I had an interview
at the age of twelve in 1944. In 1946 I started in the
Belfast shipyard at the age of 14. I did 2 years as
an office boy in the Thompson Works in a time office
run by Billy Eason, a look-alike Clark Gable figure.
He had an enormous sense of humour and was very kind
to me and let me carry out some of his duties like giving
the boards out through the pigeon-hole to the men and
even making up the wages.
Thompson Works wasn't far from Deep Water Wharf where
some of us swam in winter to harden up. And it worked.
Coming out of the water, on which sleet was falling,
most of us didn't have a towel but just put our clothes
on over our wet bodies and we felt warmer than when
we went into the water.
many cranes of Harland and Wolff
At that time the aircraft carrier Eagle was at Deep
Water Wharf and of course there was always the solitary
diver who soared into
the water from the flight deck, maybe from near a 100
feet up. A crowd would gather to watch the event. The
diver was a real showman - doing exercises on the deck
for about five minutes before taking the plunge into
the freezing water in a perfect arc. Nearby was the
illegal pitch-and-Toss school where some of the men
gambled at lunch time. They never looked up once at
the diver but instead preferred to watch the coins on
two boards being tossed into the air.
Others went round the crown and anchors boards to lose
or gain a half-a-crown on board the ships tied up in
Musgrave Channel. Then there were the card schools.
A lot could be squeezed into forty minutes of a lunch
The Yard had a bus service. Two buses still camouflaged
in khaki from WW2, the windows painted over with a bicycle-lamp
bulb for internal lighting, even the headlamps were
still hooded, showing only a slit. Two captured German
ships were tied up in Musgrave Channel. And not far
away there was about six flying boats floating, now
out of service from the War. As fourteen-year-olds we
would get a raft and row out to one of the German ships
and take command shouting things like: `Yah yah, mein
capitan, full steam ahead!' On one such journey our
raft was swept away by a strong current until we were
in the path of one of Kelly's coal boats chugging up
Belfast Lough. A tugboat rescued us and the captain
gave each of us a kick up the backside, which seemed
to be normal in those days. Better than being handed
over to the harbour police I suppose. The word `teenager'
hadn't been invented them.
At 16 I entered the Joiner's Shop to serve my apprenticeship
as a Joiner. Many of the woodworkers had been in the
First World War and in 1948 men were still being de
mobbed from the Second World War. So I learnt plenty
about about world wars. I worked at Joe Beattie's bench.
He had been captured while wounded on Crete during WW2.
He was amazingly tolerant when I made mistakes in the
making of something like a chest of drawers for example,
though he had to take the responsibility for my mistakes.
His maxim was: `The man who doesn't make a mistake hasn't
After a year in the Joiner's Shop we did a year on
the ships. My father, a joiner, was on the Juan Peron
whaling ship during the terrible accident when 9 men
died as one of the gangways broke. He always had to
be first off the ship but on that fatal evening he had
forgotten his lunch box and went back to a cabin to
get it. When he came back to the deck the accident had
occurred. I sometimes met up with and on that evening
I went round to the Juan Peron and saw the horrifying
scene of twisted bodies on the jetty. The memory was
so horrifying that over the years I forgot about it
and it was only a couple of years ago that I enquired
about the date when it happened. I knew most of the
dead men and the injured. Their faces still come back
to me as if in a dream.
The gangway accident happened on the 31st of January,
1951. The death roll was eventually 18 dead - with two
dying in hospital - and 59 injured. The Juan Peron was
to be the biggest whaling factory ship in the world.
At that stage of construction is was completely red-leaded
and moored in the Musgrave Channel. It was a huge ship
and its hull was very high out of the water which required
two gangways: One led to a steel platform welded to
the side of the ship. Another one ran parallel to the
side of the ship to the cutting deck which was 50 feet
above the jetty. Both gangways were made of timber.
It was the parallel gangway that broke. Superstition
still reigned then. Even the local media was writing
about the gangway breaking at the thirteenth step.
