Review:- Over the Bridge – a chronicle of life in the shipyards

Gerry Lynch (Derry Labour and Trade Union Party) In Militant Irish Monthly, April 1979 No. 72

Last month I had the rare privilege of seeing a production of the late Sam Thompson’s classic play, Over the Bridge, about working class life in and around Belfast shipyards.

The play was written in 1959 by Sam Thompson, himself a former shipyard worker and an active trade unionist and socialist. He was a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party during some of its most active days.

The main thrust of the play is against sectarianism and Thompson vividly illustrates the unions attempts to combat an anti-catholic whispering campaign. The union is simultaneously involved in retaining the closed shop and in vetting excessive overtime so as to mop up its unemployed members, and in both these struggles the workers’ strength and the boss’s weakness is brilliantly shown.

It is clear that in the old days – ‘the depression’ – that the head foreman, Fox, had ruled like a despot over the men, selecting only a handful form the hundreds who clamoured at the gates every morning looking for work. But now after years of struggle, the union had won the closed shop and had steady employment for all its membership.

But despite this the union is not strong enough to withstand the creeping, cowardly tactics of the bigots who engineer a whispering campaign and following an explosion, said to be the work of the IRA, demand that all Catholics leave the yard.

Peter O’Boyle, the stubborn catholic worker, refuses, and despite a change of heart by Archie Kerr, the worker who has carried most of the smear stories, and pious statements from the foreman, Fox, and the union branch officers, it is only his workmate and veteran union leader, Davy Mitchel, who defends him in the teeth of the mob. Both men fall victims. Mitchell, a man prematurely aged by decades of union work and effort, dies, and O’Boyle is crippled.

Despite all this, however, Thompson’s message is clear! The union leaders in the play made no serious attempt to involve the mass of their members in efforts to eradicate the sectarian whisperings. The branch committee only met and attempted to ‘reconcile’ the differences. There was no mention of shop floor unity forged I economic battles. Being translated into effective unity for defence against sectarianism. As happened in the 1920’s and 30’s it was the Catholics, but also the socialists, who were driven out of work, maimed or killed.

Nevertheless there is optimism in Over the Bridge. Sam Thompson drew out both the strengths and the weaknesses of the trade unions. He showed us the stark and frightening reality of sectarianism, but he also showed us that the trade union movement has the potential to defeat it.

A later review of this play
by Marc Mulholland dating from 1990 can be seen here.



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