Documentary in which Dan Gordon returns to his native east Belfast to explore the work of four writers with strong connections to this part of the city.
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Thousands of men once crossed this bridge every morning on their way to
work in one of Belfast's most historic landmarks - the shipyard.
It has loomed large in the history of my family.
My grandfather, my uncles, my father,
all passed through its gates.
As for me, my play, The Boat Factory,
it tells of their experiences.
But I wasn't the first.
While most of the men were building ships,
there were others at work with their pens,
inspired by this yard
and the people of east Belfast who live beside it.
St John Ervine, born in Ballymacarrett,
gave a voice to early 20th century urban and rural Ulster
with his ground-breaking plays.
Thomas Carnduff was a shipyard labourer who dramatised the lives
of working-class Belfast people during the recession of the 1930s.
Sam Thompson was a painter and a fiery trade unionist
who challenged the establishment with
one of the most controversial plays of the 1960s.
And Stewart Parker gave voice to a new generation
in the 1970s and 1980s.
Visionary and witty, his plays are strongly rooted in a Belfast
troubled by the ghosts of its past and its present.
These writers span a century of change in this city.
Collectively, they have articulated the poverty and the politics,
the hardship and the hopes of the ordinary working men
and women of Belfast
and, more importantly, put their voices on the stage.
All of them were inspired by, and forged their ideas,
here in the shadow of the shipyard.
To understand a writer,
you need to understand where he or she came from.
And for these four playwrights, men who have inspired me
as an actor and director, that means appreciating the very
particular history of where they and I came from - east Belfast.
The River Lagan is the natural marker that divides
the east from the rest of Belfast.
A couple of hundred years ago, the original town lay where the
Cathedral Quarter is now.
The east only became part of Belfast in 1853
when land was needed for new industries, and the town boundary
was extended to include the County Down side of the river.
What I'm keen to know is, why did the city jump the river?
You have to go to a lot of trouble to build all those bridges.
When I grew up, east Belfast was just industrial,
it was always that way. But what was there before?
The answer may be inside this magnificent building,
the Belfast Harbour Commissioner's Office.
A painting from 1864 shows A View Of Sydenham, and tells us
what was here - just two dozen large houses inhabited by business owners.
By 1902, the population has expanded to 300,000,
an influx from the countryside
to work in the factories and the industries,
and the streets of east Belfast begin to take shape.
Ballymacarrett is the oldest part of the east,
where there were two decisive moments in the 19th century.
The harbour was dredged to create a deep water port.
Then the tracks were laid
for the Belfast and County Down Railway through east Belfast.
There was a boom in industry, with new shipyards, ropeworks,
engineering plants and whiskey distilleries.
Men and women from rural parts of Ulster arrived in their droves,
lured to the city by the promise of work.
And the rows of red brick terraces built to house them
ensured the spread of the city eastwards.
Harland and Wolff Shipyard alone employed over 30,000 men.
But other heavy industries, like the Workman Clark shipyard,
the Sirocco Engineering Works, the Belfast Ropework Company,
the St Ann's Iron Works Company, the Brickworks...
..they all required a workforce as well.
Well, in many ways, east Belfast is different to the rest of Belfast.
It's a rural, Ulster-Scottish kind of culture.
If you look at Belfast,
even now, east Belfast is fringed
by Ulster-Scots words, things like Tillysburn, Redburn, Cairnburn.
We can imagine that these are named
by local people who are Scots-speaking.
It's very different to, um, to what's going on elsewhere.
Tell me a little bit about the diversity of the people
who found themselves working in that area.
This creates a melting pot.
Belfast vernacular comes out of a variety
of different types of Englishes.
Hiberno-English, Ulster Scots.
And you see the strong vernacular culture developing
because of the dynamism and the difference.
Spoken word becomes really powerful in people's minds,
and they have to express this, so they find ways of doing it.
The word "culture" is bandied about here a lot.
What is the culture of east Belfast?
Culture of east Belfast is...is a tricky one to define.
One might say that there is an awareness of the industrial culture.
You see the city, you see industry, you see the great,
red wall of the rope works.
But if you turn around, you see what CS Lewis called
the boundless northern sky,
and the things that, often,
working class people are told that they shouldn't have
interests in - the idea of art and ideas and politics
and philosophy and literature.
And there's this tension within east Belfast, in a sense,
which way you turn.
And these writers are aware of both of those things,
and they grasp the opportunity to move beyond
where the red brick walls might place them.
In 1911, shipbuilder Gustav Wolff penned a rhyme to the east,
his favourite part of Belfast.
He wrote, "You may talk of your Edinburgh
"and the beauties of Perth
"And all the large cities famed on the earth
"But give me my house, though it be but a garret
"In the pleasant surroundings of Ballymacarrett.'
