‘The men I worked with were the best in the world’

Charlie Tierney, who worked as a Foreman on Derry's Docks for many years until his retirement in 1991. (2511JC2 - photo courtesy of John P. Coyle)
Charlie Tierney, who worked as a Foreman on Derry's Docks for many years until his retirement in 1991. (2511JC2 - photo courtesy of John P. Coyle)

Charlie Tierney, now aged 87 years-old, began working at Derry’s Docks as a teenager alongside his brothers. They followed in the footsteps of their father, Patrick, who had been a docker too.

Charlie, originally from Cromore Gardens in Creggan but now living in the city’s Ard Glen, recalls: “To begin with there wasn’t very much work for me as there were hundreds of dockers looking for work, so when I joined at 18 I was a casual tonnage worker.”

Charlie Tierney pictured with colleague Willie Smith (Mutt) on the docks. (2511JC3 - photo courtesy of John P. Coyle)

Charlie Tierney pictured with colleague Willie Smith (Mutt) on the docks. (2511JC3 - photo courtesy of John P. Coyle)

“I got married in 1950 and there wasn’t much work around, so I ended up going to England to work on the docks there for a while. I came back in the 1960s and stayed home, working at the docks again. All my brothers worked on the docks too - so there was Joe, Johnny, Eddie and me.”

“My father died in 1936, aged 54 years-old,” Charlie explains. “He was a tonnage docker and it was hard work.

“When I returned to Derry docks in the 1960s, I never worked at digging coal - that was hard work for the men. I worked at the grain mostly and as a Tally Clerk. When a boat came in with potatoes or anything, it was my job to count the bags coming in so we could tell tonnage men how much tonnage they had earned that day.”

Charlie explained that the area in which the tonnage dockers worked stretched from the site of the modern day City Hotel down to the shipyard, where Sainsbury’s now stands.

Unloading cargo from Derry's docks - Pictured, from left, are Frank Campbell, John Tierney (Charlie's brother), Sam Martin and Dan Nash. (Photo courtesy of The Sentinel/Sam Martin)

Unloading cargo from Derry's docks - Pictured, from left, are Frank Campbell, John Tierney (Charlie's brother), Sam Martin and Dan Nash. (Photo courtesy of The Sentinel/Sam Martin)

“There was a train-line which ran along the length of the quay and that used to pull wagons with coal up and down the line and on towards the Foyle Road and further to Strabane.”

While digging coal was back-breaking work for those employed for the coal boats, unloading grain was slightly easier for the gangs to manage.

“The grain was different, because there was a machine that went in and sucked the grain up,” Charlie says. “The grain was taken into McCorkell’s warehouse, which was near where the City Hotel and Quayside is now. None of those buildings survive now.”

When the cranes came in, Charlie became a “steadying-up man” which means he had to direct the crane operator as to which direction to take and what to grab.

“I never did any of the heavy work, I directed them from the dock. When the crane went in to grab it, the men went in afterwards to finish it off.

“At the beginning with the grain, there were two gangs. Either you started at 6am and worked until 2pm, or you worked from 2pm until 10pm.

“I was usually on from 6 in the morning until 2pm in the afternoon. When the numbers of men were eventually reduced, we had to work from 8am until 8pm,” Charlie recalls.

“The amount of money dockers earned depended on the tonnage and how much they did that day. There was a clock in the store, and every ton of grain that went in registered and they were paid accordingly.”

Of course, such arduous manual labour often left Charlie’s ‘gangs’ filthy by the end of their working day. “The men would be covered in coal dust, and eventually during the 1970s they put showers and toilets in the dock offices, which stood where the Mandarin Palace is now, so men could shower and clean themselves off before heading home. ”

Derry’s quayside was not just confined to manual work and hundreds of dockers, however, as countless thousands of Irish people left Ireland via the docks too - in search of a better life in the New World.

“We often saw queues of people waiting for the tender along the dock,” Charlie remembers.

“They had to board the tender at Derry quay that would take them on down to board the big ships at Moville and then take them on to America or wherever.”

Charlie retired in 1991 and now looks back on his working years with a sense of fulfilment. Above all, he remembers the mutual respect, friendships and camaraderie among his fellow workmates throughout his years on the quays.

“All the men I worked with on the Derry docks were the best in the world,” he says. “You would never have seen a fight between them. There would be the odd argument, of course, but it was a very tight team and everyone supported everyone else.”

“We did have the odd drink together too. There were a few of us would have went to the bar,” he adds.

“We would have went to Tinney’s Bar a lot, and we would also have went to the Foyle Inn on Foyle Street, which is now called the Gainsborough Bar.”He explains the ‘Button’ system which was used on the docks - a method used to distinguish the seniority of workers - almost like a hierarchy of experience.

“As far as my working was concerned, I got away lightly,” he says. “I finished up as a foreman on the docks which meant I picked the men for the boats. I decided who was working where and oversaw things.”

“The yellow buttons were first preference - men that were there for 30-40 years and got the work first. Next were the red buttons, who were there for 15 years or so, and then the blue buttons, who were only at the docks a couple of years and were last in line, working more casual.

“Everybody knew each other and what button they were, it wasn’t something they wore as such,” he adds. “The foreman always knew his gangs and who did what.”

Charlie expresses sadness that all the industrial buildings which once dotted the city’s quay have all but disappeared in recent years. “The docks will never be the same again, and it’s a pity none of the old docks survive, but time marches on and things change, I suppose,” he says.

When asked if he is proud of his years on the docks, Charlie smiles: “They were the best times and I am proud surely.

“You couldn’t have got better anywhere in the world than those working the docks.”