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Reportage: The story of a forgotten Irish legend


Richard Hayward

Richard Hayward

Maureen O'Hara reading one of his books on Quiet Man set

Maureen O'Hara reading one of his books on Quiet Man set


Richard Hayward

He rubbed shoulders with superstars while his travel books about Ireland topped the bestsellers lists. But 50 years after his death, the writer, actor and broadcaster Richard Hayward was a largely forgotten figure until Paul Clements chronicled his amazing life.

Two generations ago, noted Irish actor, singer and travel writer Richard Hayward played a significant role in the cultural landscape of Ireland and for 40 years was a pivotal figure. But after his death in 1964, his reputation fell into abeyance and for a variety of reasons his name disappeared from the public eye.

My initial interest in Hayward, who was born in 1892, was stimulated through reading his Irish travel writing. But I became intrigued by how someone so well known in the middle years of the 20th century could be largely unknown today and I set about the task of rediscovering him.

His fluent and intelligent books are thoughtful meditations on an older Ireland. His writing contains a vast store of detail on the cultural history of the country, its legends and folklore, as well as minutely observed descriptions of the towns and the landscape.

Hayward did not reveal much about himself in his books and this piqued my curiosity, leading me on a lengthy trail to find out about the man behind the public face.

In 2005, after the death of his second wife, Dorothy, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum took over ownership of the Hayward archive and the copyright. I was given access to it in 2009 and this opened up a hidden world, revealing an untold story in his letters, private papers and travel notebooks.

After exploring his personal archive, I set about visiting many other archives throughout Ireland and Britain on a quest to track down more about him and find places where his spirit resonates.

Rare, sepia-tinted photographs that had lain unseen for nearly 100 years turned up in scrapbooks and I came across letters that had been unread for more than 70 years. I contacted more than 100 people who remembered him — or at least were aware of his achievements — and were able to illuminate him and bring him to life.

From my archival immersion it was clear there were many Richard Haywards. Not only was he a travel writer, but he was also a singer, film star, stage actor, folklorist, dialect-collector, freelance journalist (a regular contributor to the Belfast Telegraph in the late 1950s) broadcaster, entrepreneur and sweet salesman. He moved easily between the parallel worlds of filmmaking, the theatre, singing, and broadcasting on both the BBC and Radio Eireann and his life touched many people.

In the 1930s, Hayward appeared in early black-and-white Irish ‘talkies' and later had a role in the Titanic film A Night to Remember and a musical connection with The Quiet Man. His travel books, which covered all the regions of Ireland, were illustrated by distinguished artists such as James Humbert Craig, Theo Gracey and Raymond Piper.

Although born in Southport, Lancashire in 1892, Hayward grew up in Larne and tried to disguise his English background. He spent his life promoting Ireland through his filmmaking, songs and above all, his 11 travel books about the country.

His father, Walter Scott Hayward, was a boat designer and renowned yachting celebrity in the north-west of England. In the mid-1890s, the family moved to Ireland, settling on the Antrim coast. Scott Hayward ran an engineering works in Waring Street in Belfast and in the early years of the 20th century he worked for the Congested Districts Board in the west of Ireland helping fishermen modernize their boats.

The Larne in which Richard Hayward grew up was a busy place, especially on fair days, when the town was packed with people from the countryside and with stalls and sellers.

At the age of seven, the young Hayward developed an interest in music, not just from the singers he heard on the streets but also in the household. As a relatively prosperous family,

they employed a maid who came from Ballybay in Co Monaghan and taught him his first songs.

From her he learnt Irish ballads that struck a special chord leading to a lifetime's interest in traditional songs and an abiding passion for playing the harp.

The surrounding area around Larne was an exhilarating place for his youth. He became familiar with hidden coves and coastal beaches. Frequently he wandered the country lanes and flower-filled meadows of Islandmagee and was intrigued by the ‘Druid's Altar', a dolmen at Ballylumford. In 1904, when he was 12, the family moved to live in Greenisland overlooking Belfast Lough and he later lived in Belfast where he spent his adult life.

During the 1920s, Hayward worked part-time as a confectionery sales agent for Fox's Glacier Mints and Needler's Chocolates which brought him around many small towns. Frequently he came across impromptu concerts and kitchen house ceilidhs, observing performers and paying particular attention to the lyrics and melodies of rare ballads or mournful laments.

Painstaking in his efforts to preserve them, he felt strongly that it was important to rescue these ballads from obscurity and record the oral tradition for posterity.

In a busy singing career he recorded 156 records for major labels such as Decca and HMV. He travelled around Ireland singing to packed houses at concerts and festivals and performed many radio recitals, singing Orange ballads as well as traditional Irish songs.

At the same time as his singing career was thriving, Hayward was developing his writing. In 1936, he published a novel, Sugarhouse Entry, and two years later his first travel book In Praise of Ulster brought him to literary prominence. The book covered all nine counties of Ulster.

A wide-ranging book, In Praise of Ulster, bristles with topography, geology, archaeology, and reflects his interest in music. He laced his work with humour and whimsy. “Ballyshannon looks better,” he wrote in the Donegal chapter, “from a distance than it does on closer inspection.”

