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Aodh de Blácam (1891 - 1951):
Journalist and historian


Aodh de Blácam was a literary but also polemical journalist and politician who spent much of his career based in Dublin but took a close interest in Ulster and in 1938 produced a rather extraordinary book on the province, notable for its genuine knowledge about and affection for both land and people, while laced throughout with what would be generously describable as the fanaticism of a convert as well as glaring factual errors. 

De Blácam was born Hugh Saunders Blackham in London; his father was an apothecary from Newry; in fact from a family long established there. (The hibernicisation of his full name was Aodh Sandrach de Blácam). Most of the family remained in Ulster: one cousin was Surgeon General to the (British) army in Ireland and who later helped finance de Blácam’s edition of poetry by a common ancestor, while another cousin was a novelist and genealogist to whom de Blácam dedicated his biography of Wolfe Tone. The Blackhams were fundamentalist Protestants, ut Aodh reacted strongly against this and would later write of his belief (if that was what it was) that St John kept a sympathetic watching eye on the 1916 Easter Rising. He got to know the Belfast-born journalist Robert Lynd, also a Protestant but, untypically though not unknown, was an Irish Republican and Sinn Feiner; also, de Blácam was influenced by Lynd’s vaguely socialist views. De Blácam moved to Ireland permanently in 1914, living variously in Donegal, Dublin, and in County Louth, so near the Ulster border that he was kept awake at night by cattle smugglers. Though he was privately not entirely approving of this, when he came to write his book on Ulster he was not in the least critical, even telling the reader a trick or two for more secure smuggling. He came to regard the Louth-south Armagh area as one, and was scathing, or at least satirical, about the (effectively) international border running through it. 

De Blácam’s written output ranged widely, from manifestos for Sinn Fein, through writing for children, to newspaper columns. The latter activity itself ranged from nakedly political propagandising and opinionating, through writing for ultramontane Catholic publications, to a light-hearted column which he wrote under the nom de plume, “Roddy the Rover” and in which he shared with his readers his great affection for all parts of Ireland. He wrote this column for over 15 years before the newspaper sacked him for blatantly political reasons. He also produced translations, drama, and a highly erudite book, Gaelic Literature Surveyed. 

From an Ulster point of view, though, de Blácam’s book, The Black North, is a striking piece of work. At one level, it a kind of superior guide book, set out in the form of the detailed commentary of a highly knowledgeable person on a real trip round the six counties of Northern Ireland, beginning with crossing the border into County Armagh, travelling west to “Tyrone of the Kings”, then to County Fermanagh, “Ireland’s Paradise”, then Derry/Londonderry, Newry, rural County Down, Country Antrim in the north-east, Lough Neagh (“Ireland’s Mediterranean”), and finally Belfast. The writing style while gentle is outdated and rather maudlin, except when he expounds his strong views on the border which he thinks is an abomination. He has plenty of amusing stories, vignettes and occasional aperçus, and everywhere he goes, every stone has a story; everywhere he goes, the list of historical figures he introduces to the reader is prodigious (and many of them are today commemorated by blue plaques). The reader is left in no doubt of de Blácam’s fondness for Ulster: his subtitle is “An account of the six counties of unrecovered [sic] Ireland, their people, their treasures and their history.” 

At another level, his constant theme that Protestants are “really” Gaelic and Irish but are too stubborn (or worse) to realise this(and by Protestant he clearly meant Presbyterian, mostly) is tendentious even for 1938, and while some of his anecdotes are genuinely amusing, Protestant/Presbyterians are often the target, and he is not above being not just plain wrong, repeats hoary myths and canards, such as that Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Ulster Unionist opposition to Home Rule, was really an Italian called Carsoni and is depicted as a lawyer on the make (though perhaps his tongue was in his cheek). Also his depiction of southern Ireland as basically prosperous while Ulster’s economy was suffering can scarcely have convinced anyone. The Dictionary of Irish Biography describes this element of the book as “delusional on an epic scale”. Nevertheless The Black North is fascinating as an illustration of how an Ulsterman saw his own province and how he sought to explain it to the population of the other Irish provinces whose engagement was possibly seen by many in a more ambiguous and less concerned light than some would have it. A clue to the book’s reception in the South if found aleady in the Introduction, contributed by Éamon de Valéra, who wrote: “Only an Ulsterman who knew and loved his people could do it as he has done.” 

De Blácam married an Ulsterwoman, Mary McCarville from Monaghan; they had two sons.



Born: 11 December 1891
Died: 13 January 1951
Richard Froggatt
Bibliography:

Aodh de Blácam: The Black North (4th impression, Dublin,1943); Dictionary of Irish Biography