But before that when I was an office boy in Billy Eason's
time office in the Thompson Works a dreadful accident
happened on the 11th of September, 1947. There was an
explosion in the engine room of the Reina Del Pacifico,
a former troop ship which was being converted back to
its original role as a passenger ship to Cuba and Latin
America. Twenty-eight men died and 23 were injured.
The ship had been on shake-down trials and speed trials
along the measured mile off the Clyde. All four engines
had been put through their paces and seemed all right.
The ship began to sail back to its berth in the Musgrave
Channel when the engine room blew up without warning
about seven miles off Copeland Island.
Reina Del Pacifico
I heard the news on the radio on the evening of the
11th of September. Next morning I was giving out the
boards in the time office(a board was made of wood,
about three inches long by two inches wide with two
ears between which a person's number was stamped. The
ears were for picking it out of the wooden tray) when
a fitter who had been on the ship entered and began
talking in an agitated manner to Billy Eason. He had
helped the doctor to administer morphine tablets to
the injured. I remember he was almost out out of his
mind in describing the horrors. He seized me and demonstrated
how he had pushed the morphine tablets into the mouths
of the injured men. Then he was bandaging Billy Eason's
chest with imaginary bandages. To my embarrassment I
burst out laughing.
Later the Reina Del Pacifico was towed up the Lough
to Victoria Wharf. I couldn't wait to get round to see
it. I imagined half the huge ship gone but there was
no sign of damage on the outside, except for a patch
of oily soot on the top of one of the yellow funnels.
A huge crowd had gathered - men had just downed tools.
Journalists were everywhere. The roof of a nearby workshop
was crowded with sightseers. The harbour police couldn't
get them off the asbestos roof and kept telling them
it was dangerous.
Then the bodies, wrapped in white sheets began to be
carried down the gangway on stretchers. One photographer
gathered a few of us office boys together in order to
take a photo. One boy began to slick his hair back with
spittle and generally we were all smiling into the camera.
The photographer kept telling us to put on a sad face
but we couldn't. He gave up in disgust. We were fourteen
and fifteen years old and the world of the adults was
not quite real to us yet.
A few weeks later some of us sneaked aboard the disaster
ship to look down into the vast engine room. It was
a mess of tangled steel stairways and pipes with a smell
of burnt oil. I wondered how anyone managed to survive
Besides these serious accidents the first-aid post
were always very busy in the shipyard. Every ship I
worked on had a death or two and many injuries. I was
myself injured a few times but not seriously. With the
macho atmosphere in the Yard you made light of having
your head stitched after a heavy spanner fell on you
from a height. (no hard hats then) Yet the older men
near retirement were of the opinion that we teenager
would never match his generation that built ships like
the Titanic. On top of that the war veterans from both
world wars made us out to be milk sops if we complained
about the cold or accidentally banging our fingernails
black with a hammer.
In 1948 the Reina Del Pacifico was repaired and went
back to its pre-war run between Liverpool and Valpariso.
I watched it being towed out into Belfast Lough glistening
white with two yellow funnels. It sure was the queen
of the pacific as its Spanish name implied, and I longed
to be onboard to visit exotic places it would visit.
In 1957 it went aground off Bermuda. A few months later
it lost a propeller off Havana. A few years later the
ship was scrapped in a shipyard in Monmouthshire. A
ship was like a human being to most of we shipyard workers,
always female and given the same respect we were supposed
to give to our mothers. The Reina Del Pacifico, built
in 1931, had survived WW2 but couldn't survive when
passengers began taking to air travel. Most former shipyardmen
must be happy at the advent of vessels once again sailing
the oceans as cruise ships but is it the same as the
old romantic days of the mighty passenger liner.
My uncle and cousins also worked in the Yard. My father
had served his woodworking apprenticeship in Workman
Clarks from 1914 to 1921. It was a seven-year apprenticeship
then. Workman Clarks shipyard was not far from Harland
and Wolff's. It closed down maybe in the 1920s and is
largely forgotten today.