Wolff's workers had good reason to have a less rose-tinted
view of their surroundings.
It was thanks to their labour that Belfast had become famous
as one of the world's greatest manufacturers of ships.
But it came at a cost.
Relentless, physically punishing work,
cramped housing, unfair wages and tensions between
Protestants and Catholics in the yard that spilled out
into the streets adjacent to it.
As the 19th century turned into the 20th, a teenage boy observed
the tumult of life outside his door and began writing it down.
This church, Westbourne Presbyterian, was built in 1880,
but it's more commonly known,
even today, as the Shipyard Church.
These walls once rang with the voices of local men
and women who worshipped here every Sunday morning.
And their children, they attended the school just next door.
This church could hold up to 1,500 people.
That's 500 more than the Grand Opera House in Belfast.
And I have it on very good authority that,
often, it was standing room only.
There's a blue plaque high up on the old school wall
to commemorate one of its brightest students,
John Greer Ervine, writer and playwright.
He later adopted the St John Ervine,
as a sort of dramatic flourish.
St John Ervine wrote plays that were performed in Belfast, Dublin,
London's West End and Broadway.
He counted amongst his friends leading
literary figures of the day, such as George Bernard Shaw and WB Yeats.
His early life, however, was spent in much humbler surroundings,
here on the Albertbridge Road.
His father died in the year Ervine was born,
so it was the women in his life
who became his greatest source of inspiration.
His grandmother was from Donaghadee, an Ulster-Scot, who moved, like
so many others, from the country to Belfast in search of work.
This determined and enterprising woman set up a hardware shop
on the Albertbridge Road.
Ervine spent much of his childhood in it,
and both the setting
and his grandmother's distinctive turn of phrase
found their way into what is perhaps Ervine's best loved play,
a rural comedy called Boyd's Shop.
Another influence, however,
was the unusual household kept by his mother.
The young widow ran a boarding house for deaf-mutes.
One of the male boarders is listed as a driller from the shipyard.
But perhaps more significantly was the fact that
Protestant boarders sat alongside catholic boarders
at Mrs Ervine's dinner table.
Ervine's childhood home clearly welcomed guests
irrespective of religion.
And growing up in this tolerant atmosphere arguably
inspired one of Ervine's earliest and most successful plays,
Mixed Marriage, a cautionary tale on the dangers of religious prejudice.
A meeting with the influential WB Yeats in London led to
Mixed Marriage being staged here at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin,
under the direction of Lennox Robinson.
The play caught the mood of the time.
It's set in the working class home of the Rainey family.
The men have been called out on strike,
and there are fears that it might erupt into sectarian violence.
John Rainey, the head of the household,
shows his prejudice against
the marriage of Catholics and Protestants
when he discovers that his son, Hugh, is courting a Catholic girl.
Did I hear you say you're going to marry this woman?
-And you're going to take him, I suppose.
You're a Catholic, aren't you?
Yes, I am.
Isn't it against your religion to be marrying a Protestant?
Well, it can be done. But I don't care.
-Will you turn Protestant if you marry him?
-No. No, I won't.
That production was very faithful to the period.
I think that's exactly what people here
in the Abbey would have seen 100 years ago.
The play ends in tragedy.
Nora, blaming herself for causing a rift between Rainey
and his son, rushes out of the house amidst a riot and is shot dead.
Mixed Marriage premiered on the 30th March 1911.
Due to run for just four nights,
it was so successful that it was put on again a fortnight later.
The Abbey then took the play on tour to the Royal Court in London
and from there travelled to Broadway, New York,
before finally staging it in Belfast in 1912.
Mixed Marriage was a runaway hit, a transatlantic success
and St John Ervine's reputation as a playwright was firmly established.
It's an extraordinary play.
For the first time, the voices of the ordinary,
working-class men and women of Belfast are heard on the stage.
And just as important, it's also a dire warning of
the potentially fatal consequences of religious prejudice.
The success of Mixed Marriage eventually led to Ervine's
appointment as the manager of the Abbey Theatre in 1915,
but his time here was unhappy and short-lived.
How do you think Ervine's stint at the Abbey
affected his career as a playwright?
He was very unhappy with the Abbey players.
He thought they were a fairly undisciplined lot,
and, of course, they thought that he was an absolute tyrant.
It didn't help that he was manager of the Abbey
during and after Easter 1916,
a very bad time to be doing anything in Dublin.
And a number of the Abbey Players were, in fact,
active in the Easter Rising.
He was maverick in his politics
and when he went off to fight on the Western Front,
his decision to fight with an Irish regiment rather than with
the Ulster Division in itself seems to signal a continuing
attachment to Ireland rather than to Britain more generally.
Ervine was wounded during the First World War.
He actually took a bullet in the knee in March 1918.
