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Groundbreakers: A Woman Called Nesca, Sunday 5th June, 10pm BBC2NI

Date Posted: June 3, 2016

Ulster Scots Broadcast Fund documentary A Woman Called Nesca follows writer and journalist Lesley Riddoch as she explores the forgotten story of Nesca Robb, the 20th century Ulster poet, writer and historian who played a key role in saving so much of the Ulster heritage we value and enjoy today. A Woman Called Nesca airs Sunday 5th June at 10pm on BBC2NI.

During her lifetime (1905 – 1976), Nesca Adeline Robb was best-known for her two-volume biography of William of Orange, and academic papers on the Italian Renaissance. However, compared to contemporary writers such as Sam Hanna Bell and John Hewitt, her poetry, prose and literary legacy have been largely forgotten.

Nesca grew up in Ballyhackamore House, east Belfast, part of the influential Presbyterian Robb family whose department store, J Robb & Co was a city centre landmark for more than a century. She began writing from a very early age. One of her topics was the collective pride felt by the city at the launch of the largest liner in the world – the Titanic.

By the time she entered her teens, Nesca had started writing poetry and was documenting the rapid changes in Belfast and how it shaped its people. Following a series of family tragedies, where she lost her father, mother and sister, Nesca left Belfast to study modern languages at Somerville College Oxford, but continued to write poetry which was praised and endorsed by luminaries including TS Eliot and Walter de la Mare.

In 1938, she moved to London. Within a year, World War Two had begun and Nesca wrote of this time in her well-received book An Ulsterwoman in London. In 1947, she came home to Belfast and continued to work as a playwright, biographer and critic until her death in 1976.

As well as literature, Nesca was also instrumental in the setting up of the National Trust in Northern Ireland, donating Lisnabreeny House, which was bequeathed to her by her uncle, and 164 acres of land including part of Cregagh Glen, to the Trust in 1937.

A plaque in the glen is the only visible acknowledgement to the life and work of this remarkable woman, much of whose work lies hidden in the archives of her close friend and Oxford colleague, Margaret Mann Phillips.

“Making this documentary was a fascinating experience for me,” said Lesley Riddoch, “As a young girl growing up in Belfast I practically followed in Nesca Robb’s footsteps – living near to where she did and walking the same streets. Yet I knew nothing about her. With this programme I had the chance to explore her incredibly rich story and discover some fascinating parallels with my own life.”

Director Jane Magowan added: “Living from 1905 to 1976, Nesca was witness to our history. An historian who observed the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the departure of the Ulster Division for the front lines of World War One and the entire life of the Stormont Administration [1921 – 1972]. It has been a privilege to make this documentary and to bring Nesca Robb back to the attention of the wider public.”

Deirdre Devlin, Executive Producer BBC Northern Ireland said: “The Groundbreakers season always provides some surprising and interesting detail about historical figures who are perhaps less well known but whose contribution here has been far reaching. There is always something new to discover, even with characters we thought we knew well. The season also gives a fascinating insight into our social history and tells us something new about ourselves and where we’ve come from.”

Groundbreakers: A Woman Called Nesca is a DoubleBand Films production for BBC Northern Ireland with funding from Northern Ireland Screen’s the Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund.

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