Introduction - Thomas Andrews, Shipbuilder

Shan Bullock


MR. SHAN BULLOCK, who needs no introduction to those who read Irish books, has done no better work than in this tribute to one of the noblest Irishmen Ulster has produced in modern times. I refer not only to the literary merits of Thomas Andrews, Shipbuilder, which speak for themselves, but rather to the true insight with which he has fulfilled the precise purpose held in view by those who asked him to write this little memorial volume. What that purpose was must be known in order that the story itself, and the manner of the telling, may be fully appreciated.

The book was written at the request of a few Irishmen, myself among them, who work together in a movement which seeks to develop agriculture, and generally to improve the condition of our rural communities. We are deeply interested in the great achievements of Ulster industry, because we hold strongly that the prosperity of our country depends largely upon the mutual understanding and the coordination of effort between the two great economic interests into which the Irish, in common with most civilised peoples, are divided. For this consummation Ireland needs, in our opinion, industrial leaders with a broader conception of the life of the country as a whole. For such leaders we naturally look, more especially those of us whose eyes are turning towards the westering sun, to the younger men. Among these none seemed to us so ideally fitted to give practical expression to our hopes as Thomas Andrews. Thus it was the sense of the great loss the country had sustained which set us thinking how the life of the shipbuilder who had died so nobly could be given its due place in the history of our times—how the lesson of that life could be handed down to the builders of ships and of other things in the Ireland of our dreams.

The project having so originated, the proper treatment of the subject had to be determined. Unquestionably Thomas Andrews was a hero. The wise Bishop Berkeley has said: “Every man, by consulting his own heart, may easily know whether he is or is not a patriot, but it is not easy for the bystander.” A man cannot thus know whether he is or is not a hero. Both he and the bystander must wait for the occasion to arise, and the opportunities for exhibiting heroism are as rare and perilous as those for exhibiting patriotism are common and safe. To Thomas Andrews the supreme test came—came in circumstances demanding almost superhuman fortitude and self-control. Here was not the wild excitement of battle to sustain him; death had to be faced calmly in order that others—to whom he must not even bid farewell—might live. And so in his last hour we see this brave, strong, capable and lovable man displaying, not only heroism, but every quality which had exalted him in the regard of his fellows and endeared him to all who had worked and lived with him. This is the verdict of his countrymen now that the facts of that terrible disaster are fully known. Yet it was far from our purpose to have the tragedy of the Titanic written with Thomas Andrews as the hero. We deemed it better to place the bare facts before some writer of repute, not one of his personal friends, and ask him to tell in simple language the plain tale of his life so far as it could be gleaned from printed and written records, from his family, friends, and employers; above all, from those fellow-workers—his “pals” as he liked to call them—to whom this book is most fittingly dedicated. The story thus pieced together would be chiefly concerned with his work, for his work was his life.

To Thomas Andrews the hero, then, we did not propose to raise a monument. To his memory a fine memorial hall is to be built and endowed in his native Comber by the inhabitants of the town and district and his friends, while he will be associated in memorials elsewhere with those who died nobly in the wreck.* These tributes will serve to remind us how he died, but will not tell us how he lived. It is the purpose of this short memoir to give a fairly complete record of his life—his parentage, his home, his education, his pleasures, his tastes and his thoughts, so far as they are known, upon things which count in the lives of peoples. The family, and all from whom information was sought, responded most cordially to our wishes. There remained the difficulty of finding a writer who could tell the story of Thomas Andrews the man, as we wished it to be told.

For such a task it was decided that, if he could be induced to undertake it, the right man was Shan Bullock. He is an Ulsterman, a writer of tales of Ulster life, distinguished among other Irish books by their sincerity and unequalled understanding of the Ulster character. While other Irish writers of imagination and genius have used Irish life to express their own temperament, Shan Bullock has devoted his great literary ability almost entirely to the patient, living and sincere study of what Ulster really is in itself as a community of men and women. It is true that his stories are of rural and agricultural communities, while the scene is now laid chiefly in a great centre of manufacturing industry. But in Mr. Bullock’s studies it is always the human factor that predominates. One feels while reading one of his tales that he loves to look upon a man, especially an Ulster man. Here was the ideal historian of the life of Thomas Andrews.

It fell to me to approach Mr. Bullock. I induced him to go and see the family, having arranged with them to bring him into touch with the authorities at the Island Works, who were to show him round and introduce him to many who knew our friend. He promised me that he would look over all the material out of which the story could be pieced together, and that if he found that it “gripped ” him and became a labour of love he would undertake it. The story did, as the reader will see, grip him, and grip him hard, and in telling it Mr. Bullock has rendered the greatest of all his services to lovers of truth told about Ireland by Irish writers.

It will now, I think, be clear why Thomas Andrews has, notwithstanding his noble end, been represented as the plain, hard-working Ulster boy, growing into the exemplary and finally the heroic Ulster man that we knew. We see him ever doing what his hand found to do, and doing it with his might. Our author, rightly as I think, makes no attempt to present him as a public man; for this captain of industry in the making was wholly absorbed in his duties to the great Firm he served. None the less I am convinced that the public side of the man would not long have remained undeveloped—who knows but that this very year would have called him forth?—because he had to my personal knowledge the right public spirit. Concentration upon the work in hand prevented his active participation in public affairs, but his mastery over complicated mechanical problems—his power to use materials—and to organise bodies of men in their use, would not, I believe, have failed him if he had come to deal with the mechanics of the nation.

These may be fruitless speculations now, and Mr. Bullock wisely leaves us to draw our own conclusions as to the eminence to which Thomas Andrews might have attained had his life been spared. Abundant proof of the immense influence he might have exercised is furnished in the eloquently sincere grief which pervades the letters of condolence that poured into the home of the parents at Comber when it was known that they had lost their distinguished son. They came—over seven hundred of them—from all sorts and conditions of men, ranging from a duke to a pauper in a workhouse. In one of these letters, too intimate to publish, a near relative pays to the dead shipbuilder a pathetically simple tribute with which I may well leave to the reader Mr Bullock’s tale of a noble life and heroic death. “There is not,” ran this fine epitaph, “a better boy in heaven.”


* In Belfast a memorial to Thomas Andrews and the other Belfast men who died in the wreck has been generously subscribed to by the citizens, and by the Queen’s Island workers. He is also included amongst those to whom a similar memorial is to be erected in Southampton. The Reform Club in Belfast is honouring his memory with a tablet.