply.
And there was the fun-loving scoundrel in Davey too - my youngest daughter, Molly, reminded me recently of when she was once reciting a poem for Davey, he got her to repeat the poem while putting a sausage roll and a prawn cocktail crisp into her mouth at the same time - "Brill times", as our Molly says.
And our Sarah remembers his "home drawer" with great fondness. It was a drawer in his home that was stuffed to the gills with sweets and crisps and chocolate and pound coins, and each child was invited to dive in as they left. Always encouraged to take more and more, my kids were abuzz with every visit. What a man! An individual colour.
He was of course a notorious prankster - in my very early days in Flying Fox, Davey left the office one day, smiling kindly as he did. An hour later as I put on my jacket to leave, I struggled to get my arms into the sleeves - Hammond had stapled the cuffs shut. I can see him now, tittering all the way home, enjoying his jape before I discovered it. (Blackshaw once told me of how Davey would lie in bed in the morning, sheets pulled up over his nose, sniggering away to himself as he planned that day's skulduggery).
His postcards are the stuff of legend too. He must have posted thousands upon thousands of prank cards to people all around the globe, each and every card carefully thought through, the pun finely honed. That was something of a vocation, really. A Hammond trade mark.
There was also the obsessive collector in him - lawnmowers, penknives, hats, airline sick bags (I know), walking sticks, Gladstone bags, boots. Sometimes, he'd polish all the boots and Gladstone bags of a morning and set them out on parade on the living room floor and invite you up to the house to admire them. Wonderful, wonderful stuff. An individual colour.
David Hammond was a very learned, kind, important, hard-working, life-loving teacher, singer and film-maker, and he was a most loyal friend. He believed in himself, in goodness and that what he was doing in life was the right thing for him to be doing.
He made a very significant contribution to the promotion and betterment of arts and artists in Ireland and being in his forcefield was always good. He was an amazing and selfless enabler, and he had a huge bearing on me.
I know with every passing day how very fortunate I am to have known him so well. Quite simply, he made my life better. I long for one more road trip, for one more late night of elucidating banter, for one more song.
He's gone a decade and I think of him almost every day. I have still plenty of questions that need answered.
Hammond: Duais an Dorais, BBC Two Northern Ireland, tomorrow, 10pm. Composer and musician Neil Martin's latest collaboration with Stephen Rea on Derek Mahon's series of poems New York Time has just premiered at the Kilkenny Arts Festival