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'The Boat Factory' by Dan Gordon – Edinburgh bound

16 July 2012

An article written by Dan Gordon, writer of and actor in 'The Boat Factory'. Here he tells us about his family's experiences working in the Belfast ship yard, Harland and Wolff and about his forthcoming run at this year’s Edinburgh Festival..

My Granda, George Gordon was a shipyard worker from Scotland. He worked for Harland and Wolff in the early 1900’s but not on the RMS’s Olympic or Titanic. Instead while those great ships were being built in Belfast, George Gordon was a labourer in Harland and Wolff’s sister shipyard in Govan on the River Clyde.

Perhaps he thought the opportunities would be better, perhaps his friends were making the trip and he went along with the crowd or perhaps he was just curious to see the place that had captured the imagination of the world. Whatever the reason, he was drawn to the burgeoning City of Belfast and when he got there – he stayed – yet another Ulster-Scot.

He had six sons and in turn each would follow him into Harland and Wolff’s Yard or as they came to know it - The Boat Factory. One by one the boys became men as they picked a trade and passed over the Dee Street Bridge from East Belfast and through the grand gates of H&W to begin careers ranging from just a few months to exactly fifty years.

Shipbuilding along with Linen, Engineering and Tobacco was one of the major industries that gave Ulster a place at the top table of the Industrial Revolution. The influences of the British and German entrepreneurs Edward Harland and Gustav Wolff are well documented – so too are the endeavours of the movers and innovators like the two William’s Ritchie and Dargan, Lord Pirrie and Thomas Andrews, even the story  of Captain Smith of the ill-fated Titanic but what about the stories of the working men? What about the humble riveter and the electrician – the plater and the labourer the crane men and the catch-boy the fitter and the rigger – many of them drawn directly from the ranks of the Ulster-Scots?

My father was David, known as Davy, and he started in the Boat Factory as an apprentice Joiner in July 1945 just as WW2 was coming to an end. His Mother paid £5 and he was indentured for five years to be trained in his chosen trade of woodworking. It was a dangerous and unforgiving place where conditions were hard and the work demanding, yet it was also a place of great warmth, humanity, generosity and skill. Injuries were commonplace and the loss of life a regular occurrence. Indeed it is said that for every one of the over 1700 ships built – that at least one life was lost as each vessel was built.

My Father and his brothers and many like them all played their part in the herculean effort that made Ulster great. I wanted to document and celebrate that effort – not just on behalf of my family but on behalf of the tens of thousands of families whose members contributed to that era of Ulster industrial superiority that should never be forgotten.

So I wrote a play about it all – some fact and a lot fiction based on fact and I tried to conjure them back – I called it – The Boat Factory.

It is informed by the pride and the struggle, the ambition and the foresight, the dedication and the achievement of the people who were described as ‘Shipbuilders to the World’. Ulster-Scots heritage and culture is in no small measure inextricably entwined around the roots of the story as it is around our villages, towns and cities and throughout the branches of the lives of the people who share them.

The Boat Factory had its beginnings in the Titanic Drawing offices in 2009. A year later in 2010 the first tentative steps in production was staged in Westbourne Shipyard Church on the Newtownards Road in clear sight of the Boat Factory itself. Since then it has played quietly around the country in Church Halls and School Halls, in Prisons and Clubs, in Orange Halls and even the Belfast City Hall. The show premiered publically in the Belfast Festival at Queens in 2011 when it sold out in the Belfast Harbour Commission Offices. It went on to play in the opening week in front of the replica Titanic staircase on the top floor of the new Titanic Signature Project Building – Titanic Belfast.

The opportunity has been offered to take the show further afield as it has been invited to play in this year’s Edinburgh Festival – and what better location than Scotland where it could be argued the story owes much of its existence.

Thanks to the support of the Arts Council NI – Tourism Ireland and The Ulster Scots Agency – The Boat factory will play in Hill Street Theatre, Edinburgh (venue 41) from 2-26 August 2012 book online: or call: +44 (0)131 226 0000 (festival office).

Do look us up or let friends who may be nearby to come and support us. We look forward to promoting the heritage and the culture of a people and a city with a splendid reminder that we were once ‘Shipbuilders to the World’.