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Dan Gordon: 'While most men were building ships, others were at work with their pens'

Dan Gordon's new series highlights four writers who gave a voice to the Protestant working-class

By Una Brankin

Published 13/05/2016

Dan Gordon at the Harland & Wolff shipyard
Dan Gordon at the Harland & Wolff shipyard
Belfast writer Thomas Carnduff
Playwright Sam Thompson’s anti-sectarianism work Over The Bridge was set against backdrop of the shipyard
Belfast writer Stewart Parker
Belfast writer St John Greer Ervine
Ervine’s Mixed Marriage performed at the Lyric in2013
Dan and wife Cathy with their children (from left) Hannah, Sarah and Martha

Dan Gordon has been listening to an item on the Stephen Nolan radio show about bullying at Glengormley High School, where he used to teach English. The actor and writer blames the school's problems with bullying on budget cuts - and voices further concerns over the plight of working-class Protestant youths, who repeatedly under-perform in exams.

"I would give off to pupils for not having homework done until my wife, who's a special needs teacher, pointed out to me that many of these children were going to school with their pyjamas under their uniform because their mothers were drunk and there was no father around, and no one to make them breakfast and 'there's you shouting at them about homework. They've more to worry about'," he recalls.

"It's true. A lot of these kids will be swallowed up, whereas the Catholic single-sex schools get the top marks. The Catholic community realised a long time ago that education was a way out, when working-class Protestants relied on jobs in heavy industry and thought they'd no need of an education."

It's a theme that reverberates in Dan's new BBC series Groundbreakers: In The Shadow Of The Shipyard, in which he considers how four of the greatest Belfast writers of the 20th century - St John Greer Ervine, Sam Thompson, Thomas Carnduff and Stewart Parker - absorbed the experiences of working-class communities and brought their voices to a wider audience.

First up is Ballymacarret-born Ervine (1883-1971), often cited as the founding father of modern Northern Ireland drama, particularly for his seminal plays Boyd's Shop and Mixed Marriage.

"Ervine was extraordinary - he left school at 15 and went to London and Dublin and met Yeats," says Dan, an east Belfast native.

"He witnessed the 1916 Rising and supported Home Rule, and his play Mixed Marriage (1911) was revolutionary in the way it depicted sectarian strife and how mixed couples were treated by their own communities.

"That was back before the Titanic, and this was a man who grew up on the Albertbridge Road, with parents who were deaf and mute. What he achieved was incredible."

Ervine is followed in the Groundbreakers series by another Ballymacarrett man, Thompson (1916-1965). He was a trade unionist who challenged the unionist establishment with one of the most controversial plays of the 1960s, Over The Bridge. It is known for its highlighting of sectarianism in the Harland & Wolff shipyard.

"To me, Over The Bridge is an anti-sectarianism play," says Dan, who comes from a long line of H&W workers.

"Sectarianism was used by the establishment to control the Protestant working classes, to keep them beholden to secure their vote.

"They exploited the disquiet among unionists after 1916 and 1921, but shipyard workers I spoke to for my play The Boat Factory were more concerned with earning a living than anything else."

The third writer explored by Dan in the series is poet and playwright Carnduff (1886-1956).

Originally from Sandy Row, he did a variety of unskilled jobs before finding permanent work as a shipyard labourer, and then as a caretaker in Belfast's Linen Hall Library.

Unusually for a man of his background, Carnduff regularly frequented libraries and was a prolific writer. His poetry and plays, such as Songs Of The Shipyard and Workers, dramatised the lives of working-class Belfast people during the recession of the 1930s.

"Carnduff lived in such poverty he couldn't afford the paper to write on at times," says Dan. "He used the Belfast idiom, the way people spoke in the Thirties, and he wrote about domestic violence. He didn't make any money, but he got the voice of the working man out there."

Finally, there's Parker (1941-1988), regarded as the major Belfast playwright of the Troubles, a writer who gave a voice to a new generation in the 1970s and 1980s.

Born in Sydenham, Parker's work - including The Iceberg, Spokesong and Northern Star - is strongly rooted in a Belfast troubled by the ghosts of its past and present.

A classmate of Parker's niece, playwright Lynne Parker, Dan got to meet the charismatic Stewart before his death from cancer at 47 in 1988.

"He was a lovely man. He loved music; he loved life and he was horrified by what he saw happening on the street here when he returned from a spell in America during the Troubles.

"His plays gave voice to the Protestant unionist tradition and the working man, as did the other three writers.

"I got to interview his brother George and he told me some great stories about him and Stewart as tiny boys, sitting on the same chair listening to Dick Barton, Special Agent on the radio. But I don't want to give it all away - you can see it in the programme."

Growing up in the shadow - literally - of the shipyards, Dan remembers hearing air raid horns that were used long after the Second World War to summon the workers to Queen's Island.

"It might sound arrogant, but I like to see myself as a continuation of these guys, in trying to keep and preserve the voice they gave to their traditions.

"You know, I was playing the Orangeman in Shadow Of A Gunman in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin recently and, being an east Belfast Prod in my DNA, I sang the Orange Lily-O at the top of my voice - maybe a bit too loud! But these guys, they were all ahead of their time and, incidentally, they recognised the role of women at a time when women weren't expected, or allowed, to write anything."

As well as highlighting the lives and work of the four writers, Groundbreakers: In The Shadow Of The Shipyard provides a fascinating insight into life in Belfast through the 20th century.

Archive photographs and film footage help bring to life the people and the environment these writers found so inspiring.

"The shipyard has loomed large in the life of my family - my grandfather, my uncles and my father passed through its gates," adds Dan.

"But, while most of the men were building ships, there were these others at work with their pens, inspired by the yard and the people of Belfast. Exploring their work and how it intersects with the working people of this city has been a great privilege for me."

Dan's father David, whom he closely resembles, died in 1992 from a disease related to asbestos that he was exposed to in the shipyard. His mother Irene (83) continues to be an active member of her community, attending her local day centre daily and "answering everybody else's questions at the quizzes".

Irene and David moved their family from Mersey Street in east Belfast to the quieter Holywood Road when Dan was seven, and enrolled him at Sullivan Upper after he passed his 11-plus.

In spite of always wanting to be an actor, after school Dan went to Stranmillis College to train as a teacher. He met Cathy at drama class there and they married in 1984. The couple have three grown-up daughters - Sarah (27), Hannah (24) and Martha (18). Cathy has lived with alopecia, unbothered by the condition, for 18 years.

"The older two are creative, I'm afraid, and won't have any money," he declares. "The eldest went to art school in Dublin and she recently got into lighting with Game Of Thrones. She writes, too.

"The middle one is in Australia for a year and she's doing a yoga teaching training course. She's a brilliant comedienne and ukulele player. I encourage her with that.

"And the youngest is going to be the only Gordon with an employable skill. She's going to do nursing."

In good health since a scare a decade ago, when he was convinced he had testicular cancer, Dan is as passionate about drama as ever.

"One of the most poignant times we had shooting Groundbreakers was at the fairground that was set up underneath the cranes at the yard last year," he says. "To think of all that industry of the past there, and all the lives that passed through it, and now it's a fairground. It's not right.

"I hope the series will help preserve the memories of the place for the older people watching and show the younger ones how Belfast grew from a scattering of houses and stretched out over the river, building bridges and railways.

"And, of course, show how the voice of the real people of the time was reflected by these four writers."

  • Groundbreakers: In The Shadow Of The Shipyard begins on Sunday May 15 on BBC Two Northern Ireland at 9.30pm

Belfast Telegraph

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