Thomas Carnduff — the shipyard worker, Orangeman and poet who could be a face for Northern Ireland to mark its centenary

Though the campaign to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland ended up controversially highlighting the famous face of Seamus Heaney, the Northern Ireland Office could do worse than consider poet and playwright Thomas Carnduff for one of its future profiles.

Tuesday, 12th January 2021, 6:01 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th January 2021, 6:08 pm
Thomas Carnduff, a Sandy Row-raised, Dublin-educated writer was an Orangeman who signed the 1912 Covenant, served in World War I and had a play staged at the Abbey in 1932

Born in the pre-partitioned north in 1886, the same year Belfast saw serious sectarian rioting, Carnduff was a Sandy Row-raised, Dublin-educated Orangeman who signed the 1912 Ulster Covenant, served in World War I, and had his first major play Workers staged at the national theatre of Ireland, the Abbey, in 1932.

He was a shipyard worker always content to describe himself as Irish, who worked many different jobs in between periods on the dole — all in all, one who truly captures the complicated layers of identity that make up Northern Ireland!

Despite his ‘loyal’ background and dedication to the Independent Orange Order, it was reported that Carnduff helped Catholic workers escape over the River Lagan during the shipyard expulsions of 1920.

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His memories of Workman Clark’s ‘wee Yard’ gave rise to numerous poems, often underscored by a sense of loss.

In ‘Reflections of a Shipyardman’, he described how ‘We miss the creaking stage that swayed / Above the swirling flood, and we / Gaze at the gantry’s height afraid – / Oh shades of Harland! Must it be!’.

He sent his work to then-Poet Laureate John Masefield, who wrote back encouragingly to Carnduff, requesting that ‘you would write to me more stories, of this life on the ships and in the yards’.

A society named after Carnduff has since 2019 staged monthly ‘Yard Sessions’ at the EastSide Arts visitor centre, where people gathered to read their creative work and extracts from writers they admire. I was lucky enough to attend the final event in March 2020, before the pandemic paused everything. It was a unique atmosphere where aspiring and established authors mixed with interested individuals, at different stages, from different communities, a 50/50 gender balance – all in a welcoming space. Ordinary life lived through the written word is valued at the expense of hype and literary ego.

Class-consciousness is critical. Too often in Northern Ireland, literature and the arts are the preserve of the well-heeled, fashion-chasing commentators, and gatekeepers of the cultural and political establishments: ironically, the same forces Thomas Carnduff faced his whole life.

Indeed, one of the striking features of revisiting Carnduff is the way his struggles remain relevant. The burden of unemployment, a precarious existence on social welfare, and anti-working-class prejudice are still obstacles for any writer (especially from a deprived background) currently living in Northern Ireland.

They are, in fact, the challenges of most workers.

You can find out more about Carnduff at an online lecture organized by the Linen Hall Library next Monday (January 18 at 7pm), which will be followed by readings from the Society’s regular attendees.

The Linen Hall is a fitting (virtual) host, as Carnduff’s final job was as the library’s caretaker, surrounded by the books he loved in the damp cold of his elderly working life.

Dr Connal Parr is a senior lecturer in history at Northumbria University. You can register free for ‘Thomas Carnduff: Shipyard Poet’ at: https://linenhall.com/events/online-event-thomas-carnduff-the-shipyard-poet-with-dr-connal-parr/

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