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Machnamh 100: Class experience, state and identity, a Northern perspective - Professor Henry Patterson

26th May, 2022

Professor O’Leary has provided us with an impressive , historically informed, political science overview of the Free State, Northern Ireland and the UK since partition . My focus is a narrower one that addresses an issue that has been largely absent from the Decade of Centenaries treatment of the North – that of class and unionist identity. My focus will be on two groups: the shipyard owners and shipyard workers of Belfast. This is also in part the history of my father’s family who arrived in east Belfast from Scotland in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Their history, in particular that involving employment in Belfast’s premier industry , can be used as a concrete example of the progressive and sectarian tendencies within a key sector of the Protestant working class. At times these tendencies cohabited in the same individual as Connal Parr has recently demonstrated in his work on the shipyard playwright and master of a lodge of the Independent Orange Order, Thomas Carnduff.1

From the 1880s, the industrial/political bloc between the shipyard owners and their largely Protestant labour force was, in the words of Arthur Balfour to the War Cabinet in 1918, ‘the heart of the Ulster movement’.2

Belfast’s engineering and shipbuilding industries were orientated outwards to the Irish Sea triangle - of which the other points were Glasgow and Liverpool - and beyond that to the Empire. In the case of the shipyards a broader imperialism of free trade also linked them to markets in the United States and Latin America. The city’s most dynamic period of economic and demographic expansion would not have happened without these links. The founders of the Harland and Wolff and Workman, Clark shipyards were either migrants from the North of England and Scotland or their second generation descendants. 3 A unionism without these productive forces would have found it much harder to resist Home Rule.


By 1914 Harland and Wolff employed nearly 25,000 when its works in Liverpool and Southampton are included. In Belfast, along with Workman, Clark, the shipyards employed over 20,000 workers.4 The industrial might of Belfast in British and international terms is well summed up by the economic historian, David Edgerton:

Belfast could claim Harland and Wolff, the largest shipyard in the world; Belfast Harbour built the largest dry dock in the world, the Thompson Graving Dock. It had in the Sirocco Works, the world’s largest tea drying machinery maker and in the Belfast Rope Works, which employed 3,600 the largest maker of rope in the world ...5

Shipyard workers set their own records: the Guinness World Record in riveting was set by a Workman, Clark riveter in 1918.6

Much of this industry was located in the east of the city across the Lagan from the city centre and the older largely textile-based industrial districts of the Shankill and the Falls. The giant Queen’s Island works of Harland and Wolff, the Ropeworks and the Sirocco works were all in the Ballymacarrett district whose main artery was the lower Newtownards Road. The expanding workforces were housed in row after row of new redbrick terraces in East and South-East Belfast, many of which were built in the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

It was in this part of Belfast that my father was born in 1917 to parents living in Dee Street, which runs from the lower Newtownards Road towards the Queen’s Island.

The British Film Institute has a short film showing the then holder of the record, W. Moses, of Vickers Yard in Barrow and Furness, who sank 5894 rivets in a 9 hour shift. However, that was soon broken and a Guinness World Record set by John Moir of Workman Clark who, in a Stakhanovite performance, sank 11,209 rivets in nine hours. Like my great grandfather, Moir, a Presbyterian, had come to Belfast from the Clyde. Watch Record Breaking Rivetters Online. BFI Player, online accessed 18 March 2022.

The family, like many other Scottish Presbyterian migrants, arrived in Belfast from the shipbuilding centres of the Clyde in the 1890s. That decade had seen the population of Belfast expand from almost 260,000 to just under 350,000 the largest increase in its history7. Migrants from other shipbuilding centres brought not only their trades but also their politics- in 1893 some of the workers expelled from Harland and Wolff were identified as Scottish Home Rulers.8

My great grandfather, William, had been a riveter on the Clyde. According to the 1901 census the family was living in 10 Melrose Avenue a recently constructed terrace of six houses, off the Beersbridge Road, a few hundred yards from the Ropeworks. William was now a riveter in Harland and Wolff, while his son Henry and a daughter, Eliza, were employed in the Ropeworks.

By 1912, both William and Henry were working in Harland and Wolff: Henry was now also a riveter following the common path of many skilled shipyard workers throughout the UK where apprenticeships, jealously guarded by the craft unions, were obtained through the intervention of a father or other relative. Given the religious and ethnic divisions in Belfast, this meant the Protestant domination of the shipyard crafts. Henry married and moved to Hollycroft Avenue the next street up the Beersbridge Road from Melrose Avenue. A few streets further up was Hyndford Street where in 1945 at number 125 George Ivan, ‘Van’ Morrison was born, the son of an electrician in Harland and Wolff9.

