But an era ended yesterday when over 100 Cork city dockers collected redundancy payments on their last day at work.
Men like legendary docks’ foreman Simon Quilligan, who worked at the Port of Cork for 49 years, Christy Murphy, who saw 30 years’ service, and “baby docker” Jack O’Keeffe, who “only started in 1978”, filed into Connolly Hall to collect their payments.
They were among a group of 103 casual dock workers who voted last month to accept redundancy as part of a rationalisation at the Port of Cork to modernise work practices.
They gathered in groups afterwards in their little canteen just inside DF Doyle’s warehouse on O’Connell Street — their lockers empty, paint peeling from the walls, Christmas decorations still hanging from the ceiling — to share memories, jokes, stories, and exchange quick-witted banter, all tinged with sadness and emotion.
A light mist of rain fell outside as Simon, 63, whose father and grandfather were dockers before him, recalled at the age of seven bringing his father’s dinner down to him at the docks and taking corn back home to feed pigeons. He followed his dad into the job aged 15.
“I did every kind of work, and anything. I came down because the money was good,” he said later, overlooking the south jetties, where a large vessel was being unloaded by cranes.
“I worked on a 200-tonne coal boat one day. I got £7.50 for one day’s work — more than a soldier would be paid in a month.
“It was hard work, digging coal with a size 10 shovel, unloading slag and timber.
“We were one big happy family. We helped one another, that’s the way it was — and we had the best of tea, Barry’s Tea.
“I am happy going now but you feel sorry for a lot of the young dockers. They have mortgages to pay and families to raise.”
Simon, whose brother Patsy also worked on the ships for 48 years, would queue with their colleagues outside DF Doyle’s at 7am every morning to be selected for work by people like the late Jimmy Rook — one of the most respected foremen to ever work with the dockers.
Backbreaking 12-hour shifts, from 8am to 8pm, were routine — 24-hour shifts were not uncommon.
They urinated on their hands to prevent sores and welts from the shovel handles. The dust in ships’ holds clogged their lungs. Their dogs tackled rats lurking under the cargo.
Working in 16-men gangs, 12 would enter the dark and stifling bellies of the vessels, using shovels to remove anything from coal to slag, potash to milk powder.
Two drivers, a hatch dropper and tipper, would wait quayside. It could take several days for up to five gangs to unload a single 17,000-tonne five-hatch ship.
They were tough men, a tight-knit group — all legendary characters with nicknames like Top of the Egg, Father of the Bride, Lovely Knickers, Ate the Fish and Boy Water.
At its height, 1,300 people worked on the docks but modernisation meant less need for their manual labour.
Christy said, despite the hardship, he enjoyed his career and the camaraderie.
“It was a good living. I reared nine kids out of the docks,” he said.
“Today is sad, it’s the end of an era. We remember today all our friends who are dead and gone.
“We worked hard and lived hard. But that changed with the times. Most of the lads today are sensible — good working family men.”
Jack said that despite modernisation, there was still a need for manual workers on the quays.
“There is still good work down there. A lot of men wanted to stay but the vote went against them,” he said.
In a statement yesterday, the Port of Cork Company acknowledged their work over the years.
“The changes which will be introduced following the current rationalisation programme will represent a closure, an end in a chapter of the history of the port,” it said.
“We are very confident that with these changes in place there will be a solid foundation for the future of the port which is in the interest of the Irish economy and particularly the economy of the region.”