Stevedores and sniffer dogs: Conor Pope spends a day at Dublin Port
It’s right in the centre of the capital, but we often forget Dublin Port is there. We meet some of the people who keep the port ticking over
The grass stashed in the laptop bag weighs heavy on my shoulder as I wait to get off the bus which has come from the ferry to the baggage carousel at Dublin Port. I’m rarely recognised by strangers, so when a fellow traveller –
a woman in her 60s – makes eye contact with me and tugs her friend’s arm and points, I smile with something approaching delight.
Then the smile disappears and I’m filled with dread instead. I’d rather not be identified as I take the metaphorical Midnight Express into the city. But there’s no turning back now. I fall into line behind the old dears and walk into the customs shed shielding my drugs from prying eyes.
“Everyone stay on the right,” barks one of the four customs officers waiting around the corner. “Stay on the right and keep your bags to the left.” Ahead of the barking officer is a mute but excitable Springer spaniel.
The dog and her handler walk the line without stopping until my turn comes. When it does, the dog stops dead and greets me like I’m her master. I pat her nervously. She sits at my feet and looks up in what would, in other circumstance, be considered an adoring and adorable way. The handler whispers into her ear. “Are you sure, Meg? Are you sure?” Meg is sure and jumps up on me again, playfully. Only she’s not playing.
All heads turn to stare as I am led away. I hear the woman who recognised me whispering to her friend. I can’t hear what she’s saying but I can guess. I want to set the record straight but before you can say “Irish Times journalist in drugs bust shame”, she’s gone.
Outside the arrivals shed Meg is delighted. Her handler is pleased too. And the customs officers who gave me the cannabis as part of a training exercise look relieved. “If she hadn’t spotted you we’d have had to have her put down,” one says. She is joking.
I hope.I’m taken from the sniffer dog to the Sniffer Rooney. PJ “Sniffer” Rooney is a port legend, having spent more 30 years as a harbour policeman. He’s exactly the kind of person you’d hate to meet when up to no good. “The lads call me Sniffer because I have this knack of catching people,” he says, puffing out his chest.
We go on patrol and he starts telling tales. His first starts at midnight on a Christmas Eve four years ago when he was knocking off after a long shift. Driving along the quays he noticed “a young fella rooting round in the back of a car”.
Something smelled rotten so the Sniffer Rooney pulled over. “He was tearing the back seat out of the car, he was, and I asked him if it was his. He told me he was picking it up for a buddy, then he hopped into a waiting taxi and was gone.”
Sniffer had a look in the back of the abandoned car and found a submachine gun, two Glocks and a .38 revolver “which was only gorgeous”. There was also 1.3kg of high-grade cocaine behind the seat. Using the port’s expansive CCTV system – there are over 100 cameras on the site – Rooney noted the blameless cab driver’s number and gardaí traced him to the Red Cow roundabout as he was dropping off the drug mule. “It was just one of those things that you come across,” Sniffer says.
His most recent bust involved rashers. Not as dramatic as the Wire-style drug takedown but he tells it with some relish. He recalls how whole shelves of bacon started regularly disappearing from a port shop last year. Rooney tracked down the thieves – three taxi drivers – who he dubbed the Breakfast Club. Just before Store Street gardaí made their arrests they rang Rooney. “They asked if I’d like to come along. I said I wouldn’t miss it for the f**king world.” He smiles, still delighted by the memory of his bacon collar.
Smuggling gets the port most of its headlines, but development runs it a close second. Right now the Dublin Port Company - which keeps everything on this sprawling site ticking over - is waiting to see if ambitious redevelopment plans with An Bord Pleanála get the green light. It wants to make its berths longer and deepen a 10km stretch of water from Dublin Bay to the East Link Bridge known as the Liffey Channel to accommodate giant cargo shops and huge cruise liners. The plan will cost €200 million and it is a measure of its health that it already has the cash for a project it says will futureproof it for 50 years.
