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Playwright Dan Gordon on drawing inspiration from Belfast’s ‘Boat Factory’

Michael Condron (left) and Dan Gordon in 'The Boat Factory'
Michael Condron (left) and Dan Gordon in ‘The Boat Factory’

DAN GORDON is full of stories. Down the telephone line from his home city of Belfast, the jovial 52-year-old playwright and actor whizzes out an anecdote to accompany each question put to him.

Ask him about taking his current work, The Boat Factory, to New York’s theatres and he’s off on memories of performing his previous play, A Night In November, in the city.

Each story he tells is peppered with vivid memories of performing in churches, schools and deprived areas of Belfast, all with the central desire of “doing something with a connection” to the North of Ireland’s capital.

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His latest work certainly has that tie to the city. Set in Belfast 1947, The Boat Factory centres on Harland & Wolff’s Titanic Shipyard, which employed 35,000 men in 67 trades. Already a hit following performances at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the play is very close to Gordon’s heart.

“It’s based on my father’s story,” he says, “although it’s very loose because my father died in 1992 from asbestos that he picked up in the shipyard.

“So I interviewed these 25 other old guys who’d worked in the shipyard over the years, some of whom knew him, and I imagined a story around my father and invented a friend for him. That’s kind of the background to the play.

“It’s guys working in a tough industry; they saw each other more than they saw their families.”

Like many, Gordon was deeply affected by his father’s death. He says he found himself “one day looking in the mirror and you see him looking right back at you, and you think ‘whoa where did you come from?’”

“It’s just a thing of — not so much laying ghosts to rest — but getting comfortable with who you are and what your past is and what it’s about,” he says. “It’s a big thing here in the North of Ireland. We have struggled with identity because of the way the history of the place is.

“I look around and see the flag protests and think ‘guys, we need to pick our battles better than this’. We need to look at the lack of education, the lack of infrastructure and the lack of job opportunity and the death of industry, because in my father’s time and my grandfather’s time you didn’t need education.

“You went into the shipyard or you went into some form of industry. You followed your father or somebody in your family put a word in for you and that was you.

“That’s gone, and I don’t think that should be forgotten either so I wanted to get that in there too.”

Gordon, who is from the city’s Protestant community, notes that “there weren’t many Catholics” who worked in Harland & Wolff and although he comments on “the sectarianism that runs through the whole country”, he found that that wasn’t the focus of those who worked there.

“What I found when I interviewed the 25 guys was that they were very keen to say ‘actually you know what, it’s more about surviving,’” he says. “It’s about trying to get a wage, it’s about if you have an accident it would be your fault.

“If you lost a finger, or an eye or broke a hand or a leg or an arm, you just took the deal and you shut up and you kept your job. If you complained, a few weeks later you got your cards.

“So it was about the oppression of the working class rather than something that was about sectarianism. Really it was about trying to stay alive.”

Gordon — along with actor Michael Condron — is currently performing the work at London’s King’s Head Theatre. Acting out his own work is something he relishes, he says.

“I wrote this piece because it’s about creating your own work as well and I love doing stuff where you get to make the decisions about the characters and what they’re like and if you’re the writer as well you can buy-ball too; you can change things.

“And to be honest, it’s great to be there on stage bringing it to audiences in Cardiff, New York and London. That’s a real privilege.”

The Boat Factory is running at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington, North London until August 17.


Steve Cummins

Steve is the Irish Post's digital media & entertainment editor and looks after the paper's website and weekly entertainment supplement, Rí-Rá. Follow him @steve_cummins

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