A historic day as last silo in Cork city docklands closes, ending a 90-year era

Thursday, December 29, 2022, can be added to that list of crucial dates for our industrial heritage, writes John Dolan
A historic day as last silo in Cork city docklands closes, ending a 90-year era

A view of Cork city from the last working silo at the docklands, which closed on Thursday. 

FOR Corkonians of a certain age, the events of September 30, 1983, and July 13, 1984, are burned into the memory.

On the first date, the Dunlop tyre factory closed, leaving 850 people out of work. On the second date, the Ford motor factory shut, with the loss of 800 jobs.

They were nine months that defined a depressing industrial decade for Cork city, with their epicentre being the marina and docklands, and the shockwaves reaching out across the city and deep into the suburbs.

Well, Thursday, December 29, 2022, can be added to that list of crucial dates for our industrial heritage.

At 11am that day, the last and only working silo left on Cork’s docklands closed for business.

The main reason the event didn’t resonate quite so much as the other two is that there were only two workers left standing when the doors quietly closed for the last time at the ADM Arkady silo, the last tall building on the east side of the quays, beside the Marina Market.

A few of you could even be forgiven for believing the docklands had long since ceased to be an industrial hub. As far back as 2009, photographer Patrick Cummins was dwelling on the passing of an industrial age with his book entitled The Last Days Of The Cork Docklands.

But the old site and its silos, storing vast quantities of shipped-in goods to await dispersal in Cork and beyond, continued to hum away... until Thursday.

Make no mistake, this was truly the end of an era.

Ford and Dunlop provided half a century of work for the men and women of Cork, but the docklands and its silos employed thousands of people over the course of more than 90 years. At the peak of its powers, 4,000 people worked daily on the docklands.

Of course, times change, and there are big plans for the city’s docklands - many of which have already come to fruition. Hotels, offices, businesses, housing, all set amidst the beautiful natural splendour of the Lee and its trail of leisurely walks and pathways.

Few would argue that progress has to come, and that the old manufacturing days in Ireland belong firmly in the past.

But you would need a heart of stone not to feel a few pangs of sentimentality and nostalgia for the days when the docklands formed the end point of a busy shipping lane and the wharfs there were a hive of activity.

The ships and tankers would bring fuel for our stoves, food for our tables and grain for our farmers… the ships’ pilots, the dock workers, the crane operators, and the truck drivers kept the cargo ticking over. It was hard work, and honest work.

The last two workers, Billy Healy (left) and Melven MacIlwraith. The ADM Arkady Silo has relocated to Ringaskiddy. Pictures: Noel Sweeney
The last two workers, Billy Healy (left) and Melven MacIlwraith. The ADM Arkady Silo has relocated to Ringaskiddy. Pictures: Noel Sweeney

Around them, a hub of pubs sprang up, many serving morning hours for the shift workers, who shared stories, caught up with the gossip, sang, bickered and played cards together.

One time, long ago now, this docklands area offered a new and promising era of well-paid, reliable work for the first generation of Irish who grew up freed from the British grip. It meant not having to leave the auld sod for foreign shores, and the chance to live, work, love, and die here in Cork.

Also, unlike Ford and Dunlop, the docks were built not on foreign ingenuity, but on homegrown ingenuity and toil. They were our natural resource.

Ninety years ago now, in September, 1932, the Cork Examiner reported breathlessly on the newly-completed premises for the Cork Milling Company, on the junction of the Marina and Victoria Road. The optimism in an era of depression shines through all these years later.

Built alongside the company’s working mill, this modern new building would house 50 of the clerical staff and management.

“It is in keeping with the ever progressive spirit of the firm’s directors that they have adopted this improvement,” said the Examiner.

“That they should venture on an undertaking of this kind at a period when there is so much heard of general depression, sounds a note of cheerful optimism, that should find an echo where similar businessmen may be hesitant.”

Furthermore, the new site was state-of-the-art, containing “such drudgery eliminators as a system of telephonic communication between the various departments to considerably lighten their labours”. The carpets, installed by the Munster Arcade, “are of a material that ensures silence when walking”. Oh, the luxury!

The Cork Milling Company employed 300 and at the time, in 1932, was busy building a grain silo on the docklands to hold 15,000 tons of wheat and maize, before it was shipped off by rail and road to Midleton and Mallow for local dispersal.

When that first silo opened in 1934, the docklands were already a hive of activity. The silo ushered in a new era of grain trade and processing. In the 40 years after, a further six silos would spring up on Kennedy Quay. The ADM Arkady silo was the last to be built, and it became the last to close this week, as the company relocates to Ringaskiddy.

Along with other well-known names like Odlums and R & H Hall, the city docklands were part of a massive industrial network for much of the 20th century that supplied grain and all kinds of other necessities to the nation.

On Thursday, quietly, that all ended, when the last two workers in the silos, Billy Healy and Melven MacIlwraith, who had worked in the grain industry since the 1980s, locked up for the last time.

“When it’s gone, it’s gone,” said Billy, of Turners Cross, in an article in this year’s Holly Bough.

“Due to economics and needing to upgrade the plant, it’s more viable now to close it than to maintain it and keep it going.”

Billy admits the new plans for the area, although progressing slowly, “will regenerate the city. Will I see it in my time? I actually don’t know...”

You can see video footage to accompany this story at https://www.echolive.ie/hollybough/ - see the story headlined ‘So long to the silos of Cork docklands’.

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