Sea Echoes: Preserving the history of our Dockers who kepts Cork's commerce moving

Sea Echoes: Preserving the history of our Dockers who kepts Cork's commerce moving
Unloading cargo at Merchant's Quay circa 1915.

As a young reporter, learning journalism many years ago on the Evening Echo.

I was sent to report a labour dispute on the Cork Docks. It was my first encounter with dockers and I learned a lot. My eyes and experience being opened to tough work they had to do and how vital a part of the life of a city they were. 

Without ships, seafarers and dockers, there would not have been the economic development of exports and imports which Cork, a maritime city, needed.

The experience and knowledge benefited me in later years when with The Irish Press newspaper reporting about Dublin’s dockers. I came to appreciate in both ports the pride and culture of dockers and the communities from which they came.

Being a docker was tough work. Seeing men hump bags of coal on their backs from ship to quayside, shovelling various cargoes from ships’ holds taught me respect for those men.

And I also learned about the “early morning houses” where pubs had special licences to open their doors for dockers. That was long before you could get breakfast in a pub!

Unloading cargo at Merchant's Quay circa 1915.
Unloading cargo at Merchant's Quay circa 1915.

Those days came to mind over the Christmas and New Year holiday period when I was sent a ballad about ‘Shovels Number Nine’ by balladeer Paul O’Brien who has chronicled the history of Dublin Docks in song. 

It is part of the efforts of the Dublin Dock Workers’ group to preserve the history of port workers and the communities from which they came.

I remember, from those past years when reporting about Cork Docks, the description of a then resident of the nearby Victoria Road, who told me: “The dockers were always real gentlemen.” 

I played the ballad on my radio programme, THIS ISLAND NATION and I’ve been delighted by the response, evoking memories amongst listeners to the 10 stations which broadcast it around the country, including four in Dublin. 

A Cork listener told me: “It’s the history and culture of Cork too, but needs to be remembered and recorded as the docklands change.” 

An Email said: “Dockers in ports in many parts of the country were more criticised than appreciated.” Another listener wrote: “They were vital to the nation, but not valued enough.”

Amongst the evocative lines in Paul O’Brien’s ballad are these:

Who shall tell the stories 

Of the ordinary men 

How they humped tons of timber 

How they loaded cart and van 

How their lungs filled with coal dust 

With their shirts stuck to their backs 

And the arms that raised their glasses 

That raised a million sacks 

Dublin Port is engaged in an extensive exercise to recreate contacts between the port and the public “to integrate the port strongly with the life of the city.” 

As part of this Sheelagh Broderick who lives in Baltimore in West Cork was given an art commission to produce ‘Port Walks,’ linking Dublin Port and the people of Dublin. She has produced an audio series of Dublin Port Walks recounting its history and culture.

Dublin retains an advantage Cork City will lose when the port moves completely downriver to Ringaskiddy. In Dublin the port remains in the heart of the city, emphasising its importance to the community. Regrettably, Cork with its wonderful maritime heritage is about to lose this immense cultural and historic value.


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