Obituary: Literary icon Sam McAughtry had deep Belfast roots

Sam McAughtry
Sam McAughtry

Sam McAughtry was a prolific writer, a war veteran, and also a rare Ulster Protestant voice in Dublin’s Seanad.

He died on Friday, March 28, at the Ulster Hospital after his condition deteriorated in the wake of a hip operation.

He had turned 93 mere days earlier, having been born on March 24, 1921.

His son-in-law Ian Gordon places his birth in Hillman Street, north Belfast – and despite a later move to Comber, it was this side area, in particular the tough loyalist neighbourhood of Tiger’s Bay, with which he was most associated.

His family were said to hail from Carrickfergus originally, and his father had been in the Merchant Navy.

When he left school around fourteen, he worked in a hardware store, making deliveries on a bicycle around Belfast, and later trained as an aircraft fitter in Shorts.

He signed up for the RAF during World War Two in 1940, and trained as a navigator – including a stint in Prince Edward Island, Canada.

He was sent on missions above the Aegean Sea, and in his book McAughtry’s War, he recalled some horrifying scenes, as Allied planes pursued desperate Axis ships, with aircraft plunging aflame into the sea.

A heavy drinker for part of his life, Mr Gordon attributed this partly to the extreme stress of these situations .

He survived the war, but his brother Mart died at sea – a trauma remembered in the book ‘The Sinking of the Kenbane Head’.

He later went on to work in the Labour Exchange in Belfast, and later the Civil Service – eventually rising to a senior post with the Ministry for Agriculture.

It was around this time he penned ‘Kenbane Head’, and, while reading pieces from the book on the BBC, he was heard by Douglas Gageby of the Irish Times, who asked him to contribute to the paper.

He continued to write throughout his life.

Despite his strong Protestant roots, his political position was a nuanced one.

During the 1990s, he had stood unsuccessfully in north Belfast for the Northern Ireland Labour Party, and in 1996 he was appointed to the Seanad – the Republic’s upper house.

Referring to himself as Irish, he was nevertheless happy to remain in the UK.

In 2003 work ‘On the Outside Looking In’ he described Stormont as being the site of a great tug-of-war between republicans and the British government, with the latter continually letting the rope slip through its hands.

He was also heavily involved in the Peace Train initiative in the late 1980s, campaigning against IRA attacks on the rail network.

His quiet, family funeral was held on April 2 in Brown’s Funeral Parlour, Newtownards Road.

He was buried in Comber Cemetery. He is survived by his wife Phyllis, his daughters Marion, Elaine and Angela, and his grandchildren.