An Irishman's Diary Hugh Oram

 

When the River Liffey ferry made its last trip, on October 20th., 1984, the day before the East Link toll bridge opened, it was the end of a tradition that dated back to the late 14th century. However, the last captain of the ferry, Peter Murray, is alive and well and enjoying his retirement, still full of river lore, looking every inch the old salt. When he goes for a pint, he's still called "Captain".

He lives in Kilmainham, Dublin, not far from where he was brought up, in Marrowbone Lane. Peter says that working on the river for so long was a good means of keeping fit. Once you were properly togged out, you never got a cold. He started on the ferry in 1952, when he was 18, collecting the fare, one old penny, and three years later, was made a captain in the old Dublin Corporation's very own "fleet".

The main ferry crossing started at Ringsend slipway and ended across the river, near where the Point Theatre stands today. The trip took about five minutes. Another, earlier, service ran from near the old gasometer across to near Spencer Dock. The boats plying from Ringsend were licensed to carry 60 passengers and a crew of two. The passengers were mostly dockers and people who worked in factories on the north side of the port.

They were a great bunch of hard working men, recalls Peter, who never caused any trouble. When they crossed the river, they were open to the elements because only in the latter years of the ferry did the Corporation put up canopies on the boats. The fleet was made up of five boats, numbered One to Six, but for some unknown reason, always missing Number Three.

Wooden hulled boats were far safer than the steel ones, he says, in the event of an accident. A wooden one would fill to the gunwales, but the steel one would sink.

The first ferry of the day left Ringsend at 7.30 am and it want backwards and forwards all day, until the last sailing at 7pm. The service operated Mondays to Saturdays, but rarely, if ever, on a Sunday. In the old days, when dock work was casual, hundreds of men turned up twice a morning, once at 8am, then again at 10am, to see if they would be picked for a day's work..

These days, only a fraction of the number of dockers work in Dublin Port; containerisation has brought automation. The old fleets, too, have gone, including the Gas Company, Guinness, Irish Shipping and Palgrave Murphy.

All the dockers had nicknames; Peter recollects one man who was called "God Save You". He also remembers another docker, up in court over maintenance payments to his estranged wife. When he told the judge that he earned £80 a week, the judge said: "I'll give her £20 a week", to which the docker replied, "I'll try and give her something myself, too".

Peter is eloquent about the difficulties of working on the river. When a strong easterly wind was blowing, it was difficult getting across. Tide surges, as the tide went in or out, had to be taken into account and always, Peter had his tide book with him. The seagulls gave the most accurate forecasts of changes in the weather. At night, the ferry boats had to be taken upstream, to be moored on the river, near the former Irish Press building on Burgh Quay.

On one infamous occasion, about 30 years ago, a very fast cross-channel cargo ship was going astern up the river when it managed to run down the ferry, which Peter had been on just five minutes previously. The ferry sank in a couple of minutes, but fortunately, the skipper of the boat and the lone passenger were rescued.

The dark side of the river is the number of bodies Peter fished out of the water. In his early days, it was mostly lonely old people who threw themselves in, but later, it was young people. On one occasion,he rescued a woman twice from the Liffey on the one day. One man was known to have disappeared in the river, but there was no sign of him for five years. Then, one day, his car was found on the river bed, with a skeleton at the wheel, dressed only in a tie. Another man tried to jump into the ferry after it had left the quayside, but fell in and drowned.

Peter remembers vividly when Jack Smyth, news editor of the old Evening Press and his wife Eileen took the wrong turning and drove into the river one dark Saturday night. It was in 1956, and he was needed back in the office to help make up the front page of the next day's Sunday Press with the story of Ronnie Delany's win in the Melbourne Olympics. Almost two years later, a relative who was looking after the two young orphaned Smyth children also drove into the river accidentally, just 50 yards away.

The ferry service that ran until 1984 dated back to the lease granted to one Nathaniel Fowkes, in 1669, but in fact ferries had started running on the Liffey in the late 14th century, in the time of Richard II.

Peter's favourite boat, the wooden hulled No 4, was sold after the ferry closure, to someone who used it for fishing. Peter himself was put on other duties by the Corporation, collecting money from parking meters, which he hated. He finally retired five years ago.

A river taxi service did run in the mid-1990s, between City Quay and the Point Theatre. Now, the Dublin Docklands Development Authority is trying to get a fast river "taxi" service running up river as far as Heuston Station.

Peter believes that it will be very difficult to start such a service, but perhaps, despite all the obstacles, a ferry service on the Liffey will once again become an everyday reality.