Marking the 35th anniversary of the discovery of the wreck of the Titanic on the September 1 1985, acclaimed local actor, director and playwright Dan Gordon spent a nostalgic day with the press in and around Titanic Belfast.
The spectacular ‘cathedral’ to the city’s unique maritime past soars over Titanic’s slipway, in the heart of Harland and Wolff’s shipyard where Dan’s dad David (Davy) Gordon started as an apprentice joiner in July 1945.
Dan’s play about the H&W shipyard - The Boat Factory - has received substantial local, national and international acclaim.
It was hailed as “a unique story” in Brussels, “the epitome of great storytelling” in New York and in Belfast it had “many in the audience reaching for a hanky.”
Poignantly, most of the story is Dan’s dad’s!
At Titanic Belfast’s recent anniversary event Dan said: “On this day, 35 years ago, Dr Robert Ballard and French diving engineer Jean-Louis Michel discovered the world’s most famous ship’s final resting place and the world was captivated, but she was built here, by us!”
Dan urged everyone “to keep the story alive for future generations…look closer, go deeper and be surprised by what we don’t know!”
Titanic Belfast is hosting a special anniversary programme of events and exhibitions in its galleries and at the many historic riverside locations along the Lagan, with ‘Titanafacts’ on their website listing some of Dan’s lesser-told historical facts.
Dan also wants local people to consider “how the yard and shipping industry shaped Belfast and Northern Ireland.”
For instance, “there’s lots of talk about them all making ‘homers’ and drinking tea out of cans,” Dan explained.
“But they built 1,700 ships - 1,700, from scratch!
“Generating their own electricity, and steam, and putting wood out in the water and letting it harden over 10 years.
“Making cabinets for ships, upholstering furniture, laying keels and building ships that went around the world, their own railway lines, digging the Queen’s Island out of the water.
“It was the Victorian work ethic.
“It was the industrial revolution. And nowhere more than in Belfast was that felt.”
Davy Gordon’s mantra was ‘Don’t stand and wonder how to do it. Do it, and wonder how you did it!’
Son Dan took after his dad: “I knocked two houses together, two semi-detached houses. I learnt it from my dad!”
Dan’s father, like many of Belfast’s shipyard workers, was multi-skilled, which Dan reckons is in his genes.
“The only thing I can’t do well is plastering,” he admitted, “it’s too skilled. But I can do a bit of basic brick laying.
“I can certainly do woodwork, I can certainly plumb.”
I wondered how much Dan’s dad spoke about the shipyard.
“He talked about the people, the characters, the stories.”
Was he proud of the yard? Oh, very proud,” said Dan, “very proud of the shipyard. Very proud of the skills.
“He could draw a right angle on the ground by measuring with a tape measure and set up a square for a foundation.
“He could make stairs, the risers and treads and things like that.”
Belfast shipyard workers were renowned for colloquialisms, slipway slang and colourful phraseology. I asked Dan how his dad referred to his trade.
“He called himself a joiner,” Dan explained, adding, “joiner and carpenter are different. I have it in my play.”
He turned to the relevant page in the script.
“They even used different tools,” Dan enthused, reading from the original script of The Boat Factory “the common type of hammer for a joiner is the Warrington pattern hammer.
“The shaft is usually made of ash.”
Dan proceeded to recount (with remarkable fluency) the detailed and intriguing history of the hammer and of his dad’s bit and brace, apparently invented in ancient Egypt, making me wonder if Davy hoped his son would follow in his bootsteps and work in the yard.
“No,” said Dan, “he felt it was a brutal place. He saw education as the answer.”
Dan went to University, but vividly recalled his dad’s stories about hardship in H&W.
“The accidents that happened worried him.
“You know the saying ‘there was never a ship built here where a man didn’t die’ and usually there was more than one, and the injuries that happened.
“If there was an accident it was your fault, you were doing a job and if you claimed off the firm it was considered bad form.
“There was danger. Health and safety wasn’t something that was to the fore, though in later years it got better.
“He was once accidently shot with an industrial gun in the finger.
“A guy was using a Hilti gun, which shoots steel nails into concrete, and the guy jumped, whatever way he held it, and he shot my father through the finger.
“I remember my father coming home with the finger all bandaged up.
“I was five or six years of age.
“They wanted to take the finger off and he wouldn’t let them.
“He kept the finger but he could never use it.”
Visitors must book online before visiting Titanic Belfast.
Full information is at titanicbelfast.com or maritime-mile.com