And, erm, it turned out that it was much more serious
than at first expected and eventually,
the leg had to be amputated.
People said to him from time to time, "Why are you so cantankerous?"
Because he could be very cantankerous, which I think came
from the irritability of being in constant pain from that leg injury.
The 20th century, like no other century I think,
had a real crisis of identity going on in Ireland.
He was from Country Down, he worked in Dublin,
he lived in London in England...
What was his identity?
Composite, I think.
When he's in London, people think that he's Irish.
When he's back in Ireland, people think that he's English.
All of these identities - English, Irish, Ulster -
I think feed into the way in which he thinks about himself
and that influences his writing.
After the war, St John Ervine made his home in England.
Despite being in constant pain from his injuries,
he was determined to continue forging a career
as a dramatist and a critic.
He wrote drawing-room comedies such as The First Mrs Fraser
that held appeal for an English audience but, in 1936,
he returned to his Ulster roots with a play that would become
a staple of the local theatre scene here in Belfast.
Boyd's Shop was inspired by his grandmother's hardware shop
and, in a nod to her birthplace, Donaghadee,
he set it in the fictional village of Donaghreagh.
Billed in its first run as "a simple comedy
"in which the essential kindliness of the Ulster people appears,"
Ervine focuses on the gossip and intrigues of village life.
At its heart is a love triangle between the daughter
of shop owner Andrew Boyd, an ambitious young clergyman
and a newcomer to the village.
The play marks the shift in Ervine's politics.
While Mixed Marriage offers a critique of the prejudices
of the Protestant working classes, Boyd's Shop is a much kinder,
almost sentimental portrayal of the Protestant rural middle class.
It was first staged in Belfast in the Ulster Group Theatre in 1940.
Its homespun characters and happy ending
were a welcome respite throughout the war years.
And it was so popular that 42,000 people saw it
performed between 1940 and 1944.
This success led to Boyd's Shop being made into a film in 1960
and while the setting and the characters
remain faithful to Ervine's original play,
the language and the accents of the Ulster village are a little...
We're in the wrong business for this town, aren't we?
Selling gossip instead of groceries.
In Boyd's Shop, Ervine wanted to capture the words
and phrases of his Ulster-Scots grandmother.
-What did you hear, Miss McClure?
The Reverent Patterson is retiring in a month or two.
The film, however,
was made with mostly Dublin actors from the Abbey Players.
There's more to a man than success or failure.
More often than not, it's a matter of luck.
Maybe the makers thought an English audience wouldn't notice or care
about the accents, but being an actor from Ulster,
I'm going to try a reading in the way Ervine intended...
You look annoyed about something, Father.
I am annoyed.
After the meeting the night, one or two of the elders was
talking about Mr Patterson's remarks before the sermon.
They seem to think he ought to retire.
Well, he's old, Father.
So am I. But I'm damned if I'm retiring.
I don't like it, all this hinting and suggesting behind a man's back.
It's not decent, daughter.
It's no use thinking about it the night. I'm dropping with fatigue.
-Will you bolt the door or will I?
-I'll do it, Father.
-It's upset me.
I hate to see people getting up a kind of a conspiracy
behind a man's back.
Goodnight, daughter dear.
Ervine lived until he was 87.
While he died in Sussex far from his childhood home in Belfast,
he never forgot his roots.
Instead, he celebrated them.
Why should a patch of land called Ulster have such an effect on me
that when I catch sight of it from a ship's deck,
I can feel tears rising in my eyes?
In his later years, Ervine may have left behind the hard-hitting
subject matter of Mixed Marriage,
but there was another aspiring writer - a docker -
who was ready to step into the breach.
In the 1930s, Belfast's pride, the shipbuilding industry,
was reeling from the impact of a worldwide recession.
Thousands of men who depended on the yards for their livelihood
were suddenly thrown out of work.
One unemployed dock worker took up his pen
and articulated the toll that the poverty
and industrial decline was having on the men and women of Belfast.
His name was Thomas Carnduff.
Carnduff was born in 1886 in Sandy Row
and he would always remain proud of his Protestant heritage.
He would eventually become a Worshipful Master
in the Independent Orange Order.
His grandparents were Ulster-Scots like those of St John Ervine,
and they had moved from the village of Drumbo to Belfast for work.
Carnduff lost both his parents at an early age and had to fend
for himself in a number of low-paid jobs.
Married and with four young sons to support,
he found work as a labourer in the shipyards.
Carnduff laboured for 17 backbreaking years
in Workman Clark's, the rival yard to Harland & Wolff.
He was that most unusual of writers, a working man
who was also a poet and a playwright.
He worked a punishing 50-hour week starting at 6am
and finishing at 5.30pm for a pittance.
And there were accidents, sometimes fatal, almost daily.
