Bart Nolan, Dublin docker.
(Photo: James Fennell)
Sonny and Bart have been a double-act for close on eighty years. They grew up in Dublin’s inner city docklands in an age when the city, and the country at large, had turned its back on the once prosperous waterfront. Today, they amble around the Docklands like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show, ‘reporting’ to the ‘Queen B’, aka Betty Ashe, who runs the St Andrew’s Resource Centre, arguably the most socially proactive body on the south-side.[i] But in between their ambling, Sonny is a learned local historian while Bart has emerged as one of the key-players in stamping out pedophilia in modern Ireland.
'We were both born on the one street, Townsend Street', says Bart. 'I was at the City Quay end and he was from the snobby end'.[ii]
'He was always jealous of me', interjects Sonny, 'because he came from the wild end’.
Sonny was educated in St Andrew's on Pearse Street, now the Resource Centre. Bart was schooled on City Quay. Bart assures Sonny that, while St Andrew’s may have excelled itself during the ‘Poet’s Rebellion’ of 1916, his school was known as ‘Gloucester Street College'. ‘College’, he repeats.
As a boy, Bart was up and out the door by 6am. He’d race down to the market and earn a few shillings delivering fruit and vegetables before school began.[iii] Waking up early wasn’t difficult. Townsend Street wasn’t exactly a quiet neighbourhood.
During the 1950s, there were approximately 22,500 families living in the Parish of Westland Row. Most were crammed into the old Georgian tenement houses and run-down mews cottages on the back alleys. Conditions were emphatically sub-standard. In many cases there was one tap and one toilet for four families. There were over a thousand people living on Townsend Street alone. Over forty people slept in Bart’s house. He shared a room with his parents, two sisters and five brothers.
Sonny Kinsella was one of 54
people living in one house on
Dublin's Townsend Street.
(Photo: James Fennell)
Sonny’s case was even more extreme. He and his nine siblings lived in a ten-room house with fifty-four residents. ‘It was very hard to get to sleep’, he says. ‘But you got used to the noise’. One of his most persistent memories is of the hooves of the horses clattering along the cobblestones, with the wheels scratching behind them, as the mail coach trotted to meet the trains at Westland Row Station. And that was after the coalmen coughed and the babies awoke and the mothers began shouting all over again.
The war years were exciting for children. When the first banana-boats came in, all the children raced down and caught bananas flying through the sky, thrown by the crew. Whenever a foreign navy ship came into port, the girls would gallop down to flirt and play. ‘There'd be birds all over the place’, marvels Bart. The boys played football on the waterfront of Rogerson’s Quay.[iv] Sometimes they wore gas-masks when they played. ‘They were a joke’, says Bart. ‘There is no way they would have saved you'.[v]
Before the Great War, Dublin’s inner city had one of the highest mortality rates in Europe. Things weren’t much better in the 1940s. ‘You'd be going to a funeral every two days’, says Bart.[vi] Many of those who perished were young. ‘We used to hear people saying 'ah, but he was so old'. But really, they'd only be 45. I'm 80 this year and that's old'. [vii] Sonny says there was a powerful sense of community. ‘If you were in trouble, people helped you out’.
Bart left school at the age of fourteen and began delivering coal full time. He’d collect the coal from the merchants scattered between Butt Bridge and Sir John Rogerson's Quay and then drive his horse and cart up the river as far as Ussher’s Quay and across the Liffey into Smithfield. The horse was vital, he says. ‘Everybody in the area had one. It was your security. If the horse didn't die, you wouldn't die’.
By 1945, Bart was working at the Dock Mill on Grand Canal Quay, waiting for the tugboats that hauled the grain ships into position.[viii] Otherwise he queued up alongside all the other dockers and awaited the ganger’s shout. ‘But there wasn't much cargo coming in at that time’, he says. ‘Maybe a bit of timber for Martin's. Or shifting some bananas’. His father worked as a docker at JJ Carroll’s and he had an uncle making galvanized baths in the Hammond Lane foundry, so they were both places to call by.[ix] In 1950 he moved to England where he spent the next eleven years, primarily with Leyland Motors. [x]
Meanwhile, Sonny was determined to climb a different ladder to his father who worked for Dublin Corporation’s Cleansing Department for fifty years, sweeping the streets with a brush, shoveling the muck into a handcart. ‘Every day he swept three or four long streets’, recalls Sonny. ‘It made no odds if it was rain, hail or snow. He’d have a big heavy coal sack wrapped around his shoulders, with a nail through it to keep it in place, and a cap on his head’.[xi]
Sonny was born in 1928 and named after Al Jolson’s song ‘Sonny Boy’, the signature tune of that years’ box office smash hit, The Singing Fool.[xii] His parents were both from Townsend Street. ‘Everyone who lived in and around here integrated with one another’, he explains. ‘You didn't really move out of the area. Everybody who lived in the street knew everybody else, so you had to meet someone!’
