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.