And then there was always the threat of being laid off hanging over him.
And on the occasions when he was let go, he would gather with the other
men at the gates, hoping that his name would be called for a shift.
Carnduff took pride in his labour.
He saw himself as a member of a workforce that was
contributing to the industrial success of Belfast.
And he enjoyed the company of the men too.
"Rough, hardy characters" but who were also the
"most thoughtful and kindly" he knew.
It was in this energetic world of camaraderie
and hard labour that Carnduff began writing poetry.
These lines are seen every day by the hundreds of visitors
to Titanic Belfast.
They're a homage to the shipyard men by one of their own.
"O city of sound and motion! O city of endless stir!
"From the dawn of a misty morning
"To the fall of the evening air.
"From the night of moving shadows
"To the sound of the shipyard horn.
"We hail thee Queen of the Northland
"We who are Belfast born."
Songs From The Shipyards, Thomas Carnduff, 1924.
At its peak during World War I,
Workman Clark employed over 10,000 men.
By the early 1930s, however, orders had dried up
and most of the workforce was laid off.
Carnduff was one of them.
Just as his money was running out,
Carnduff went to a lecture by the Belfast poet Richard Rowley.
During a chat afterwards,
Rowley suggested that Carnduff write a play.
The very next morning, Carnduff started on Workers.
Into the play, he poured all his experiences of shipyard life.
He would say afterwards, "I had drawn the characters from real life
"and the dialogue was their everyday speech."
Who bargains for you when you want a rise in wages?
Who got you holidays with play and a five-day week?
I suppose you think Santa Claus brought them.
I'm telling you, mate, if we'd no trade unions,
they'd be paying us in soap wrappers.
What has the union done for us in this firm, eh?
Sure, the working conditions here date back to Methuselah.
Look, Alec, a minute ago, you were the fella that was saying
it was no good of us trying to get better conditions here,
Workers focuses on a group of shipyard men
and the complicated relationship between the violent John Waddell,
his wife Susan and her former sweetheart, John Bowman.
The Grand Opera House rejected it, saying it was too inflammatory
..but to Carnduff's delight,
it premiered at the Abbey Theatre Dublin on 13th October 1932.
As the audience showed their appreciation,
Carnduff commented that the years of poverty, misery
and disappointment were forgotten in the solitary moment from heaven.
He also found humour in the fact that he was
an Orangeman from Sandy Row being applauded on the Dublin stage.
Deafening cheers, a dozen curtains and imperative clamour for author
marked the end of Thomas Carnduff's Workers.
When the author thanked them for their sympathetic
reception of his play, a woman in the stalls cried,
"It was worth it!" And a man urged him to write ten more.
One critic said that the dialogue was delightfully natural,
written with the true eye of a keen observer.
I think in this case, for once, the critic was right.
Next up was Belfast.
But would Carnduff's controversial play be a success
when it opened at the city's Empire Theatre?
The answer is...
"Last night's splendid audience not only applauded
"warmly at the final curtain,
"but also throughout the action of the play,
"many of the forceful lines exciting spontaneous approval."
Carnduff went on to write three more plays - Machinery,
Traitors and Castlereagh.
Again, these plays garnered good reviews
and filled theatres in Dublin and Belfast.
Curiously though, after Carnduff's death in the 1950s,
the plays almost totally vanished from the public domain.
Today, his papers are held here at Queen's University, Belfast
and his precious typewriter has been lovingly preserved
by the Ulster Museum.
Tell me about the physical mechanics of Thomas Carnduff writing
plays on this typewriter.
Well, you can see it's a travelling typewriter.
And that was very useful because he had to move digs regularly
when he was laid off at the shipyard,
so this little machine was ideal for that.
The only problem that came across was that he was very poor.
He frequently was out of ribbons and paper, which he had to borrow
or beg for and so he would sit in very, very cold lodging rooms
in the very damp, wet conditions
of those back-street terraced houses in Belfast
with gloves on and he would tap away determinedly.
And his own family didn't really appreciate what he was doing.
They thought he was wasting his time.
But all through that, he sat tapping away at that little machine.
That was his sole road to freedom, to a wider audience.
This is a copy of Carnduff's letters to Mary who was his wife and muse.
Well, you can see here quite clearly,
it's a measure of how poor he was that he couldn't afford paper
many times in his writing life, so he appropriated,
borrowed and begged for paper and he used both sides of it.
And he writes to Mary, "It took 18 long years to climb up
"the little distance I managed, and I had to start at the very bottom.
"While others were having a good time, I was working hard.
"I drank little, gambled little and played little.
"But those boys down at the shipyard didn't half show me their loyalty
"when I had to face public appreciation of my efforts.
"During all those years, I had my dreams."
-So this is the means for him achieving his dreams.
