Belfast’s ‘wee yard’ made ships, men

Theatre / By Orla O'Sullivan

“The Boat Factory” * By Dan Gordon * Starring Dan Gordon and Michael Condron * Directed by Philip Crawford * at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison Avenues) * Playing Tuesdays through Sundays until June 30 * Tickets through 212-279-4200 or online at

“The Boat Factory” might almost have been called “The Man Factory,” it’s so much a story of how men from a certain background in Belfast were formed for almost a century.

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Working-class Protestants got their sons and nephews in to learn “a trade for life,” – a passport to the great world beyond, though few got to leave the Harland & Wolff shipyard unless injury or industrial illness claimed them early.

The hardships that helped make men of boys are very humorously and touchingly told in Belfast actor/writer Dan Gordon’s tale, drawn partly from the lives his father and grandfather spent working in the factory.

The “indenture” a 16-year old signed for the privilege of a five-year apprenticeship in exchange for a £5 deposit had connotations of slavery, between meager pay, readily forfeited for damages; the absence of sick time; and the understanding that anyone who claimed against the company for injury would be fired.

So, the initiation rite encompassed acceptance of the pecking order in what was at its height, the world’s biggest shipyard, employing 35,000 men. Naive newcomers were set tasks like collecting “a bucket of steam,” assigned nicknames, and eventually they adopted the company mythology as their own. For example, remarking of the Titanic, “she was alright when she left us.”

Anyone tired of hearing of the Titanic, after last year’s centenary celebrations, need not fear “The Boat Factory.” It’s very much about a way of life, rather than boats. Besides, the play notes, the Titanic was just one of 1,700 ships built at the yard (between 1861 and 1960), and not even its fastest.

All the history and sociology is built into the seams, as the play tells how Davy Gordon (Dan Gordon) came to the factory at 16 and worked alongside Geordie Kilkpatrick (Michael Condron), who would become his best friend in life.

The mechanistic way the story is told is part of its poetry. Philip Crawford directs with a staccato beat, evoking hammering, as playful interludes between the two characters are interspersed with technical descriptions—exhaustive classifications of types of steel or nails, seemingly straight from training manuals. The technique is well used when the emotive scene after a fatal accident “cuts” to a treatise on methods of securing hinges.

The simple set—scaffolding in front of a backdrop of the shipyard’s floor plan—also befits the type of thinking required at the shipyard.

When Davy (AKA Flash) Gordon’s doctor couldn’t give him a prognosis for his fatal lung condition (as asbestos, in fact, brought the demise of the playwright’s father), he was unimpressed. “We had to be right within 1/16 of an inch,” he said.

Gordon is great doing what anyone who has acted knows to be one of the hardest things to do: acting normal. He is completely solid as an ordinary guy.

Condron didn’t open so strongly but went on to dazzle in 32 roles played (no significance, we’re told): among them as a nurse, a gay salesman and as Gustav Wolff, the shipyard’s German co-founder.

From global dominance in 1900, “the wee yard” wound up displaced in shipbuilding by the 1960s, and known as “the great white whale.”

There are many references to being swallowed by forces greater than us in this play. Whatever our fate, we can laugh as we ride the wave, it suggests. The colloquial language alone is a tonic, such as on Davy’s first day on the job. An unrequited kiss from an older woman “was like having your lips sucked through a letterbox by a camel,” he said.

“The Boat Factory” had its U.S. premiere as part of the Brits Off Broadway annual festival. After June 30, it sails on to parts of the Republic, including County Donegal for July 12.