Book review: Romancing Ireland

WHEN entertainer Richard Hayward died in a car accident, aged 72, it was front-page news in the Irish daily newspapers, not just in his hometown, Belfast. 

Richard Hayward 1892-1964

Paul Clements

Lilliput €20

As the author, Paul Clements, best known for his witty travel book, The Height of Nonsense: The Ultimate Irish Road Trip, says: “Shockwaves reverberated across Ireland.”

Yet, 50 years later, few people remember Hayward — a classic example of the fleeting nature of popular celebrity.

This lively biography puts Hayward into his rightful place in Irish cultural history. He will be best-remembered for his illustrated travel books, extraordinary labours of love that combine scholarship, first-hand reporting and humour, and which deserve to have a bigger readership.

But he was one of Ireland’s best-loved entertainers. He was a pioneer of the Irish film industry, a talented character actor, a theatrical impresario, a singer capable of filling Dublin’s Olympia (he recorded 156 traditional songs), and a familiar name on Radio Éireann.

His arrangement of the song, ‘The Humour Is On Me Now’, was used in The Quiet Man, and one of the most memorable images of the many reproduced in this book is a photograph of Maureen O’Hara on the set, in costume as Mary Kate Danaher, reading Hayward’s travel book, The Corrib Country.

Richard Hayward was born in Southport, Lancashire, but the family moved to Larne, Co Antrim, when he was a boy, where his prosperous father ran a marine engineering business.

He hid his English origins, and spent his life promoting Ireland, not only through his travel books, but through his filmmaking (one of his films, co-starring a young Dinah Sheridan, was called Irish and Proud of It), theatrical productions and songs.

His passion for Irish songs and folklore was kindled as a child, when he learnt traditional songs and ballads from a maid from Co Monaghan.

He also loved playing the harp, which, perhaps, epitomises the romanticism that distinguishes his view of Ireland from today’s more cool and critical one.

His passion for Irish history and folklore was so strong that besides writing books, he delighted in leading excursions for the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club, to the Burren, Lough Corrib, the Shannon region (of which he was particularly fond), Cork and Kerry.

A lively conversationalist, he was especially popular among women of a certain age, who vied to sit near him on the bus.

They were referred to disparagingly by the more scientific-minded members of the Field Club as ‘Hayward’s Pussies’. No doubt it was the same high-minded scientists who gave him the rather spiteful nickname ‘the Glacier Mints man’.

For in spite of all this activity, it was as difficult then as now to make a living as a freelance in the arts world. Hayward solved this by working for two days a week as a sales agent for Fox’s Glacier Mints.

Even at the age of 72, he took every possible opportunity to put himself before his public: when he had his fatal car crash, he was on his way to give a talk on folklore to the Ballymena Rotary Club.

His most lasting monument will undoubtedly be the 11 travel books he wrote about Ireland, the later ones illustrated by the Belfast artist, Raymond Piper, with whom he travelled around Ireland every summer for 17 years.

Ulster and the City of Belfast has recently been reprinted, and a bronze of its author presented to the Linen Hall Library, Belfast.

This recognition owes much to the persistence of Paul Clements, who has spent many years in various archives working on this project, and has written an excellent book, which is also a major contribution to the cultural history of Ireland.


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