Samuel Ferguson was born in Belfast in 1810 into a family that traced their descent from the Scottish Covenanter outlaw William Gilliland. Ferguson attended the Belfast Academical Institution and later went to study law at Lincoln’s Inn in London and Trinity College Dublin in 1834. In 1848 he married Mary Catherine Guinness of the famous Irish brewing family.
He became a Queen’s Counsel in 1859 and was elected to Deputy Keeper of the Public Records of Ireland in 1867 and received a knighthood in recognition of his public service in 1878. His literary career began in the 1830s when he contributed verse and prose to Blackwood’s Magazine and to Dublin University Magazine. As a poet, antiquarian and scholar he did much to popularize Gaelic literature in collections such as Lays of the Western Gael and Other Poems (1864) and Congal (1870). Ferguson had deep attachments to the Co. Antrim of his childhood, and its folklore and history provided much inspiration for his poetry.
His work bears comparison to William Allingham’s and William Hamilton Drummond’s in that Scottish influences played an important role in his work. Ulster figures prominently throughout his work. ‘The Fairy Thorn’ is one of a series of ballads in which he explores his personal history alongside the folklore of the province. As a translator, his fondness, if not even a bias for his native province is made apparent in ‘The Healing of Conall Carnach’ where Ulster is described as a spiritual haven that the imprisoned Conall must escape to, away from his southern Irish heathen captors.
In ‘The Forging of the Anchor’ the North’s difference to the rest of Ireland is asserted in his celebrations of Belfast shipbuilding. Ferguson’s fascination with industrial processes reveal the north-east’s participation in an industrialised British Empire where many saw themselves as closely tied to the industrial bases of the Clyde as they did to the metropolitan capital on the Liffey.