Over the Bridge, once a bridge too far for the Belfast establishment, is back

Sam Thompson’s classic play about sectarianism in Belfast’s shipyards is back in Dublin

In celebration of the 60th anniversary of its first production, Over the Bridge – the powerful play that almost did not see the light of day – returns to Dublin. It was the Dublin-based Findlaters & Company that guaranteed the initial production nearly nine months after the attempt to silence Sam Thompson’s “authentic voice of the shipyard”. In this attempt at unofficial censorship the establishment had unsuccessfully sought to prevent the play, and its uncomfortable truths, from being staged at all.

Over The Bridge engages with challenging themes of sectarianism in the Belfast shipyards, groundbreaking in the 1960s in the run-up to the Troubles, and still hugely relevant in 2022. The play invites audiences to confront this sectarianism – without presenting simplistic narratives – by portraying different perspectives and experiences of the shipyard workers and through their engagement with the trade union and Labour movement.

Based on a real-life shop steward, Over the Bridge’s central character Davy Mitchell represents the labour movement’s spirit of comradeship across all borders. During the sectarian dispute that anchors the play, Catholic Peter O’Boyle has been told to leave his workplace by Protestant workers. Davy – who is of the same religion as the mob – stands with him, defending a workmate’s right to work, insisting: “If I refuse to go out there and stand alongside my mate at the bench, everything I have ever fought for or believed in has been nothing.”

To understand this solidarity, we must go back to the beginning. Sam Thompson was born in 1916 and left school at 14 to be apprenticed as a painter at Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard. Though his father had been a lamplighter and part-time sexton of St Clement’s Church of Ireland Church, shielding his family from the more severe poverty of the era, Thompson recalled hardship from his childhood and later when he faced unemployment. He joined the Painters Union and the National Council of Labour Colleges, leading him to Paris and the Soviet Union before the second World War.

Thompson had witnessed sectarian violence on the Castlereagh Road in east Belfast in the mid-1930s, and it was this recollection that gave rise to Over the Bridge, which he crafted at night when he came home from work.

In March 1959, Thompson accosted Jimmy Ellis, a talented young actor and director from a similar background, in the centre of Belfast. Thompson marched up to Ellis brandishing the manuscript of his first stage play: “I have a play here you won’t touch with a barge-pole.”

Ellis took the play to his father, whose judgment was crucial to the young director, as he had spent his entire working life in the shipyard. He stayed up reading the script before delivering his verdict: “This is our play, son, you must do it.” As artistic director of Belfast’s Group Theatre, Ellis prepared to produce it later that year.

Over the Bridge had already been cast and publicised at a press conference when the Group Theatre’s board decided by six votes to two to withdraw it a fortnight before opening night in May 1959. Thompson and Ellis faced powerful establishment opposition embodied by the Group Theatre’s chairman, and chief executive of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), John Ritchie McKee, by profession an estate agent and a golfing companion of the unionist prime minister, Lord Brookeborough. McKee had underhandedly acquired a copy of the script from the rehearsal floor and demanded cuts which Thompson had refused.

Following the breakdown of talks, the Group Theatre’s board released a statement to the press: “The Ulster public is fed up with religious and political controversies.” It claimed that Over the Bridge’s “grossly vicious phrases, and situations … would undoubtedly offend and assault every section of the public”.

When Over the Bridge was finally staged in Belfast at the end of January 1960 at the Empire Theatre, the public had an opportunity to make their own assessment and voted with their feet. It was seen by approximately 42,000 people over the course of six weeks. Ellis commented later that many of those who came to see the play “had never set foot in a theatre before”, including many shipyard workers. Renowned poet Louis MacNeice attended the opening night and called it in his Observer review “a red-letter day in the theatrical annals of Belfast”.

The production thereafter went on to a successful Dublin run at the Olympia Theatre, with a series of cultural and political luminaries in attendance at its premiere. It was seen by tánaiste Seán MacEntee and made such an impact that Thompson later met taoiseach Seán Lemass in Leinster House. The play also entered the lexicon as a point of reference. As Belfast streets burned in August 1969, an Irish Times report discussed parallels between disturbances in east Belfast and similar violence in the 1920s, recalling “an area dramatically described by Sam Thompson in Over the Bridge, a play about murders in the shipyards” (August 16th, 1969).