It was a different story a decade ago when the port’s future was looking shaky. Property developers circled like vulture capitalists as the Progressive Democrats drew up plans to replace the port with a mini-Manhattan. They had computerised models done up of shiny skyscrapers that would grow out of the docks and had the land valued at twice the insane €416m the Irish Glass Bottle site sold for in 2006. Then the crash happened. Land prices collapsed – in 2012 the Irish Glass land was valued at €41m – and Dublin Port quietly bought back much of what had been lost during the boom. The port is very much alive now, and never more so than at 4am when a 13 kilometre-long snake of articulated lorries trundles off ships and through its gates. It brings in half our oil and 80 per cent of the freight and accounts for 40 per cent of the State’s GDP. The longest a container sits in port is a week and most are gone in two days. A relatively small retail chain such as Marks & Spencer will bring in 60 trucks a day. This is a busy, busy place. The chief executive of the Dublin Port Company, Eamonn O’Reilly, walks me through the port before dawn. “The port has always been pushed east and whatever was left behind was developed,” he says. “I don’t know if the city turned its back on the port or the port turned its back on the city but we don’t really have a sense of Dublin being a port city even though this is the busiest stretch of water in the country. It is the guts of the city.”
He has little time for the developing classes and characterises the boom as a time when they were “queuing up to get their hands on our land”. He uses the word “carpetbaggers” more than once although he is reluctant to name names.
As we reach the quayside there’s a commotion. I’m the cause. I’m to take a pilot boat out to the Marina cruise ship coming into port but am three minutes late and the pilot John Birmingham is not happy. “The tide is ebbing and we’ve not a whole lot of water to play with. If we don’t get out to the ship in the next few minutes then we run out of water. It’s that simple.” I start faffing. “Unless you’re ready now, we’re going without you,” he shouts.
I’m bundled on to the boat as he tells me this is “a harsh environment, especially in the winter when you can’t see where you’re going. There is no messing then.”
After 20 minutes we pull up to the side of the enormous ship. He points to a rope ladder swaying in the wind. It leads 10 metres up to a small opening. He climbs it easily. Terrifyingly, I’m expected to follow. As I step onto the rope, I know I need to hang on or I will, most likely, die. The boat beneath me has moved slightly away from the ship so if I fall, I’ll hit the water and not metal and wood. This is a cold comfort. I make it up and we race to the bridge.
The Ukrainian captain, Vitaly Silvachynskky , stares straight down the Liffey Channel into the port with scowl. The conversation between the captain and Birmingham is stilted and formal. It’s all “Mr Pilot this” and “aye aye Captain that”.
“22 knots? The wind is 22 knots. The forecast did not say it would be this windy, Mr Pilot,” the captain says as if he’s looking for someone to blame.
“Do you think you’ll get the stern through the wind, Captain?” Birmingham asks.
“No way, Mr Pilot.”
Silence. They discuss getting a tug boat to nudge the ship into place. Birmingham says without notice it will take two hours. The captain’s face clouds over. He can get the boat but can’t reverse into his berth so the evening departure will be trickier and will take two tugs. They’ll cost him €4,500. Each. It’s no wonder he’s grumpy.
He continues tutting while glaring in my direction. “We were forecast 10 to 15 knots,” he says, shaking his head. I feel like apologising. “When we hear the weather forecast we always hope it will be better but it is always worse. Heh, heh heh,” he laughs the most mirthless of laughs.
There’s not much mirth on the quay when we dock, either. Thomas Kavanagh, the head of Port security, is here to make sure everything is shipshape ahead of passenger disembarkation. He’s been joined by a miserable-looking trad band playing The Jolly Beggarman off the back of a trailer. It’s like a scene from Father Ted.
Passengers – most of them from California – come off the ship, which is touring the British Isles. They all are looking forward to the pubs and the greenness and the music and the Guinness and the friendly people. The cliches dance in the air to the strains of The Galway Shawl. All that’s missing is a piebald pony straddled by an Aran jumper-wearing leprechaun cantering past.
