Getting the goods part 4: Trucking through the pandemic

Getting the goods part 4: Trucking through the pandemic

Tarrant International Transport truck driver Kevin Downey in his truck parked at Ballymaloe Foods (Hyde Ltd) Dispatch Office on the Courtstown Industrial Estate, Little Island, Cork, about to collect goods destined for France. Picture: Neil Michael

Kevin Downey loves listening to people moaning for an hour or two during the day.

But if the 35-year-old truck driver isn’t listening to callers sounding off on Joe Duffy, he likes documentary podcasts — especially true crime series.

“I listen to a lot of podcasts,” he explains.

“I'm not a reader really, but I do listen to documentaries. I find them a bit more interesting.

“It helps pass the time of day.” 

Tarrant International Transport truck driver Kevin Downey arriving at Ballymaloe Foods Hyde Ltd’s dispatch office on the Courtstown Industrial Estate, Little Island, Cork. Picture: Neil Michael
Tarrant International Transport truck driver Kevin Downey arriving at Ballymaloe Foods Hyde Ltd’s dispatch office on the Courtstown Industrial Estate, Little Island, Cork. Picture: Neil Michael

He is standing patiently outside the dispatch office of Ballymaloe Foods (Hyde Ltd) in Little Island, Co Cork.

It’s a Saturday, it’s early, the sun is shining, and the country is finally on the verge of emerging from lockdown.

Before the pandemic, the yard around him would have been criss-crossed with various workers coming in and out of the warehouse.

When the Irish Examiner was there for what was the first of his nine collections that 12-hour day, the place was practically deserted.

Eventually, the 10m wide shutter at its entrance to the warehouse shoots up and a young woman emerges.

She nods at Kevin before disappearing back inside.

A few minutes later, she emerges behind the wheel of a red and black forklift carrying a tight plastic-wrapped wooden pallet laden with sauces.

Kevin jumps up into the back of his truck ahead of her, dons his gloves and waits.

The forklift glides over, stops abruptly, and she raises the pallet up onto the back end of his trailer.

She then reverses quickly, and glides back into the warehouse for another consignment.

Kevin Downey loading his trailer at Ballymaloe Foods Hyde Ltd’s Dispatch Office on the Courtstown Industrial Estate, Little Island, Cork. Picture: Neil Michael
Kevin Downey loading his trailer at Ballymaloe Foods Hyde Ltd’s Dispatch Office on the Courtstown Industrial Estate, Little Island, Cork. Picture: Neil Michael

Kevin grabs the waist-high half-moon handle of a sturdy yellow Jungheinrich hand pallet truck — provided by Ballymaloe — and eases its two long prongs under the upper deck board of the laden pallet, pressing the handle down and up repeatedly until the prongs lift it high enough off the trailer floor to move it.

He then manoeuvres Cork’s finest sauces — destined for Italy — down to the back of his vast white trailer.

The young woman is back, almost as suddenly as she was gone, with a second pallet, gliding out of the warehouse towards Kevin’s trailer, whirling around with deft precision to line up at the back of his trailer again.

He again manoeuvres the second pallet to the back of his trailer and then pushes the Jungheinrich back to the end of his trailer and lines it across the waiting forks of the forklift.

The woman waves and smiles as she reverses away from the trailer, leaving behind a small package of jars.

“Look,” says Kevin, turning to this reporter as he waves back and she glides back into the dispatch centre, the shutters clattering down behind her.

This is why it is such a joy collecting from Ballymaloe. They go and do silly things like this when they really don’t need to.” 

Even though you can tell he wasn’t expecting them, he is obviously impressed.

In a socially-distanced age when people are still discouraged from being “normal”, a slight touch like this that says “thank-you” out of the blue goes a long way.

“If you're a trucker, you're pretty much a lone worker, and even more so during the pandemic,” says his boss Donagh Tarrant.

“You don't really come in contact with that many people on a day-to-day basis when you go into a factory and load up your trailer anymore.

“They don’t really have contact with people.

“Before the pandemic, you would have gone into the office, got your paperwork signed and you’d be meeting people face-to-face.

That is almost completely gone, and while paperwork is now increasingly emailed, drivers are encouraged to just stay in their cabs.

“Often, it is the case they're not even involved in the loading process.” 

The Ballymaloe sauces set the day off to a good start for father-of-two Kevin, who has worked for Glanmire’s Tarrant International Transport for 10 years.

He has been around trucks since he was “knee high”.

“My father drove, my brothers drove, my uncle owns a company,” he remarks.

“We were always involved in trucking.” 

He is one of 80 drivers who work for Tarrant International Transport, which is one of the biggest logistics and distribution companies in Ireland.

The Glanmire company delivers to and collects from all over continental Europe and northern Africa, specialising in pharmaceuticals, meat, fish, dairy, and dry “groupage”.

Groupage is the transport of a number of different types of goods from different companies all in the same trailer.

So, while drivers like father-of-two Kevin would usually pick up fresh fish from Castletownbere on their way to Rosslare, they would also pick up a range of other goods from other suppliers.

Other things they transport include electronics and pre-cast concrete.

