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Newly-founded society remembers Belfast's 'shipyard poet' Thomas Carnduff

The newly founded Thomas Carnduff Society is dedicated to preserving the late Belfast writer's work for a new generation, writes Connal Parr


Harland & Wolff shipyard workers finish for the day as the massive Sea Quest dominates the skyline in 1966

Harland & Wolff shipyard workers finish for the day as the massive Sea Quest dominates the skyline in 1966

Thomas Carnduff

Thomas Carnduff

H&W workers at a rally outside the shipyard

H&W workers at a rally outside the shipyard


Harland & Wolff shipyard workers finish for the day as the massive Sea Quest dominates the skyline in 1966

On Monday, September 2, the Thomas Carnduff Society presented the first of many Yard Sessions at the EastSide Visitor Centre in east Belfast. These are opportunities for anyone to come along and read your creative work to an interested and like-minded audience, in an experience open to all, free to attend and worth your time.

The society is named after an author who exemplifies a working-class culture of life and literature so often passed over.

Thomas Carnduff was born in Sandy Row in 1886, in a year of extensive Belfast rioting, to a mother from Newbridge, Co Kildare and a Presbyterian countryman father from Drumbo, Co Down.

Though he was educated at Haslett's School in Eliza Street and then at the Royal Hibernian Military School in Dublin, Carnduff had a tough, working-class upbringing and worked many different roles in his life, including as a messenger boy, butcher's delivery boy, light porter, factory hand, binman, shipyard catch-boy, stereotyper, helper and driller.

It was this latter association with the shipyard, namely Workman Clark's (the "wee yard"), that most marked his imagination, though he is also a writer for the whole city of Belfast.

Carnduff's poem Men of Belfast is viewed thousands of times a week by visitors to the Titanic Belfast exhibition, and he had a class-conscious take that manifested in poems like The Song of the Unemployed:

We built your graceful structures from a heap of clay and stone,

We fashioned out of nothing your proud and stately dome;

The steeples rising skywards bear the hallmark of our skill,

And the hands that shaped your mansions have the cunning in them still.

Carnduff's story also takes in a number of milestones in Irish and unionist history. He signed the Ulster Covenant in September 1912, joined the Royal Engineers and fought in the First World War - his experiences of Ypres and Messines crystallising into later poems - and he was heavily involved in the original mass movement of the Ulster Volunteer Force, which began arming and drilling as the Home Rule crisis intensified.

In 1919, he demobilised and returned to troubles closer to home, helping Catholic workers escape across the River Lagan during the shipyard expulsions of July 21, 1920.

Carnduff spent almost four years serving the Ulster Special Constabulary's Northwest Brigade, before returning to the shipyard in the mid-1920s.

He was often hungry and unemployed, though this climate changed slightly the following decade with the publication of his second poetry collection and the staging of his first play, Workers, at the Abbey Theatre in October 1932, the week after cross-community riots broke out against the miserly outdoor relief benefit allocation system in Belfast.

Workers receives no mention in many histories of Irish theatre and sections of the play have, sadly, been lost, though the authenticity of its portrait of what Sam Hanna Bell called a group of Belfast shipyard workers "struggling to get out of the dole queue" led to praise and labels of an "O'Casey of the north".

Going up on stage to rapturous applause following the first performance at the Abbey, Carnduff exalted how "years of poverty, misery, disappointment, were forgotten in that solitary moment of Heaven. I, an unemployed shipyardman, became a playwright."

Just the previous week, Carnduff had been elected Worshipful Master of Sandy Row True Blues, Independent Orange Lodge No 5, and Carnduff joked: "What an announcement that would have been from a Dublin stage!"

He remembered a "grand audience", even if against his "strongest principle" he stood to the playing of Amhran na bhFiann/The Soldier's Song. (He later admitted to humming The Boyne Water "as a sort of repudiation".)

Carnduff is also important to us today because he was an Orangeman who saw the tradition in its Irish context.

As a man with generations of family connections, the Order was in his blood, though he was fully aware that the landowning class and gentry sensed the possibilities of exploiting "the organisation as a first line of defence for their own particular interests".

Carnduff joined the Independent Orange Order (IOO) during the time of Lindsay Crawford in his teens (causing "a bit of a family row" with his brothers, who were members of the main institution). The IOO flourished from 1903-1908, under Crawford and Thomas Sloan, and an active following persists in north Antrim. Recent research has emphasised how radical the Independent Orange Order was in challenging both Protestant and Catholic Church hierarchies.

Carnduff was unapologetically defensive of Orangemen, noting how "the Catholic Press in Eire, as well as in Northern Ireland, is too fond of applying the adjective 'Orange' to every type of mob violence, or political commotion, which may crop up in any neighbourhood where Ulster Protestants predominate".

Carnduff was always poor and so worked until the very end of his life, finishing his days as a caretaker at the Linen Hall Library. His reputation diminished after his passing in 1956, though scholars Sarah Ferris and John Gray came to champion his work and make it available.

Carnduff was, in truth, a born working-class outsider, which in many ways reflects the new society bearing his name today.

One of its founders, Chris Thackaberry, says: "The Yard Sessions and the Thomas Carnduff Society were born outside of the established poetry and literary scene in Northern Ireland. Our goal in starting up the Yard Sessions, a kind of open-mic opportunity, is to build a new audience from the grassroots of the east Belfast community and to enable that audience to create and give voice to their work on a free, democratic platform. It represents a movement for change in east Belfast by building on the rich literary foundation that already exists through the legacy of Carnduff, Sam Thompson, Marie Jones and Stewart Parker, adding to the social and cultural capital of 'the east' and Belfast as a whole."

There will also be a quarterly publication called the Yard Press, highlighting the work of readers each month.

In an especially moving moment on August 11, the Carnduff Society was invited by the Unite trade union to read Carnduff's poetry to Harland & Wolff's workers protesting against the possible closure of that famous symbol of Belfast industry.

Thackaberry, activist William Ennis and playwright Bobby Niblock recited Carnduff's verse to the workers with the Save Our Shipyard banner proudly displayed behind them.

The first Yard Session just passed also featured readings from Niblock and local historian and dramatist Philip Orr, though it was also noted that there were more women than men present (something Carnduff would have appreciated).

The Yard Sessions will continue to take place in the EastSide Visitor Centre on the Newtownards Road at 7.30pm on the first Monday of every month.

Feel free to go along and contribute, in Carnduff's words, to "studying life, not by culture but meeting it face to face".

Dr Connal Parr is a lecturer in history at Northumbria University. His book Inventing the Myth: Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination (Oxford University Press) is out now in paperback

Belfast Telegraph