Play explores the real-life experiences of Cork’s dockers

Marion Wyatt’s new play recalls the highs and lows of a profession that has all but vanished on Leeside, writes Colette Sheridan.

Play explores the real-life experiences of Cork’s dockers

Marion Wyatt’s new play recalls the highs and lows of a profession that has all but vanished on Leeside, writes Colette Sheridan.

WITH a back catalogue of plays that includes The Sunbeam Girls, Shawlies and On Albert Road, writer and director Marion Wyatt loves Cork lore and local history.

Her latest play, Dockers, is a dramatisation that came together from conversations with former Cork dockers and their families. The one-act play, which will be performed at the Unitarian Church Hall, is set in the docklands and a northside suburb of Cork.

As well as professional actors, five ex-dockers will make their theatrical debut in this production by Creative Collective Cork. Altogether, there is a cast of 25 in the drama which, if this outing is successful, will be extended to a longer play.

Wyatt attributes her fondness for local stories to her working class background and strong sense of community. She was reared in Blackpool before her family moved to St Lukes. For many years, Wyatt did voluntary work in Churchfield and she was involved in Blackpool Youth Theatre.

Dockers kicks off in February 2009 when the final rationalisation of the Port of Cork took place. Technology had taken over and the dockers were no longer required. The play travels back and forth in time with colourful stories unfolding, from the harsh working conditions of the men to the almost militant unionisation of the dockers and the ensuing improved conditions.

While gathering oral histories, Wyatt was introduced to a former docker called Pat ‘Fáda Beag’ O’Brien-O’Leary whose life took an interesting turn after years down the docks. Like many dockers, Pat took time to adjust to a new life without the dock work.

Playwright Marion Wyatt.
Playwright Marion Wyatt.

“He knew he needed to do something to help himself so he went to St John’s College for two years and got a place at the Crawford College of Art and Design. As far as we know, he’s the only docker who went on to third level education. He got his degree. His final year thesis was to do with the docks and all the physical aspects of the work and the emotions associated with the docks. Patrick shared his research with me.”

There is a ring of authenticity about the play as Wyatt showed her drafts of it to O’Brien-O’Leary. “He wasn’t impressed with the first draft. He said it was too tame and not real. That was like gold to me. The word filtered down through this community of men and they started meeting me in person. I had oral recordings which were fascinating. I was like a sponge. The downside is that I had too much material.”

Wyatt decided to focus on a fictional family of dockers.

If I was getting it wrong or was patronising or insulting, the men would pull me up. I had an advisor on the language used. All the men had nicknames and they had their own slang.

The world of the Cork dockers changed over the decades. “The conditions of the early generations of dockers were horrendous. A lot of them knew street poverty and cold. Back in the 1940s and ‘50s, and before that, the union was shut down with no new members allowed in. It became marginalised and with that came a natural greed because people needed to protect what they had.”

But in the mid 1960s, with socialism and communism gaining traction, the dockers’ union opened up and the docks were changed forever in Cork.

“The men fought to get improved working conditions. If sailors from other countries arriving in Cork weren’t being paid properly, the dockers would lock the docks down and look after these people in their own homes until their employers around the world would release funds. There was great solidarity.”

The dockers “loved to drink” in the city’s early houses. Wyatt says the play also explains why the men drank so much, and why some became addicted.

With the development of the docks, this play aims to capture the spirit of Cork before the glass buildings went up, dramatically changing the cityscape.

- Dockers is at the Unitarian Church Hall, Princes Street, Cork, on August 6-16. Tickets are available through Eventbrite.

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