What's this image and why is it so important to Thomas Carnduff?
This is Drumbo Round Tower which is in the graveyard
of Drumbo Presbyterian Church.
And this is an imitation of an Irish tower
and Carnduff took this as symbolic of his belonging in Ireland,
because in that graveyard, there are Carnduffs buried.
And he looked at that and in one piece he wrote,
"Is it my fault that my ancestors
"looked on the land with approval and stayed?"
So this was a hugely important to him, this was like an identity
as a Presbyterian who was born here, but had ancestors elsewhere.
That was hugely important in the Carnduff story.
Carnduff never capitalised on his early success as a writer -
he was the odd man out
in a middle-class literary establishment -
maybe too uncompromising, too critical.
And he certainly never made his fortune from writing.
He remained a working man until the end of his days.
Finally getting a job here in the Linen Hall Library
as a caretaker, I'd like to think he found some consolation
spending his days amongst the books that he loved.
But you can be sure that the world of the shipyard
was never far from his thoughts.
Harland & Wolff survived the recession of the 1930s
and became a major supplier for the armed forces during World War II.
By the 1950s, a new generation of men was working in the yard.
Amongst them was a painter from East Belfast who would redefine
the type of plays that could be staged in Northern Ireland.
He was passionate in his belief that the theatre was the place where
the social and political injustices of the day could be aired.
His name was Sam Thompson.
Thompson was born in 1916 at Montrose Street in Ballymacarrett.
In later life, he would remember being aware, as a young boy,
of two things - that his destiny lay in the shipyard
and that there was tension
between the Catholics and Protestants in his community.
We always played our games on the island part of the park,
across a bridge, and only a stone's throw from the shipyard,
where we could see the red oxide painted boats on the slipways.
There, our fathers and brothers worked.
And some day, we would work there also.
Hello, fellas. That new boat in the slips is away.
It's not away, it's only lanced. My da saw it lanced yesterday.
My da won't take me to see a lance.
He says I'll see enough lances when I'm working in the shipyard.
Hey, there's some fellas, let's challenge them to a match.
I wouldn't play with them, they're Catholics...
I don't care, I'll play with them if they want to.
Although my playmates and I were around the nine years old mark,
it was the first time we'd met up with other boys
who we knew for sure were Catholics.
And there was no mistaking the tension that existed between us.
Until we realised that neither of us
had horns or pitchforks dangling out of our pockets.
Sam Thompson and his playmates DID end up in the yard.
At the age of 14, he started working at Harland & Wolff
as an apprentice painter.
It was a place that he described as
"a fearful, sprawling mass of gantries, cranes, ships and men".
Soon after he finished his apprenticeship,
he left and began working for Belfast Corporation as a painter.
Some years later, he would write his most famous play,
Over The Bridge,
but for now he was painting the underside of this one...
..the Albert Bridge.
It was a dirty, unpleasant job.
Sam noticed that some men were assigned it and others weren't.
This triggered a desire to do something about it,
so he became a shop steward
and negotiated a rota system with the management.
His union activities got him the sack.
Regardless, Thompson remained a lifelong, committed trade unionist
and this, along with his membership
of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, allowed him to stand
outside the dominant Unionist and Nationalist politics of the time.
A friend of Thompson's described him as "always appearing to be
"on the verge of exploding into flames
"at the first glimpse of injustice."
A chance meeting in his local pub with Sam Hanna Bell,
a BBC writer and producer,
gave Thompson the perfect outlet for expressing his passionate beliefs
on the ills of poverty and bigotry that riddled Belfast society.
At first, he wrote nostalgic radio features,
such as The Long Back Street and Brush In Hand
about his childhood in East Belfast and his apprenticeship as a painter.
But in 1955, he began writing the play that would make his name
and stir up one of the biggest controversies to date
on the Belfast stage.
What is Over The Bridge about?
Over The Bridge is a parable of sectarianism in the shipyards
and within the Labour movement in Northern Ireland.
The figure of Davy Mitchell, the main character, decides to protect
a Catholic worker within the shipyard
who is under the threat of a mob.
Sam Thompson would paint in the shipyard, come home,
go into his attic in East Belfast
and write what became Over The Bridge.
But of course, Sam Thompson would say that he'd been writing it
his whole life, and the incident was in fact based on something
he witnessed himself in 1935,
when a Catholic man was beaten to death on the Albert Bridge Road.
If you're not going with us, just where do you think you are going?
To my bench out there when the horn blows to start work.
-But, Davy, they'll tear you apart.
-Pete does my meat at that bench.
If he lifts one tool to start work,
I'm duty bound as a fellow trade unionist to work with him.
Two weeks before the play was due to go on,
the board of the Group Theatre decided by six votes to two
to withdraw the play.
