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16 October 2014
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Working Lives -
Pat Durkin

How the material demands of WWI touched a Warrenpoint shipyard and shaped one man's entire working life...


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Each to his own...

In the same era that saw Harland & Wolff rising to be the world's leaders in the production of mighty luxury liners such as White Star's Titanic and Oceanic, another less well known shipbuilder, often referred to as "the forgotten shipyard" 40 miles away, was involved in a more revolutionary concept... concrete ships.

A concrete ship under construction in the Warrenpoint shipyard - circa 1919. (Picture copyright of Ulster Museum - MAGNI)

A concrete ship under construction in the Warrenpoint shipyard - circa 1919.
These ships were launched sideways on the skids that can be seen in the picture.
[ Picture copyright of Ulster Museum ]

The concrete ship - a brief background:

Although concrete might seem an unlikely choice of material, hundreds of concrete ships were built in a variety of shipyards all around the world from the start of the 20th century right up until around 1950. Still today, some small leisure craft are made from concrete as an alternative to the more common fibre composites. The idea dates back to 1848 when a Frenchman, Joseph Louis Lambot made a small concrete dinghy which was featured in the 1855 World Fair. And by the 1890s an Italian engineer, Carlo Gabellini was producing commercially successful barges and small ships.

The first World War brought a severe shortage of steel and at the same time there was a huge demand for more ships. With the available steel being prioritised for warships and military weapons the concept of building cargo and support vessels from concrete really came into its own. Shipyards everywhere found themselves having to learn new skills and some fairly adventurous projects were mounted during WWI. As the United States entered the war in its later stages, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the building of an "emergency fleet" made of concrete. The war ended however before these were ready for action.


The shaping of a life's work:

Patrick Joseph Durkin
Pat Durkin

In 1917 against the backdrop of WWI a young lad of sixteen, Patrick Joseph Durkin, joined the shipyard of J&R Thompson in his hometown of Warrenpoint. He was a well educated and industrious young man. His employers soon spotted his flair for making and interpreting technical drawings and it wasn't long before they gave him the opportunity to develop his creative skills. In a relatively short time he was promoted to the post of draughtsman.

The Thompson yard, like many other UK shipbuilders, was commissioned by the Shipping Controller in London to build a number of concrete ships. Although they may look similar to conventional steel ships, building concrete vessels was an art form of its own and the required specialist techniques and skills had to be learned. By sheer necessity the physics and the evolving chemistry of concrete and its methods of use were developing like never before. It brought about the bizarre convergence of the laws of architecture and buoyancy. The Thompson yard undertook the project in conjunction with McLaughlin & Harveys builders in Belfast. Patrick Durkin was heavily involved with this new science and worked hard to perfect new methods and processes. He may not have realised it at the time but the rich knowledge and understanding he was developing in Thompson's yard would be well noted and would open up new challenges, opportunities and rewards in an unpredictable career move lying in wait for him some twenty odd years ahead.

Once again a World War provided an urgent need for innovation and strategic deployment of specialist skills. Patrick Durkin, had the valuable craft and technological knowledge which was now so desperately needed in Great Britain. He was duly invited in 1939 to go to the south east of England. Concrete is versatile and so was Patrick. This time his task was to supervise the building of runways for the RAF... lots of them. The relatively pedestrian, solid and not so lovely sea-going vessels that had been his life had just been replaced by things a tad more glamorous - Spitfires and Hurricanes.

Building airfields throughout the SE of England
Building airfields throughout the South East. RAF mobility was vital


It was by no means only the skilled who went. Thousands of men from Ireland, north and south, went to build runways and aerodromes all over the mainland. They came from further afield too. Patrick found himself overseeing a team of Polish refugees, some of whom were to remain friends and colleagues for the next twenty or so years.

Fending off the enemy
RAF Spitfires
Their work on the airfields was of incalculable benefit to Britain's war effort since almost its entire potential workforce had been conscripted and had gone off to war. Effectively there were too few men left to build essentials and repair the damage caused by war. It is now a matter of history that the input of the 'concrete gangs' who built the runways, and then re-built and rebuilt them again as they were bombed, had a major influence on the outcome of WWII.

Meanwhile back home in Warrenpoint, Thompson's shipyard, which had closed down was re-opened as the Warrenpoint Shipyard Company Ltd., specifically for the purpose of building troop landing craft (LCTs) for the allied forces. Patrick would not return to the yard. A new and varied working life had just commenced.

The next five years were spent in an intensive work pattern. Pat's youngest son Michael says as a very small boy in a large family he can remember his father coming home on a leave warrant. "I grew up knowing this man with a brown attaché case who'd arrive home for a weekend every six weeks or so and give me a half crown every time he came home and every time he went away." Michael's mother had to run everything at home more or less single-handed. War re-shaped family life in countless ways in countless families.

