‘There were no weaklings working on Derry’s docks!’

Columba worked on the coal ships too. (212JC1)
Columba worked on the coal ships too. (212JC1)

Tonnage docker John ‘Columba’ McConomy was born in 1925 and worked Derry’s docks for decades, just like his father Jimmy before him.

Since the 17th Century, Derry’s port has been one of the most important and thriving ports in Ireland. Fine linens, Irish goods and provisions were imported and exported in vast quantities along its quayside every day. Countless thousands have no doubt worked Derry’s historic docklands over the past 300 years. This week, in the third of our series celebrating the city’s dockers, Columba McConomy speaks to ‘Journal’ reporter JULIEANN CAMPBELL about life as a tonnage docker on the quays...

Columba McConomy at work on Derry docks. To his right is Kevin McFeely. (212JC2)

Columba McConomy at work on Derry docks. To his right is Kevin McFeely. (212JC2)

Tonnage docker John ‘Columba’ McConomy was born in 1925 and worked Derry’s docks for decades, just like his father Jimmy before him.

Now aged 86 years-old and known to all as simply ‘Columba’, he spent his early life in a long gone part of the city.

“I was born and reared in Derry - in a place called Sugarhouse Lane,” he tells the ‘Journal’, “which would have been around where Foyleside Shopping Centre stands today.”

Like most dockers in the city, Columba has to wait until his 18th birthday before he could get a job in the city’s docks.

Columba McConomy. (2911PG34)

Columba McConomy. (2911PG34)

“The first job I ever got down the quay was trimming coal for Kelly’s Coal-yard when I was 18. We shovelled it and piled it up high with a shovel to make room for the other horses and carts coming in to empty the coal.”

However, work was never guaranteed for those working along the quays.

“You went out every morning and waited around looking for a job,” he says. “Jimmy Deehan was the foreman for Kelly’s Coal yard at that time, and his team were six or eight men. He would come along if he was one or two men short, say if someone was sick, had slept in or was on the drink! Then he would come to the corner and pick you or the next man. Unfortunately, you were never guaranteed work. The Scotch, Liverpool and the Heysham boats were all guaranteed as they had their own gangs, but we were casual dockers and we just had to wait and see.”

“Every morning, you would see men coming down Rossville Street and William Street in their droves with their trouser legs tied around the calves and their two shovels over their shoulders. If they didn’t get a job that morning, you’d see them coming back the ways with the shovels again.”

“Believe it or not,” he adds, “My father once walked from Derry the whole way to Lisahally to get a job - he got no job and had to walk the whole way back! That was probably 100 years ago or so now though, when there was no transport at all.”

Columba himself eventually worked himself into the trimming gang at the coal-yard, after which he “spread out and went down the quay looking for other work.”

“Tommy Green was foreman on the spuds at that time, he had three or four spud boats,” Columba recalls. “Tommy would come down to one boat and go up on the deck while we were standing on the dock below like seagulls, looking up at him. And he would call down Columba, Mark, Jimmy!Whoever he needed. Then he would go on down to the next boat and the same thing would happen. Sometimes, you literally had to go running after them to get a job, that’s as true as God.”

The button system was in place at the docks, and Columba and his colleagues at least had the protection of their button. “We were all yellow button men, and so they couldn’t employ anyone in front of us - that’s the protection the button gave you in those days,” he says.

Often, he got a job digging coal. “That was hard work alright - the sweat was running out of you!”

“Then I got a job down in McCorkell’s down the Strand Road - I think the gateway into McCorkell’s would have been around where Quayside Centre is now. It was like a warehouse where they stored the grain and barley and wheat.

“At McCorkell’s, you had to do two hours extra work in the morning when the boat came up and we had to put boards across the rail-line to access it. You got no money for that part - it was just rigging up your work and went unpaid.”

“When you started on the quay, you always got a mate and worked with them. A man called Charlie Nash was my mate, and most jobs we worked together,” he adds.

Tonnage dockers worked on different boats, as and when they were required. Columba remembers the grain boats well.

“With the grain, the boats came in filled to the brim and the men were knee-high in it and they worked right to the bottom of the boat. It took maybe three or four days to empty it, but worse than that, it was full of rats! Believe it or not, they were everywhere! The grain was foreign, we never paid much attention to where it was coming from exactly, maybe from Russia, but that wasn’t important really - all we wanted was the work.”

While the men inside the boat, or the ‘hole’ as it was called, bagged the grain, Columba and others worked outside the boat.

“We carried sixteen-stone bags of grain each throughout the day,” he reveals. “We would run across the quay with these sixteen-stone bags across our shoulders! You ran across and emptied the grain into a grill, bringing the bag back out and taking it straight back to the boat to get filled again.

He laughs, adding: “You needed to be strong enough to work the docks, there were no weaklings working on the Derry docks anyway!”

“I worked more spud boats than anything else really,” he went on. “It ended up eventually that the spud boat would be emptied into trucks, but when were were doing it in the early days, you had to carry a bag a time from the shed to the boat all day long. When they boats were emptied, most of the time we would get a bottle of drink off the Captain,” he smiles, remembering.

Columba believes that the construction of the city’s biggest bridge played a significant part in the decline of dock-work. “The worst thing they ever did for Derry Quay was building that new Foyle bridge,” he says.

“A few of us went to speak to Jackie Coyle at the union rooms to voice concerns, but he assured us that everything would be able to go under the bridge. It wasn’t built a week when a boat came up and they had to cut the top of the boat - the captain’s quarters - off completely so it could get under! They had to put it back on again on the way back out. But that was the killer of the docks. I worked till I was 65, and retired twenty-one years ago in 1990.”

“Another of the worst things they ever did at Derry docks was to fill in the dry docks - which were down at the shipyard where Sainsbury’s is now. It was filled in around the same time as they built the Foyle Bridge. That was another blow. The docks never recovered. From over 300 dockers in my day, there are only six or seven dockers left now down at Lisahally. My son is one of them.” Columba has many fond memories of his years on Derry’s quays and of a simpler way of life. “Things are far faster nowadays,” he reflects. “When we lived in Creggan, there wasn’t a single car in Creggan Heights. Not one! Now there’s two or three cars to a house. Everything has speeded up and life seems so much faster.”