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Excerpts from ‘A Wistful Eye – The Tragedy of a Titanic Shipwright’ by DJ Kelly

April 17, 2013

A Wistful Eye  [setting: Belfast 1910]


“The spring of nineteen ten was a long time coming to Northern Ireland.  Winter had been slow to relinquish its iron grip on the land and reluctant daffodils were still in the green out around the fine gardens of the suburbs.  In the crowded working class districts of Belfast however there were few flowers to herald the changing of the seasons.  Here, it was the gradually increasing daylight and the lessening of evening chills which were intrerpreted as a precursor of spring. As March gusted into April, the trees along Duncairn Gardens grudgingly opened their pink and white blossom, lifting the spirits of passers-by and providing free confetti for weddings at the church of St Barnabus.


The middle-aged couple trundled the hired handcart, laden with their furniture and cooking utensils, past the church and over the New Lodge Road, leaving early morning tracks on the damp, petal-strewn pavements. They had been up since early on, unable to sleep for the prospect of all they had to do for their latest house move….


…The new house was not new at all, of course. There were no new houses in the New Lodge area, contrary to what the name might suggest, and nor were there any in Tiger’s Bay, whence they had come.  Of course there were no tigers their either.  Belfast was a place of contradictions, right enough.  Sailortown, however, where the couple had started their married life more than thity years earlier, was indeed home to sailors and their families as well as to those who supported the city’s great maritime tradition – the shipwrights, the ropemakers, the engine makers, the dockers and carters. 


All Belfast’s working class neighbourhoods shared a dowdy and close-knit character. William Henry thought that maybe the people did too.  One little street looked much like the next one and one working class family looked much like another.  The little red-bricked dwellings had been hastily constructed, to a mean specification, almost a century earlier, to accommodate the many wrokers needed to support Belfast’s rapidly developing industries.  On slob lands, wehre once the curlew swooped and the oyster-catcher stooped, slate-roofed terraces had sprouted and had spread upwards, in tightly packed rows, radiating outwards from the docks, around the shipyards, warehouses and factories.  Where purple sea fog had once rolled in unimpeded, now grey smoke curled skywards from chimneys, both tall and small…    


.. Belle stoked up the fire.  The glow from the hearth filled the void in the room left by son Billy’s departure, and made her feel a little cheerier. William Henry chided her for being so profligate with the fuel, when there would be just the two of them at home on this mild spring afternoon.  He did not understand the importance to her of warmth and light, and indeed she had not the words to explain it.


Whilst the children were still young, Belle had been busy enough to ignore her depressive feelings – mostly.  However, now that the children had all left home and William Henry was out of the house for ten hours or more each day, it would not take her long to tend this small and empty house.  Now she feared she would have too much time to reflect, to dwell on her loneliness. 


She gazed around the little kitchen, which was indeed tiny but which nonetheless accommodated their little wooden table and two chairs and a little sofa.  The iron range was the same as the one in their previous house and the tiny scullery, with its large sink, single cold water tap and old iron mangle, was similarly appointed to the Collyer Street scullery.  Their former house had boasted a larger front parlour, which they had converted into a little grocery shop, but Belle thought the Shandon Street parlour ample space for the two of them now.  They would see out their declining years together comfortably enough in this little house. 


Although she had enjoyed chatting with the locals who came into the Collyer Street shop for their messages, there were mornings when, William Henry having departed for the yards, her depression would not let her get out of bed.  Unconcerned that customers were knocking,  she would only rouse herself when prompted by hunger.  A pot of tea might have cheered her, but she would have had to light a fire to boil the water and somehow she could not raise the energy or enthusiasm for that.  Staring into the blackness of the grate, its dead ashes awaiting removal to the earth closet down the yard, she would instead succumb to inertia…”  



It was a warm and slightly windy day, as William Henry climbed up the staging to a narrow platform, some seventy feet above the ground, whence he might observe the water rising to the desired level. He set his piece and his billy securely on the platform beside him, for a billy can falling seventy feet could easily concuss a man below.  He settled back as comfortably as he could and filled and lit his pipe again.  He now had a great view of the Queen’s Yard, and indeed of most of Belfast and the beautiful surrounding countryside.  What was more, he would have several hours to enjoy it. Of course he could still hear, from around the yards, the ear-splitting clangour of the riveters’ hammers as they struck, each pair in unison, compacting rivet into steel plate and working with methodical precision.


He … knocked his pipe out against the staging.  He now took out his piece of bread and jam  and, pouring some tea into the lid of his billy, he sat back to enjoy his breakfast. Food, no matter how modest, always tasted better in the open air, he thought. Although no longer hot, the sweet milky tea refreshed and sustained him. His eyes narrowed in the reflected glare of the sun, as it now rose over the Lagan water, and he marvelled at the beauty of the green landscape which encircled the industrial city.  Gulls were now circling and screeching overhead, so he guessed the fishing boats must be in harbour after a night spent out at sea.  There were far worse jobs than shipbuilding, he mused.




Once the hull and the metal decks were fully caulked, the caulking squads would turn their attention next to Titanic‘s sixteen lifeboats. Hughie had said Mr Andrews’ original design for Titanic had included twenty lifeboats, but that this number had exceeded the minimum recommendations of the British Board of Trade, and the Harland and Wolff management had decided to reduce the number.  According to what Hughie had heard, Mr Ismay felt that too many lifeboats hanging from their enormous davits would be off putting to passengers and would also reduce the amount of deck space available for leisure activities.  That seemed an odd decision to William Henry.  Surely, you either needed lifeboats for everyone or none at all?  He bet Hughie that it was done to save money, for rumour had it that Ismay was ‘as tight as a crab’s arse’.” 




“…..William Henry’s protests were silenced by a fist in his face.  Suddenly, he was on the ground and his assailant was kicking him in the stomach and ribs.  He turned onto his side and rolled himself into a ball in a vain attempt to make himself a smaller target, but every kick hit home, and one got him in the head.  The screams and shouts around him seemed to be receding and he feared he was losing consciousness.  His attacker was shouting abuse about killing all the socialists too, when Johnnie Beasant, his nose and mouth pouring with blood, caught the man from behind, swung him around and, with one blow, laid him out.  Johnnie now had William Henry on his feet and the pair were running along towards the river.  Various sharp missiles rained down upon them as they reached the edge of the quay and continued to strike them as they entered the water …. “


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  1. Like the frequent segment breaks, pulses the story along nicely I think.

    Plus liked the contrast of the near beginning (beautifully writ),

    “As March gusted into April, the trees along Duncairn Gardens grudgingly opened their pink and white blossom, lifting the spirits of passers-by and providing free confetti for weddings at the church of St Barnabus” –

    vs the action scene at the end of the excerpt. Really liked the clarity of the movements in it, the use of commas to set off a continuous action. Nice! Exciting. 🙂

  2. Thank you, Felipe.

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