The Yard


You will remember Richard Rowley's poem beginning "Terrible as an army with banners/The legions of labour./The builders of ships./Tramp thro' the winter eve." And there have been times when the shipbuilders of Belfast were legions of many thousands. Now they are drifting, maybe, towards the end. No one on this island should be unaware of the shock waves that will be sent through the North - or even the whole island. In the past the shipyards had a reputation of sectarian violence. That was 1920, a tumultuous year. Dorothy Macardle in her book The Irish Republic gives a bloodcurdling account of politicians urging the majority (six to one) of the workers to throw their colleagues into the water. Five thousand Catholics were driven out.

David Hammond, that all-round singer, film-maker and writer, wrote a book about the Yard as he found it more than half a century after the bad times. It was based on a film he had made. "The Yard", he writes "became a territory where boys do the work of men, and men do the work of giants". The book is made up of quotations from various types in various parts of the complex work (with great pictures).

Says Thomas Thompson: "My Granda painted the H & W (Harland and Wolff) on the big cranes . . . One day he was in the cradle swinging from the top. A gust of wind blew up the leg of his trousers like a balloon. He was nearly blew off his feet but his mate saved him from falling". Joe Tomelty, the theatre man, said "I remember one day I forgot my piece and a man gave me a ham sandwich. It was Friday. "I'm not allowed to eat ham on a Friday' says I, `I'm a Mick'.

So he says: `All right, take the bloody ham out of it'. So I took the ham out of it and I ate the bread. They were a decent crowd and I never heard any talk about my religion, never, and I can tell you I'm telling the truth. If you worked with a man, if he was a good mate he was a good mate. That was all about it." Ships had been built at Belfast as early as 1636 but the big change came when two strangers, Edward Harland and Gustav Wolff started their famous Yard in 1860. Down from the nearby hills came small farmers, hedge-carpenters and land-less labourers with little baggage beyond the clothes on their backs and their strength.

There was a joke about Wolff, Harland and Pirrie a local man, later Lord Pirrie. "What does a director do," a lady asked Harland. His answer: "Wolff designs the ships, Pirrie sells them and I smoke the firm's cigars." The name of the book? Steelchest, Nail in the Boot and The Barking Dog. (All nicknames). Published by Flying Fox Films, Belfast, about 1986. Full of anecdotes and Davy's good nature and companionship. Y