All hands - and 'auld hands' - on deck in effort to rescue H&W from oblivion
150 former staff make emotional return to Queen's Island to set palm prints in concrete. Mark Bain reports
The memories came flooding back at Harland & Wolff yesterday as former workers returned to the ailing shipyard to cement their roles in the history of the under-threat company.
Around 150 former employees gathered at the gates with mixed emotions as the "auld hands" lined up to place their palms in trays of setting concrete, celebrating the "hands that built the shipyard".
The event was part of the ongoing occupation to save jobs at the yard, with administrators continuing to explore a number of potential bids for the company.
"The gesture of concrete hand prints is a testament to the people who built this great industry," said Unite shop steward at H&W Joe Passmore.
"The yard means so much to this city and beyond, it needs to be renationalised. We need to take ownership. It's all hands on deck - let's save our shipyard."
It proved to be an emotional day for the former employees and behind every handprint was a story of times gone by - times when over 20,000 workers would walk through the gates every morning, work hard for the company through the worst winter days and go home to families across Belfast that the shipyard was supporting.
For some it was a rekindling of memories of pots of tea boiling on fires lit under the hulls of ships under construction. For others it was the pride of industry-leading skills learned, or it was the feeling of the shipyard as a city in itself, such was the strength and diversity of the characters who worked there.
Davy Mudd spent nearly 30 years at H&W and said it made men of all the young apprentices who came through the gates.
"It's fantastic seeing all the old boys back here again," he said.
"When I was an apprentice I'd be sent to make the tea and I'm not sure I ever made it right. They liked it strong.
"Anybody who worked in there turned into a character. The shipyard shaped the person. It was a school of life. There were thousands here when I started in 1975. It was like a city in its own right. You had to ask for directions.
"I thought I'd retire in here, but it wasn't to be. It's sad for the workers now. You can still see the camaraderie when we all get together. That spirit of togetherness has to be worth something.
"When we went on holiday years ago, my wife always said no matter where we went we'd meet someone from the shipyard. It's heartbreaking to see it today."
William Watterson recalled the pride he took, even in working long winter days.
"This place means so much to me and my family," he said.
"It was always very hard work, particularly in the winter. So many people really put a hard shift in, but the world respected the quality of the work.
"In my day over 20,000 were through the gates every day, and it's sad to see it in such distress.
"What I remember is the nicknames. There were a lot of people who I never got to know their real names, but the nicknames stuck with you.
"There was one I remember known as 'Dollar-a-half'. He would have gambled his last penny. Got his money on a Friday, straight over to the bookies, lost it and came back over to volunteer to work Saturday and Sunday to make it up again. The shipyard was full of them. Real Belfast people. Real characters."
Charlie Simmons, now 81, could count the years back even further, having started in the yard in 1956.
"It had a life all of its own," he said.
"As an apprentice, the tradesmen used to give you half a crown to boil their tea. That's one of my first memories. You'd have the fires going below the hulls and the managers would come and kick them out. The tea would be up in the air!
"I reared my family in the shipyard. It bought me a home, brought my kids up and my son worked here too. It looked after me for 46 years. It's a disgrace the way it's going."
Catching up on old times were a trio of boilermakers. John Long started at the yard in 1971, Sam Taggart in 1975 and Brian Stevenson in 1980.
"It was a place where you made friends for life," said John.
"The number here today is great to see and shows exactly why we have to save this yard.
"The guys here have the facilities and the skills. After all the work over all the years the workers being put out onto the street with no support deserve better."
Brian Stevenson last worked at H&W in 2002.
"Today I've seen a lot of people I haven't seen in years. It's just a shame we've had to come together in the midst of this," he said.
Sam Taggart began his working life in 1975.
"This place looked after you and gave you all the skills you needed. We can't lose that," he said. "Mention H&W and people around the world know the name."
Unite union officer Susan Fitzgerald said that those campaigning to save the yard have been inspired by the solidarity from retired workers.
"The massive campaign to save Harland and Wolff has struck a chord," she said. "This shipyard was built by workers' hands. We don't just need to save current jobs, we also need to pass on skills to a new generation of workers' hands".