There was a very interesting moment where Sam Thompson went round
to the house of John Ritchie McKee,
who was a former estate agent and a golfing companion
of the Unionist Prime Minister Lord Brookeborough.
And Ritchie McKee said, "I can't do this play,
"I can't do Over The Bridge.
"It's too incendiary, what will happen, firstly,
"I regard the language which you use as blasphemous
"and if we show this play, the theatre will be wrecked by a mob."
I don't give a damn about old boy. He's had his chance.
But I do care about you, Davy.
And when that horn blows, there's only one man going out to work,
and by Christ, it's not going to be you.
Just get one of you try to stop me and see what happens.
If I refuse to go out there and work alongside Peter,
everything I've ever fought for and believed in is nothing.
What do you think Sam Thompson was trying to achieve?
Sam Thompson's view, in that very combative, pugnacious
and feisty way, is that we have to confront sectarianism.
And I have to show it within this play, so that we can confront it.
You can reason all you like,
but you're not change one iota the feelings of that mob out there.
Come on, lads,, let's start.
The man that tries to stop me doing my duty...
So help me...
..I'll kill them.
Thompson's play pulls no punches.
He writes Davy Mitchell as a fair-minded, courageous
and selfless man who puts his trade union principles
of supporting his Catholic workmate before his own personal safety.
His stand against an angry mob results in
his eventual murder at their hands.
To see it is a shock. You're meant to be shocked by it.
And you're meant to find it abhorrent.
When we didn't see that on stage,
and we didn't hear that on the radio,
even though it was there, was very important.
The play is a great warning from history in that way.
There had been outbreaks of sectarian violence in the yard
in the 1920s and the 1930s
and Thompson believed that it could happen again.
He also believed the issue was not being talked about
by ordinary people and those in power.
He would later say that the play was his own "plea for tolerance".
Getting it onto the stage, however,
would be Thompson's greatest challenge.
Belfast Telegraph, Thursday, May 14, 1959.
"Over The Bridge man gets legal advice.
"Mr Thompson said today that he had done so
"after reading a statement made yesterday By Mr Ritchie McKee,
"chairman of the theatre's board of directors, that,
" 'It is the policy of the directors to keep political
" 'and religious controversies off our stage.'
"Mr Thompson said, 'That is an unfortunate statement.
" 'Not only for me, but for Ulster playwrights in general.
" 'It lets the playwrights see where he stands with this theatre.' "
Sam Thompson and director James Ellis saw
the withdrawal of the play as censorship.
Ellis resigned from the Group Theatre and although it took
months of struggle and strife, the two men set up their own company
and staged Over The Bridge at the Empire Theatre on 27th January 1960.
On the first night when that curtain came down
to an absolutely tremendous reception
from all parts of the house,
I think Sam's and my feelings were both
one of triumph and of justification.
There were no missiles being hurled at the stage, there was
nothing but applause. People were standing shouting for the author.
I remember in the confusion having difficulty in introducing him.
There were people from all sections of the community,
people who'd never been in a theatre,
there were shipyard workers who'd never visited a theatre before
and they were on their feet cheering a play about themselves.
Belfast audiences voted with their feet.
Over The Bridge was a roaring success
playing to a full house every night for six weeks.
As Thompson's friend Sam Hanna Bell said,
it was possible to detect
an almost extraordinary feeling of relief
that at last the unclean spectre of sectarianism
had been dragged before the footlights.
I don't know the answers, Rabbie, I don't know.
I've asked myself what unions would be like
if there wasn't men in them like Davy.
And I've wondered what sort of Christians they were
who'd form a mob and maim a man
and murder another in the sacred name of religion.
-And man told me yesterday...
-"A ma told me yesterday
"that when the mob went into action, he walked away.
"And so did hundreds of his so-called workmates.
"They said it was none of their business.
"None of their business, Rabbie.
"That's what they said.
"And then they walked away.
"And that's what frightens me.
"They walked away."
The success of Over The Bridge meant that Thompson could become
a full-time writer.
He continued to challenge the status quo in Northern Ireland society
writing three more plays that again explored controversial issues
including evangelism and dirty election tactics.
He said, "A writer like me may criticise his own people
"because he likes them very well."
His career as a playwright, however, was short-lived.
In February 1965, aged just 49, he died of a heart attack
in the offices of the Northern Ireland Labour Party.
This bridge is a relatively new Belfast landmark.
It links the old shipyards with the Victoria Park
and right into the heart of East Belfast.
And also, in recognition of the work of Sam Thompson
as a playwright and trade unionist, it's named after him.
It's a fitting monument because there is an overwhelming sense
of crossing over that bridge to stand beside a workmate
or a friend, just as Sam Thompson did, no matter what the religion.
And also, being able to stand up and speak out about it.
