'Dublin Docklands - An Urban Voyage’ is a work in progress, commissioned by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, and due to be completed in the autumn of 2008. The following tale represents research I have undertaken for the project which may or may not be used in the final book.
There is a wonderful moment in JP Donleavy’s book ‘The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B’, when the enchanting Balthazar is sent galloping down the ‘the wet gleaming cobble stones’ of the quays, ‘by all the long rusting sides of ships’. His flight was prompted by a surprise encounter with ‘an old grey bewhiskered face … staring and mad’, clasping a lump of coal in one hand by a bunker on Misery Hill. Fifty years ago, every available space along the South Quays seems to have been occupied by coal-yards. Between Butt Bridge and Rogerson's Quay there were six coal merchants, and at least another four were based on the Grand Canal Docks. The companies who ran them were household names across the city. Tedcastle’s, Heiton’s, Sheridan’s, Wallace’s, Murphy’, JJ. Carroll’s, S.N. Robinson, P. Donnelly, Doherty and so on. Buildings we know today as the Millennium Tower, Gallery Quay, Hanover Reach 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 trotting along the cobbles. ‘Everybody in the area had a horse then’, says retired docker Bart Nowlan. ‘There was nothing but horses. A horse was your security. If the horse didn't die, you wouldn't die’. Tedcastle’s were the first to motorize their fleet after the Second World War and so began the extinction of the Docklands horse.
In the morning, the skinny, gravelly-voiced dockers would gather for the ‘Read’ between The Ferryman and The Gasometre, where McCann FitzGerald is today. The ‘Reads’ involved a stevedore, or ‘ganger’, eyeing up the men and selecting which ones would work that day. Only the ‘button men’ were guaranteed work. The button men were those dockers who, since 1941, had joined the Union and been given a button, almost by way of an identity tag - cross-channel buttons, deep-sea buttons, coal-buttons and so forth. These men got the work. ‘You, you, you and you’. After the button men left, the ganger then decided which, if any, of the ‘casuals’ would be given work. Oftentimes the gangers drank tea inside and left the ‘casual’s standing out in rain and sleet while they made up their minds. It was all about who you knew. Moreover, if you wanted work, you had to 'look after' the ganger in the pub that night. The quays were littered with dockers pubs back then. Campions, Mullets, Clerys, McCormacks, The Blue Lion, The Kind Ladies and such like. Here the dockers would congregate to drink, fight and, if need be, look after the ganger. Terry Fagan recalls being paid in Campion’s by two such gangers. ‘You had to buy them a whiskey with your wages. At the end of the night, they'd stack all the glasses, pour the whiskey back into the bottle and cash it in'.
If you got the call up to dig coal, then off you set to meet the coal-steamers coming in, perhaps in Spencer Dock, or along Rogerson’s Quay, or Charlotte Quay. As the ships arrived, quick thinkers threw their cigarette boxes into the hold to book their spot. It was the fellow down at the bottom of the coal pile who had the hardest job, shoveling the nuggets up into the tub, inhaling the sickly stench of tar through the morning mist. ‘The Number 7 shovel was the most important thing a man could have’, says Bart. When he began digging coal in J.J. Carrol’s yard in his youth, his father advised him to work with a slow stroke and make sure the shovel was full every time. ‘Done right, the shovel could hold a stone of coal’. The men dug all day, and night if need be, working with a small paraffin light, known as a ‘duck’. Their hands frequently bled raw with coke cuts; their lungs congested by coal dust. Dockers were hard men but there was always a solid sense of wit. ‘I don't recognize this court', said a docker standing trial for being drunk and disorderly. ‘Are ye political?’, enquired the judge warily. ‘No', the docker replied, 'I mean you must have painted it since I was here last'.
At 12:30pm, the hooter would sound for lunch ‘and there’d be a rush of men, like ants, running home for the grub … the smell of their clothes was truly diabolical’. One of the best-known North Wall coal-diggers was Tucker Lynch, born in Railway Street and reckoned to be the only Afro-American in the inner city. The story runs that he had to sport a bright red scarf around his neck so that his mother could identify him from the other diggers when she brought him his tea and sandwiches. Tea was a rarity in those times although occasionally, the crane-drivers would genially boil a billy-can of water in their steam engines and provide fresh tea for the lads.
Tedcastle’s led the way into the future with the acquisition of two steam-driven George Arrow cranes. These would lift a full tub onto a waiting horse-drawn lorry, known as a ‘bogie’, bound for the coal yards. In later times, the coal was shovelled directly into a hopper that ran up and down Gallery Quay, where the trees are now. The coal was then sacked before it’s penultimate journey by horse and dray, or lorry, to households across the southern suburbs. Sometimes it was taken by bellmen, private street traders, with a horse or donkey. A lucky coal-man would just have to pour the coal down a ground level chute. It certainly can’t have been fun heaving those 8-stone bags up eight flights of stairs to the top floor of a four-storey Georgian home.
Some bogies ran down fixed tracks along the South Quays and connected to the gas works at Hanover Quay. The ghost of this narrow gauge tramway can still be seen in places today. At the gas works, the coal was taken to the coke ovens or purifier and burned. ‘You could smell anyone who worked with the gas a mile away’, recalls Sonny Kinsellagh. ‘There wasn't too many of them who had baths'. Indeed, one of the few options for cleaning yourself was to had to They had to go to the Public Baths and Wash Houses down at Tara Street. Bart shivers at the memory. ‘You’d stand and wait for the fellow to turn on the tap but you wouldn’t know if it’d be hot or cold. And if you gave out, they wouldn't let you in the next time’.
After the steamers and lorries and dockers had gone, local children came scampering in to gather as many stray nuggets as they could for the family fireplace. But you wouldn’t want to be caught. ‘If the police saw you, that was it’, chuckles Bart. ‘There was nowhere to run. How are you going to get away with a bag of coal on your back and them on the bike?’