Lagan leviathan – Frank McNally on the centenary of a great Belfast shipbuilder (and Home Ruler), William Pirrie

The man who turned Belfast into a powerhouse

The otherwise all-conquering life of William Pirrie (1847-1924) was overshadowed by one unfortunate setback: that at the height of his career, he oversaw construction of a ship called the Titanic.

But this was not the only crisis Pirrie faced in early 1912. Because, perhaps surprisingly for a chairman of Belfast’s Harland & Wolff shipyard, he was also a Home Ruler, something that earned him intense enmity from Belfast unionists in the early months of that year.

In January, Pirrie had hosted a meeting of the local Liberal party at the Ulster Hall, inviting fellow home rulers John Redmond and Winston Churchill to speak.

The choice of location – normally a bastion of loyalism – was a red rag to his unionist critics, who were so enraged they booked the venue for the night before and then refused to vacate.

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When the Liberals reconvened their meeting at Celtic Park in February, loyalists including his own shipyard workers pelted Pirrie with rotten eggs, bags of flour, and other missiles.

And yet also in 1912, the Spectator magazine declared him alone responsible for the success of Harland & Wolff.

“No one can deny that the marvellous development of that firm during the past 30 years is due entirely to his wonderful business acumen, organising powers, and sagacious oversight,” it wrote.

A eulogy accompanying his award of an honorary doctorate a few years earlier had gone even further, suggesting Pirrie was the man who turned Belfast into the powerhouse it had become.

His “talents and indefatigable exertions so stimulated the activity of his town that he lifted it from a comparatively inferior position to that of being the third greatest commercial city in the Empire”.

This titan of industry had himself risen from modest beginnings. He was born in Quebec in 1847 of Irish emigrant parents but, after the death of his father only a year later, accompanied his mother back to Ireland, where he grew up in the village of Conlig, Co Down.

After schooling at Belfast’s Royal Academical Institution, still only 15, he joined Harland & Wolff as a “gentleman apprentice”. From that humble base, he ascended rapidly.

By the age of 22, he was the company’s head draughtsman; by 27 a partner. While still in his 40s, he became Harland & Wolff’s chairman, retaining that role for the rest of his life.

As the firm’s “presiding genius,” The Irish Times would later recall, “he saw as few others saw at that time that the future of the shipbuilding industry lay in the big ship. Hitherto the modern leviathan was unknown, and to William Pirrie must be attributed a great deal of the credit for its evolution.”

Being a Belfast Presbyterian, Pirrie was heir to Ireland’s original republican tradition. He himself, however, was no republican.

An early alignment with unionism, which helped him become lord mayor in 1896, gradually evolved into support for Home Rule, fueled by a mixture of liberal politics, pragmatism, and thwarted ambition.

Suspicious of his moderation towards the Nationalist and Labour movements, conservative unionists had blocked his path to a political career.

But Home Rule under the crown seemed to be the future. Pirrie imagined a new Ireland flourishing within the empire and saw himself playing a prominent part.

It’s said that after the various crises of 1912, he “visibly aged”. And yet some of his and the shipyard’s best years were still ahead.

Appointed director of merchant shipbuilding by Lloyd George, to replace the terrible wartime losses, he proved an enormous success, propelling Harland & Wolff’s to greater heights than ever and a peak workforce of 30,000.

In the process, he underwent another political evolution, back towards his original unionism, eventually taking a seat in the House of Lords in 1921.

But then Irish politics had also changed, utterly, in the intervening decade. Home Rule was now as sunk as the Titanic. Pirrie had never been in sympathy with the militant republicanism that replaced it.

In April 1922, Irish Times columnist “Nichevo” (pseudonym for a future and famous editor, Bertie Smyllie) profiled Pirrie as part of a series on great “Irishmen of today”.

The piece began by noting that he was now, in years at least, “an old man”. But it also declared him to be still “as lively as a cricket” and “a mass of radiating energy”.

Few of any age, wrote Nichevo, “can claim to lead a more active or useful life than this great Ulsterman who . .. has done more than any other living man to advance the material prosperity of this country.”

A footnote to the profile listed others already featured in the “Irishmen of Today” series. These included, poignantly, “Mr Arthur Griffith” and “Mr Michael Collins”, neither of whom would see the autumn of that year.

Pirrie outlived both by 22 months. But he died on a ship off Cuba, 100 years ago this week, on June 7th, 1924.