In 1960, a teenage boy who had dreams of becoming a writer,
went to see Over The Bridge with his uncle, a shipwright.
For the boy, it was the first time he had seen characters from his own
community - working-class men and women from Belfast - on the stage.
In later life,
he said it was as if he'd been thrust in front of the mirror
for the first time and he was both scared and delighted by what he saw.
Witnessing the power of theatre in showing the two faces
of Belfast working-class life -
ugly and violent, and civilised and decent -
was a life-changing experience.
The boy, Stewart Parker, would eventually become
one of Northern Ireland's most lauded and visionary playwrights
of the 1970s and 1980s.
And the mirror he held up to Belfast reflected an image of the city
that was provocative, witty, honest and hopeful
during some its grimmest years.
Parker spent his early childhood here in Sydenham.
As an adult he remembered the trains to and from Bangor
rattling past at the end of the street
and beyond the tracks rose the inevitable gantries of Queen's Island.
Three sounds were constantly in the air.
There was the industrial noise,
the distant clanging of the shipyard
and the sudden roar from the aircraft testing at Shorts.
Tell me what it was like growing up, to have Stewart Parker as a brother.
He had lovely blue eyes, really blonde hair.
And we all mollycoddled him
because he wasn't well and he couldn't come out that much,
so we played indoors with him,
colouring in, snakes and ladders, stuff like that.
He had terrific lung problems.
It was called "delicate" in those days, he was a delicate child.
When did you realise that Stewart was a writer?
Well, he told me he was going to be a writer.
I says, "What's your future? What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to be a writer."
And if you read that little poem there,
you'll see what I mean about that.
This poem is titled I Will Write.
"Though soft sleep tempts my leaden eyes to warmth and comfort
"Or fills this pen with rock
"Though trend or temper will always be of my everything,
"Till all but pen and paper stay
"And then they'll never have, I say
"Though the weird masters, time and age
"Make the body an abhorrence
"Pouring senile liquid through the brain
"Turning the hair white
"Still I will write."
-He knew he was going to be a writer.
He wrote the original in 1957, so he was 15, 16,
and then he revised in May 1958.
So that was way early on, before he really seriously started to write.
How did you and your parents feel about somebody who was moving
away from the kind of traditional route the family took?
My father said the usual things to Stewart.
When Stewart said he was going to write, my father said, "Well,
"that'll do till you get a proper job, son, I'm happy with that."
I think that's pretty typical of working-class fathers
whose sons elevate themselves
into literature and stuff like that, you know.
Unlike his predecessors, Thomas Carnduff and Sam Thompson,
Parker wasn't destined for the shipyards.
After the Second World War,
there were a lot of university grants and places available
for smart teenagers from a working-class background.
Parker seized the opportunity with both hands
and came here to the Queen's University of Belfast.
Queen's was a revelation for Parker.
He became involved in the drama society,
writing and appearing in revues for the first Queen's Festival.
He wrote and published poetry
and acquired the education that enabled him to travel
and work in America as a tutor for five years after university.
However, in August 1969, Parker returned home
to a radically different city.
He recalled later how, "After a long slow simmer,
"the place exploded - the very week I came back.
"Barricades in the streets, gutted buildings,
"the Army everywhere and then gunfire at night."
Parker's relationship with the city of his birth would become
a constant theme throughout his work for radio, stage and screen.
He confessed to a love-hate relationship with Belfast.
But it was also, as a friend of Parker said,
"the live wire that electrified his writing".
And like his predecessors, Irvine, Carnduff and Thompson,
Stewart Parker returned to the industrial heritage of East Belfast.
But his take on the Titanic story, with his radio play The Iceberg,
was not like anything anyone had ever heard before.
SHIP'S HORN BLASTS
"At least they could have put us in the table of statistics.
"SS Titanic, length overall - 882 feet, 9 inches,
"gross tonnage - 46,328,
"passenger capacity - 2,440,
"crew - 860.
"Workers killed during construction - 17."
The two main characters in The Iceberg, Hughie and Danny,
are ghosts who died while building Titanic.
Nevertheless, they "join" the passengers on board the maiden voyage.
Their ghostly status gives them freedom to roam the ship
and they weave in and out of first class, third class, the boiler room
and even briefly join Thomas Andrews,
the chief designer of Titanic.
The exchanges between Hughie and Danny are witty and eloquent,
expressed as they are in the vernacular of East Belfast,
but they serve a greater purpose -
to address the bigger issues of the day, things like social injustice
and Home Rule, and ultimately to remind the audience
that the deaths of two humble workmen are just as important
as the deaths of the world's wealthiest men.
After writing The Iceberg, broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster in 1975,
Parker fully committed himself to drama.