Sonny’s first job was as a messenger boy for Eason's Bookshop on O'Connell Street. He subsequently worked for sixteen years at Harty Engineering in Ringsend and then at the CPC Foods factory on the Davitt Road.[xiii] At the age of 63, he seized a chance for early retirement so that he might concentrate on his writing and grandfatherly duties.[xiv]
In 1993, Bart co-founded the campaign group ‘Parents for Change’, which has exposed several paedophiles in the Church and, more specifically, in professional Irish swimming. ‘He's brought an awful lot to light that would have been forgotten only he never gave up the chase', says Sonny proudly. 'The story needs to be told', asserts Bart, citing Atticus Finch as his role model.[xv]
The Docklands today is an utterly different landscape to that of Sonny and Bart’s childhood.[xvi] ‘McMahon Brudge’, as Sonny knew it, has been replaced by cool hemispherical railings that light up at night. Where once dead cats and coal sacks floated, now barges moor along the piers of Charlotte Quay.[xvii] Where once the boats unloaded their coal into the Gas Company hoppers, Martha Schwartz’s swathes of red and green criss-cross beneath the Daniel Libeskind designed theatre.[xviii] Today, the old dockers walk the street and point out the places where the coal yards and foundries once stood.[xix] They know all the old names. ‘We used to call that row of houses Cripple Creek or Lourdes’, says Bart. ‘You had to have something wrong with you to get a house in it, but then you always seemed to get the miracle cure the instant you were in.’
'It's strange to see it all now’, says Sonny. ‘There's a bit of sadness for us. Docklands is gone. We lost our jobs and now we lost our heritage. But people are better off of course. And this is a great neighbourhood to live in. We're probably just a bit jealous of the new Docklanders.’ [xx]
[i] Bart's still married. Sonny's a widower. 'We tell a lot of lies', says Sonny. 'Anything that comes into our heads' agrees Bart.
[ii] Townsend Street ran parallel to Pearse Street and every street off it was
known as Townsend from Lime Street and Windmill Lane to Tara Street.
[iii] After he’d finished delivering the fruit and veg, young Bart was at his desk in St Andrew’s when school began. 'English and History were what I liked. Economics? How to put a feed on the table. That was our Economics. There was a big sign on the wall in our place. 'Work or Want'. After school, he would fetch the horse and trap and go around the city centre, delivering coal until eight o’clock. Sometimes there’s be a few bob to be made picking up rags that fell of the trucks and bringing them down to Micky Mazlin's Rag Shop on Rath Row.
[iv] ‘If you hit the Gasometer, you'd have to run for your life'. Football was a big part of Docklands life. Liam Brady's father was a Fenian Street docker from the Butt Bridge end; Liam was at school there but later moved to Whitehall. Betty Dempsey's brother Fran played football for Shelbourne and later for Holyhead, and died in Australia. Betty's grand-nephew is Kenny Cunningham. Sonny played too but Bart says he was more into chasing birds!
A Loud Hailer stood at the eastern end of Rogerson's Quay and would instruct incoming ships which berth they were to proceed to. You had to check in at the hailing station which is now gone to Ringsend. They use magnets to unload stuff now. It was dismantled at 7 o'clock of a Sunday morning.
The Diving Bell is now a relic of bygone times but Sonny and Bart knew many of those who went down underwater in it. ‘Sure it's only the height of a man in there', marvels Sonny.
[v] On the night the Luftwaafe bombed the North Strand, Bart remembers seeing the flames from their windows. A lot of the boats they knew from before the war were sunk by U-boats. Many sons of the area served with the Merchant Navy. A memorial to the many who died in the conflict stands on City Quay close to Sonny’s old school. Bart still goes to 4 o'clock mass in City Quay. He says he only goes to make sure they don’t close the church down. He tells me the first Irish person to go into Hong Kong after the surrender was Neddy Redmond, a Commando born on Townsend Street who later settled in Birmingham and married Nancy Ashe. Neddy apparently described his education by the Christian Brothers as making Hitler look like Santa Claus.
[vi] Bart says that when his uncle returned from England in the 1940s, there were eight or nine Christmas parties every year. ‘I've never been to a Christmas party’, he complains.
[vii] That said, there was a rivalry between the different tenements but primarily there was the north-side inner city, the south-side inner city and the Liberties. And within the south-side tenements there was a further rivalry between the Townsenders and the Ringsenders. ‘The McMahon bridge was the barrier between us’, laughs Sonny. ‘You didn't cross over the brudge. If you went chasing women down there, the lads would tackle you when you were coming out of the pictures and tell you to stay away from there.’
