David Hammond: Film-maker and singer

Friday 29 August 2008 00:00 BST

The sheer range of David Hammond's interests and activities defied easy definition. Some thought of him as a teacher, others as a documentary-maker, or a musician, broadcaster, writer or singer.

He was all of these things, a multi-talented person who generated goodwill and affection as well as respect during his busy, creative life. This was best conveyed by the composer Neil Martin: "He had a wonderful natural power of communication, be it through film, song or just talking to people. From the loftiest figure to ordinary people, he met everybody at the same level."

His home city of Belfast is often regarded as a place lacking culture. But Hammond did more than almost anyone to assure the world – and Belfast itself – that it not just a violent history but also a distinctive creative energy of its own. This he did by making films about leading personalities, including Seamus Heaney, as well as about what he called the backstreets' subterranean culture, which he said was hardly known to the professional classes.

Hammond was fascinated by this underworld. Its songs, he wrote, "are smoky in their textures, with a salty northern consistency, their language clipped and consonental, their themes urban."

Educated at the Methodist College Belfast, David Hammond was an Ulster Protestant who disregarded the local invisible but strong political boundaries. After training to be a teacher at Stranmillis College, he taught at Orangefield secondary school in east Belfast, where he introduced the singer Van Morrison to Irish traditional music.

In the early 1960s Hammond developed a new career with the BBC in Belfast, making radio and television programmes which were quickly identified as something out of the ordinary. In a statement by Dublin City University when Hammond was given an honorary degree in 2003, the programmes and films were described as ringing true. "They spoke of deep feeling, and intuitions about, their subject matter. And they communicated marvellously the freshness of a talent that was always exploring, always pointing to some unexpected horizon, or to some half-forgotten treasure buried deep in the loam of Ireland, north or south."

During more than two decades at the BBC Hammond produced award-winning documentaries and wrote books and pamphlets on music. He also collected folk songs and traditional ballads and involved himself in theatre, becoming a director of the Field Day Theatre Company. He was a mainstay of the music scene, always ready with a song.

In 1986 Hammond moved on from the BBC to form his own company, Flying Fox Films. There he produced films including the documentary Beyond the Troubles (1994) with the Beirut hostage Brian Keenan, and an award-winning film on life in the Belfast shipyards, Steel Chest, Nail in the Boot and the Barking Dog (1987). The broadcaster Jeremy Isaacs called Hammond "a poet of film".

Hammond worked with many well-known personalities including Yehudi Menuhin, Stephane Grappelli, Brian Friel, Pete Seeger and Seamus Heaney.

Heaney knew Hammond for almost half a century: "He was a great Ulsterman and a great Irishman, a man of rare energy, one of the transformers in Irish life. He was a courageous romantic, a heroic democrat, free of sectarianism and free of ideology."

In 2005 the Linenhall Library in Belfast staged a retrospective of Hammond's work, with Heaney and others introducing a collection of his films, including Dusty Bluebells, a 1973 documentary about children's street games in west Belfast, The Magic Sovereign (1979), a short film written by Brian Friel, Pothooks Not Spiders (1978), and the episodes "From Glen to Glen" and "The People of the Sea" from the six-part BBC television series David Hammond's Ireland (2003).

In these films, Hammond conveyed that there was much more to Ireland than its divided history. He did not preach but his work carried the intrinsic message that diversity should be tolerated and indeed celebrated rather than wielded as a divisive force. He was described by Pat Loughrey, Director of Nations and Regions at the BBC, as "a man of poetry, song, of film and of a thousand stories. He crossed every boundary with style and distinction. He taught us to be civilised at the darkest times."

The Londonderry novelist and playwright Seamus Deane collaborated with Hammond on theatrical projects. For Deane, Hammond accomplished so much not just professionally but also on a personal level: "I remember David for his smile, his singing, the general sense of well-being he brought into meetings and the wonderful sense of balance and ease he brought to our discussions. He was wonderful company – he sang as naturally as he breathed, he had stories and anecdotes galore, and he simply was a golden presence in the room when he was there."

David McKittrick

David Hammond, teacher, film-maker, director and singer: born 5 October 1928; married (one son, three daughters); died Belfast 25 August 2008.

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