In 1912, William and Henry walked down the Beersbridge Road to the Bloomfield Avenue Presbyterian Church to sign the Ulster Covenant. Henry was in the Orange Order which by 1914 had over 13,000 members in Belfast an increase of almost a third since the introduction of the third Home Rule Bill. 10 The Orange Order never constituted a solid bloc within Unionism, representing as it did a wide range of views and social groups. It was as divided by class as was the broader Unionist movement. Dee Street had a hall of the Independent Orange Order, the radical, working class schism from the main Order led by the shipyard worker, Thomas Sloan. Sloan’s successful bid to become MP for South Belfast in 1902, had been financed by William Pirrie,11 the managing director of Harland and Wolff, and at that time a Home Rule supporter.

Pirrie’s family, like most of the Presbyterian business class of Belfast, had been Liberal in politics and anti-Orange down to the 1880s when Gladstone’s support for Home Rule had pushed the majority into a Unionist alliance with their former Conservative opponents.12 Pirrie had maintained the faith in part because his support for Catholic and Labour representation on Belfast Corporation when he was Lord Mayor in 1898 had robbed him of the Unionist nomination for South Belfast. He soon afterwards declared his support for Home Rule13.

Orangeism was certainly a barrier to a broader class unity across the religious divide but not to class consciousness within the shipyards- in 1920 some of the trade union militants expelled were Orangemen. 14 Portrayals of the Order as embodying a colonially rooted ethos of Protestant superiority over Catholics get only part of the truth of working class Orangeism. F.S.L Lyons’ description of the Order still rings true: ‘It appealed to religious primitivism but it also provided colour, poetry and its own kind of magic for ordinary drab lives.’15

A photograph taken on a piece of open ground in Dee Street in 191216 shows three rows of men seated and standing wearing Orange and Black sashes and collarettes with at each side members of the East Belfast UVF in uniform and carrying rifles.

The men are standing in front of ‘Lundy’s Pole’ – a telegraph pole converted into a symbolic display of loyalist determination to resist Home Rule and cast out traitors. In February 1912 Pirrie had organised a pro-Home meeting in Celtic Park in Belfast addressed by Winston Churchill and John Redmond.17 Four days later he was pelted with flour, rotten eggs and herrings when getting the steamer to Scotland in Larne.18 By 1920 Pirrie had reverted to Unionism . De Valera and Collins were perceived as such a direct threat to the future of the shipyards that he was making contingency plans to transfer the business to the Clyde.19

At the north end of Dee Street, before the bridge which took workers into the shipyard, was the Oval, the ground of Glentoran FC. The land on which the Oval was built along with a large part of Ballymacarrett between the Queen’s Island and the lower Newtownards Road was owned by the property developer, factory owner and Unionist politician, Sir Daniel Dixon. Dixon was the key mover in floating Glentoran as a public company in 1900, along with Gustav Wolff and Pirrie.

In 1912 the Oval was the venue for an anti-Home Rule rally where the crowd created a human Union Jack.20 Glentoran was the sporting embodiment of a unionist class alliance. The player register for 1911/12 lists the trades of the players: fitters, caulkers, shipwrights, platers, painters and shipyard labourers.

Craftsmen were the shipyard elite and constituted around two thirds of the workforce.21 Tasked with riveting together the iron and steel plates of a ship’s hull, the riveters were amongst the highest paid crafts. These were Lenin’s ‘labour

aristocracy’, the skilled workers who formed the bedrock of craft unionism and labour politics.       

However, although wages were higher, the work was insecure due to the very severe business cycle of the industry- unemployment was common even in periods of prosperity. Working on the hulls of ships in all weathers was dangerous and deaths and injuries from falls or objects falling on workers were common.22 The constant noise of hammering resulted in many riveters being deaf by the end of their thirties.23 Inhalation of fumes from the heating of rivets could lead to lung disease- it killed my grandfather at the age of 50.

Many of those who attended the 1912 Unionist rally were, by January 1919, involved in the shipbuilding and engineering workers strike for a reduction of working hours from 54 hours to 44 which shut down the city for 3 weeks. Emmet O’Connor has labelled the two years from the summer of 1918 to the summer of 1920 as Belfast’s two Red Years pointing to the mass strike and the election of 13 Labour councillors to the Corporation in January 1920.24

The shipyard expulsions of July 1920 have captured the attention of historians. However, the broader social and economic history of Ballymacarrett, its industrial muscle and trade union history, have hardly featured in analyses of this period and the subsequent history of the Northern Ireland state.25

