Since the 17th Century, Derry’s port has been one of the most important and thriving ports in Ireland. Countless thousands worked the docks over the past 300 years, unloading coal, livestock and grain from the ships as they arrived. Sadly, the city’s historic docklands are now sleek, modern promenades with few reminders of their bygone importance. This week, in the first of a series of features, local man Jack Doherty reminisces with ‘Derry Journal’ reporter JULIEANN CAMPBELL about life on the quays...
Now aged 89 and living in Creggan, Jack remembers his days on the docks with great fondness.
“In those days, you had to be the son of a docker and aged over 18 to work on the docks. My father, Joseph, was a docker and so when I turned 18 I went to join the union and work there too.”
Jack explained that there were different types of dockers, the ‘Tonnage’ men, 365 men who were employed for the tonnage boats, and the ‘Cross-Channel’ men who worked on the cross-channel boats exclusively.
“There were tonnage dockers down by Clarendon Street, while the cross-channel men were different, they worked on the Scotch Boats up by the Guildhall and shipped cattle and provisions that came for Woolworths and other shops. There was a cattle pen behind the Guildhall where they kept all the cows before they were herded onto the Scotch boat and taken away to Scotland.”
“We tonnage dockers did the coal,” Jack remembers. “Digging the coal was a very hard job and you always came home filthy dirty. It was all inside the boats and you had a heavy heart-shaped digging shovel to get the coal out. It was before cranes, so we had twelve men in the boat with shovels digging and putting the coal in a ton bucket. Then the buckets were hooked on and taken out, with the empty one coming in right behind it. We had two shovels, and when we got to the bottom of the pile, or hit the ‘ceiling’ as we called it, we used a square mouth shovel as they were flatter than the heart-shaped ones and worked better. It was definitely tiring - and digging the big coal you could be talking 300 tonnes a day!”
Despite the heavy workload, tonnage ‘gangs’ as they were called, emptied whole boats of coal in just one day.
“We started at 8am in the morning and finished according to what we got done,” Jack says.
“We had to work hard enough to finish it and, if it was over 300 tonnes, you knocked off at one for dinner and came back to finish it and sometimes you could be done by 3 o’clock. There were different types of coal too, we called one the doubles, it was very fine coal and easier to dig. That was picked up by horse and cart and taken over to the Gasyard.”
Few of the city’s younger generation can imagine how Derry’s picturesque quayside looked in decades past, with so much activity and industry dotted along it. Huge boats lined the River Foyle every day. Further down the quay was the huge shipyard - where the modern day Sainsbury’s store now stands.
“The quay looked very different in those days,” Jack agrees.
“You would see the cross channel dockers walking the cattle from the cattle pen down past the Guildhall towards the Scotch Boat. There were grain boats too, although they were a different gang and I never worked on them until the last couple of years. The crane brought the bags of grain out - the bags weighed nearly sixteen stone each - and they would be taken to the grain store.”
“There was a train line along the quay that went way down to the shipyard and on down the strand,” he goes on. “It was loaded up with stuff on wagons and from the docks, it would be taken away and in those days, the railway went over the lower deck of the Derry bridge.”
With a mischievous chuckle, Jack recalls the camaraderie among the dockers and the friendships forged.
“It was some craic on the docks at times. The gang were always taking the hand out of each other and you had to be able to take your oil! There were a lot of laughs as you went about your work.
“All the dockers had nicknames too. I was ‘Jeek’, my brother was Red Joe, then the other Joe Doherty was Big Joe – there were so many Dohertys we needed nicknames - Jimmy Doherty’s nickname was Arsy Pat! You’d kill yourself laughing at some of the nicknames we came up with!”
“But at the same time, we all helped one another, even in sickness. When a man was off sick we made a collection. In those times, you needed it. You were paid every evening after your days work and there was no such thing as sick pay either. Eventually we were paid weekly and once you had put out the coal boat, there was an office up in Shipquay Street where you could get paid.
“Of course, in summer, there weren’t so many coal boats. If you got three days work, you could sign the brew for the other two days and that gave you enough money to get by. If there was a big boat down at Lisahally, we would get four days out of that.”
“The docker’s sons got the extra work on spud boats when the Cyprus spuds came in. They was a new thing then, and I remember at our first boat of Cyprus we put it out in two and a half days and apparently the dockers in Belfast took five days! We worked hard. And we would save any spuds that fell on the ground, sometimes coming home with our pockets full of Cyprus! Better than them going to waste!
Of course, there were the odd perks to being a docker too. “When the foreign boats came in, you could sometimes buy things off the crew like cigarettes and whiskey and things like that,” Jack says.
“If you knew who to ask, you could get a lot of things. Foreign crews kept stuff under their bed and gave it to you for a good price if you needed something for a wedding present or birthday presents. Manys a present I got from the foreign boats.”
Jack was 65 years-old when he retired from Derry’s docks in 1986. When the docks were faced with redundancies, he and many other older dockers took early retirement to let the younger men keep their jobs.
“The problem was that the ‘grabber’ came in and done away with the digging,” he says. “It was a big tool - like a crane - and it would literally come in and grab the coal so they reduced the size of the gang of men to six. You wouldn’t go into the boat to dig until the grab had hit the ceiling and given you somewhere to stand in there, so at times you were waiting around all morning waiting for the grab to finish its work so you could get in there and start yours.
It was from this particular activity that one of the common docker catchphrases emerged, as Jack recalls. “When the grab was moving, they would shout “stan’ in!” so the bucket didn’t get you. Once I was hit on the back of the neck by the crane! I was off for a while...
“I think there were six or eight of us who took retirement,” Jack adds.
“When we left, the younger ones, the dockers sons, took over but there weren’t many left and eventually the work began to dry up. There aren’t so many of us tonnage dockers left now, but it would be interesting to know how many of us are left.”
“I wouldn’t change one minute of my life at the docks,” Jack says wistfully. “I enjoyed every minute of it - they were hard times and good times.”