The Yard Playwrights

Tom Thompson on how the Belfast shipyards informed the work of Thomas Carnduff, Sam Thompson and Wilson John Haire

Visitors to the Linen Hall Library, Belfast, in the 1950s probably paid scant attention to the resident caretaker – an elderly figure who quietly went about his duties. Few, apart from the literary fraternity, would have recognised Thomas Carnduff, better known as the ‘Shipyard Poet’ or sometimes the ‘People’s Poet’.

In his lifetime, his prolific outpouring of poetry, plays and contemporary prose reflected a passion for the city of his birth and a social reformer’s zeal to advance the economic and social status of its working-class citizens.

Carnduff, himself of solid working-class stock, was born in Kensington Street, Sandy Row, in 1886. From 1906 – 14 he worked as an assistant in the stereotyping section of the Belfast Steam Print Company, where he revelled in the camaraderie of his well-versed, articulate co-workers. He read widely in order to contribute to their stimulating levels of daily debate on the social issues of the time.

In 1916 he enlisted in the Royal Engineers and served at Ypres and Messines. On demob from the army in 1919, he was re-employed at Workmans as a plater’s helper at a rate of twenty-one shillings (£1.05) for a fifty-four hour week – working from 6 a.m. to 5.30 p.m every day.

It was arduous, dangerous labour, which often involved working at heights – the fear of which Carnduff never entirely overcame in his long shipbuilding career. Accidents were a daily occurrence in the yard, and on one occasion, Carnduff was taken to hospital after suffering injuries from a heavy spanner dropped from 40 feet.

As a youth Carnduff had written poetry – experimenting with what he called ‘doggerel’ – and during his early days in the shipyard he was inspired to write about his experiences there. A collection of writings, called Songs from the Shipyard and other Poems, was published in 1924 and dedicated to, ‘My comrades of the shipyards and of the days and nights toil we spent together’.

The book, funded by a sympathetic relative, captured the rich vein of social and human activity in which he now played a part but, unfortunately, it did not sell well – it was a huge disappointment to Carnduff and his sponsor.

Occasional poems and articles in Belfast and Dublin newspapers earned pittances, and did little to relieve the hardships of feeding and supporting his family of six. After a brief foray into self-employment, typing plays, sermons and poetry for others, he was encouraged by Ulster writer Richard Rowley to write a play.

Choosing to write about his experiences in the shipyards, Carnduff produced Workers. Several attempts to have the play performed locally were unsuccessful, but in 1932 it opened at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. Carnduff recalled his anticipation of the performance. ‘The pleasure of seeing one’s efforts in a public theatre, and one with an international fame, when the author is an unemployed shipyard man, is an episode incapable of recording'.

Following the success of the Dublin premiere, Workers played at the Empire Theatre, Belfast, to equally enthusiastic audiences. The applause of Carnduff’s former workmates packing the ‘gods’ was music to his ears.

In 1935 he was laid off for the last time from Workman Clark when the shipyard went bankrupt and closed. But the success of Workers had led to commissions for plays and poetry, as well as invitations to lecture on drama and social issues. He would go on to write plays such as Machinery, Traitors and Castlereagh, deriving inspiration from his on-off working days in Workman Clark’s shipyard, and the history and environment of a much-loved Belfast.

Thomas Carnduff died on 16 April 1956, but he left behind a legacy of exceptional writing and social commentary. He had used his writings to highlight the plight of the under-privileged and to inspire them to realise their higher potential. He strove to demonstrate that the working classes merited a valued place in modern society.

On 26 January 1960, in a struggling Belfast theatre, a bomb shell of a play was performed – one that would shatter for all time the cosy, elitist world of serious Ulster drama. The performance ran for six weeks to full houses, and was a huge success for its author and producers.

The play, Over the Bridge, by Harland & Wolff painter Sam Thompson, raised profound questions about religious tensions and prejudices within Northern Ireland society and, in tackling such a taboo subject, it challenged local theatrical tradition, which tended to steer clear of such controversial matters.

