When you consider how close the two communities in the North live to each other and how long they’ve fought, it’s a matter for wonder how little they actually know each other.
That means that Northern Irish actor and playwright Dan Gordon’s decision to write and star in a show about one of the most important aspects of Protestant history in the last century in the North is a show not to be missed.
Titled 'The Boat Factory,' Gordon’s new play is a love letter to the glory days of Belfast’s legendary shipbuilding industry. But he insists it’s not a whitewash or a sentimental portrait, he’s after the truth.
“I wrote this play to tell my kids about who my father was and the people around him were like and what they did,” Gordon tells the Irish Voice. “And hopefully I’ve captured that without getting too teary eyed.”
Gordon is best known to New York audiences for his dazzling turn as a Northern Irishman who gets swept up by the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup dream in Marie Jones’ Broadway hit 'A Night In November.'
It’s fair to say that Gordon’s community, the Northern Irish Protestant community, has never been great at selling themselves on the world stage.
“That siege mentality we had meant that we didn’t reach out before. We’re only now beginning to do it,” he says.
“The Ulster Scots Agency, Tourism Ireland and the Northern Ireland Bureau have all seen the opportunity to engage the wider world, with this play and the history behind it. That’s why I started rehearsing it on the Newtownards Road.”
That road, if you remember, was the recent ground zero of the so-called flag protests, where tensions erupted after Belfast City Council voted to limit the number of days the union flag was flown above City Hall from 365 to 18. Gordon’s decision to rehearse his play at the flashpoint was an invitation to his own community to reflect on their past and their future.
“I wanted to help give a voice to the Northern Irish people that’s not about the Ulster Volunteer Force or about where we came from,” Gordon explains.
Into that process he injects a fair degree of common sense, in particular when it comes to his play about the shipyards.
“If they built the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Rome it would have been full of Catholics,” he says. “But they built it in East Belfast and so there’s a very good reason why it wasn’t.”
Gordon’s efforts to engage his own community in dialogue recall the work of Derry’s Field Day Theatre Company in the 1980s. Their mission statement was to examine Irish history and the national question from a broadly Nationalist perspective. In his own way Gordon’s been doing that from a Protestant perspective for years himself.
“I want to show my community who they are, where they come from and the warts too. 'The Boat Factory' is a warts and all portrait,” he says.
“Nationalists have a tradition of performance and celebrating and partying, but we have a tradition of bolting the front door and saying if anyone comes near us we’ll shoot them.”
So in one sense 'The Boat Factory' is part of a larger project to open the Northern Irish Protestant experience up to the world in a new way.
“I want to do it with humor too, to diffuse the tension,” Gordon says.
For a century, to grow up in Belfast has meant growing up in the shadow of the giant yellow Harland & Wolff’s cranes in the city’s shipyard. And despite what some might have you believe, the Titanic was not the only ship ever built there.
In fact over 1,700 ships were built and 35,000 men were employed at its height, making it the biggest and best shipyard in the world in its heyday, which is now long passed.
But it’s a past worth remembering Gordon believes, because for more than a century it dominated the North’s economy. In this centenary year of the Titanic’s sinking that’s a legacy still to be grappled with.
Performing alongside fellow actor Michael Condron, Gordon conjures up a host of colorful characters from the glory days in a play that’s poignant, funny and moving.
“I’ve lived in the shadow of those big yellow cranes all my life, and I wanted to tell their story because they are so much a part of me. My father and my grandfather worked there and I never really got to talk to them about the experience. So I wrote the play,” Gordon says.
One of the evocative places the play has been staged in is at the multimillion-pound new Titanic Museum in Belfast.
“The play isn’t about the Titanic, although it’s referenced in it,” Gordon explains. “It’s really about the 1,700 other ships that were built there.
“When I was growing up nobody ever mentioned the Titanic. It was only in 1997 when director James Cameron made the movie that it finally became acceptable to talk about it at last. My father never talked about it. My grandfather never talked about it. It was a taboo subject because it sank. They were embarrassed about it. It was James Cameron that gave Belfast the permission to talk about it again by making a very famous film.”
But everyone knows Titanic now.
“Now we’re proud of it. There was a line my father often said that I put in the play: ‘She was all right when she left us.’ That was his view,” Gordon says.
“Legends have grown up about the bad rivets and the bad steel. Bollocks. It was driven at 21 knots into an ice field at night. That’s what happened. They’re very proud of it now. But then? They hung their heads.”
As 'The Boat Factory' makes clear, the process and craftsmanship of Belfast shipbuilding was astounding.
“They started with a sheet of steel laid flat on keel blocks in a dry dock. Then they attached more sheets of steel to it through drilled holes with rivets,” Gordon says.
“Then you built the two sides up and up and up until you had the shell of a ship. Into that you put the walls between and the engines and the floors.
“They made their own steel, they made their own concrete. They built the biggest dry docks in the world to build the Titanic and the Olympic. That’s the backdrop to the play.”
The reason the Belfast shipyard didn’t survive was because it was too labor intensive. Air travel also spelled the end. The arrival of The Troubles also changed the North’s history, and all of these elements are not shied away from by the author on stage or in conversation.
“I do tackle the political aspects and the sectarianism in the play. People often dismiss the shipyards and say, ‘Oh, that was just a sectarian place.’ But listen, the whole of the North had sectarianism going on. When the place employs 35,000 men you notice it more,” Gordon offers.
What Gordon discovered researching the play was the intensity of the relationships that grew up in the shipyards.
“These guys saw each other more than they saw their own families. From early Monday morning to Saturday afternoon. Sunday was the only family time and they went to church,” he says.
“There was a siege mentality over partition and the concern the Catholic Church would take over the whole country. They were fed this information and told to band together as an industry. It had a father and son tradition.”
It wasn’t quite the exclusively Protestant tradition that many think. “A lot of Catholics did work there, and very often they were protected by the people they worked around. They would say, ‘Don’t you come in tomorrow it’s coming up to the Twelfth.’”
What the shipyards were really about, Catholic and Protestant, was staying alive and making a living, Gordon explains.
“It’s a vanished world. Because that sense of community has disappeared we’re very isolated now and don’t know our neighbors. Things are more suburban now. People died for each other in the shipyards. That seems impossible to imagine now.”
The Boat Factory is playing at 59East59 Theaters in New York until June 30. For tickets visit www.59e50.org or call 212-279-4200.
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