Last Orders at the Dockside

When I was a kid, one of my favourite school lessons was learning the nouns for various occupations. Sometimes the word was obvious: a person who works in a bank is called a banker. Sometimes the word made less sense to my 8-year old mind and my failure to memorise it would earn me a clatter from the teacher, who seemed to enjoy that part of his job. (A person who abuses a child is called a child abuser). That is how I learned (and why I never forgot) that a person who loads and unloads cargo from a ship is called a stevedore.

The word stevedore, like the cargo he handles, is an import as I was curious enough to uncover many years later. It derives from the Spanish verb estibar which means ‘to stow’ and whenever I saw the word ‘stevedore’, I’d say it to myself with a Spanish accent. Eh-stee-bah-dor. I don’t read the word that often any more.

Back then it was different. Even in the 1980s, stevedores (and/or dockers) were a common sight on the quays of Dublin as they unloaded the coal ships and Guinness ships that docked along Sir John Rogerson’s Quay on the River Liffey.

‘The Linesman’ (1999), a bronze sculpture by Dony MacManus, stands on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay and commemorates the tradition of docking in the area that quickly disappeared with the containerisation of shipping cargo. Photo by James Prendergast.

Back in the nineteenth-century, Dublin was not a city of factories and most working men were employed as labourers and carters on the docks or railways.

Being a docker was a hard life of back breaking work and irregular hours. It was marked by insecurity and uncertainty of employment, where each morning the men seeking work gathered at the docks around a foreman, who selected those who would work that day by calling out the names of the fortunate. This was called the ‘read’ and those not called did not work.

Once selected, things weren’t always that much better. Injuries and even death were common but the dangerous work lent itself to strong comradeship amongst dockworkers with the days broken up by song competitions and slagging matches. Despite the conditions, good humour abounded among the dockworkers made evident through the nicknames they would give one another.

The campaign to improve conditions for dockers was at the centre of the 1913 Lock Out and Jim Larkin himself was a dock worker by trade (originally in Liverpool, then Belast, and then Dublin). This was before the arrival of shipping containers and their huge sliding cranes and roll-on, roll-off freight ferries in the 1970s, which moved dock activity further downriver (to the current Dublin Port) and ultimately changed the industry forever.

A letter from the secretary of the Shipping Federation to Sir James Dougherty requesting ‘adequate police protection’ at Sir John Rogerson’s Quay to protect a ship carrying imported labourers.
(Image: National Archives of Ireland, CSO RP/1913 5274)

It is against the backdrop of these changing times as the docks were changing beyond recognition and the old ways were disappearing that Dermot Bolger sets his new play, Last Orders at the Dockside. The play was commissioned by Dublin Port and opened last night at the Abbey Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2019.

Set in a pub in 1980s Dublin which is hosting the wake of an old dock worker (Eh-stee-bah-dor!), the play describes endings and beginnings in an Ireland on the brink of major social change. Maisie has just buried her husband, who she loved in her own way, while the rest of the large cast of characters face their own decisions, delusions, disappointments and demons. The pub, The Dockside, has witnessed a lot in its day but that day is coming to an end as the pub is being demolished the next day. In the background, on the telly, Johnny Logan is about to win the Eurovision Song Contest. Everything is changing and it’s changing fast.

The play is part historical document, part-family drama and part-musical love song to a particular version of Dublin that has gone, never to return. It is sweetly nostalgic for a people and a life that has changed utterly, without shying away from the darker aspects of life around the docks. Change happens and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. The most dangerous thing is not to be ready for it when it comes.

Runs to the 26 October. More details here.

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