'Dockers' By Martin Lynch: A Review

<!–[CDATA[I visited the new Lyric Theatre in Belfast on Sunday afternoon (June 19th) to see a play I had always wanted to watch but somehow never made it to… “Dockers”, by Belfast playwright Martin Lynch. Written 30 years ago and performed in the old Lyric, this masterpiece of social and political observation was definitely well worth the 60-mile trip. There is something uplifting about a good play. The scene is set in the Belfast dockland in the 60’s around Sailortown. Married man and political idealist John Graham takes on the union bosses who are revelling in their hegemony and occasional brutality to maintain their status quo in the social order of Protestant and Catholic dockers. This play must be somewhat abstruse to outsiders from Norn Iron who may not pick up on the fact that there were  two unions operating, one based in London for the Protestants and the other in Dublin for the Catholic members. But the play is more than just a diatribe against sectarianism. It is a statement about human nature.

Garrett Keogh as Buckets McGuinness and Paddy Jenkins as Leg McNamara in a scene from Martin Lynch’€™s DOCKERS in Barney’s Bar. (Photograph by Stephan Hill.)

Dockers is a brave attempt by Martin Lynch 30 years ago when the Troubles were at their peak to not only face sectarianism for what is was, but to look beyond it into the depths of left wing working class politics and even address the culture of the tribalism. The stage banter realistically reflects working class life warts and all.
John Graham, a young docker and low grade trade union official with a political conscience finds his union uncaring about the welfare of the dockers, and is incensed that a docker is actually injured in  ship’s hold. He complains and falls foul of the tyrannical Jimmy Sweeney and his henchman, the foreman Harry  McKibben.
After repeated warnings from his wife Theresa to back off, John Graham is threatened by the trade union officials, and against the advice of those in Barney’s Bar, he challenges them even further. The play climaxes on International Labour Relations Mayday when all the frictions appear healed, and Sarah Montague sings a Protestant song, and  the bully Harry McKibben sings a nationalist song amidst great harmonious revelry. But when Graham’s turn came to sing, he sang a version of the Red Flag, and was immediately warned not to be singing his “communist” tunes. He ignored the threat and received a severe beating inside and outside the bar for it. It seems the extreme and idealistic left had succeeded in uniting albeit momentarily the sectarian parties as self-defining reality.
Is this the message that Martin Lynch is trying to get across… that we cannot have rational class politics as in the rest of the UK while we have a sectarian divided society? Or is it something even more fundamental? Is it that our society is governed by a culture of thuggery and bullying?
Throughout the play there were a number of references to the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and Larkanite ideals, and certainly James Graham argued that trade unionism had fallen short of the mark there in protecting workers’ rights. But James Larkin, the founder of the ITGWU was too much a communist for the Northern Ireland trade unionists to swallow. John Graham was in immediate dialectical conflict with his adversaries. His beating reflected the complete impotence and negation of the left in Northern Irish politics. All those witnessing were coerced into a quite acquiescence.
But apart from this political analysis, I think the play was well presented with a masterly set by Brien Vahey. Set changes were interspersed by 60’s music as the set moved seamlessly with a clever use of lighting from the dock shed, a cargo hold, Barney’s Bar, and John Graham’s living room. The opening scene was powerful, evocative, in a man’s world. There was no doubt that a docker was but a worthless pawn in the great scheme of things. As the play unfolded, it was the humour and sensitivity of Buckets McGuinness who propelled a lot of the conversation which uncovered layers of meaning.
With copious glasses of what appeared to be Buckfast wine, Buckets worked the system around him. He was the opportunist, the one who humorously cajoled money for drink by his guile from big hearted Sarah Montague. His reason for existence was to drink, but poignantly he refused a drink after the climactic beating of John Graham, a statement that all along Buckets understood the system, disapproved of it, and was powerless to do anything about it. He was trapped in the jaws of a determinism that had driven him to drink in the here and now. The Dockers had no choice as individuals to continue with their existence, facing accidents, income uncertainty and ill health in a harsh world as they grew older.
‘Dockers’ is certainly a brave attempt to address a difficult issue about social division within the ranks of the working class. Much of the language and humour may seem dated and cliched now, but 3o years ago Lynch had it spot on. I found this play refreshing. Outwith the sectarian struggle, it examines class politics,and beyond that again is a more primitive politics, that of power and the tribal bully. When we reflect on our Northern Ireland society today, we see the sectarian divide closing, class politics muddied, and tribal bullies are still among us as drug lords, paramilitary bosses and sometimes even dressed up in respectable suits like the union boss Sweeney. This play is thought provoking.
One idea I am still musing over is the analogy of John Graham with Jesus Christ being a shared symbol by both Protestant and Catholic communities. Graham receives a severe beating as a martyr for equality and fair treatment. His assault is a kind of expiation, that other dockers may continue their quest through their working life in relative security within the imperfect system. As the play concludes, Buckets McGuinness refers to the pain of the barbed wire around his head which alludes to a crown of thorns. It is a complex metaphor, thought-provoking.
The Lyric has presented a play first performed 30 years ago in its old theatre, and it is a mark of the huge success over the years of the Lyric experience that we can still enjoy this great play  today in our modern idiom.
The first act of ‘Dockers’could have been perhaps pacier, and there were even echoes of Tumelty in there, but overall, this working class drama was stimulating, funny, very dark at times, and seriously enjoyable… a seminal work of the 80’s, one we should all go and see.
‘Dockers’ by Martin Lynch  runs until the 12th July.