When tears flowed on Penrose Quay
That lonely place on Penrose Quay
Where many a tear was shed
Cork’s finest sons and daughters wept
Cork’s youth was then being bled.
A ship was waiting on the shore
To take them all away.
Written by Liam O’Laoire, those lines recall a time when Penrose Quay was different from the traffic lanes it is now. For Corkonians it was then the emigration point where thousands left for Britain, many never to return.
As a child I was there to see one of the family take passage. He died in an accident on a lorry in Dagenham, where many Corkmen went to work in the Ford factory. Penrose Quay and the busy shipping scene there at the time is a memory never erased.
I remembered those times when finding a gem of a little book in the City Library this week, Cork’s Docks & Dockers” by David Martin McCarthy.
“There have been men working on the docks since the first ships sailed up the River Lee,” he writes, “but it was in the middle of the 18th century that Cork Port came into its own.
It was said at that time, “Galway died, Limerick declined and Cork thrived.” Being a docker was a hard, tough, demanding life, a job erased from the city quays by modern machinery and containerisation which moved most shipping away, first to Tivoli and then Ringaskiddy, where the port will be concentrated in the future, with the upper quaysides left mostly to memories.
They are preserved in the City Library which has made a great contribution to city life by making membership free. There is no dedicated maritime section in the Grand Parade Library, perhaps in the future there may be, but there are rewards for searching.
I located a little heard of but astonishing feat of Polar survival involving four fishermen above the Arctic Circle, in a timber hut for six years – Shipwrecked on the Top of the World by David Roberts. Another gem is the account of a three-week voyage aboard a fishing boat out of Orkney in a Force 12 hurricane, Trawler — A Journey through the North Atlantic. Writer Redmond O’Hanlon paid his way to experience the life of fishermen and got more than he bargained for!
These books record the tapestry of maritime life which, in Cork with its marine culture and tradition, involves fishermen, seafarers and dockers and men like former docker, John Kavanagh, who recalled for David Martin McCarthy tough times: “The employers were no angels. If a ship berthed before 12 mid-day we’d be paid a full day’s wages, but if she was coming up the harbour at 11 o’clock, they’d make sure she took her time and wouldn’t dock till five or ten past 12.
“That way they’d only have to pay us a half-day’s wages.” Pat O’Riordan “went down the quays like my father before me… Coal boats were toughest of all, especially in the wet. The dust would get into every pore in your body and there were no such things as showers or baths, so you had to wash yourself in the kitchen sink or in a big iron tub if you had one.”
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