Working-Class Writers

The 'engine that powers the city'

‘We are the men of Belfast,
Her sinew, marrow and bone,
By the graft of our brain and muscle
We fashioned for her a throne.’

Thomas Carnduff, 'Shipyard Songs'

For a city which has often been characterised as an industrial leviathan and one of the workshops of the British Empire, the working classes had very little in the way of literate representation in Belfast until the 20th century.

In the class-bound city that was created in the 19th century, the idea of a working-class literature was a far off dream. When workers appeared on stage or page, they tended to be stock characters.

However, as working men and women became more integral to the city’s idea of itself, in the 20th century a place was created, particularly on the stage, for those who had built the city in the bog meadow. The writers who have worked to articulate the working-class experience have usually been socialists, and have therefore taken up positions at the margins of Belfast’s sectarian political landscape.

Befast workers walking in the shadow of one of the H&W cranesOne of the first voices to be heard was Thomas Carnduff, an apprentice printer, shipyard worker and binman. Born in 1886, his family knew hardship due to the mental collapse of Carnduff’s father.

After serving in the First World War, Carnduff returned home to Belfast and began to build a career as a writer – as an unemployed shipyard worker during the post-war Depression he had much time on his hands. Carnduff eventually finished his working life as caretaker of the Linen Hall Library.

His first publication was Poverty Street and Other Poems and was followed by Songs from the Shipyards and Songs of an Out-of-Work. But Carnduff’s poetry was overshadowed by his success on the stage.

Employed by Richard Hayward and JR Mageean to produce a play on the life of the working man, Carnduff wrote the three-act play Workers that premiered at the Abbey Theatre, in Dublin, on the day after the Outdoor Relief Riots of October 1932.

These riots had been a response to the vicious poverty experienced by the unemployed throughout the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s. As the journalist JJ Kelly remembered:

‘When Orangemen and Catholics, the lines of starvation already etched in their hollow cheeks, gripped hands and declared emotionally, ”Never again will they divide us”, there was consternation in the ranks of the professional politicians.’

The riots were the most impressive display of working-class solidarity that Belfast had ever seen, and the Belfast run of Workers at the Empire Music Hall was a huge success, playing to ‘deafening cheers, a dozen curtains and imperative clamour for the “author”’.

Carnduff’s success was in treating workers as individuals, not as a great swirling mass of humanity as Belfast writers had described them up to then.

Richard Rowley, an industrialist-poet who founded the renowned Mourne Press after leaving Belfast, had written a series of poems that, whilst beautiful, had portrayed the workers as ‘Terrible as an army with banners/the legions of labour/the builders of ships/tramp thro’ the winter’s eve.’

Carnduff saw the humanity within the armies of labour, because he was one of the army.

John Boyd was born in Baskin Street in east Belfast in 1912 and was a prominent member of the Belfast literary scene from 1943 onwards due to his editorship of Lagan, his work as BBC Talks Producer and as a playwright at the Lyric Theatre in the 1970s and 1980s.

His was an interesting perspective on working-class life. As the son of a railway worker, he was a scholarship boy at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and through that experience was given an entrée into a different class circle via his work at the BBC.

A socialist, due to the influence of his trade union Uncle and Aunt, Boyd gave a fascinating insight into the life of the pre-Second World War workers in his first volume of memoirs, Out of My Class. Boyd believed in the innate individuality of human beings, as opposed to a mass of socialists, unionists or nationalists.

Sam ThompsonAnother playwright who used the shipyard as his template was Sam Thompson, the writer of Over The Bridge – the most controversial piece of writing produced for the Belfast stage.

Thompson was a complex writer whose first play was a cause célèbre and went on to write fascinating work such as The Evangelist and Cemented Love.

On his untimely death in 1965, Stewart Parker, who took up Thompson’s mantle as a playwright in the late 1960s, commented on ‘a grievous loss to Irish drama’.

Over The Bridge is a searing exposé of sectarianism in the shipyard. The action revolves around the difficulties of trade union members in defending a Catholic worker in the face of a mob of Protestant workers.

As rehearsals began, the board of the Ulster Group Theatre, under pressure from the Government, announced that they would withdraw the play after Thompson and the director James Ellis refused to change the text.

The board were determined ‘not to mount any play which would offend or affront the religious or political beliefs or sensibilities of the man in the street’. Ellis and a large proportion of the UGT’s company left and under the title Bridge Productions performed the play at the Empire Music Hall.

The man in the street’s sensibilities proved more robust than the authorities thought, as 42,000 people were in the audience during the six-week run.

Martin Lynch began writing as part of the Fellowship Community Theatre at Turf Lodge, in west Belfast, after seeing We Do It for Love at the Lyric Theatre. This seminal piece by the Cork-born playwright Patrick Galvin took street songs of the city and wove an audience participation style play, becoming a smash hit and opening up the Lyric Theatre to audiences from working-class areas.

Lynch wrote several plays for Fellowship, such as We Want Work, We Want Bread and Is There Life Before Death?, which toured community centres and social clubs throughout the city.

In 1980, Lynch wrote the play Dockers, returning to Sam Thompson’s theme from Over The Bridge, in which socialists attempted to create trade unions in the shadow of Belfast’s sectarianism. The Interrogation of Ambrose Fogarty, set in Castlereagh Detention Centre, recalls the writer’s own experience as a socialist republican interned without trial.

Lynch was also instrumental in encouraging Charabanc Theatre Company to produce their first play Lay Up Your Ends, a production that reclaimed the lives and memories of the women who worked in the linen mills of Belfast.

Lynch played a key role in writing for the community theatre movement that flowered in Belfast in the 1980s and 1990s. The Stone Chair, for example, was the first of a series of large-scale shows, which highlighted the experience of one community, in this case the Short Strand during the Blitz of 1941.

Viewed now as a turning point for the community theatre movement, the play inspired a similar venture from Ballybeen, a working-class estate on the fringes of east Belfast, entitled The Mourning Ring.

These voices have given definition and shape to the working-class Belfast experience, but there have been many others who have allowed the people of the city to speak to themselves and the wider world.

The memoirs and poetry of men like John Campbell, Robert Harbinson, Sam McAughtry, and the novels of Joe Tomelty, have also given us an insight into the conditions and lives of those who worked the engine that powered the city.