Over that Bridge Again...

Well, I did promise... although with the passage of time and other intervening events I do wonder why... But given that I've recently posted on another play that touches on some of the issues that face working class Northern Ireland, and particularly the protestant part of it, I thought I should return to look at Sam Thompson's "Over the Bridge." I've already foisted an outrageously long post on you, dissecting Martin Lynch's recent adaptation of it, but I thought it might also be useful to look at some of the reasons why it is, in my not so humble opinion, one of the most important modern Irish plays...

There are a number of reasons:

The Physical Context - The Shipyard
In a moment of unguarded honesty a few years ago, when Harland and Wolff was teetering on the brink of total closure, a political representative with responsibilities for trade and industry said that the shipyard was a dreadful place... Full of asbestos and other noxious substances that will ultimately kill many of those who worked there. As a chaplain to the local hospital I've experienced the truth of that. But despite that,it was the major employer in Belfast, and particularly "Protestant" East Belfast for nearly a century, and the local people had a love/hate relationship with it akin to the mines in coal-mining areas. I remember a neighbour of mine who worked in the yard holding up his hands to me when I was about 8 or 9... neither hand had a full complement of digits, and he told me to do something with my brain so I wouldn't have to work with my hands in the yard. But the yard is part of the DNA of Protestant East Belfast, even among those who, like my Da, never worked there. Therefore its recent demise is almost a metaphor for the demise of Protestant hegemony in Belfast and Northern Ireland as a whole. The fact that the Titanic was built in Harland and Wolff's is still a bizarre source of pride locally (along with the Somme and George Best - 2 other success stories!), and for that reason the decision to name the massive development to be built on the site of the old shipyard "The Titanic Quarter" was not greeted with any sense of irony in the local community... not even when it struck the iceberg of the current development-led recession.

Generation after generation worked in the yard... where it wasn't what you knew but who you knew was important... Leading to a general disregard for education in the local working class loyalist community... a disregard which is so ingrained that it has outlasted the yard as a source of mass employment. But that disregard is disproportionately Protestant, because for most of it's history the workforce in the yard was disproportionately Protestant... Some that being because of the nepotistic recruitment policies of previous generations, but a lot being because of naked sectarianism.

And certainly the yard was not only filled with hazardous asbestos, it was also filled with hazardous sectarianism. Some of that was periodically stoked by employers and the ruling class who liked to divide and rule, as with the rent strike in the early years of the 20th century when residents of the Shankill and Falls came together to challenge their housing conditions, only to have Randolph Churchill advising those in power here to "play the Orange card" which they did, leading to an ultimate breakdown in the protest.

OK, it was often sectarianism dressed in the black humour that was also rife in the yard... Like the Glasgow shipyards that produced Billy Connolly, Belfast's Harland and Wolff produced its own comics... few made it to the national stage, but everyone in east Belfast knew someone who "worked" in the yard and would have them in stitches of laughter, regaling them with tales from the "island". Even last Friday at the Brian Houston concert, as he bantered the audience, he told one poor woman that it took 8 years of abuse in the yard to prepare him for putting down the public. But even when delivered as a joke, sectarianism is dangerous... perhaps more so.

Now, the yard has all but gone, but the legacy of humour, asbestos, attitude to education and sectarianism still remain.

The Spiritual Context - Faith and Bigotry
As I commented on Martin Lynch's adaptation and the recent Waterfront Studio production, this saw the doubling up of the evangelical Billy Morgan and the sectarian Archie Kerr so that both parts were played by the same actor... I do hope this was an economic consideration (actors ARE an expensive commodity) rather than a cheap allusion to sectarianism being the shadow side of evangelicalism. There may be a certain truth to it, but it is a truth that deserves greater exploration than a cheap theatrical device.

Unadulterated bigotry has been preached from Northern Ireland's pulpits down through the years... particularly in those that are popular among working class people. Bigotry sells... and whether you are a politician or a preacher it is easy to appeal to people's prejudices and tell them that all their problems are the fault of others. Is bigotry purely the preserve of working-class evangelicalism? No... although it has come in a slightly more naked form there at times. In middle class mainline protestantism the bigotry could (and can) be much more polite and intellectualised... whilst at the same time sneering at the straightforward sectarianism of working class fellow protestants. It has also been there within Roman Catholicism, with doubts cast on the Christian credentials of Protestants especially with the "Ne Temere" declaration rigorously enforced throughout Ireland, long after the effects of Vatican 2 had been felt throughout the rest of the world. The main difference between the Protestant and Roman Catholic take on sectarianism, however, is that, within Northern Ireland, for most of its history, the Protestant community has not only been in the majority but has wielded political power... and often those who have wielded political power have done so with an explicitly "evangelical Protestant" mindset.

Thompson touched on this explosive mix of faith and politics... his version of the play began with the supposed socialist Rabbie, singing a hymn by John Henry Newman, the Anglican turned Roman Catholic Cardinal... and finished with a minister stepping from the shadows to pronounce the words of the funeral service... The latter subtlety was lost with Martin Lynch's clumsy transposition of "It is no secret what God can do" from the middle of the play to the close... But perhaps this issue is too important for subtlety. Given the sensitivities of society at the time it was written, Thompson's version of the play was nearly never staged... If it had ended as Lynch's version had, it perhaps never would have been...

