Over the Bridge - Part of working class culture

Marc Mulholland, Militant, November 1990

This month sees the return to the stage of one of the most controversial plays in the history of Northern Ireland. The same elements which outrages the ruling class in the late 1950s, makes it of great interest today. The story of labour versus sectarianism in the Harland and Wolff shipyard reflects and now is, a part of the working class culture in the North.

'Over the Bridge' was first shown on January 26th 1960 in the Empire Theatre, three years after if was due to be played in the Group Theatre. That time it had been blocked by J Ritchie McKee, manager of the theatre and a pillar of the Establishment. He also sat on the board of governors of the BBC and his brother and ally was Cecil McKee, Unionist Lord Mayor of Belfast. In protest, three directors and many of the actors resigned and formed 'Ulster Bridge Productions', the company which eventually produced the play.

McKee explained his suppression by claiming that it would 'give rise to sectarian or political controversy of an extreme nature'.

In fact, no production ever sparked off sectarian trouble. What McKee and the Establishment really objected to was the play's damning indictment of sectarian politics and the implicit call for workers' unity by the labour movement, to combat it. The ruling class in their crude policies of censorship, clearly revealed their fear of such a united working class.

Much of the play's power undoubtedly comes form the background of the man who wrote it, Sam Thompson. Born into a Protestant working class family in East Belfast, his childhood was scarred by the sectarian riots of the early 1920's, sparked off by the expulsion of Catholics and socialists from the Harland and Wolff shipyard, during which he witnessed a mob kick a man to death.

He began work in the shipyard as a painter in the 1930s. He rapidly became a socialist and after the war, a militant shop steward. For his union activities Harland and Wolff paid him off and he had to work freelance from then on.

After the success of 'Over the Bridge', he gave up his job but did not forget his roots. His later plays all had a sharp political edge - dealing with gerrymandering, fascism, etc. - and he became a well-known radio and television personality. In 1964 he ran as a candidate for the Northern Ireland Labour party (NILP) in South Down. A series of heart attacks culminated in his sudden death, in the offices of the NILP on 15th February 1965. The labour movement in Northern Ireland can truly claim Thompson as its own.

'Over the Bridge' dramatises an outbreak of sectarian violence in the shipyard. The action is centred around a number of union activists, ranging from the principled and courageous shop steward, Davy Mitchell - based on the 1930s trade union leader, David Scarbourgh - the 'sinister' mob leader. The trade union's power in such small issues is contrasted to its ability to deal with the major cancer of sectarianism. From the first scene it is bubbling away - even affecting union activists - but it takes a suspected IRA bomb for it to explode into mob violence. How the main characters react to this crisis and its aftermath is the dramatic climax of the play.

The drama is however never dry or lecturing. It is instead, full of humour and acute social detail, giving it a marvellous period atmosphere. Despite dealing with the ins and outs of union business the dramatic tension is maintained.

'Over the Bridge' 15th November - 8th December in the Lyric Theatre, Stranmillas, Belfast. Don't miss it.

Review by Marc Mulholland

An earlier review of this play
by Gerry Lynch of Derry Labour and Trade Union Party dating from 1977 can be seen here.

Other reviews of plays, etc. can
be found here.

The full range of articles from the Socialist Party
are available in our sitemap