Ellis and Thompson’s stand over the play is considered a seminal moment in the cultural history of Northern Ireland, both for the play’s depiction of sectarianism and for the victory over censorship. With tensions in post-Brexit Northern Ireland continuing to rise, the play remains relevant in 2022 both for its historical portrayal and for challenging contemporary sectarianism and workplace discrimination more broadly.

As broadcaster and actor Denis Tuohy, last surviving member of the original Dublin cast notes, Over the Bridge takes issue not just with the violence of the mob, but also with those who “walked away” and allow it to happen. Tuohy recalls Dublin audiences being shocked by what they saw in 1960.

Robina Ellis, widow of the late Jimmy Ellis, thinks its ongoing relevance lies in the fact that “even now there are still elements surfacing here and there which mirror what was going on earlier”. She points out that “Sam was there observing it. It is a true story, and it was only six or seven years after [the play’s premiere] that the Troubles did start seriously.”

In 2017 Robina and Jimmy’s son Toto directed a captivating short film about the Over the Bridge controversy, Two Angry Men, starring Adrian Dunbar (as Sam Thompson), Conleth Hill and Michael Smiley. At one screening in east Belfast a university student in attendance remarked that they had no idea of the violence and intimidation in the shipyard, no concept of this history, which makes Over the Bridge in some respects an important record. Recounting this intervention, Robina says, “you do worry about history not being told correctly”.

The play’s powerful message has endured through the years and it has often been seen as a warning from history; the future fire on the hill. It has been televised and new productions have been staged, including on its 50th anniversary in 2010 in the form of an adaptation by Martin Lynch at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall. A revival at London’s Finborough Theatre followed in 2013.

The production now arriving in Dublin was originally intended to run on the play’s 60th anniversary in 2020. Covid intervened, but director Trevor Gill, of Bright Umbrella Productions, now brings to the stage this new production, including the insertion of two new scenes. He comments that sectarianism in Northern Ireland, “although arguably lessening, has not gone away. As current electioneering shows, sectarian attitudes are embedded in Northern Ireland politics in terms of tacit and often openly brazen encouragement by politicians to think in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’.”

62 years on from the original, Gill observes that this Over the Bridge production, which has received financial support from the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Reconciliation Fund, has already impacted on Belfast audiences who saw in its performances there last month “the ingrained attitudes of our society written large on stage”. His company is dedicated to producing works relevant to the east Belfast area where his Sanctuary Theatre group is situated, in the shadow of the giant cranes of Harland and Wolff. He remarks that as this is “an area still riven with sectarian tension and plagued by paramilitary influence – it’s hard to think of a play more relevant to us”.

But what of Thompson and Ellis following their courageous stand against the establishment?

Thompson received critical plaudits in his short writing career, including the production of two further plays, though he continued to face challenges. A combative character, he had denounced Northern Ireland as a “cultural Siberia” and publicly re-branded the Arts Council forerunner CEMA the “Council for the Encouragement of the Migration of Artists”. His commitment to the labour values underpinning Over The Bridge carried into increased political involvement, with his joining the Northern Ireland Labour Party and running as its candidate for South Down in the October 1964 general election (he traded barbs with Ulster Unionist prime minister Terence O’Neill during the campaign). Following health scares and his second heart attack, in 1965 Thompson collapsed and died in the Belfast offices of the NILP at only 48.

Despite the play’s enormous success, Jimmy Ellis paid a high price for the stand he took. He became essentially persona non grata, as he wrote in his firsthand account of the controversy, Troubles Over the Bridge. His sense of rejection was acute and he was forced to move to England for work, where he landed the role of PC Bert Lynch in the police drama Z Cars, which ran from 1962 to 1978. Ellis familiarised the Northern Ireland accent to British television audiences, a level of success and popularity that obscure the fact he was, as his wife Robina remembers, “unwanted in the place he wanted to be” following his clash with the Belfast powers that be.

That being said, the Belfast streets remember. In April 2014 a new bridge over the River Connswater linking the old shipyards to Victoria Park was named, following a public vote, the Sam Thompson Bridge, and – three years later – it would be joined by the James Ellis Bridge, which crosses from CS Lewis Square over to Victoria Park.

With sectarianism still a major feature of Northern Irish society, workplace discrimination and harassment still prevalent throughout our world, and labour solidarity as vital as ever, it remains timely for many across Ireland to consider journeying over the bridge with this new production.
Over the Bridge runs at Smock Alley Theatre from April 20th to 23rd, with tickets available here.

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