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Remembering the Importance of Dockers

I have respect for Dockers. When I was a Junior Reporter and a bit of a ‘Rookie’ learning journalism at the then Evening Echo (and Cork Examiner) I was sent one morning to cover a strike by dockers in Cork Port, but there weren’t any to talk to until I was told about “early morning pubs” which served them. It was the first time I met this group of men. A very tough and hard job and a role in life which was not fully appreciated by the public. There were many criticisms of Dockers, rightly or wrongly, in how they were perceived, but their work was crucial.

The role and work of Dockers has changed hugely. The ‘traditional’ role of men unloading ships manually, by shovel, has gone and the docks generally, particularly in the big, modern dock shipping complexes is mechanised.

The memories of what it was like on the docks are a part of maritime history

I’ve written about the Dublin Dock Workers’ Preservation Society and recorded interviews with them, reporting their successful efforts to have Dockers remembered and Dublin Port Company has complied with their requests, to its credit, in ‘Solidarity: The Dockers of Dublin Port’, a compelling exhibition curated by The Little Museum of Dublin for a three-month stay period at The Substation, Alexandra Road, Dublin Port every Thursday-to-Sunday 11:30am-3:30pm until early February.

This week in ‘Seascapes Perspectives,’ the ‘Cork Dockers’ Group’ is the focus.

Cork Dockers unloading a ship at the South Jetties near the city centre in years past… “a tough and dangerous job”

“When the memories will go, a culture will be gone…..” is written on the ‘Cork Dockers’ Group Facebook Page which has over 5,000 members. This month it is moving into its sixth year of recording the work and lives of the city’s dock labour force. I am referring again to the dockers this week, having been sent photographs of the Annual Dockers’ Mass in the Church of the Assumption on Pearse Road, Ballyphehane, where “there was a great, wonderful turn-out, remembering Cork Dockers and what they contributed to this city.”

The city docklands are no more, as their traditional area and its culture is being changed. “Glass boxes are replacing the generational history of the city, buildings of character are disappearing,” is one description given to me. The majority of shipping movements are now in the Lower Harbour and the eventual aim is that shipping movements will not be part of city centre life seen in future generations.

Change is inevitable as the city develops, but its maritime history deserves preservation. The Cork Dockers Facebook Page, which was started on January 26, 2019, is doing great work in that regard.

What was working life like when the docks were a major part of city life, close to its centre?

Cork Dockers Annual Mass at Ballyphehane Church

On “a normal working day, it was working in a kind of a ‘city’ within a city, with a whole life of its own, a culture of its own, it would be as crowded as would be a concert at the Marquee evening would be now.” is one descriptive memory of the city docks area on the Facebook Page.. “This was a time before containerised shipping. A time before ferries. A time before lorries rolled-on and rolled-off ships. Everything came in bulk packaging. Everything had to be handled on-and-off. Whether it was a machine for some factory or other, whether it was wool for the Sunbeam factory to make socks, or coal to warm houses or coke for gas to cook, or meal and corn to feed farm animals to give milk and meat, or fertiliser to grow grain to make bread, it had to be worked by dockers. Packages had to be handled manually by dockers into Customs and loaded out when Customs cleared. Can you imagine the amount of men required to move all of that cargo to keep half the country moving?” There are many stories which have been added over the past five years, recalling the pride dockers had in their work and the ‘special names’ many of them were given. These were a ‘badge of honour’. The Page is also a record of those who worked on the docks, with obituary tributes to dockers who have died. Dockers were known to be helpful to the city’s poor and to charities. A Facebook photograph shows “the late Jerry Hara when he put his model of Shandon which he made from matchsticks on display and donated all the money received to the Penny Dinners.”

Jerry Hara and his matchsticks model of Shandon, Cork
Did Hairy Dockers Wear Women’s Tights?

There are recollections on the Facebook Page showing humour in dockers dealing with their working conditions such as – that  ‘big hairy dockers wore women’s tights!”

“Yes we did,” writes one former docker. “For years on butter ships, with big, refrigerated holds. It used to be freezing working down there. We used all be dressed in layers of clothes and hats and gloves. Well, one day a docker admitted that he was wearing his wife’s tights. He said they were great to keep the cold at bay. This started a trend and soon we were all wearing tights. Some admitted it, but some kept it to themselves!”

The dangers of dealing with difficult cargoes are remembered – nitrates, phosphates and potash imported in bulk: “Each was noxious in its own way. Fumes and dust from those chemicals would kill a healthy horse. Yet guys would spend eight hours a day shovelling this stuff down in the stagnant air of a ship’s hold.”

All photographs are from The Cork Dockers Facebook Group Page which is a valuable record of Cork’s maritime history.

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