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
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:
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.
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.
|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
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
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.
M1 Motorway, circa
(Picture Courtesy of Laings)
|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.
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
Another "working lives" story which centres
on a Co.Down boatyard is that of Bill Quinn from Kilkeel.
Click here to read
Here in Northern Ireland, old WWII runways have been
broken up and used very creatively to construct walls.
this article sent in by Tom Newell of Kilkeel.
RAF Squadron Histories : www.raf.mod.uk/history/sqn_hist.html
RAF Airfields, S.E.England: www.butler98.freeserve.co.uk/engmap.htm
Laings - history: www.laing.com/aboutus/history.html
Brief History of Concrete Ships: www.concreteships.org/history
Floating Tombstones: www.unmuseum.org/concrete.htm
MAREUD- History of Concrete Ships:
MAREUD- Concrete shipbuilders list: www.mareud.mine.nu/Ferro-Concrete/f-c-list.htm