Over the Bridge was based on shipyard incidents of the 1930s and was performed during the ongoing IRA campaign of 1956 – 61. For some, Thompson’s play was an overdue exposure of sectarian prejudices against Catholics; others disagreed vehemently. Many were also shocked by the coarseness of the dialogue and the passion exhibited in public, albeit on a stage. If the author had intended to stimulate discussion about Ulster political attitudes, he certainly achieved his objectives, and more.

Sam Thompson, born in 1916, was the seventh in a family of eight children, born and raised in Montrose Street, off Newtownards Road, Belfast. His father, a lamplighter with the City Corporation, eked out his meagre wages with a part-time sexton’s job at the nearby St Clement’s Church.

When Sam entered Harland & Wolff in 1932 as apprentice painter, he was concerned that, like his brother, he would be sacked as soon as he served his time. At the time shipbuilding nationwide was at its lowest ebb – there were few orders, empty slipways and thousands out of work.

He became a member of the Painter’s Union, and eventually a shop steward, and there he found a platform where he could campaign for social reform. Regular meetings of interested workers took place in the shipyard toilets to debate the urgent issues of the day and to discuss possible means of resolving them.

His first tentative steps into the theatrical world were inspired by friendships made at that [the Elbow Room pub] and he was soon obtaining minor acting and directing roles with the Rosemary Players and other amateur societies. Other acting parts in the Group Theatre followed.

After an encounter with Sam Hanna Bell, a progressive BBC producer, Thompson began writing for radio, producing shows such as A Brush in Hand, about an apprentice shipyard painter, a documentary, Tommy Baxter, Shop Steward, and a weekly serial, The Fairmans.

Apart from his now busy writing career, Thompson was volubly promoting the ideals of socialism and had become an active member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) which, in the mid-1950s, was beginning to make serious inroads into the traditional Belfast Unionist vote.

Paddy Devlin, an NILP member and later founder member of the SDLP, described a meeting he had with Thompson. ‘I liked him instantly. He was an uncomplicated straight shooter who always appeared to be smouldering on the edge of explosion into flames at the sight and sound of injustice. Everyone within earshot knew where Sam stood on every issue. If they did not, it never took Sam long to tell them.’

Thompson meanwhile, ever the ardent socialist, had ambitions of more substantial writing than documentaries or stories for radio audiences – he had an overwhelming desire to expose some of the sectarianism he had seen or heard about in the shipyard.

In 1958, after two years of intensive writing, he completed what became his seminal, dramatic work, Over the Bridge. The ‘bridge’ in question was a matter of debate. Was it the Queen’s Bridge over the Lagan, or Fraser Street Bridge, off Newtownards Road, which led directly into the shipyard?

At the time, actor James Ellis was artistic director of the Group Theatre, Belfast. He was always keen to promote fresh local writing talent, so when Sam Thompson approached him with the challenge, ‘I’ve got a play you wouldn’t touch with a barge pole,’ Ellis was intrigued. He took on the challenge, knowing that the play would be controversial.

However, two weeks before the public performance, the Group’s board Chairman, Ritchie McKee, requested substantial cuts to the script. He informed the Belfast Telegraph: ‘The play is full of grossly vicious phrases and situations which would offend every section of the public. It is the policy of the Ulster Group Theatre to keep political and religious controversies off our stage.’

Ellis and Thompson refused to meet McKee’s request to cut the text, and they, along with other prominent Group actors, resigned. They formed their own theatre group, Ulster Bridge Productions and eventually found an alternative venue. The Empire Theatre in Belfast was spacious and opulent, and was a high-risk, expensive venue to launch a controversial drama. But the confidence of Ellis and Thompson was vindicated.

Over the Bridge, played with a well-known Ulster cast (including Thompson in a minor role), was a resounding overnight success. Audiences of forty-two thousand attended its six-week run – a record for a play performed in Belfast. The profitable Belfast premiere was followed by performances in Dublin, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Brighton.

The success of Over the Bridge launched Thompson into a relentless, bruising writing routine, and three other plays followed. The Evangelist, about the nineteenth-century religious revival in Ireland, was successfully played in the Opera House, Belfast, in 1963.

