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Skinny lattes replace creamy pints as the old dockers’ taxi starts crossing the Liffey again

Ferry's return will see once-common maritime skills passed on to a new generation, writes Dermot Bolger

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The No 11 Liffey Ferry is back in service

The No 11 Liffey Ferry is back in service

The No 11 Liffey Ferry is back in service

Only the width of a river divides East Wall and Ringsend on the north and south of the Liffey, but imagine if the East Link Toll Bridge, the harp-shaped Samuel Beckett Bridge and the Sean O'Casey pedestrian bridge were gone.

Only then do you sense how far apart the two sets of quays seemed to Dublin dockers who often desperately raced from one side to the other, back when stevedoring companies picked workers from crowds of men who gathered at dawn at open-air "reads" held on each quay.

The dockers were famous for enormous strength, but also needed what one stevedore called "enormous antennae" to guess which ships were due each morning.

Shovelling

Information was vital because most dockers only got the chance to attend one "read".

Therefore, before dawn, some dockers gathered at Butt Bridge to scan the quays to see which shipping companies had new vessels moored before making a judgment call about where their best chance of work lay.

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Dock workers boarding the Liffey Ferry, which took them to and from their jobs for more than
three centuries

Dock workers boarding the Liffey Ferry, which took them to and from their jobs for more than three centuries

Dock workers boarding the Liffey Ferry, which took them to and from their jobs for more than three centuries

Those who specialised in shovelling coal headed for Heiton's coal boats on Sir John Rogerson's Quay: the gasometer there created a wind tunnel where men huddled, hoping to hear a foreman shout their nicknames among those chosen for work - names like Heave-Ho Daly, Beat-the-Dark Geoghan and Turnaround Hawkins.

If unsuccessful at this first read, there might just be a chance of reaching a second on the other bank, which is why one small No 11 Liffey Ferry, which plied back and forth across the river, was a vital part of dockside life.

Many dockers would have clambered into this small wooden ferry well before dawn to make the crossing.

However, it was busiest just after the first read ended, when so many men crowded back on board to seek work elsewhere.

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Six pence to cross the Liffey

Six pence to cross the Liffey

Six pence to cross the Liffey

It then resembled a nautical version of the last helicopter out of Saigon.

The Liffey Ferry was an essential part of Dublin life back when ships moored up to the Custom House and a mixed marriage on the docks meant star-crossed lovers not from different religions but different sides of the Liffey.

If a Ringsend docker lamented his daughter marrying a stranger from the East, he meant the East Wall.

These men were territorial. Southsiders - who gravitated towards unloading coal boats - felt the Northsiders shied away from backbreaking shovel work. Northsiders - who tended to unload the cattle boats or heavy cargo - felt Ringsend was infested by a virus of snobbery.

The only true neutral ground for these tight-knit, fiercely proud communities was the small ferry that linked their working and social lives, plying its trade between the Point Depot and the opposite quay.

When the East Link Toll Bridge opened in 1984, this ferry service - which was part of Dublin life for more than three centuries - closed down. This was when the semi- derelict quays were unrecognisable from those lined today with high-tech office blocks and apartments.

So much has changed that it seems impossible to imagine how the actual vessel that was the old No 11 Ferry (nicknamed "the dockers' taxi") somehow survived, being preserved by its original coxswain, Richie Saunders, from Ringsend.

Since Dublin Port Company took possession of the vessel in 2016, Mr Saunders has been among the old workers instrumental in having it restored.

This week, he was at the wheel when the service resumed, allowing Dubliners to again make the three-minute crossing, now for €2.

In the old days it officially took 28 passengers, though far more forced their way on board in the rush to find work.

Now it will carry 18 passengers from 7am to 7pm each work day, sailing from the 3Arena to Sir John Rogerson's Quay and back across to the North Wall Quay.

Ghost

Instead of dockers, the dawn rush will be workers hurrying from the Luas to gleaming office blocks on the South Quays.

All profits will go to The Irish Nautical Trust's maritime training programme, so maritime skills once common in Ringsend and North Wall will be passed on to a new generation.

As the early house pubs are gone, more skinny lattes than creamy pints will be consumed by workers about to board at 7am each morning.

However, I suspect that, when the light is just right, some passengers may think they glimpse the ghost of an old docker standing at the ferry prow, staring ahead and savouring the river air.


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