Groundbreakers of Working Class Belfast

New BBC series charts life from the shipyards to the Troubles through four of the city's most important 20th century writers

Often cited as the founding father of modern Northern Ireland drama, Ballymacarret-born St John Greer Ervine (1883 – 1971) gave a voice to early 20th century urban and rural Ulster with his groundbreaking plays, including Boyd’s Shop and Mixed Marriage.

Ervine is one of four Belfast writers whose work is explored by actor Dan Gordon in the first programme in the new series of Groundbreakers, which begins on Sunday May 15, on BBC Two Northern Ireland, at 9.30pm.

Groundbreakers: In The Shadow of the Shipyard sees Gordon – an east Belfast native – considering how the four writers absorbed the experiences of Belfast’s working class communities and brought their voices to a wider audience.

Sam Thompson (1916 – 1965), also from Ballymacarret, was a trade unionist who challenged the unionist establishment with one of the most controversial plays of the 1960s – Over the Bridge, which told of sectarianism in the Harland and Wolff shipyard.

Poet and playwright Thomas Carnduff (1886 – 1956) from Sandy Row in the city, worked in a variety of unskilled jobs before finding permanent work as a shipyard labourer and then as a caretaker in Belfast’s Linen Hall Library.

Unusually for a man of his background, Carnduff regularly frequented public libraries and was a prolific writer. His poetry and plays such as Songs of the Shipyard and Workers dramatised the lives of working class Belfast people during the 1930s recession.

Dan Gordon 2

Stewart Parker (1941 – 1988) gave a voice to a new generation in the 1970s and 1980s, and is regarded as the major Belfast playwright of the Troubles. Born in Sydenham, his work is strongly rooted in a Belfast troubled by the ghosts of its past and present. His plays including The Iceberg, Spokesong and Northern Star, received widespread acclaim and awards.

As well as highlighting the lives and work of these four writers, Groundbreakers: In the Shadow of the Shipyard also provides a fascinating insight into life in Belfast through the 20th century. Archive photographs and film footage help bring to life the people and the environment these writers found so inspiring.

'The shipyard has loomed large in the life of my family – my grandfather, my uncles and my father passed through its gates,' said Dan Gordon. 'But while most of the men were building ships there were others at work with their pens – inspired by the yard and the people of Belfast.

'Exploring their work and how it intersects with the working people of this city has been a great privilege for me.'

Groundbreakers: In the Shadow of the Shipyard is a DoubleBand production for BBC Northern Ireland in conjunction with the Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund/Northern Ireland Screen.