Bell, Sam Hanna (1909–90), writer, was born 16 October 1909 in Glasgow, eldest of three sons of James Hanna Bell, a journalist on the Glasgow Herald, and Jane Bell (née McIlveen) whose family farmed near Raffrey, Co. Down; the couple were married (1908) in Jane's local presbyterian church. On James's premature death (1918) the family moved to Raffrey. Although Bell retained a Scottish inflection in his speech to the last, the three years he spent in rural Down were indelibly printed on his mind: the drumlin country near Strangford Lough is the site for most of his fiction. In 1921 the family moved again to 5 India St., Belfast. Poverty terminated Bell's formal education at 14 years of age; that this deprivation rankled with him is suggested by the frequency with which the characters in his fiction are similarly disadvantaged. By way of compensation, Bell became a furious autodidact with a passion for nineteenth-century fiction: Scott, Dickens, Hardy, Stendhal, and Tolstoy are frequently refracted in his own work.
On leaving school, Bell worked in a variety of low-skilled and poorly paid jobs, including night watchman, laboratory technician, and shop assistant. In his 20s and 30s he absorbed radical political ideas and wrote occasional articles for the left-wing periodical Labour Progress. In the early 1940s Sean O'Faolain (qv) published, and extravagantly praised, a number of his short stories in the Bell; these were included in Bell's first book, Summer loanen and other stories (1943), a collection of slight and sketchy work. Bell was the motive power behind the short-lived journal Lagan (1943–6), edited by his friend John Boyd; the story he contributed to the third issue of Lagan, ‘The green springcart’, was adapted from a novel in progress, December bride. In 1945 Louis MacNeice (qv), then in Belfast to recruit new talent for the BBC, was responsible for Bell's appointment as a temporary features producer, a position that was made permanent in 1948. His duties were onerous enough, but Bell had the further difficulty of coping with BBC Northern Ireland's extraordinarily conservative policy. In 1946 he married Mildred Reside, a teacher who had trained in Dublin; their only child, Fergus, was born in 1948.
December bride, Bell's first novel and undoubted masterpiece, was finally published in 1951. The story of the servant girl Sarah Gomartin, who becomes the mistress of the brothers Hamilton and Frank Echlin and the mother of two children whose paternity is uncertain, had been in circulation for some time before Bell realised its fictional potential. Although the novel is unblinking in its treatment of religious prejudice, the tone is wry rather than satiric; the largely presbyterian community to which the Echlins belong may be scandalised by impropriety, but it is not caricatured. Bell's sense of time and place is infallible as he recreates the Raffrey (‘Ravara’ in the novel) of his childhood as it must have been in the two or three decades before he knew it. The language of December bride is liberally salted with Ulster-Scots, while economy of style and authorial reticence invite ironical reading. Erin's orange lily (1956) documents the vanishing customs and folklore of rural Ulster, and recycles much of Bell's field work for the BBC His second novel, The hollow ball (1961), is a study of protestant working-class life in Belfast in the 1930s: David Minnis, a gifted footballer, escapes from a cultural and economic cul-de-sac to make a career for himself as a professional in England.
Bell retired from the BBC in 1969 without achieving the advancement to which he felt entitled. However, he continued to write radio features, mostly on literary topics, for many years. A man flourishing (1971) is an ambitious historical novel set in the years immediately before and after the act of union. It begins superbly in the confused aftermath of the battle of Ballinahinch. James Gault, a sympathiser with the United Irishmen, is forced to hide himself away in Belfast, where he comes under the influence of the evil genius Dr Bannon. In time Gault becomes active in the rapidly expanding business community of Belfast and loses the radicalism that once animated him. The novel's melodramatic sub-plots are an intolerable distraction from its main concern, Gault's moral decline and increasing political indifference. The theatre in Ulster (1972) is at once a work of diligent research and a testimony to a lifelong passion; in its most vivid pages, as well as in The arts in Ulster, which Bell edited in 1951, something of the intellectual and cultural life of mid-century Belfast can be glimpsed. Bell's fourth and final novel, Across the narrow sea, is set in the familiar county around Strangford Lough in the early years of the seventeenth century, the time of the plantation of Ulster. It traces the fortunes of a Scottish adventurer, Neil Gilchrist, whose fate is intertwined with that of the significantly named MacIlveens, a family of economic migrants who put down roots in east Ulster. While the documentary aspects are meticulously researched, the narrative is at best fitful and the characterisation quite inept. Gilchrist himself has no inner life, and the grotesque villain Lachie Dubh belongs to pantomime. Indeed, only McTurnooth, the crusty but tender-hearted presbyterian minister who speaks venomously about the late queen (‘that auld episcopalian harridan, Bess’), is at all convincing. Bell was awarded an MA (honoris causa) by QUB in 1970 and received the MBE in 1977. He died on 9 February 1990, shortly before the release of Thaddeus O' Sullivan's excellent film version of December bride; Mildred predeceased him in 1989.