Harland and Wolff: Belfast’s giant design yard

It doesn’t build ships any more – it finished its last vessel in 2003 – so what’s going on inside Belfast’s vast H&W industrial facility? iPod speakers and oil rigs, among other things


Everybody knows the two great shipbuilding cranes. Buttercup yellow, the height of 10 houses, Samson and Goliath stride across the Belfast skyline – and the city’s imagination – like twin colossi. It’s impossible to think of the city without them.

Many people are surprised to learn that the mighty machines are not simply monuments to the industrial past but remain in operation.

Harland and Wolff, the company that owns the cranes, has had to radically reimagine itself in order to survive, but the shipyard is still there, powering away on Queen’s Island, alongside the new Titanic Belfast building, the cavernous Paint Hall – once used for painting the hulls of ocean liners, now an international film and TV studio – and numerous expensive waterfront apartments.

At one time, Harland’s, as it’s locally known, was integral to Northern life. It was founded in 1861. The firm’s tumultuous history is woven through the politics of the place. Its economic importance, for example, gave unionists substantial leverage during the Home Rule question.

But in later years the company faltered, and around the turn of the century it seemed that closure was inevitable. Since then, though, the yard has begun to flourish again, after finding new opportunities in the world of offshore renewable energy. It doesn’t build ships any more – it finished its last vessel, ship number 1742, in 2003 – but it does repair and refit them, as well as creating huge structures, both floating and fixed, for the oil and gas industry.

One of its latest projects is the overhaul of the oil rig Blackford Dolphin – otherwise known as the Beast – in a deal worth tens of millions of euro. The rig, which was towed to Belfast from Brazil in an 80-day journey, is so tall, at 110m, that Samson had to be moved to the far end of the building dock in order to make room for it.

Lit up at night – work continues around the clock – the rig resembles an enormous mechanical Christmas tree, glittering away against the darkness of Belfast Lough.

Melancholy sight A world within a world, shuttered away behind gates and high fences, the shipyard has always had an air of mystery. On the wide wastelands of Queen’s Island, now rebranded Titanic Quarter, you can see the detritus of Belfast’s extraordinary maritime history: long wooden stakes with metal tips that were used to prop

up ships during construction, lying abandoned, slowly rotting. It’s a melancholy sight.

But when I walk through the main gates of Harland’s on a sunny spring morning there’s no sense of the mournful weight of the past. Instead I hear the hum of industry. The air is full of bright, whirring sounds. New things are being made here.

David McVeigh, the public face of Harland and Wolff, takes me upstairs to the boardroom, past a strange and colourful painting that appears to show Samson and Goliath locked in a loving embrace. Outside, hundreds of workmen, dressed in red boiler suits and green hard hats, swarm over the Blackford Dolphin rig.

“We have a lot going on at the moment,” McVeigh says, “and, yes, it is difficult. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. We’re talking about challenging projects, challenging timescales. For us it’s all about innovation and the quality of the product.

“Though sometimes you look back through history, and you see that things that look like new ideas have actually been happening in the company for many years. Keeping ahead of the game, with a mixture of the traditional and the new, that’s what we’ve always been about.”

Shipbuilder to the world

Harland and Wolff was shipbuilder to the world, known for combining technology with innovative design, to winning effect. The order books for its beautiful, powerful ships were full. Thousands of men – riveters, fitters, platers, coppersmiths and more – would pour through the gates at 8am each day.

The writer Kate O’Brien saw the yard as “steel-shafted, furnaced, thundering . . . the terrible heart and entrails of Belfast”.

Other parts of the operation were tranquil, contemplative even: in the cool light of the painters’ studio, artists in white coats and flat caps stood at their easels, working on exquisitely wrought decorative panels for ships’ interiors; under the high barrelled ceiling of the drawing office, naval architects pored over complex designs, set squares and rulers in hand.

On May 31st, 1911, to the firing of rockets, ship number 401, Titanic – the second of an intended trio of White Star Line leviathans, and the largest ship in the world – slid from its building berth and into the waters of Belfast harbour. It was a moment of unparalleled triumph for the men who made the ship, one that would never be repeated with quite the same innocence and hope.

More than a century since the disaster of 1912, can Titanic now be remembered with pride in the place that made it? “Yes,” says McVeigh. “The Olympic-class vessels, of which Titanic was one, were the largest [floating] man-made structures ever made, and they actually represented a vast leap forward in safety.

Olympic herself [the first of the trio] was an old reliable; she crossed the Atlantic 500 times. But the White Star Line never recovered from the damage to its reputation. The irony was that they spent more money on safety issues than any other owner; they were pouring money into it. These were the biggest, safest vessels afloat at the time.”

Employment policy
One thing that has definitely changed since the early days is Harland and Wolff’s employment policy. The expulsion of thousands of Catholic workers in the 1920s was never forgotten, and when the yard was threatened with closure in 2000 many republicans were gleeful, despite trade unionists’ pointing out that such gloating was short-sighted and that nobody in the North had anything to gain from the demise of the yard and the consequent loss of future opportunities.

Today the company, which took substantial steps to redress the religious imbalance, emphasises that it “welcomes applications from all communities, including the Roman Catholic community”. McVeigh says: “We’re open to all – from whatever colour, creed, denomination. The best people are what we need. That’s the only way we’re going to survive.”

Darren Jones, the operations manager at Harland and Wolff, says the company looks first for skilled locals. Then, when it has exhausted that pool of talent, it looks farther afield. It’s hard work, and it demands a lot of commitment.

When a big project comes in, like the Blackford Dolphin rig, Jones can find himself working 13 or 14 hours a day for weeks at a time. “It’s short and sharp. That’s the nature of it,” says Jones, whose grandfather also worked at the yard.

Wen you walk through the body of the shipyard, what strikes you is the scale of the operation. Everything is huge: not just the towering cranes but also the machines, the equipment, the transporters. Even the spanners are more than a metre long.

In the main assembly hall a vast circular component encrusted with magnets is hoisted overhead. Elsewhere what look like giant bronze polo mints slide, one by one, into a neat vertical pile.

Clothing line
Back in the boardroom McVeigh describes a new and rather unexpected initiative: a company clothing line, aimed at men. Harland and Wolff official apparel offers T-shirts, rivet cufflinks, a limited-edition linen “yard shirt” and – currently in development – the H&W yard boot.

“We wanted to bring together the very best that Ireland can offer,” says McVeigh, “handmade to the finest standards possible. Beautiful objects, you know. Things for an engineer to love.”

He shows me some of the cunning gadgets the company makes. A small black rubber device, with a trumpet like a gramophone, turns out to be a simple and surprisingly effective speaker for an iPod.

Innovation, imagination, the beauty of clever design. It’s what the yard was always famous for. The ships may have sailed, but it seems that Harland and Wolff has rediscovered its future.

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