He gave himself an even greater challenge for his next project -
a stage play that would use the humble bicycle as a symbol
that could potentially unite the divided city of Belfast.
I realised it was going to be difficult to write a play
set in contemporary Belfast,
which would take account of the last 50, 60, 70 years of history there,
and I was searching around for some kind of unifying image, really,
and I just came up with bicycles.
HE SNAPS HIS FINGERS
The evolution of the bicycle!
An illustrated lecture.
Spokesong is set in a run-down Belfast bicycle shop
inspired by Stone's Bicycle Shop, which once stood on Cromac Square.
The main character, Frank Stock, is a good-hearted shop owner
who is under threat from developers, paramilitaries
and his prodigal brother Julian, who is a rival for love interest Daisy.
And then came the internal combustion engine.
Stewart was so far ahead of his time.
In 1975, in the bicycle shop, he gives Frank Stock these words.
"Something more is needed.
"Imagine a fleet of civic bikes,
"gleaming with the city's coat of arms,
"stacked on covered racks on every street, which anybody can ride
"anywhere, free of charge, inside the city centre.
"The air clean, the people healthy,
"the time saved, the energy conserved.
"Earth would not have anything to show more fair."
Spokesong offers up a glimmer of hope in a time of gloom and despair.
It catapulted Parker into the limelight and he was awarded
the prestigious Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright Award.
Stewart Parker really excites me.
I was lucky enough to meet the man and be in his plays
and he brought an exciting, fresh new approach, like new paint.
He had ghosts in his plays, he had flashbacks,
he had music and song and dance,
Parker had been deeply affected by
his discovery of radical Presbyterianism in 1790s Belfast.
It connected with his belief that his own heritage was more complex
than simply being a Protestant from a largely unionist area of East Belfast.
He said that, "The ancestral wraiths at my elbow are,
"amongst other things, Scots-Irish, Northern English,
"immigrant Huguenot - in short, the usual Belfast mongrel crew."
It must be understood, there is no vendetta against the Orange society.
It's true that many lodges have been formed into companies
of yeomanry by the landlords.
They will be sent against us, just as the Catholic militia are,
but all these men are the gulls of history.
In his highly acclaimed play Northern Star, Parker delves into
the history of the United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken,
one of the Belfast Presbyterians who brought together Protestants
and Catholics in a rising against British rule in 1798.
It is set in a crumbling cottage on Cave Hill, in the aftermath
of the failed rising, just before McCracken is captured and hung.
Throughout, the character of McCracken alternately mourns
and rages against Belfast's lost opportunity of unity
between Protestant and Catholic.
"We can't love it for what it is, only for what it might have been.
"If we had got it right. If we had made it whole. If.
"It's a ghost town now and always will be,
"angry and implacable ghosts, me condemned to be one of their number.
"We never made a nation.
"Our brainchild, stillborn, our own fault.
"We botched the birth.
"So what if the English do bequeath us to one another some day?
"When there's nobody else to blame except ourselves?"
Parker died tragically young in 1988 after contracting stomach cancer.
He was at the height of his creativity and there's no doubt
that he had many more plays inside him,
but nevertheless, in his relatively short career,
he managed to hold a mirror up to Belfast -
one that showed the city in all its glorious variety and contradictions.
The four playwrights I've been exploring - Ervine, Carnduff,
Thompson and Parker - were all inspired by East Belfast.
They all shared a sense of what was fair and unfair,
and they also had a strong desire to challenge the status quo.
It's often said that it's part of the Ulster-Scots identity
to stand up and to say things that others won't.
In Mixed Marriage, St John Ervine confronted prejudices
about Catholic and Protestant intermarriage,
while in the milder play Boyd's Shop he still reveals
a strong dislike of hypocrisy.
I've seen a great many smart people who seemed awful foolish in the end.
Thomas Carnduff was a trailblazer, a man who wrote
about industry and the issues faced by the working-class man in Belfast.
In Over the Bridge, Sam Thompson tackled on stage
issues that weren't being confronted in society.
Stewart Parker started writing in the 1960s, an era of optimism
that was shattered by the Troubles.
But he believed that writing can bring about change -
that it is something inherently worthwhile.
The East has changed, the streets redeveloped and the industries gone.
Only Harland and Wolff, the original biggest and busiest of them,
is still here, and they now repair oil rigs and build wind farms and tidal generators.
Is there a new generation of playwrights waiting in the wings,
ready to articulate what needs to be said about this place?
That's the challenge.
But if they are out there,
they'll be standing on the shoulders of giants.
Dan Gordon returns to his native east Belfast to explore the work of four writers with strong connections to this part of the city.
In doing so he considers how these writers - St John Ervine, Thomas Carnduff, Sam Thompson and Stewart Parker - explored the experiences of Belfast's working class communities and brought their voices to a wider audience.