Kavanagh watches the passengers disembark. “You have a health and safety issue because this is a working port,” he whispers. Judging from all the walking frames coming down the gangway, the presence of a few cargo ships along the quay walls is the least of his health concerns.
His colleague Mark Nathan joins in the whispering. “At the end of the season we do be sick of the band, right enough, but the tourists love it.” These ones seem oblivious. That’s probably why the band’s not so jolly. That and that fact that it’s seven in the morning.
“Have you met the Sniffer Rooney?” Kavanagh asks. I tell him I have. “He is worth 10 men, so he is,” he says. “He is a genius in here. Mind you, he’s Forrest Gump when outside the gate. He’s always getting himself lost.” Kavanagh tells the coke and Glock story again. Then he pauses. “He’s a born liar, mind you. He’s forever making up stories.”
Cranes tower over everything here so I have to climb one. I wish it wasn’t 100 metres high. Scaling such heights in a tiny metal box swaying in the wind and rattling like ball bearings in a tumble dryer when you have vertigo is no fun. When I reach the top, the only thing separating me from certain death is a thin metal grid. I last 30 seconds and have to come down.
Back on the ground and still shaking, I meet Stephen Collier, the technical supervisor with responsibility for ramps, pilot boats, lighthouses and tugs.
He starts talking about ro-ros and USD pumps and hydraulics and sprangs. He may as well be speaking Latin. I ask what a ro-ro is and he looks at me like I’m a stupid child. “It means roll on-roll off – cargo comes on one side of a ship and off the other.” Oh, right. And what does sprang stand for? “Nothing – a sprang is just a sprang.”
We look at a ro-ro. He points to a few sprangs. I still have no idea what they are. We go into a small kiosk above where the ferries dock and, despite my cluelessness, Collier gives me the controls and lets me lower some ramps. I press a button and within seconds a siren is wailing and a red light is flashing. I’ve broken the machine. Collier goes and fixes it. He explains what happened but I’m none the wiser. I sit on an office chair which falls apart and I come within inches of toppling out of the cabin and down the metal stairs. He looks at me like I’m Mr Bean. I feel like it. “That might need to be fixed,” I say looking down at the chair. “It needs to be thrown out now,” he says. Stevedoring sounds like tough work done by tough men with calloused hands and weather-beaten faces who swear and smoke and drink in early houses. Not any more. One of the biggest stevedoring companies in Dublin Port is the Burke Shipping Company. There are no tough-looking men anywhere but there are offices filled with flatscreen TVs on wood-panelled walls and men in sharp suits staring at computer screens. One of them is Glen O’Connor, the deputy chief executive. He’s been stevedoring since 1990. “I remember going up and down the quays calling into ships and dealing with mountains of paperwork. You’d be offered a drink on every ship. All along the quays was just a wasteland.”
Unlike some Port workers, he’s full of admiration for the developers. “You have to ad e them – the non-greedy ones,” he says. “Harry Crosbie was the one doing the work in the 1990s. He started off with just a few yards and took huge risks.”
General manager Odran Montgomery is a fourth-generation docker. His great-grandfather started working here in 1910 when more than 4,000 labourers lined the quays. “It was a very unhealthy environment, with people stuck in coal ships all day long. Today it is all about technology,” he says.It is the efficiency which stands out. A truck driver arrives at the gate with a PIN number linked to a container; as he comes through the gate a message is sent to crane operatives who pluck the freight and drop it onto his truck, and he is gone in 20 minutes. It is incredibly complex but seems so simple. It sums up the port.
“Up to 2006 we had containers flowing in, especially construction and furniture, but from late 2006 it just stopped,” O’Connor says. “Initially we couldn’t explain it. It was only when the crash happened that we grasped what was going on.”
So the earliest signs of the crash were here, in this often-forgotten place. I ask how things are now. “Thing are looking good,” O’Connor says. “The yards are full.”
Thank God for that.