herald

Thursday 5 December 2019

Dublin in the 1980s was the city that I loved in all its unloveliness

With his play about the city's docklands opening in the Abbey Theatre, Dermot Bolger looks back on a community hit by change

South Quays, cranes and gasometer in the 1970s
South Quays, cranes and gasometer in the 1970s

One morning in 1979, Dublin dockers abandoned unloading a cargo of timber from a ship that had arrived from Africa after discovering huge numbers of rats on board.

When Dublin Port's health authorities arrived to fumigate the vessel, they couldn't see the live rats hiding amid the timber, but could hear them scurrying about.

However, live rats weren't their main concern as they were common on ships back then. It was the quantity of dead rats that worried them.

It meant that, in addition to the everyday risks associated with their job, the dockers on Alexandra Quay faced the poss-ible risk of scabies or typhus.

Today, as Dublin Port busies itself preparing for Brexit (deal or no deal), it seems hard to believe that 40 years ago dockers there were dealing with rat infestations and wildcat strikes.

Reclaimed

Let's not forget the bin trucks dumping rubbish that was then covered in silt to allow more land to be reclaimed to build new wharfs farther away from the traditional rival dockside communities of East Wall and Ringsend.

With Dublin's docklands changed beyond recognition, it's hard to imagine how, for much of the 20th century, men clustered at dawn to seek work at "reads" outside stevedores' offices along the Liffey, from the Custom House right down to the Point Depot.

On Sir John Rogerson's Quay, dockers crammed into a wind tunnel caused by the gasometer as a foreman shouted out nicknames of men chosen to unload coal boats.

We see zero-hours contracts as a modern phenomenon, but they sum up life back then for dockers who needed to second- guess which ships were due to dock, having only one chance to find work.

Men would gather at dawn at Butt Bridge to scan the quays to see where vessels were moored or would visit early house pubs for news of which stevedores were hiring.

The final Liffey ferry crossing before the toll bridge opened in 1984
The final Liffey ferry crossing before the toll bridge opened in 1984

When I grew up in Finglas, the docks were a hidden world into which my seafaring father regularly disappeared.

Now, a new play of mine, Last Orders At The Dockside, at the Abbey Theatre lets me imaginatively follow my father into Dublin port and into the pubs where he drank.

The play is set in such a pub in 1980, when dockside life was being swept aside by the advent of container trucks.

Working conditions had improved, but the remaining dockers knew that the skills learned from their fathers - that once sustained a community - were becoming obsolete.

However, a community does not vanish simply because its jobs vanish.

The families in Last Orders see one way of life ending, but are caught up in new lives in a Dublin on the cusp of change.

The Pope had recently arrived to "kiss the ground and walk on the women". Un- employment and industrial unrest were rampant.

Charles Haughey told us that, as a nation, we were living beyond our means.

His family planning bill was about to legalise contraception, but only if a woman could find a doctor willing to write a prescription and a chemist willing to dispense it.

Young Dubliners today would find it hard to imagine living in this restrictive social landscape where divorce was impossible and homosexuality was still criminalised.

People seeking condoms skulked to a vending machine in Trinity College with its coded graffiti: "This chewing gum tastes like rubber."

Amid today's gleaming office blocks lining the quays, younger people will find it equally hard to imagine those same quays in 1980 when empty warehouses lined the waterfront, beside unused cranes that made it resemble a ghost town.

The Point Depot lay empty until it was revitalised by developer Harry Crosbie.

Historical buildings, such as Stack C - a famous bonded warehouse - were swept away.

The East Link Bridge wasn't open and locals used a small ferry to cross the river.

Cut-stone bollards lined neglected quays, but the port had shifted more than a kilometre away to newly-built wharfs behind walls at the Alexandra Basin.

Dublin in 1980 sounds in terminal decline, but the first generation to experience free secondary school education were also making themselves in working class bands like The Blades and the Atrix.

Pirate radio stations filled the airwaves and art centres sprang up.

Amid a maelstrom of change and family arguments and the soundtrack of the songs sung in the play, a new Dublin was evolving.

A decade later, Ireland's soccer team at Italia 90 gave us a sense of collective joy.

In a smaller way, at a time of chronic unemployment and upheaval, Johnny Logan's success in the 1980 Eurovision provided a similar benediction: a night when people momentarily forgot their everyday cares.

This is why I set the play on the night when Logan triumphs, because anyone alive back then can remember watching voting begin and a nation holding its breath.

The Dublin of the 1980s was a city I loved in all its unloveliness. The story of its docklands community belongs in our national theatre.

I hope people who lived through those days will recognise this Dublin and a new generation will be introduced to the places that gave way to the city they now call home.

Last Orders At The Dockside by Dermot Bolger runs in the Abbey Theatre from September 26 to October 26

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