The shipyards contained a dark tradition, manifest since the 1860s , of vicarious retribution against Catholic employees for the political and violent acts of Irish nationalists in other parts of the island. They also contained those, who in the 1893 disturbances over the second Home Rule Bill, tried to protect their Catholic workmates from the mob.26 The main craft unions condemned the violence and intimidation in 1893 and 191227. It was to the shipyard workers of his parish that the Revd John Redmond of St Patrick’s on the lower Newtownards Road turned in July

1920 when he organised bands of unarmed volunteers to protect the premises of local Catholics and prevent rioting and looting.28

However, there is little doubt that, at a time of intense uncertainty about the political future of the North, many shipyard workers were indifferent to the fate of those who had been expelled and others feared the consequences of opposing the mob. But the national question was not the sole issue at play. Employers and the Unionist leadership shared an acute class anxiety. The Belfast Newsletter blamed the

1919 strike on ‘Bolshevik agitators’.29 Carson was President of the British Empire Union, established by ultras in the Conservative Party to ‘expose Bolshevism and the dangers connected with Nationalism’. In Belfast a key role in the BEU was played by the shipyard militants of the Ulster Unionist Labour Association who identified socialism and industrial militancy with Sinn Fein. 30

The UULA did its work well- over 1850 of the expelled were Protestants many of them trade union and labour activists.31 Along with high rates of unemployment from the mid-1920s to the end of the thirties the spectre of shipyard radicalism which had so troubled Unionist leaders in 1919 was banished.

The Second World War resulted in an upsurge of militancy in the shipyards, engineering and aircraft factories, which between them employed around 40,000 workers in 1944.32 It was the heavily unionised shipyard and engineering workers who made Northern Ireland the most strike prone region of the UK during the Second World War33. It was east Belfast workers, many of them from the shipyard, who gave Billy McCullough, general secretary of the Communist Party of Northern Ireland, almost six thousand votes in the 1945 Stormont election for the Bloomfield constituency.34 Without the fear of losing this class’s support the Unionist Party may well have indulged its most reactionary sectors and used devolution to keep out the welfare state when it was introduced in the rest of the UK after 1945.

My grandfather was part of the ‘respectable’ working class, with no time for rioters but equally no sympathy for ‘red flaggers’. He had joined the Congregationalists , a small ultra-democratic sect, that expected regular church and Sunday school attendance and an ordered life distinct from chaos and disorder which was thought to characterise the ‘rough’ elements of the working class.

With six children, the eldest nine at the time of partition, his work and the income it brought was the centre of his existence. The summer violence in 1920 was uncomfortably close to his family. In two incidents at or near Dee Street, five young Protestants were shot dead by the military .35 However with some of the best wages for skilled workers in the UK and relatively full order books down to 1925, Harland and Wolff provided the means by which he was able to exit east Belfast and take his family to the safely unionist town of Bangor.

His unionism and British national identity, like that of many other working class Protestants, was rooted in taken-for-granted aspects of everyday life at the core of which was their work and the nexus of financial, economic and political relations with Britain and the Empire that made it possible. These included the trade unions and for a minority labour and socialist politics. The material basis for this working class unionist identity was still remarkably strong in the 1960s- the iconic gantries, Samson and Goliath, were built in 1969 and 1973.

On the 25 August during the severe rioting that followed the IRA’s killing of District Inspector Swanzy in Lisburn, James McCartney a nineteen year old rope-worker from Frome Street and Ethel Mary Burrowes , a sixteen year old rope-worker from Bright Street were shot and fatally wounded at Dee Street. The shots came from a military lorry parked outside St Matthew’s church. The Dead of the Irish Revolution, 165.

It was also manifest in the shop stewards’ movement which had developed during the War. In August 1969 when violence broke out in Belfast, it was the shop stewards who called a mass meeting of the workforce to successfully oppose attempts by loyalist militants to repeat the expulsion of the 1920s. In the words of Sandy Scott, the chief shop steward in the yard, ‘The shipyard men are determined to maintain the peace and set an example to the province.’36

For all the sectarianism that existed within the shipyards, without the class consciousness that was also rooted there, the Northern Ireland state would have been more like the ‘carnival of reaction’ that Connolly predicted.


1 Connal Parr, Inventing the Myth: Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017, 53-54.

2 Henry Patterson, Class Conflict and Sectarianism: The Protestant Working Class and the Belfast Labour Movement 1868-1921, Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1980, 94.

3 Patrick Maume, ‘Sir George Smith Clark 1861-1935’ in James Maguire and James Quinn, eds., Ulster Political Lives 1886-1925, Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, 2016.

4 Michael Moss and John R. Hume, Shipbuilders to the World: 125 Years of Harland and Wolff, Belfast 1861- 1986, Belfast, The Blackstaff Press, 175.