[viii] The silos are still intact but haven't been used in many years. ‘You can still see the sheds along Barrow Street. It was a crowd called Bishops made flour sacks here during the war’. Fifty years ago, every available space along the Grand Canal Docks seems to have been occupied by coal-yards. The companies who ran them were household names across the city. Tedcastle’s, Heiton’s, Sheridan’s. JJ. Carroll’s, S.N. Robinson, P. Donnelly, Doherty and so on. Buildings we know today as the Millennium Tower, Gallery Quay and Educo-Gym are all built on former coal yards. Perhaps the most familiar sight on any given street in this area was a horse with a cart full of coal. Eamon MacThomas was based down in Donnelly Coalyard.
A ‘famous’ murder story took place near the Grand Canal Basin when a soldier from the Glen of Imaal, who had a boat here, shot a woman from Dun Laoghaire. But I know no more of this.
There were plenty of pubs. Bart liked the Dockers on City Quay; it used to be called Ferguson's and then Aherne's. Misery Hill was more recently a canal-side slum where. Smith's Pub was on the corner by Diving Bell; later Joe Kelly's.
[ix] While the Nolan’s probably came from Carlow or Wicklow originally, Bart says his family have been based in Dublin since at least 1727. His mothers’ family hailed from Stillorgan and moved into the area behind the Holles Street Hospital in the 1800s. Bart now lives in Ashtown near Cabra.
[x] He worked between Oxford (Wolsey), London and Birmingham, where his sister was a nurse.
[xi] In later years Mr Kinsella progressed to the Corporation Waterworks on Fishamble Street. He retired when he was 72.
[xii] Sonny says his family are Dubliners 'through and through' although
Kinsella is a Wexford - Carlow name.
[xiii] When the Harty boss was killed in a plane crash, the business bombed and Sonny was made redundant. Three months later, the 44-year-old found work at the CPC Foods factory on the Davitt Road.
[xiv] ‘Three months later, I went to CPC, an American corporation who had Kellogs and Knor soup and things. They were on the Davitt Road, where the LUAS now runs, out by the Canal, next to Lyons tea factory. It was so big there were three car parks, two football pitches and a nine-hole pitch and putt. It was a terrific place. My mother-in-law was very well got so I hadn't got a problem getting a job. I had never been on the Labour in my life. Never took anything from welfare. But I took three months off and then I started. I was 44 when I went there I was there until I retired aged 63. I got the chance of early retirement. I wasn't prepared to take it. I was a workaholic’.
[xv] Sonny reckons Bart is the Simon Wiesenthal of pedophilia rings. He reports pedophiles to the Health Board and the Police. 'There's a lot of people who'll never be right. Get a few drinks into them and they're wired to the moon'. He says ‘they’ tried to stop him, got him sacked and everything. One of those he targeted was King's Hospital swimming coach Derry O'Rourke who served nine years for a string of sex abuses on girls as young as 10. Bart famously wrote to the minister for justice, pointing out that the DPP had never sought the extradition from the US of George Gibney, who stood accused of raping more than a dozen young swimmers. ‘If you can extradite Conrad Gallagher for three paintings, why can't you extradite George Gibney for seven rapes?’, asked Bart.
Bart’s son and namesake, Bart Nolan, coached the Irish Paralympic swimming team at the 2005 British Championships in Sheffield.
[xvi] The death of the docklands was a slow motion affair. Cranes got sturdier. Containers became craftier. Ships got bigger. Manpower and horsepower became redundant. And then the tenement houses began to fall. In June 1963, a pair of tenement houses on Fenian Street collapsed, killing two small girls. The tragedy was the catalyst for a hard-line response to the inner city housing crisis. Dublin City Council sent in the demolition men and, north and south of the river, nearly all the tenements came down. The population were scattered amongst new housing schemes outside the city. By 1970, the total population of the two parishes of Westland Row and City Quay was little over 6,000. Many from Townsend Street had been relocated to Ringsend. ‘We only went down there to educate and dilute them', laughs Bart.
[xvii] ‘The water used to be filthy’, recalls Bart. ‘Dead animals were thrown in and would just float around. The water became stagnant. Decontaminated water too. You
didn't know any better. You lived in a tenement house’.
[xviii] 'The four coal-boats came in from Garristown ... Nikolai Harris was one of the lads. Nobody knew his real name. They had to feed themselves. On the other ships they'd feed you. They had to bring their grub with them. They'd be over and back in a day. There was a hopper beside it and a crane that travelled up and down here the trees are now. The coal would go into the hopper to make coke'.
[xix] Sheridan's had the yard on left of Hanover Lane where Macken Motors is now. One of the last forges is Boyne's behind the black and blue wall on the opposite side of the TCD Enterprise Centre. Boyne had the contract to fix up the Gas Company
horses. He is a well-to-do farrier, says Bart. His sons exhibit in RDS also during
Horse Show. Most of the farriers were Protestant and 'they always looked for one of their own'.
[xx] ‘We are much more settled down than our parents were’, adds Bart. ‘To buy a house was unheard of in their time. But then we started buying houses and sending our children to colleges. Our children and their families are better again’.