Harland and Wolff Belfast shipyard memories recalled in new book

Author and tour guide Francis John Higgins has launched his latest book celebrating the men who worked in Harland and Wolff shipyard throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Author and tour guide Francis John Higgins (right) with shipyard mates Jim Forsythe and Liam Brown.Author and tour guide Francis John Higgins (right) with shipyard mates Jim Forsythe and Liam Brown.
Author and tour guide Francis John Higgins (right) with shipyard mates Jim Forsythe and Liam Brown.

Entitled Tall Tales and Short Stories, The Men of Belfast Shipyard, the Belfastlad published collection is written through Higgins’ eyes as someone who worked in the shipyard and faced discrimination from both sides.

The book contains an award-winning story called Two Minutes Silence. Higgins believes that much of what he has penned has come about as a tribute to the workers.

He said: “The story of the shipyard men is now overshadowed by the Titanic Visitor Attraction. This book is about the workers. It is the funny, sad, and mad stories of the men and the conditions they faced whilst building the best ships in the world.”

Francis speaking at his book launch.Francis speaking at his book launch.
Francis speaking at his book launch.

Much of what has been written about the shipyard has not covered the day-to-day reality of work there.

"The books published on the shipyard were usually books that brushed over the discrimination or focused on the ships not the men themselves.

"The books written about the men were also usually done by former managers and left out the fun and craic that made working at Harland & Wolff liveable when things got tough.”

The award-winning Two Minutes Silence featured in the book came from witnessing the different perspectives present in the shipyard.

Francis John Higgins and mates on the Argus.Francis John Higgins and mates on the Argus.
Francis John Higgins and mates on the Argus.

"In Two Minutes Silence the narrator was not trusted by the Protestant foremen as I served here in Ulster against both sides and hated by the very few Catholic foremen for being an ex-Brit. As such I got to witness the real discrimination that happened there which is now being denied by those who are revising the history of the past.”

It is a period that Higgins sees as the best and worst days of his life. He finally left the yard after 20 years in 1998. The book is dedicated to those men who didn't make it, either by accidents or long-term illness.

However, the Brown’s Square author may never have penned a book. He explained: “My wife bet me a fiver that I wouldn't go to night school when I worked in the shipyard.

"Now a BA (Hons) and post grad later, I learned the skills to write my first book Religion Riots and Rebels, The Incredible History of Brown's Square and now this book.”

Higgins’ other work is as a fully qualified tour guide, having given tours of Auschwitz and battlefields in Belgium and France. He has also covered local landmarks such as the Giant’s Causeway.

Yet it was the experience as a red leader in the shipyard that drew him to write Tall Tales and Short Stories, The Men of Belfast Shipyard.

"This is not a history book like my first one that is fully referenced. This book is my memories and the names have been changed at times to protect the guilty.

"Being a red keader meant I was someone who painted the parts of the ship that painters didn't want to paint, the most dangerous and filthy work.

"Yet we ended up working with the painters as corrosion engineers. I ended up a general foreman in charge of paint quality control before the shipyard made all the staff of the paint department (bar three) redundant when they brought in an English company as sub-contractors. So I left in 1998.”

He believes that the place he recalls is gone forever.

"The shipyard is a shadow of the place I worked in. Gone are the huge sheds and shops that allowed us to build supertankers. Today's yard may build small sections or even floating barges but the facilities nor the skills are now gone. Where I once fell into a dock whilst painting a coal boat is now a marina.”

In between tour guiding, Higgins is currently setting about his next work.

"There will be a third book on my childhood whilst growing up in Boundary Street which lay between the Shankill and Falls Roads. If you saw the movie Belfast, I'm in it as a kid from 1970 in the only bit shot in Belfast in my street.”

The book is published by Belfastlad and will be available online from September and in bookshops for Christmas 2022.