Carnduff, Thomas (1886–1956), writer, was born 30 January 1886 in Sandy Row, Belfast, youngest among six children of James Graham Carnduff (1842?–1900), an invalided army schoolteacher, and his second wife Jane (née Bollard; d. 1891). The family were poor, and living on their father's meagre army pension was a constant struggle. Close to his father, Thomas loved listening to his army stories and read to him as he grew progressively blinder. After some initial education at Haslett's school, Eliza St., he was sent to the Royal Hibernian Military School in Dublin (1896–1900), and enjoyed his years roaming through Dublin streets and the Phoenix Park. He returned to Belfast in 1900, and that year his father died, leaving him an orphan; he was looked after by his older sister. After working in a series of poorly paid casual jobs, he ran away to Glasgow, but failed to find work and lived rough for several days. Later attempts to seek his fortune in Liverpool and Sunderland were also unsuccessful. In Belfast he got a job with the Ulster Echo and enjoyed the company of its well read and argumentative printers. A member of protestant youth gangs and a protestant flute band, he was regularly involved in fights with catholic gangs. He joined the Orange Order c.1902 but moved to the Independent Orange Order c.1904, approving of its more sympathetic attitude to Irish nationality; he also joined its political wing, the Belfast Protestant Association. After his marriage in 1907 he found regular employment in the Belfast shipyards as a plater's helper, joining his four brothers. The spirit of camaraderie he found in the shipyards inspired much of his writing. In October 1912 he joined the Young Citizen Volunteers which merged with the UVF in March 1914, and he took part in the Larne gun-running. After serving with the Royal Engineers in France (8 September 1917–8 June 1919), he returned to the shipyards. He was a member of the C class of Ulster Special Constabulary from February 1922 to its disbandment after 9 December 1925.
Laid off repeatedly in the 1920s, he began to write and in 1923 published several poems in the Belfast Telegraph. Some of these were republished in his 1924 collection Songs from the shipyard (1924), but it had little success. In the mid 1920s he wrote several articles for the Belfast Telegraph, Irish News, and Sunday Independent, mostly describing the hardships of working-class life and criticising social injustice. His desire to involve working people in the literary and cultural life of the north led him to found a poets' club (later the Belfast Poetry Circle) in 1926 and the Young Ulster Society in 1936; he also wrote regularly for its magazine Young Ulster. Closely involved in the cultural and social activities of York Street Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church, he helped found the York Street Dramatic Society, and wrote some comedies for them. In the 1930s he wrote several plays, including Workers (1932), which dealt with sectarianism in the shipyards; Traitors (1934), about the unemployment riots of 1932; Castlereagh (1935), a historical drama which features a powerful confrontation between Lord Castlereagh (qv) and the United Irishman James Hope (qv), both men that Carnduff admired; Machinery (1936); and The stars foretell (1938), which was never performed. Workers is generally regarded as his best play, but was rejected by the Grand Opera House in Belfast as too controversial. Much to Carnduff's delight, it was produced by the Abbey in October 1932; a week-long run in Belfast's Empire Theatre followed. His plays were noted for their strong characterisation. As a result of the success of Workers, he published another volume of poems, Songs of an out of work (1932), which was generally well reviewed. Some of his work was broadcast on radio: his plays ‘Murder at the New Road’ (1937) by Radio Éireann and ‘Industry’ (December 1939) by the BBC; his documentary ‘Birth of a giant’ (December 1937), a collaboration with Denis Johnston (qv), described the building of an ocean liner in Belfast, and was considered one of the best BBC radio pieces of the 1930s. Generally, though, he was critical of the BBC's unwillingness to engage with Irish political, historical, or religious issues.
Inspired by Belfast's radical tradition, particularly the United Irishmen, he saw Ulster culture as an integral part of Irish culture – one of the articles he wrote for the Bell was entitled ‘Belfast is an Irish city’ (April 1952) – and he criticised the Free State for adopting a catholic and Gaelic culture that alienated most Ulster protestants. However, he thought that north and south still had much in common and would eventually unite. He enjoyed his visits to Dublin and became friendly with Peadar O'Donnell (qv), to whom he presented an Independent Orange Order sash; other Dublin friends included Maurice Walsh (qv), Bulmer Hobson (qv) and R. M. Fox. His political and social views defied easy categorisation. He joined the Northern Ireland Labour Party largely because he enjoyed debate, but he had little interest in politics, and rejected overtures from the Commonwealth Labour Party of Harry Midgley (qv) in February 1943. His work shows an instinctive sympathy with the underdog, and was critical of the way working people had to struggle so hard for the necessities of life, but he regarded socialist ideology as excessively rigid. He rejected left-wing accusations that working-class Orangemen were duped by their leaders, and admired the democratic and popular base of Orangeism and its spirit of independence. Five generations of his family were associated with the Orange Order, and he became grand master of his local independent lodge.
From 1934 to 1951 he worked as a yardman in Belfast corporation, interrupted by service during the second world war as a rather unenthusiastic ARP warden; he was highly sceptical of the general commitment to the war effort in Northern Ireland, believing that most people saw it as an opportunity to earn extra income. His last employment was as caretaker of the Linen Hall Library, Belfast, complete with accommodation; he had earlier lived at 7 Hanover St., Belfast, for most of his life. He was father figure to the Young Ulster Society, but was disappointed with its dominance by middle-class enthusiasts, whom he believed were responsible for the stagnation of Ulster literature and theatre in the 1950s. When he retired as chairman, the society voted him life president and presented him with a portrait commissioned from William Conor (qv), which Carnduff later presented to the Ulster Museum. He regularly kept diaries and completed an autobiography in 1954; his surviving autobiographical writings were collected by his son Noel and published in 1994. A collection of his poetry was issued as Poverty Street (1993). His poetry is occasionally marred by sentimentality, but his prose is shot through with gritty common-sense and mordant wit. He died in Belfast 15 April 1956.
He married (1907) Susan McCleery McMeekin (d. 1939); they had four sons. In 1941 he married Mary McElroy, who took a keen interest in his literary work and often edited it.