Dock Lives: John Hawkins


“My father had the button,” says John Hawkins while he sits in the confines of St Patrick’s Rowing Club and thinks about how he came to spend his working life as a docker.

“If your father was a docker then it was a given that when you hit sixteen you’d go to work on the docks, too. I grew up in that environment among boats and I remember at the weekends when the yankee ships would come from America there would be no ferry across on a Saturday or Sunday so me and my brother would row groups of dockers back and forth. But we never got the money,” says John laughing, “our father got the money. But we had first hand experience of working men from the docks.”

To an outsider the term ‘The Button’ might seem like a colloquialism with little weight behind it but around the docks the man with the button was the man with the golden key to a living, the man given the job of picking a workforce from men who stood eagerly in front of him on many mornings.

“When I turned 16 my father marched me straight to the Marine Port for my union card and the next day I started on the docks; the 10th of December 1962. You would be brought over and your father would stand behind you because he’d be known and the Stevedore would shout down your name just like you’d see in the films. In my case it was ‘Hawky’ and my father would say ‘hand in your card.’ That was it from that day on, but it was up to you to get established. You had to be a worker, you wouldn’t get another job if you weren’t a worker, but my father would come down and help me, show me how to do things properly. He was nicky nacky like that and he’d keep an eye on me at work and then give out to me at home for doing things wrong, but he wouldn’t make a show of me on the job.”

Thanks to his father John Hawkins would spend the next 48 years on the docks and would see how the industrial landscape changed and how those changes affected the area he grew up in.

“When container traffic came along it was a good thing in one way but a very bad thing in another because it wiped out employment. Our numbers fell from 1600 to 1200 in one year and the year after it was 600. If you meet an old docker today they can tell you about the tea boats and how dockers would be great at extracting things from the docks, so to speak. I remember my father telling me that ladies tights were a godsend because you could tie them around your neck and fill the legs with tea to bring home, but that era is gone. The days of slinging cargo and hands on docking will never return and it’s sad because it brought real character to this area. For the majority, the men in this area were bound together by the docks and it slowly slipped away.”

While it’s speculated that the growth in modern technology left most dockers behind as large mechanics began to supersede the work rate of the docker, John Hawkins was among many who were more than willing to change and adapt.
Speaking to former dockers can give you a sense that you’re living in some sort of time paradox. The stories of manual labour and work crews breaking their backs in the heart of a ferocious industry almost seems like it could have been one hundred years ago instead of the mere fifty or sixty it actually was. When speaking with someone like John Hawkins you get the overwhelming sense that he is part of a wilting brotherhood whose stories will never fade from the memory and whose pictures hang proudly on the walls of St. Patricks Rowing Club in Ringsend.
“We looked out for one another, we were almost clannish in that way. Being a docker was more than job, it was your life, your circle of friends and it consumed you, but you were happy to let it because it was what you grew up around. I’m lucky I got the chance and I’ll always be thankful.”