‘New lease of life’ for ex-dock workers

Pictured: Ringsend docker Denis Doyle.

Saturday November 19th last, saw an historic voyage on the Liffey, as the No.11 Liffey ferry took to the river again. Its last public service sailing occurred some 32 years ago.

The trip was part of the DCC Dublin’s Culture Connects initiative which seeks to forge links with communities old and new in the inner city by encouraging locals to engage with their own community stories in collaboration with artists, historians and The National Library.

The event saw eleven former dock workers take to the waves on the ferry to retrace a journey that was a familiar feature of their lives working the docks and transporting goods to keep the city and the country running.

One of those who ventured out on the historic No.11 tour was ex-docker Declan Byrne of the Dublin Dockers Preservation Society. Speaking of the significance of the initiative, he said: “Dublin’s Culture Connects initiative has allowed us to connect with our own culture – to remember the solidarity, and the acts of bravery and generosity. In the good times we may have fought among ourselves, but in the bad times we all stuck together. When tragedy struck a particular family the dockworkers were the first to respond. We were no angels, and we may even enjoy looking at some of our more unusual traits, but Dublin’s Culture Connects has given us the opportunity to concentrate on the positives. The trips on the Liffey ferry would never have happened without this project. We have spent six years trying to preserve our history and culture. Feeling unsupported, we were on the verge of throwing in the towel, but now through the Dublin’s Culture Connects we have been given a new lease of life.”

Byrne considers such initiatives as timely, given the changing conditions in the docklands areas, as he explained: “The dock workforce in our lifetime has shrunk from over 3,000 to just a handful and some of us may have left the docks not on good terms, but going back with co-workers, in some cases whom we have not seen in over twenty years, has been a powerful experience. We may not have been perfect, but we were dock workers and we are learning to be proud, to concentrate on the positives, to remember the bad times but to leave them behind.”

Someone else involved in the docklands Culture Connects initiative who sees great value in the stories and experiences of the dock workers is social historian, writer and Newstalk history broadcaster Donal Fallon. Speaking to NewsFour, Fallon lauded the efforts of local historians active in working-class areas of the inner city: “I want to sing the praises of Joe Mooney, of the East Wall History Project, who has done much collaborative work with the dockers group. It is researchers and enthusiasts like Joe, from East Wall to Stoneybatter and everywhere in between, who are doing the real groundwork in collecting working-class history. There are gaps in our archival collections in Ireland, normally surrounding the history of working class life, so to get these stories and recollections recorded was of great importance,” he said.

And, like the ex-dock workers, there are still many in the community and the wider inner city who feel that protecting the unique docklands identity and way of life is a matter of utmost importance to the cultural diversity of the city.

When asked to consider the future of the docklands and its heritage amid changing economic and social conditions, Declan Byrne of the Dockers Preservation Society responded with a story which to him sums up the character and resilience of the docklands community: “The dockers were regularly involved in lengthy and bitter industrial disputes. As they dragged on with no sign of resolution a general meeting would be called to review the lack of progress. A few people would make their contribution from the floor, then a Ringsend docker, Denis Doyle, would stand up and end his contribution by saying “We have not yet begun to fight.”

This would be met with a loaded response – slagging, objects being thrown, but in that moment you knew that the defeat in your heart had been lifted and you thought ‘so what’ if it didn’t work out, it was worth redoubling your effort and to go down fighting. Dennis Doyle passed away a number of years ago (may he rest in peace) but I hope that some of his spirit lives on”.

Readers can keep track of Dublin Dockers Preservation Society events by accessing their Facebook page at: Facebook.com/Dublindockers. A Dublin’s Culture Connects video of the No.11 ferry voyage can be viewed on YouTube by searching there for ‘No 11’s last voyage with the dockers’.

By Harry Bradley