Page last updated at 12:44 GMT, Tuesday, 26 August 2008 13:44 UK

Obituary: David Hammond

By Keith Baker

The life and work of David Hammond, who has died aged 79, was one long, glorious celebration of cultural richness and diversity, of tradition and creativity, freedom of expression and friendship.

Davy Hammond
Davy Hammond found success in different areas of the arts

Writer, singer, teacher, songwriter, historian, musician, film-maker, broadcaster - he was all these things and more.

And if the word genius can be applied to someone with such an astounding range of gifts and accomplishments, who played an enormously influential role in Irish artistic life for more than 50 years, then it is the proper description for Davy Hammond.

Born in Belfast in 1928, he was educated at Methodist College, Belfast. His early career was as a teacher, both at primary level and later at Orangefield Boys Secondary School where he taught English.

One of his pupils there was Van Morrison, who has credited him with opening his eyes and ears to the joys of Irish traditional music.

It has been said of him that he saw children as the last of the primitive tribes, with their own culture, world view and values

David Hammond was a born educator, guided always by his own hunger for learning, and he continued this quest when he became a producer in the BBC Northern Ireland schools department in the early 1960s.

He would not have been instinctively at ease with the BBC's rigidly bureaucratic style at that time, yet along with other creative free spirits, such as Sam Hanna Bell, John Boyd and Ronnie Mason, he pioneered a new, vibrant style of programme-making on radio and television which swept away the old-fashioned and rather stuffy output which had until that point been the norm.

And he did it with the help of contributors who were to become Irish cultural icons, such as the playwright Brian Friel and the poet Seamus Heaney. Both men were his lifelong friends.

It has been said of him that he saw children as the last of the primitive tribes, with their own culture, world view and values.

Through this vision, films like Dusty Bluebells, portraying children's street songs, were to become classics.

'Plain people'

For more than 20 years at the BBC, he continued to make programmes, both for schools and for a wider audience, which were always out of the ordinary, even though they often celebrated "ordinary" people: farmers, weavers, factory-workers - "the plain people of Ireland".

He produced Over To You, the first regular schools programme for network to come from BBC Northern Ireland, and he produced the first location television drama. His programmes were skilful but always natural, their content never clouded by technique.

Throughout his years as a broadcaster, David managed to pursue his many other passions. He became a director of Field Day, the theatre company founded in 1980 by Brian Friel and the actor Stephen Rea.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem in 1965
The Clancy Brothers were among the musicians with whom he collaborated

And he became renowned world-wide for his music. It was unheard of for a traditional music event of significance to take place without his presence.

Yet many of his most memorable performances were not on the concert stage but round the fireside or in the snug comfort of a friendly pub.

He could draw from a vast repertoire: street songs (his album 'I Am The Wee Falorie Man' is a unique collection), traditional ballads, songs from all over Ireland and abroad, particularly the Irish-rooted folk music of the United States where he was revered. He also published several pamphlets and books on music.

Every meeting was punctuated with wit, warmth and insight, and it was a great privilege to see a great teacher at work
Peter Johnston
BBC NI controller

His friends and musical soul mates included the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem (he took part in the Paddy Clancy memorial concert in New York in 1999), Donal Lunny, Arty McGlynn.

And then there were the Americans, such as Emmylou Harris and the great folklorists Jean Ritchie, Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger.

He left the BBC in 1986 to form his own company, the mischievously-named Flying Fox Films, and immediately embarked on what became a new body of outstanding work, including films about Yehudi Menuhin and Stephane Grappelli, Seamus Heaney, his good friend the painter Neil Shawcross and the Beirut hostage Brian Keenan.

His remarkable memorial to life at the Belfast shipyard, Steel Chest, Nail in the Boot and the Barking Dog, won the premier award at a Golden Harp television festival.

In November 2003, he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Philosophy by Dublin City University.

At the ceremony, the award was described as a timely recognition of his selfless, dedicated and skilful work over many decades, his unique status on the island of Ireland and his reputation as an ambassador outside it.

Major retrospective

In 2005, the BBC and Belfast's Linenhall Library collaborated on a major retrospective tribute and screened a range of his films, including Dusty Bluebells, The Magic Sovereign, Pothooks Not Spiders, The Big House (his portrait of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy), From Glen To Glen and People of the Sea.

The films were introduced by distinguished friends, including Seamus Heaney, Jeremy Isaacs, who described him as a poet of film, and Pat Loughrey, BBC Director of Nations and Regions and himself a 'graduate' of the BBC NI Schools academy.

Peter Johnston, Controller BBC Northern Ireland said: "I was delighted to work with the Linenhall Library on a retrospective tribute to David's work a few years ago.

"The range and innovation of the films we screened are testament to David's unique talents. However, the greatest joy was in working with David himself on the project.

"Every meeting was punctuated with wit, warmth and insight, and it was a great privilege to see a great teacher at work."

Davy Hammond continued to work and perform until illness prevented him.

He is survived by his wife Eileen, his son Conor and daughters Catherine, Fiona and Mary Anne.

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Tributes to film-maker and singer
26 Aug 08 |  Northern Ireland


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