Hayward also had a particular liking for regional phrases such as: “Come in Dungannon, I know your knock”, “That beats Banagher and Banagher beats the band”, “It was all to the one side like Clogher” and “G'long ye ould Lurgan spade”.

The book was an immediate success and was reprinted four times during the Second World War.

Hayward was a lover of the Shannon region and his book Where the River Shannon flows (1940) tells the story of a journey by caravan following its course from the Shannon Pot in Cavan to Ballybunnion in Kerry. He had a particular fondness for Carrick-on-Shannon and in 1945 was made a freeman of the town for his work in promoting the inland waterways.

He followed his Shannon book by writing about the Corrib region. The Corrib Country came out in 1943 and covered the area stretching from Lough Mask through Corrib to Galway Bay. Three years later he published In the Kingdom of Kerry.

In the late 1940s, Hayward teamed up with the Belfast artist Raymond Piper. Over a period of 17 years, they explored every county and produced five regional topographical books in a series called ‘This is Ireland.'

The first, Leinster and the City of Dublin, (1949) covered 12 counties with the lion's share going to Dublin. It was followed by four other regional books: Ulster, Munster, and two on Connacht. His final book, Munster and the City of Cork, was published to critical acclaim in 1964, just a few weeks before his death.

Apart from his travel books and singing there were many other sides to the hectic pace of Hayward's life. His early acting career was with the Ulster Players which he managed in the 1920s.

Many of his plays were performed in the Gaiety and Abbey theatres in Dublin as well as the Empire in Belfast. Along with Tyrone Guthrie, he formed the Belfast Radio Players who broadcast regularly on the BBC in the 1920s. His wife, Elma, appeared alongside him in many plays and some of his later films.

In 1929, Hayward set up the Belfast Repertory Company and as a theatrical impresario, he helped shape and develop the world of Ulster drama. This included staging several plays of gritty realism written by the unemployed shipyard worker Thomas Carnduff at the Abbey Theatre.

In the 1930s, Hayward laid the foundations of the Irish film industry and was acknowledged as a talented character actor. His first major film and the first Ulster ‘talkie', The Luck of the Irish, was filmed at Glynn in Co Antrim in September 1935.

After the filming was completed, the English director, Donovan Pedelty, wrote to the papers to thank many individuals who co-operated with the crew. He said he had been “thrilled and amazed by the extraordinary enthusiasm and helpfulness” and had never known such “unstinted friendliness and co-operation”.

When asked by the Press if the Northern Ireland dialect would not be difficult to make intelligible to cinema audiences, Pedelty replied, “Not at all. After all, it's no worse than the Scottish.”

Two other major feature films, The Early Bird (1936), a country comedy, was filmed in Glenarm and Carnlough, while Devil's Rock, a romantic drama, was shot in Cushendun in 1937. Large crowds queued to see The Early Bird, which broke box-office records in Galway, Dingle and Carlow.

In Irish and Proud of It (1936) — filmed at Clogher Head in Co Louth — a young actress, Dinah Sheridan, appeared alongside Hayward in the lead role. Years later she went on to play the part of Mrs Waterbury in The Railway Children.

After Elma’s death in 1961, Hayward married Dorothy Gamble, whose family lived at Chichester Park in north Belfast. She was a secretary for a number of different companies and was a published poet.

In the final years of his life, Hayward received awards including an honorary degree which was conferred on him by Lafayette College in Pennsylvania in June 1959. The citation stated that his doctorate was awarded for “distinguished services to Irish literature” and in recognition of his contribution to the development and spread of Irish literature.

In 1963, Hayward was elected Honorary Life Associate of the British Institute of Recorded Sound and the following year was appointed OBE. His tragic death in a car crash near Ballymena on October 13, 1964, in which two other people were also killed, was widely reported in the Press. He had been on his way to give a talk on folklore to Ballymena Rotary Club.

Richard Hayward was a man of boundless energy, fierce ambition and infectious enthusiasm. Through his books and writing, his tour guiding and films, he opened up the country to thousands of people. His travel books capture an Ireland long gone. They are a remarkable record of a country going through dramatic social and political change before the modern era.

In May 2013, in a gesture of recognition, the Ulster History Circle erected a blue plaque at Hayward's house on the Antrim Road in Belfast where he lived for more than 20 years. This year a series of events is being held in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his death and a process of rediscovery is underway.

For the first time, his extraordinary life story has been told in a biography and in the autumn a one-hour documentary on Hayward will be shown on BBC Northern Ireland. The Linen Hall Library in Belfast, in conjunction with the Public Records Office, is holding a series of free talks culminating in a symposium on Hayward on October 24/25, which will include a guided walking tour of the city following in his footsteps. A BBC exhibition featuring his work is also touring libraries in Northern Ireland.

All of this will ensure that his memory lives on and his work will continue to inhabit and nurture our minds. A new generation can enjoy his books, songs and films which played such a large part in the mid-20th century fabric of Irish life.

  • Romancing Ireland, Richard Hayward, 1892-1964 by Paul Clements is published by Lilliput Press (£20). For details of the symposium at the Linen Hall Library go to linenhall.com. The BBC exhibition on Richard Hayward, In Praise of Ulster, is at the Central Library in Belfast (until August 28)

Belfast Telegraph