5 David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, London, Penguin 2020, p.132.

6 In 1918 shipbuilding yards throughout the UK competed to set the world record for riveting.

7 S.J. Connolly ed. Belfast 400 People, Place and History, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2012, 17.

8 ‘Men expelled from Queen’s Island’, Irish Times, 26 April 1893.

9 ‘’You watched the big picture fade away down at Harland and Wolff You lived your life of quiet desperation on the side

Going to the shipyard in the morning on your bike” , Van Morrison lyrics from ‘Choppin Wood’.

10 D. H. Govan, ‘Towards a religious understanding of the Orange Order in Belfast, 1910-14’, Irish Studies Review, vol. 29 , issue 4, 2021.

11 Sloan was a semi-skilled worker in Harland and Wolff who held evangelical meetings in the platers’ shed during the lunch breaks: Moss and Hume, Shipbuilders, 127.

12 Alice Johnson, Middle Class Life in Victorian Belfast, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2020, 160.

13 Glenn Simpson, ‘William Pirrie, the Titanic and Home Rule’, History Ireland, volume 20, Issue 2, March/April 2012.

14 Patterson, Class Conflict and Sectarianism, 142.

15 F.S. L. Lyons, Culture and Anarchy in Ireland, 1890-1939, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1982, 136.

16 Aidan Campbell, Ballymacarrett, An Illustrated and Spoken History of Ballymacarrett, East Belfast, self- published, 2016, 56.

17 ‘Lord Pirrie was generally considered to be one of Belfast’s most unloved citizens..’, George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England, London, Serif, 2012, 84.

18 Moss and Hume, Shipbuilders, 157.

19 Moss and Hume, Shipbuilders, 225.

20 This paragraph is based on Sam Robinson, There’s a Green Sward Called the Oval: The Life and Times of a Football Stadium, Belfast, self-published, no date,

21 John Foster and Charles Woolfson, The Politics of the UCS Work-In, London, Lawrence & Wishart, 1986, 134

22 James Connolly wrote of the loss of 17 workers during the construction of the Titanic: ‘Our shipyards offer up a daily sacrifice of life and limb on the altar of capitalism.’ quoted in John Lynch, ‘The Belfast Shipyards and the Industrial Working Class’ in F. Devine, F. Lane & N. Purseil, Essays in Irish Labour History, Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2008, 141.

23 Richard P. De Kerbrech & David L. Williams, Harland and Wolff and Workman Clark; A Golden Age of Shipbuilding in Old Images, Cheltenham, The History Press, 22.

24 Emmet O’Connor, ‘Labour in Ulster and the Formation of Northern Ireland’, in Labour and Northern Ireland Foundation and Development , Proceedings of a Conference held in The Mac, Belfast on 5 October 2019, Belfast, Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, 20-21.

25 An important exception is Connal Parr, Inventing the Myth Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017.

26 ‘Disturbances in Belfast….Men beaten on Queen’s Island’, The Weekly Irish Times, 29 April 1893.

27 ‘The Queen’s Island Workmen’, Irish Times, 6 May 1893 and Austen Morgan, Labour and Partition The Belfast Working Class 1905-1923, London, Pluto Press, 1991, 136.

28 Brian M. Walker, ‘Outreach in the Midst of Conflict: The Revd John Redmond in 1920s Belfast’, Archive of the Month 01 August 2020,

29 Patterson, Class Conflict and Sectarianism, 105.

30 Patterson, Class Conflict and Sectarianism, 127-128..

31 Austen Morgan, Labour and Partition , 270.

32 Philip Ollerenshaw, Northern Ireland in the Second World War, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2013, 128.

33 Ollerenshaw, Northern Ireland in the Second World War, 123-125.

34 Sean Byers, Sean Murray Marxist Leninist and Irish Socialist Republican, Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2015, 146.

35 On the 22 July 1920, the day after the shipyard expulsions, James Stewart, an eighteen year old apprentice engineer from Clydebank, was walking down the Newtownards Road with his cousin, Nellie McGregor and John Doyle , a friend, when they were shot and fatally wounded by soldiers dealing with rioters further down the road near St Matthews Catholic church. Stewart was on holiday from Scotland staying with his cousin who lived in Frome Street, the next street up from Dee Street towards the city centre. There is no suggestion that they or Doyle were involved in rioting. Eunan O’Halpin and Daithi O Corrain, The Dead of the Irish Revolution, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2021, 153.

36 Michael McInerney, ‘The Vital Battle for Peace in Belfast Shipyards’, Irish Times, 30 December 1969.