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TOM MacSWEENEY’S WEEKLY MARITIME BLOG-SEPTEMBER 3

REMEMBERING DOCKERS

i have been having an amazing reaction to two articles I wrote in THE ECHO, the Cork daily in my weekly MARITIME CORK column which is published each Wednesday. It began while engaged in research about the country’s ports , I came across a Facebook Page called the ‘Cork Dockers’ Public Group.’ Created on January 26, 2019, according to its information and the Administrator being Frank Brady, it was done so with the purpose to “post and look at picture of the docks of Cork City.” It logged 2,400 members and is a fascinating part of Leeside history, “a tribute to all the dockers who worked on Cork docks.” It recalled for me that, as a young reporter and having only recently joined the newsroom staff of the then EVENING ECHO in the 1960s, I first met the group of men described colloquially in the city as ‘the dockers’ at an ‘early morning’ public house in the city. I had been despatched by the News Desk to ascertain what was the purpose of a labour dispute on the docks. These ‘incidents’ occurred from time-to-time and I got the impression that the ‘newest recruit’ to the Newsroom could be ‘best used’ for the purpose of ascertaining the reason for the latest one. So I was told I would find someone who would tell me what was going on at one of the ‘Early Houses’. These, I learned, were an “old tradition in the city” providing a place for dockers to congregate for an early morning drink, open from 7 a.m. Dockers’ were not the only patrons, but were most associated with these ‘early houses’. I didn’t learn all about them and their work on that first encounter, but over the years I did and came to understand and respect the ‘dockers’ as a special community. Reporting maritime matters over the years I received letters and contacts from the Northside of the city, from former dockers or their families, with knowledge of the marine sphere derived from working on ships which arrived at the city quays with cargo from all over the world. Coal boats were particularly tough work, digging the coal out and loading ‘crane grabs’ to lift it onto the quayside. “I remember Dad coming home work and all you could see was the whites of his eyes after working on a coal boat,” wrote one contributor. “It was straight out to the cold water tap in the yard to clean off the dust.”

“Dockers were great human beings. They helped so many people. There were children who got the first taste of chocolate from chocolate crumb from the boats. Those were tough times, but for anyone in the community who was in difficulties, dockers always helped them. Coal in winter to people who couldn’t afford it and needed heat.” These are amongst the comments on the Facebook Page recording how dockers and their families helped people in Cork during challenging, difficult times,    very practical help from dockers off the boats.The social life of the times and the dockers is recorded. The Facebook ‘Cork Dockers’ Public Group’ fascinated me. I remember ‘conversations’ with Cork dockers and the names of men I met – Jim “Doc” Doherty who was a union leader, if my memory serves me correctly. Other names from those past years come to mind – Jim Tobin; Frank Brady, Administrator of the Facebook Group; Mick Crowley, Stephen Hogan. There were nicknames, proudly recalled, associated with many of the dockers. The ‘rationalisation,’ as it was described, of the dock labour force, seen as trying to end and remove it from the port and the move from the city quays to Tivoli and Ringaskiddy, with the change in shipping from bulk loads to containerisation, changed things markedly. It has to be admitted that, when looking back on the past, eyes can be gilded, removing actual reality. Times past were and could be harsh, but there was something special about the community of dockers.

The photo above is from the Facebook Group page, dockers in a coal boat, about to shift a lot of coal. Another record of the docks is David Martin McCarthy’s book ‘Cork’s Docks & Dockers: Tales from the Port of Cork.” ”My look through this piece of history confirmed to that “working down the docks” was the story of a great group of men and their families which should never be forgotten.. Their contribution was essential to what makes Cork a maritime city.

FOOTPRINTS IN THE SNOW FROM THE DUBLIN DOCKS

WOMEN DOCKERS – PHOTO COURTESY DUBLIN DOCK WORKERS’ PRESERVATION SOCIETY

I have also been fortunate enough to meet members of the Dublin Dock Workers Preservation Soiety which is doing tremendous work in preserving the history and culture of thhe Dublin docks and the great workforce. Coincidence is an amazing thing and, while engaged on writing about Cork I received information about a lovely song called ‘Footprints in the Snow.” Padraig Yeates and Declan Byrne, who is one of the leaders of the Dublin Dock Workers’ Preservation Society told me about it.

Declan wrote: “My older brother, Frank Byrne was inspired by a photograph ‘Women Dockers’ from the Dublin Dock Workers Preservation Society collection (Facebook Dublin Dockers) to write the lyrics of a song ‘Footprints in the Snow’. Then Keith Margo put music to it, sung it and recorded it. The photograph was donated by Captain Benny Forde and the story goes that a timber vessel arrived in Dublin Port in the Winter and when they opened the hatch the dockers found snow on the loose timber and on closer examination they found women’s footprints in the snow. Captain Forde (then a Dock Superintendent in Dublin Port) explained that during the Second World War and for some years after certain ports operated where all the dockers were women and he produced the photograph to show women dockers loading timber. This photo was taken by Benny Forde in either 1958 or 1959 in the Port of Karkinon in Finland when he was working aboard the “Irish Fern”. Benny Forde worked at sea and then took a Dock Superintendent’s job in the deep-sea section of Dublin docks. He produced this photograph when in the Winter time Dublin dockers were working a boat with loose timber and when the hatch was opened the dockers were not only surprised to see the timber covered in snow but on examination they found women’s footprints in the snow. So Frank wrote the lyrics for a song . He then sent them to Keith who put music to them and recorded them.  I know I am biased but I think it is a good song,” Declan wrote and he is right. I’m working on this story for a future edition of the MARITIME IRELAND RADIO SHOW and will let you know more details.

I also reported news and feature stories about the Dublin docks when I was a staff reporter on THE IRISH/EVENING and SUNDAY PRESS and there were “early morning pubs” too in Dublin and, I gather there have been times of contact and mutual support between dockers in Cork and Dublin.

Wonderful people, whose contribution to Maritime Ireland must be remembered and, maybe, we’ll hear more about dock work forces in other ports.

 

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Tom MacSweeney

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