Moneypoint Memories – Frank McNally on disaffected dockers, Shannon admirals, and the Colleen Bawn

An Irishman’s Diary

Moneypoint: the giant chimneys were built using “continuous pour” concrete. Photograph: Neil Warner/ESB

Moneypoint: the giant chimneys were built using “continuous pour” concrete. Photograph: Neil Warner/ESB

 

Norman Freeman’s memories of the Parsons steel plant at Howth (Irishman’s Diary, April 13th) has inspired reader Mike Jennings to recall a story from one of the places their products ended up – Moneypoint power station in Clare.

It was 40 years ago, in 1981.  And in fact, Parsons had been only a staging point for the enormous steel piles used in the new pier that was required by the coal ships supplying the station. Those were imported into Dublin, where they underwent modification at the Howth plant, before completing the journey to West Clare by road, in convoys “on the move day and night for weeks”.

The old pier near Kilrush, Cappagh, was irrelevant to this. It was shorter than the piles, after all, and a ship could not have landed the steel there. But the 18 casual dockers who earned a few days work a year at Cappagh, unloading timber, saw the new power station as a, well, Moneypoint. At the least, they thought they were entitled to compensation for loss of expected work.

Mike’s problem was that he was a “young (and very inexperienced) union official” in the ITGWU, whose duties included representing those dockers. And as he tried to explain to them, a claim for loss of earnings from work they could not have done would be laughed out of the Labour Court.

But the dockers insisted there was a “principle” at stake that went beyond mere money. They also had one big advantage. The giant chimneys that were also central to the new plant, and simultaneously under construction, were to be built using “continuous pour” concrete.

This was a process that, once begun, could not be stopped without vast expense and inconvenience. Any interruption of work caused, for example, “by a protest picket on the gate” would be unfortunate. As one of the dockers put it, the chimneys were “as good as any Labour Court”.

When Mike made their case to site management, the latter “literally laughed at me”. But as he headed for the door, the laughing stopped and a voice behind said “maybe we should discuss it at least”.

An hour later, he was able to tease the dockers by claiming that, in line with their argument that it was the principle that mattered, management had agreed to pay compensation on their behalf to a local “charity”. This inspired the men to lift the union rep and threaten to “throw me in the Shannon”.

 Happily, both parties were joking. The dockers got their compensation.

Mention of things being thrown in the Shannon, off Moneypoint, reminds me of an ancient custom whereby the Mayor of Limerick once also enjoyed the title “Admiral of the Shannon” and exerted his claim over the estuary in a ritual known as the “throwing of the dart”.

This dated back to 1609, and to King James I, who granted the mayors civil and legal jurisdiction over the river, from three miles north of Limerick to the sea. Perks included the right to levy taxes from fishermen – payable in herring, oysters, and other hard currencies. But the custom lapsed over time and had become a forgotten relic of English rule when it was revived, briefly and for ceremonial purposes, in 1956.

Then, as part of a festival, the mayor of Limerick cast off from Cappagh pier in a corvette, stopped at Scattery Island – where the Admiral’s Court was traditionally located – and later proceeded to a point down river where he threw the “dart” (more like a small spear) into the waters.

However symbolic this was, it attracted mutterings of criticism in Clare. And according to a brief item in The Irish Times archives, in May 1967, there were renewed protests from Kilrush then at suggestions of a repeat revival. But unlike another border dispute of that summer – the Six-Day War – this one doesn’t appear to have escalated.

Back in the heyday of Limerick mayors’ admiralty, they were also responsible for investigating crimes occurring on the river. The most infamous case was in 1819 and involved a Limerick teenager Ellen Hanley, better known to posterity – thanks to a novel, play, opera, and several silent movies – as the Colleen Bawn.

After she went missing in June, it was presumed she had eloped with her lover, a young member of the gentry who was subsequently hanged for her murder. It emerged in court that he had persuaded his servant to get her drunk, take her out on a river boat trip, and shoot her.

Her body was supposed to be weighed down with a stone but later that summer, it washed ashore on the Clare side at – yes – Moneypoint.

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