Cemented with Love, which had a theme of political corruption, was intended for broadcast in 1964, but was postponed due to a pending election. It was eventually performed in May 1965. Sadly, Thompson did not see it. He had died on 15 February 1965 from a heart attack. His last play, Masquerade, still in draft stage and set in London, was never completed or performed.

Sam Thompson’s passing at the early age of forty-nine was a serious loss to Ulster’s theatrical society as well as to Belfast’s close-knit socialist fraternity, which was in need of popular figures to promote its cause.

Wilson John Haire’s early background, neither urban nor industrial, was vastly different to the other shipyard writers. He was born in 1932 on the Shankill Road, Belfast. His mother, a Roman Catholic, came from a landowning family in Omagh, County Tyrone, while his father, a Presbyterian, was a tradesman joiner. When Haire was still young, his family moved to Carryduff, County Down – a rural setting that was still a reasonable distance from Belfast, where most available jobs were located.

Haire’s recorded memories of early life in Carryduff are vague – his writings take the format of biographical fiction. But it does appear that, despite the difficult economic climate of the 1930s, hardship was not a feature of life in the Haire family, although poverty was widespread in their local community.

Wilson, against his parents’ wishes, left school at fourteen years of age to obtain a job as office boy at Harland & Wolff. The transition from a rural way of life to the heavily industrialised world of shipbuilding must have been an emotional and cultural shock for young Haire.

Two years later, he paid his five pounds deposit – a hefty sum in those days – and became an indentured apprentice joiner. He was a colleague of mine in the Joiners’ Shop and his memories of that period – when fact and fiction can be separated – are recorded in his book, The Yard, which describes a way of working life now long gone.

On completion of his five-year apprenticeship in the cavernous Joiners’ Shop – in which his father had also worked during the war years when it was used for building Stirling bomber fuselages – Haire became restless. He wanted a change from the constraints of his family life and his work routine.

He had just begun to earn full wages as a tradesman, but he handed in his board for the last time and resigned from Harland & Wolff, despite having no other job to go to. It was a typically impetuous act which undoubtedly earned his parents disapproval.

At only twenty-two years of age, he became impatient for change and fresh challenges once again. As a trained joiner – at a time when a joiner, especially a shipyard one, was considered to be one of the elite, and more skilled than a regular carpenter – Haire had no difficulty obtaining a carpenter’s job in London. Around 1960, after several years in London, a disposition towards and latent talent for writing began to emerge.

Three stories, ‘Refuge from the Tickman’, ‘The Beg’, and ‘The Screening’ were published in the Irish Democrat, a London weekly newspaper. A subsequent foray into drama writing produced two one-act plays – The Clockwork Orange, centred around a controversial Belfast protest by the Reverend Ian Paisley; and Divil Era, about the B-Specials – both of which were performed and well-received at Hampstead Theatre, London.

Although he lived for a relatively short time in his native Ulster, his early writings are coloured by a Catholic perspective, and most of his dramatic output was inspired by the political and religious complexities of life in Northern Ireland. In his later career – as indicated by plays such as Lost Worlds, performed at the Academy of Dramatic Art, London, in 1984 – he has moved away from exploring Ulster’s political themes, and instead covers the wider global arena of social justice.

He has received drama awards from various British arts councils and theatres, and in 1974, the London Evening Standard acclaimed him as ‘the most outstanding playwright’. In recognition of his commercial and artistic success, he became resident dramatist at the Royal Court Theatre, London. A year later, he spent a brief period in Belfast as resident dramatist at the Lyric.

Regrettably his national (and, later, international) recognition as a serious playwright has not been matched by similar acclaim in his native country, where he remains largely unknown. Though this may be partly his own fault. Unlike Thomas Carnduff and Sam Thompson, who unashamedly displayed a passion and affection for their birthplace, Haire’s works seem to portray only the negative aspects of his homeland, and, since he left Northern Ireland for good, there has been little evidence of any deep affinity or affection for it.

The above is an abridged version of 'The Yard Playwrights', a chapter from Tom Thompson's book Auld Hands: The Men Who Made Belfast's Shipyards Great, which is out now, published by Blackstaff Press.