Dan Gordon, Northern Irish actor, director and playwright talks about his links to the H&W shipyard and inspiration behind his award-winning play 'The Boat Factory'.
Tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Dan Gordon and I am a Northern Irish actor, director and playwright and East Belfast native. I grew up in East Belfast near Mersey Street in the Shadow of the Shipyard. The shipyard horn marked the beginning and the end of the day when I was a child. I went to Sydenham Infants and Strand Primary Schools (now Victoria Primary) and the Newtownards Road was where we got everything from our school uniforms to our fruit and veg. I began acting in school and liked it so much I never stopped. I paused briefly to go to Stranmillis College and train as a teacher in Drama and English and PE because my Dad reckoned I should have a back-up plan and he was right – it kept me fed in the early days – and I got to spend my time doing plays and playing sports. When I left college I started in the Lyric Theatre as an assistant stage manager (code for floor sweeper and dogsbody) I loved it. I now act, write, direct, make documentaries, do stand-up and anything else they let me.
What is your connection to the shipyard?
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.
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.
What was your inspiration behind ‘The Boat Factory’?
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?
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.
Did you learn any interesting facts about the H&W Shipyard while writing the play?
It brought into focus what my Dad always said – it was his mantra in life as a Shipyard man. “Don’t stand and wonder how to do it – Do it and wonder how you did it”.
There are dozens more and they’re on the Maritime Mile and in the Visitor Attraction – come and find them for yourself!
Tell us your favourite shipyard story…
There was a worker used to go out the front gate every Friday with a wheelbarrow with a cover over it. The Harbour Police used to stop him to check under the cover to see what was in it because they suspected he was pinching stuff. It was always empty and they were baffled. It was only years later they discovered – he was stealing wheelbarrows.
What’s your favourite TV Show that’s been filmed in Northern Ireland?
Got to be Game of Thrones!
Where is your most hidden gem along the former shipyard now Titanic Quarter / Maritime Mile?
If I’m forced to choose it’s the Thompson Dry Dock and the Pump House. If I had my way I would get the pumps working again and fill and empty the dock once a day to let folk see how it worked and what geniuses Shipyard men were.
Did you ever imagine that the shipyard would transform into what it is today? What has it been like to see this happen?
No – I’ve made several documentaries about the Shipyard and the surrounding areas over the years and we always filmed in what was a decaying, desolate Industrial landscape. I imagined the Shipyard was past its best but with the revitalisation of the area and life that has returned makes it feel like the best is yet to come.
Finally, if you owned a boat what would you name it?