Bullock, Shan Fadh (John William) (1865–1935), author, was born 17 May 1865 at Inisherk, Co. Fermanagh, eldest son among eleven children of Thomas Bullock (1840–1917), estate steward and farmer, and his wife Mary Wheery. Thomas Bullock worked on the Crom Castle demesne of John Crichton, 3rd earl of Erne (1802–85). The great house was glamorous, remote, and distant from the small farmers who paid for it. The estate lay on a sectarian fault line, including both protestant and catholic districts with vivid folk memories of the 1689 battle of Newtownbutler. A private militia of protestant farmers and servants drilled on the castle lawn and the demesne was structured around unspoken distinctions between English house servants, local protestant craftsmen and supervisors, and unskilled catholics in the farther reaches of the grounds. Thomas Bullock combined great physical strength with a fierce desire for independence and a conviction that only farmers were truly men. He brooded darkly over rural depopulation and practised corporal punishment on his sons well into their teens, driving several to emigration. He acquired 200 acres on the Cavan-Fermanagh border and when the estate was sold under the Wyndham land act (1903) he negotiated on behalf of the protestant tenants. Shan Bullock admired and feared his father, and never quite escaped the old man’s scorn. He recorded his youth in a memoir, After sixty years (1931), described by Benedict Kiely as the last account of a great estate produced by someone who had seen it before the land war.
He was educated at Crom estate primary school, run by the Church of Ireland, and Farra school, Co. Westmeath, a former agricultural college turned school which inspired his novel, The cubs (1906). After failing to qualify for TCD, Bullock spent a year working on his father's holding at Killynick where it became clear he was not suited to farming. He moved to London in 1883, to his father's disgust, to become a civil service clerk in Somerset House, later transferring to the office of the public trustee. Bullock experienced a period of rebellion and instability in London; he abandoned the evangelical protestantism of his childhood and later adopted Matthew Arnold's liberal anglicanism. A streak of sexual guilt, visible in some of his work, may date from this period or from his adolescence at Crom. His life stabilised in 1889 with his marriage to Emma Mitchell; they had a son and a daughter.
Bullock took to journalism to supplement his salary and he published his first book of stories, The awkward squads in 1893, partly inspired by the semi-military preparations which accompanied the introduction of Gladstone's second home rule bill (1893). His imaginative focus remained centred on the countryside of his youth; his work centred on catholic and protestant small farmers and labourers, a class below his own. Thomas Bullock served on the board of guardians of Lisnaskea workhouse, where some of his son's characters end up. Bullock's stories revolve around a tension between a rural world dominated by hard physical labour, conflict, and provincial self-assurance, both brutal and admirable in its endurance, and frustrated aspirants to higher things such as adolescent writers, would-be aristocrats, farmers' wives whose parlours subside under muddy boots, figures whose hopes are at once noble, ridiculous and pitiable. Several novels embody this conflict in rival Bullock personae, the unreflective ‘Jan Farmer’ (Bullock as he might have developed in Fermanagh), and the self-conscious intellectual trying to integrate his nostalgia with awareness of his separation from the world he describes.
Bullock was well respected in literary circles, and he played on the Society of Authors' cricket team, but his literary books were never successful enough for him to become a full-time writer. He lamented that the English were not interested in Irish stories, while Ireland lacked a reading public. He disliked Orange sectarianism, and was both attracted and repulsed by Irish nationalism. This conflict is best expressed in The red leaguers (1904), which begins as a terrifying exploration of the sectarian divisions underlying the society of his earlier novels, but dwindles into pastoral comedy as if Bullock had grown afraid of his subject. Three of Bullock's novels, notably Robert Thorne (1907), depict the lives of London clerks, then a popular fictional subject.
In politics Bullock was a liberal imperialist, supporting social reform but opposed to home rule. From c.1900 he became a friend of Sir Horace Plunkett (qv) and an admirer of his plans for agricultural reform; he also befriended AE (qv) (George Russell), whose pantheism overlapped with Bullock's liberal anglicanism. Plunkett arranged for Bullock to write the official biography of Thomas Andrews (qv), builder of the Titanic. Bullock supported Plunkett's attempts to avert partition in 1913–14; he served on the secretariat of the Irish convention 1917–18, and received an MBE for his services. The making of a soldier (1916) is an account of his son's life before he left to fight in the First World War; he survived. His last and best novel, The loughsiders (1924), a story about a conniving smallholder very loosely based on Shakespeare's Richard III, reflects the author's gloom at the postwar state of Ireland and Europe and the death of his wife in 1922. Bullock's last years were spent in retirement in Sutton, Surrey. He was elected to the Irish Academy of Letters in 1933. He died in Surrey 27 February 1935.
During his imprisonment in Britain the young Brendan Behan (qv) read Bullock's novel, Beside Thrasna river (1895). Borstal boy (1958) mockingly notes the difference between its rural Ulster idiom and Behan's own urban sensibility. Bullock's intense self-examination sometimes becomes sentimentalism, but his work represents a deep and subtle imaginative engagement with the land and people of Victorian south Ulster. He has consistently received critical respect, though very few readers. There have been occasional local commemorations on the Crom estate and Bullock remains a significant figure in the tradition of rural naturalism which includes such figures as Michael McLaverty (qv) and John McGahern (qv) (1935–2006).
Bullock's daughter presented his literary papers, including two unpublished novels, two plays, numerous short stories and essays, and some correspondence to the QUB library in the 1960s. A portrait of Bullock by Dermod O'Brien (qv), RHA, is also in QUB. Bullock's correspondence with Sir Horace Plunkett is in the archives of the Plunkett Foundation, Long Hanborough Business Park, Oxfordshire. Enniskillen public library has a collection of cuttings on Bullock, including some photocopied letters.