(Connal Parr’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 4/18; The cast of the new production of Over The Bridge; Photo: The cast of the new production of Over The Bridge. )
Sam Thompson’s classic play about sectarianism in Belfast’s shipyards is back in Dublin
n celebration of the 60th anniversary of its first production, Over the Bridge – the powerful play that almost did not see the light of day – returns to Dublin. It was the Dublin-based Findlaters & Company that guaranteed the initial production nearly nine months after the attempt to silence Sam Thompson’s “authentic voice of the shipyard”. In this attempt at unofficial censorship the establishment had unsuccessfully sought to prevent the play, and its uncomfortable truths, from being staged at all.
Over The Bridge engages with challenging themes of sectarianism in the Belfast shipyards, groundbreaking in the 1960s in the run-up to the Troubles, and still hugely relevant in 2022. The play invites audiences to confront this sectarianism – without presenting simplistic narratives – by portraying different perspectives and experiences of the shipyard workers and through their engagement with the trade union and Labour movement.
Based on a real-life shop steward, Over the Bridge’s central character Davy Mitchell represents the labour movement’s spirit of comradeship across all borders. During the sectarian dispute that anchors the play, Catholic Peter O’Boyle has been told to leave his workplace by Protestant workers. Davy – who is of the same religion as the mob – stands with him, defending a workmate’s right to work, insisting: “If I refuse to go out there and stand alongside my mate at the bench, everything I have ever fought for or believed in has been nothing.”
To understand this solidarity, we must go back to the beginning. Sam Thompson was born in 1916 and left school at 14 to be apprenticed as a painter at Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard. Though his father had been a lamplighter and part-time sexton of St Clement’s Church of Ireland Church, shielding his family from the more severe poverty of the era, Thompson recalled hardship from his childhood and later when he faced unemployment. He joined the Painters Union and the National Council of Labour Colleges, leading him to Paris and the Soviet Union before the second World War.
Thompson had witnessed sectarian violence on the Castlereagh Road in east Belfast in the mid-1930s, and it was this recollection that gave rise to Over the Bridge, which he crafted at night when he came home from work.
In March 1959, Thompson accosted Jimmy Ellis, a talented young actor and director from a similar background, in the centre of Belfast. Thompson marched up to Ellis brandishing the manuscript of his first stage play: “I have a play here you won’t touch with a barge-pole.”
Ellis took the play to his father, whose judgment was crucial to the young director, as he had spent his entire working life in the shipyard. He stayed up reading the script before delivering his verdict: “This is our play, son, you must do it.” As artistic director of Belfast’s Group Theatre, Ellis prepared to produce it later that year.