One of Fermoy's South Coast Logistics distinctive yellow trucks. Picture: Neil Michael
One of Fermoy's South Coast Logistics distinctive yellow trucks. Picture: Neil Michael

And on the way back from Europe, they could be bringing a mixture of tiles and ceramics and fruit and veg in any one of their 120 trailers — a lot of which are dual-purpose and carry their own refrigeration units.

Not everything they transport ends up on the shelf of a shop.

Previous loads have included transporting longboats used in the Vikings TV series from Iceland to Wicklow.

But much of what they do is part of a national delivery network that maintains not only this country’s healthy export market, but also our essential imports.

It is the same network that brings to our shopping baskets fresh fruits and vegetables picked in farms across Europe just three or four days previously.

On the day he was photographed for this piece by the Irish Examiner, Kevin's collections included ice creams from Wexford and various collections from meat factories — all destined for Europe.

Chris Denison loads up his van from one of the bays at DHL's distribution centre near Dublin Airport. Picture: Neil Michael
Chris Denison loads up his van from one of the bays at DHL's distribution centre near Dublin Airport. Picture: Neil Michael

At around the same time of day, DHL driver Chris Denison will be delivering to customers in the Dublin 8 area around the St James’ Hospital complex, and Thomas and Francis streets.

The father of four, who has worked for DHL for 21 years, gets to the huge DHL Hub in the Dublin Airport Logistics Park at St Margaret’s just before 7.30am.

The contents of two early-morning freight flights will be in the process of being scanned and sorted at the hub as he arrives.

DHL’s automated conveyor system — or cargo carousel as it is also called — ferries an assortment of parcels along a criss-cross of tracks high above staff sorting out their deliveries, and sorting parcels.

By the time the 61-year-old has backed his distinctive yellow van into his loading bay, parcels diverted from the conveyor for his route will be sliding down his chute and sorting area.

Over the next 90 minutes or so, he will then load into his van around 90 to 100 parcels onto shelves, according to each street he is delivering to.

Chris Denison at DHL's distribution centre. Picture: Neil Michael
Chris Denison at DHL's distribution centre. Picture: Neil Michael

“It’s very efficient, and it usually only takes about an hour to 90 minutes or so,” he says.

“It’s very, very busy.

“Since the pandemic, with people doing more shopping online and people working from home, our business has just gone through the roof.

While we would pride ourselves as having a friendly and efficient approach towards our customers, we have to keep our distance and wear our PPE.

“We don’t go into apartment complexes anymore, and we don’t accept cash.

“We are always trying to avoid contact as much as possible.” 

It is because of thousands of drivers like Kevin and Chris that the supply of goods around the country has been maintained as well as it has.

Indeed, there were points throughout the pandemic when almost the only vehicle you saw anywhere near a main road was an articulated truck or a delivery van.

“That has definitely been the scariest thing from the pandemic for me,” Kevin recalls.

“Although it is picking up again, traffic was almost completely gone.

While it was great to be able to get to destinations on time and there were no jams, I just didn’t like the way the world was. You’d almost prefer to be in traffic and actually see other people.

“I remember going up to Dublin on St Patrick’s Day last year because there was no parade.

“I didn't meet one car all the way.

“It was kind of scary, that was when we didn't really know what was going on in the world.” 

On a lighter note, he adds: “For the first time the other day in about a year, I actually saw kids out playing in the grass as I drove past.

“And I was talking to one of the lads the other day after they were in France, and they told me about how they were seeing people out having picnics.” 

And with that, he jumps back up into the cab of his truck and heads off on his collections.

In a few hours' time, he’ll be listening attentively to the latest row on Liveline.

Air Corps Squadron pilot Lt Oisín Murtagh doing pre-flight checks aboard a EC135 P2 helicopter, which have been heavily used in the all-Ireland transport of vaccines. Picture: Neil Michael
Air Corps Squadron pilot Lt Oisín Murtagh doing pre-flight checks aboard a EC135 P2 helicopter, which have been heavily used in the all-Ireland transport of vaccines. Picture: Neil Michael

Some deliveries have proved more important than others during the pandemic so far, and it's well lieutenant Oisin Murtagh, a squadron pilot with the Air Corps 302 squadron, knows.

He was one of a number of air crew who have been delivering Covid-19 vaccines to islands off the coast of Ireland from their small EC135 P2+ aircraft.

Of the islanders when he and colleagues arrive, the 25-year-old, from Clontarf, Co Dublin says: "It's usually all positive.

They are always delighted to get the vaccines. I love being part of that.

"It's part of a positive thing for the whole country, something getting rolled out and getting to the people of Ireland."

Air Corps Squadron pilot Lt Oisín Murtagh. Picture: Neil Michael
Air Corps Squadron pilot Lt Oisín Murtagh. Picture: Neil Michael

His boss, Lieutenant Colonel Niall Buckley, from Castlehaven in West Cork, adds: "The Air Corps has a long affinity with working with the islands off the West Coast, going back to the 1960s.

"I suppose very much like ourselves, they are at the behest of the weather, but we can almost always bridge that gap between weather and time by getting out onto the islands."

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