The post-war years brought about a huge rebuilding programme throughout Great Britain. In the initial stages the task was to restore the infrastructure, such as factories, oil refineries, roads, housing and thereafter just about everything else that had fallen casualty. Patrick, like thousands of others who had come from the north and south of Ireland, decided to remain on the mainland for a time to continue to work on the innumerable construction projects brought about by the ravagesof war. His decision might possibly have been influenced by the fact that the shipyard in Warrenpoint was slipping into decline and its future was in some doubt. It was probably much wiser to stay put for his skills were in demand. Firms such as Laing's and Wimpeys had to take on the job of rebuilding England and they too needed skilled people.

By the late '50s, Pat found himself working with John Laing on the building of the M1 motorway in England. Later he moved on to the building of the M6 too. These were by no means average construction jobs. They were groundbreaking and very high profile.

North Wales was the location of his last big job on the mainland. He worked on the construction of the Trawsfynnydd nuclear power station. It was a massive building project which lasted for 5 years. At this site a huge labour camp was built which was a home from home for a great number of Irish labourers. At one stage the scheme employed around 5,000 men. Before they even built the plant they had to blast their way through a mountain to create a road for the materials to be brought in. This project was so big that they built a crane, similar to Belfast's 'Goliath', but much bigger, for just one job - to drop the enormous generators into the generating halls.

Building the M1 Motorway - circa 1958 - (Picture courtesy of Laing's)
M1 Motorway, circa 1958.
(Picture Courtesy of Laings)

Michael Durkin, Pat's youngest son
Michael Durkin
It was about this time that Pat was joined by his son Michael who had finished his studies at Queen's University and had come to work with him. Michael wanted to become involved in the construction industry but his father wasn't at all keen on the idea. "I went in on the bottom rung with my shovel and my cap. My father would give me every dirty, difficult job on the site just to try to put me off the idea of the building trade." says Michael. "Both he and my mother wanted me to become a teacher. They wanted me to have a respectable job. Teachers were respectable. Five of our family, including me, were trained to be teachers." Michael did eventually end up as a teacher but, he'll tell you that he still feels his father's work brought with it a great sense of "creation" and a "finished product" that he would really have loved to have shared.

Completed in 1951, Trawsfynnydd was the last nuclear power station to be built in Great Britain, as nuclear power was becoming increasingly controversial and unpopular.

One energy source that was gaining favour and popularity was a healthy breakfast. In 1965, The Kelloggs factory in Manchester was expanding. Patrick found himself working there as well. Diversity was very much his key to success.

It wasn't all work though. "During our Manchester years we had a great time. We would go one Saturday to see Manchester City playing and the next we'd go and see Manchester United." Michael says. "It was particularly special for us both to watch the inside forward line of George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law."

Pat Durkin had worked 22 years in the Warrenpoint shipyard before he left for the mainland and it was to be another 22 before he managed to return home to his family. He came back to Northern Ireland in the early '60s., when you'd think he might have deserved a little relaxation. Far from winding down however, the world of concrete called to him again This time the job was to build the dry dock at the Harland & Wolff shipyard, now known as the "Belfast Dry Dock", the biggest dry dock in the world? and Pat was one of the supervising foremen. This was reinforced concrete construction on a mammoth scale. The Dry Dock was opened in the late sixties. It was the last project that Pat would undertake before retirement.

So, oddly enough, Pat Durkin's life's work began in a shipyard and ended in a shipyard. He had, in a curious way, completed a full circle encompassing a very industrious and fruitful working life.

Belfast Dry Dock at H&W
The Belfast Dry Dock - Harland & Wolff Shipyard (Photo - L.Ferris)

Hey Paddy Irishman... Michael Durkin, Pat's son, wrote a song warning Irishmen about the exploitation of joining the labour camps in England. Click here to see it.

Another "working lives" story which centres on a Co.Down boatyard is that of Bill Quinn from Kilkeel. Click here to read it....

Here in Northern Ireland, old WWII runways have been broken up and used very creatively to construct walls. See this article sent in by Tom Newell of Kilkeel.


Relevant weblinks:

RAF Squadron Histories :

RAF Airfields, S.E.England:

Laings - history:

Brief History of Concrete Ships:

Floating Tombstones:

MAREUD- History of Concrete Ships:

MAREUD- Concrete shipbuilders list:

Your Replies:

Nick Hodson - July '06
Trawsfynnydd was not completed in 1951. In fact design did not even start till 1957. The designers were Atomic Power Constructions Ltd. They went on to design other Nuclear Power Stations in Britain, including Dungeness, It was in fact one of the first Nuclear Power Stations, and not the last. I personally was very much involved with the design.


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