One of the jobs my father did was working on what was
called the dummy aircraft carrier. It was made entirely
of timber and was made to fool the enemy during WW2.
But German reconnaissance were constant flying over
the Yard which was an indication that there would be
bombing raids soon.
Harland Wolff then began to build planes in line with
Short and Harland's which was an aircraft builder near
the Yard across a stretch of water. My father was asked
if he would like to became what was called a dilute
fitter. He accepted and was trained in metal work at
Belfast Technical College. Soon afterwards he was working
on building Stirling bombers seven days a week in artificial
light. If you dared to take a couple of days off the
police were at your door asking when you would be returning
to work. It was priority war work.
| The workforce
of H&W produced athletes , footballers,
playwrights and actors to name but a few.
On the night of the German air raids this aircraft
factory was hit. My father went to work the next morning.
Fires were still burning. Going through High Street,
Belfast, the heat from the fires was so intense his
hair singed. Getting to the aircraft works all he could
see was molten metal in the shell of a building. The
men were then set to work clearing up. It was up and
running again in three months.
I left the shipyard in 1954 and went to London. My
father continued to work in the Yard until retirement
in 1965. He was a shipyardman all his life except for
the 7 years he spent in New York from 1923 - 1930.
In 2004 I had a book published called The Yard. It
was a series of long-short stories. The main one was
about the shipyard. Later I wrote a more intense work
about the shipyard as a novel but I have been unable
to get it published. I think with Northern Ireland mostly
given over to service industries and with its industrial
might closed down industrial matters are now ignored
or not understood anymore. So many wonderful skilled
trades are now lost.
The shipyard had them all. They did everything from
building the raw carcass of ships to the finishing of
them - terrazzo floor laying, upholstery, curtain-making,
french polishing were as important skills as caulking,
welding, engine-building, shipwrighting and a hundred
other trades to do with metal and engineering.
Shipyard humour was something that had you laughing
no matter how cold and miserable you might be with the
wind coming up Belfast Lough on a winter's day and it
refrigerating the bare steel hull of a ship.
In London I eventually began to write plays for the
theatre and had a few successes. I am still writing
away. Out of the 35, 000 personnel there there were
those with tremendous ambitions. Some were training
and working to be footballers, cricketers, novelists,
learning foreign languages, radio operators in the merchant
navy, to be preachers. casino operators, professional
dancers, actors, wrestlers, boxers, athletes. Many succeeded.
The shipyard did that for us. It was a cosmopolitan
scene with all the ships of many nations coming in for
repair and refurbishment.
We met so many different nationalities that the rest
of Northern Ireland were unlikely to meet. I hope a
fully-fledged shipyard will rise again some day on Queens
Island. Don't let it be built over with expensive town
houses looking over vacant sterile waters with the cranes
Samson and Goliath being mere platforms for an expensive
To finish: Does anyone remember the man with the shotgun
whose job was to shoot pigeons and starlings? He had
a hut around the Thompson Dry Dock. I remember him with
a wheelbarrow load of dead birds going into dry dock
pumping station to burn them in the furnace.
John Haire is a playwright whose work has been produced
at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, The Royal Court and
The Royal National Theatres in London, The Lyric Theatre,
Belfast, and in other theatres throughout the world.
Born in Belfast, just off the Shankill Road, he entered
the shipyard as an office boy at fourteen. At 16 he
became an apprentice joiner, working with men who
had been born in the nineteenth century and had worked
on building the Titanic, had fought in the 1914-18
war and were still working after the Second World
At 22 he left Belfast for England,
and in the early ’60s he began to have stories
published and joined the semi-professional Unity Theatre;
in 1968 his one-act play, The Clockin’ Hen,
was performed. In 1971 Within Two Shadows,
described as “the first play on the Ulster Crisis”
won major drama awards. His other plays for the theatre
include Bloom of the Diamond Stone, Echoes
from a Concrete Canyon and Lost Worlds,
and he has written television plays for the BBC: The
Dandelion Clock and Letter from a Soldier