TWO weeks before the Titanic set sail, the ship’s chief designer Thomas Andrews walked into the four main trade workshops at Harland & Wolff - workshops for the fitters, plumbers, joiners and electricians - and asked each foreman to name his best apprentice. The bosses nominated four young men, and Andrews informed them that they would join him and four senior tradesmen aboard the opulent liner for her maiden voyage as part of a H&W Guarantee Group.
The four apprentices selected from a work force of 15,000 were: Alfie Cunningham, 21, an apprentice fitter from Belfast’s Spamount Street; Ennis Watson, 18, an apprentice electrician from Madrid Street; William Campbell, a 17-year-old apprentice plumber from Earl Street; and Frankie Parkes, 18, an apprentice plumber from Agincourt Street.
Four senior tradesmen also joined the contingent: head draughtsman Roderick Chisholm; head electrician Bill Par; lead fitter Artie Frost; and senior fitter Rab Knight.
Roderick Chisholm had told his wife there was something about Titanic he didn’t like; Bill Parr’s wife was homesick for Lancashire and told her husband that after this trip they were to return home; Artie Frost was the most loyal of Thomas Andrews’ workers, refusing to leave the engine room until the very end; Rab Knight was a street-fighting loyalist.
The Guarantee Group were charged with helping the ship’s engineers and officers get acquainted with the workings of the impressive liner; they would act as troubleshooters where problems arose.
Belfast playwright Martin Lynch is the latest in a substantial line of writers, artists and musicians to turn his attention to the Titanic story.
The musical, with songs by JJ Gilmore - who worked with Lynch to create the George Best musical Dancing Shoes - and musical director Mark Dougherty, who worked on River Dance, centres its attention on these nine Harland & Wolff men who helped build Titanic, then sailed and tragically went down into the icy waters of the Atlantic with her.
This - it seems - is a genuinely fresh angle, an approach to the now well-worn story that brings something different.
Lynch’s production chiefly focuses on the imagined experiences of the four young apprentices on this doomed voyage.
Upon leaving Southampton they explore the Titanic, sample its luxuries and come into close contact with its wide range of passengers, filthy rich and dirt poor; they are dazzled, thrilled, wide-eyed pondering the opportunities New York might present to them. And then their dreams are destroyed along with the liner, far off in the ice-cold waters of the Atlantic on April 15, 1912.
“This is a story about the ‘Guarantee Boys’ who sailed on Titanic, but mostly it’s about the young apprentices in this group,” says Lynch. The playwright’s descriptions of the central four are immediately compelling:
“Apprentice fitter Aflie is the unoffical leader. He plays in an Orange flute band and is a Jack-the-lad who fancies himself with the ladies. His dad has theories about certain types of women and tells him that he has to go out with a girl whose name ends in ‘a’ or ‘y’. He has three girls, but the one he really pines for is Emily, back home.
“Ennis Watson is the joker in the pack. He’s always getting into scrapes, doing things wrong, and he wants to be a poet; he thinks he’s too good to be an apprentice electrician. He has this idea that when he gets to New York he wants to show his poetry to Walt Whitman - until Thomas Andrews informs him that Walt Whitman died in 1892.
“Frankie Parkes is the socialist of the group. He’s a member of William Walker’s Independent Labour Party which was quite popular at the time among the Protestant community. Other men in the shipyard call him a communist and a rebel. He thinks Andrews and [Harland & Wolff chariman] William Pirrie are capitalist pigs.
“William Campbell is a young Christian who teaches in a local Sunday School. On board Titanic he reads the Bible every single day and is very much the innocent abroad.”
These are intricately drawn, touching, vivid imaginings of real people who sailed on and perished with the Titanic.
The action moves from the construction of the ship to her departing Southampton; all the adventuring and high jinx enjoyed in transit; then the terrible collision.
This obviously presents various theatrical challenges: how to convey a sinking liner and chaos in the north Atlantic within the confines of an auditorium?
“Obviously we don’t show the Titanic sinking. We aren’t James Cameron on a 300 million pound budget!” Lynch laughs.
“You hear this devastating, huge scraping noise as the ship hits the iceberg and then the realisation mounts that it’s every man for himself.
“When the boat went down there were around 600 people in 20 lifeboats and they had rowed away from the sinking liner. In the water there were around 1,000 people screaming and wailing, crying for help. After an hour there was silence.
“We want to try and convey that in the theatre which is a big challenge - we’re still working out how to do it.”
Lynch seems passionately invested in the material but confides that the process of writing Titanic Boys was not without difficulty: “Like with all plays there’s days when you just wish to God that you were a bricklayer.
“But overall I just fell in love with these men.”
Lynch, who made his name with blackly comic offerings full of Belfast talk like Dockers, The Interrogation of Ambrose Fogarty and The History of the Troubles Accordin’ to My Da, uses the play to articulate certain views about the Titanic tragedy.
He is certain that stories about the use of cheap rivets on Titanic are utterly false; this was a faultlessly made ship and she sank because of an iceberg, not because there was any error in her construction.
“When the iceberg strikes these men have faith in the ship they built. They know she was being pushed too far by those driving her. There was nothing wrong with the ship, the problem was that the necessary precautions were not taken and there were not enough lifeboats.
“When people say that the ship sank because of cheap metal or rivets it annoys me - that’s pure bunkum. Harland & Wolff spared no expense in building Titanic; the White Star Line put everything they had into the making of this liner.
“We have also put a question mark over Andrews here. On Titanic he behaved impeccably, but when the idea of 20 lifeboats was put to him he accepted it and that was a mistake; he should have supported the designer Carlisle [essentially Harland & Wolff’s chief architect] who wanted 48 lifeboats.”
And with that Martin is off to make a deal on some wood for construction of the set, wondering how best to convey the chaos of shipwreck on stage. But before he goes he stresses the poignancy of the music-filled production.
“If you don’t bring hankies with you to this you’re in trouble.”
The Titanic Boys runs at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, August 8-25. Visit www.goh.co.uk or call the box office on 02890 241919.