The Political Context - Socialism and Social Climbing
Throughout Northern Irish history, polite society has avoided talking about religion and politics. So let me finish with a reference to the political context in which the original production of "Over the Bridge" was written and set. Whilst Unionism dominated Northern Ireland throughout its history as a semi-independent statelet, an important minority voice in the life of working class protestantism was that of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, and the Unions. Sam Thompson came from that tradition.

My own family had a Unionist/Labour split within it... with my grandmother being a staunch unionist and my grandfather a labour man... Indeed there is a family myth that when my grandfather was serving in Burma at the close of the war, my grandmother used his proxy vote to vote for a unionist, causing a huge row when he got home.

But the politics of left and right have never trumped the politics of north and south, or orange and green, in this society, particularly not in the protestant part of it. This could, in part be due to an abiding fear of domination by the Roman Catholic Gaels on the part of Protestant planter stock... but it could also be due to something deep within that same Protestant planter stock that always wants to better oneself... a highly individualised faith... one later articulated by Margaret Thatcher in her denial of the existence of society... In Sam Thompson's version original version of the play it is articulated by Nellie, the sister in law of Davy, the union leader, leading her husband by the nose, to a better life out in the suburbs (suburbs that my own family moved to from east Belfast around the time this play was written). Nellie may have been a caricature, indeed most of the women's parts may have been and could have benefited by a rewrite by Marie Jones, who wrote "Rock Doves" that I saw on Saturday, but to lose that voice, as happened in Martin Lynch's adaptation, is to lose an important social factor in working class Protestantism... the "up and out" mentality of those who have bettered themselves, including those who have done so partly through a conversion experience. This has resulted, in latter years in those "left behind" in Loyalist estates feeling betrayed both by the church and middle class Protestants...

It is also unfortunate to lose 2 out of 3 female voices in the play as a whole, because that is a denial of the role of women in the "shipyard society." They may have been confined to the office within the confines of the actual yard, but working class East Belfast was held together by strong women. Some, over the years, have suggested that had women a more prominent place in society we would have had a much gentler, less confrontational province... But this disregards the fact that women can be just as bigoted as men... Indeed the subtle sectarianism passed on in the home from mother to child can be a lot more dangerous and difficult to root out than the straightforward variety that is usually manifested by men... a reservoir of bitterness. My father was the Orangeman, but it was my mild-mannered mother who first asked me was my fiancee a Catholic and threatened to boycott my brother's wedding if he went ahead and married his then Roman Catholic girlfriend.

Because they had cut back almost totally on female roles in this production, there were no grand statements in the programme about women's roles in reconciliation and peacebuilding, but there were various notes there which lionised the role of the union movement in the promotion of peace, tolerance, equality and apple pie. However, let's remember Sam Thompson's damning indictment of the trade unionists in the closing scene... where Baxter reminds the mourners that when the trouble loomed the union members all walked away... Actually in Martin Lynch's production this should have been changed to "we all walked away," as he had changed the stage directions such that ALL of Davy's friends and comrades "walked away."
Thompson was sadly being prophetic in that when the troubles broke out a decade after the production was first staged, many trade unionists made the decision that they valued either the United Kingdom, a united Ireland or their own peace and quiet, over and against the welbeing of their fellow trade unionists or the wider community.
Sadly many church members made the same choice... Choosing united Ireland or United Kingdom over the Kingdom of God...
50 years on from the original production and 40 years and more on from the beginings of our most recent batch of "Troubles" the context is changed... We live in a post-industrial world... the shipyard is no longer the powerhouse it once was... but its shadow looms large... both as a misleading myth of imperial protestantism/the brotherhood of socialism (take your pick) and (together with the welfare state) a malevolent influence on the attitude of working class protestants to education. Church-going may not be as popular as it once was (there's more things open and the TV is better on a Sunday!), but old sectarian certainties are still being pedalled from certain influential pulpits, and the legacy of generations of sectarianism will be hard to unpick... And the social landscape has radically changed... the divide between the Protestant middle class and the non-working class they and their forebearers had escaped from is now almost insurmountable... The labour movement (such as it ever was in Northern Ireland) has moved on from negotiating unsustainable working practices in the shipyard, to defending unsustainable levels of public sector employment, while even those who are part of a union are, on the whole, looking out for themselves.
Yet "Over the Bridge" is not simply an historic artifact to be taken out and dusted off every couple of decades; given a make-over by the current playwright who is flavour of the month... It is a reminder that behind all our high ideals... beyond all the words (and in Thompson's original play, as in this reflection, there is a superfluity of words), we need to be prepared to act... to stand up for one another, to stand up against what is wrong... whether it is the persecution of Catholic. Protestant or Roma... To built, not iconic yet ill-fated ships, but bridges to bring people together... people of different religions, races, political opinions and social classes... We need to build those bridges then cross over them...
(thanks to Wesley Johnston for the picture of the Dee Street Bridge from the Shipyard over to East Belfast proper)


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