Life on the water
WATER IS AN inescapable part of life in Ireland, and not just the water that falls, with dismaying regularity, from the sky. Crisscrossed by rivers and never more than two hours or so from the sea, it is a strange fact of life in this country that those who make their living by water appear to be such a breed apart.
Although at the very heart of what makes an island nation tick, dockers, sailors and fishermen may seem to have their own culture, customs and communities. As the arrival of the Tall Ships draws Dublin’s attention back to the sea, a programme of art exhibitions and special events, invites us to look again at the lives of those who live by water.
Artist and filmmaker Moira Sweeney has spent four years at Dublin Port, in the company of the men and one woman of Dublin Stevedores Ltd – a 200-year-old family shipping business in Dublin Port. As my own knowledge of industrial docks has – up until now – been gleaned primarily from watching season two of The Wire, Sweeney’s film installation Stevedoring Stories is a gentle revelation. It is a poem to a way of life that has changed utterly in a generation, but which hasn’t entirely disappeared. “The tradition of father-to-son has gone,” says Sweeney, “although John is a fourth generation stevedore, and his daughter Amy, an assistant foreman, is the only female docker in Dublin Port.”
Stevedoring Stories doesn’t attempt to challenge the sometimes conflicted histories of the Docklands, instead it presents a view into the world of a changing community, where globalisation and mechanisation are having a huge impact.
Sweeney describes it as a world away from the TV documentaries where she has made her name as director (including Feud – The Midlands Traveller Feud, and Teens in the Wild). “It’s very organic, different to broadcasting, because broadcasting is so constructed. This is sitting down and allowing the imagery to speak to me rather than the other way round.”
In the film, the voices of dockers are heard over footage of ships moving through the port’s waters, machinery humming, the hissing sound of brakes, the whirr of engines. They describe a history of what was essentially a closed shop, the “button system” meaning that work stayed within families; they hint at a history of acrimony, and speak of “hard men” who would nevertheless do anything for you. “I don’t want to take a position on that,” says Sweeney. “I want to observe it, I want their nostalgia, and even the romanticisation at times, to exist. I want to make a film that resonates with their memories.”
As the ships arrive and depart, lorries being loaded, cargoes shifted, there’s an unexpected sense of harmony and of beauty in this highly industrial space. Despite ships putting in from around the world, the film’s view of the docks suggests a placeless, rather than a multi-cultural zone.
Dockers and international crews haven’t traditionally mixed, and the increasing speed with which ships are turned around means crews only briefly come ashore, if at all. “There’s a little mariners hut,” says Sweeney. “It used to be packed with seafarers, but now there’s half a dozen there over a week – coming in to do emails, and then going back on board.
“What surprised me most,” she continues. “Is how much I enjoyed the rhythmic quality of the work. And I really enjoy the dockers, I didn’t expect to form friendships and enjoy chatting with them. I wanted to bring to life what I love down there: the sound, the movement, the activity. It’s a world I thought was completely gone, and it has gone from thousands to handfuls; and the work practices are more stringent, but I love the constant sound of cranes lifting, engines, the beep beep beep of lorries.”
Sweeney isn’t alone among artists in turning her eyes to sea. Joy Gerrard has made a stunning series of etchings of urban docklands; Gary Coyle’s Lovely Water photographs and At Sea performance look at his fascination with the sea at Dún Laoghaire where he grew up; Dorothy Cross’s underwater explorations have been exhibited around the world; while Donald Teskey and Mary Lohan are two of the contemporary artists to have captured the moods of the sea in paint.
Like Gary Coyle, who based At Sea on a year of daily swims, Fergal McCarthy takes his fascination to new levels (or depths). McCarthy is the artist who put Monopoly houses in the Liffey in 2010 for Liffeytown, and who lived for the duration of the Dublin Fringe Festival 2011 on a specially constructed desert island on the river for No Man’s Land.
The artist, who is planning the final chapter to his Liffey Trilogy for the Fringe Festival this September, wants to draw our attention back to the river. “I’m fascinated by the Liffey, for the most part it has disappeared behind the traffic that chokes the quays and curtails pedestrian access. It has also disappeared in our collective conscious, devoid of a role or function, it feels very much unloved except for the odd new bridge that spans its mass.”
At the Tall Ships Festival, he will be showing and talking about his film The Swimmer, originally commissioned by the Science Gallery in 2011. Taking as its basis the 1968 Burt Lancaster film of the same name, McCarthy attempts to swim around Dublin city in a single day, through a series of private pools, canals, rivers, and finally the Irish Sea. “I grew up near a river,” says McCarthy, “I like the movement, they bring you places.”
The Swimmer is an intriguing mix of public and private space: the sea, river and canals, as opposed to the secret, sheltered waters of the rich. “I like the idea that it’s possible to move through a landscape by swimming rather than using land-based transport,” explains McCarthy. “The Liffey is the city’s main artery, even if it’s now largely defunct, it still brings you to the very heart of Dublin.”
The exhibitions take place at CHQ, which is apt since this stunning building, formerly known as Stack A, was once seriously considered as the location of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, before – under the influence of Charlie Haughey – it went to the Royal Hospital Kilmainham.
Built in the early 19th century as a warehouse for tobacco, wine and tea, and now a half-empty shopping centre, its site also shows how Dublin’s docks have travelled steadily away from the heart of the city, as ships have got bigger and urban land values increased. Six of the units at CHQ have been turned into exhibitions spaces for the Tall Ships Festival, and the vaults are also being used for workshops and food events. Art can make us look again at forgotten or ignored aspects of Irish life, whether on land or at sea, and can open up hidden and secret spaces to all. It’s also an excellent alternative to shopping.
The exhibition space at CHQ is open Fri to Sun 11.00am – 7.00pm. Fergal McCarthy will discuss The Swimmer with Michael McDermott tonight at 7.30pm. Free but ticketed. dublintallships.ie
Art and Culture at the Tall Ships
A number of exhibitions and cultural events are taking place at the CHQ building in the Docklands on Fri to Sun from 11am to 7pm
Maeve Clancy: Paper Quay, a 25-metre cut paper installation of Dublin’s quays from the Four Courts to the Custom House commissioned by Dublin City Council.
Dublin Docklands Preservation Society:black and white photos of the docks and dockers 1940 to 1990.
Malacht An Torc:Viking exhibition and demonstrations in the Vaults, CHQ
Mandalanature:exhibition and workshop based on techniques developed by Tibetan Buddhist Monks.
Peter Sheridan, the playwright and author, reads and talks about growing up in Dublin City. CHQ, Fri, 7.30pm
Theo Dorgan, the poet reads stories from A Voyage from Cape Horn to Cape Town, CHQ, Sat, 7.30pm
All events are free but some are ticketed. See dublintallships.ie