A history of my families on Dublin’s Quays.

Dublin’s Quays


Ever since the early Viking settlers built wooden quays at the dark pool on the river Liffey, Dublin’s future as an important trading city, of the Norse empire, the native Irish and then the Norman and British empires, and now for the Irish again, seemed assured.

The river was straight and navigable for several miles inland, making it an ideal artery, first for carrying raiding parties and then for trade.

After the expulsion of the Norse men in the eleventh century, Dublin while not yet the capital, was the east coasts most important trading hub.

The quays that were built over time along the Liffey, became central to the growth of Dublin as a city, and the development of the river as a conduit, through which the goods to and from the busy city flowed.

The quays as we know them today run from Sean Houston Bridge in the West, to the East Link Bridge and Grand Canal Basin, in the East, and were mostly built towards the end of the eighteenth century, when Dublin was considered to be a major trading city of the British Empire.

The grand houses and architectural treasures, such as the James Gandon designed Customs House and Four Courts, were built during the eighteenth century, as the quays were developed.

Almost everything in my childhood seemed to be centred on the Quays and the River Liffey.

The first time that I ever fell into water deep enough to drown; I fell into the Grand Canal Basin from Hanover Quay, whilst fishing with my friends. I could have drowned right there, but I somehow, in my blind panic, scrambled high enough up the almost completely smooth quay wall, for my pals to pull me out.

In the summer of 1973, the year I did my Intermediate Certificate Examination, my sister Pat, who worked there in the office, arranged the first summer job I ever had in Irish Raleigh on Hanover Quay, in the same grand Canal Basin. I put the pedals and handlebars on Raleigh Choppers and Raleigh Chippers, smoked Kingsway cigarettes, discussed the articles that caught our attention in the Irish tabloids of the time, and drank tea with the men from the bicycle assembly.

I cycled from home, carried my bike down the steps at Ringsend Bridge, cycled a bit more along the bank of the Dodder, and then carried my bike across the lock gates at grand Canal Basin, on to the Quay.

In the summers when I was too young to work, I fished with my friends in the basin, and in the mouth of the Liffey.

In late summer there were so many mackerel, that they crowded into the lock gates after the herring fry who had sought refuge there.

All you had to do was drop a line of feather hooks into the roiling mass, and you’d catch as many mackerel as you had feathers.

All of us kids brought ‘Dunne’s Stores’ bags full of mackerel home to our mothers at the close of those seemingly endless late summer days.

We played football in Ringsend Park, we swam in the Shelly Banks and we dug bait at low tide in the muddy shores of the river at the Pigeon House Road.

Both sides of my family came from seafaring stock, and both lived on the south bank of the river. My Da’s on City Quay and my Ma’s ‘in Pembroke cottages on Pigeon House Road, in the rivers mouth.

The paternal homestead at 15 City Quay, was demolished in the 1980s, and replaced with a typical steel and glass modernist edifice, the ubiquity of which is beloved of PR Consultancies, Investment Bankers, IT Consultancies, Investment Consultancies and other useless self propagating enterprises.

That house had stood for over a hundred years between City Quay church and Princes Street, with my ancestors living on city Quay since at least 1901, first in number nineteen and then before 1920, number fifteen.

My mother’s family cottage is still there on Pigeon House road, but lost alas under its façade of plastic brick fronting.

Her parents, William and Alice McGowan were living there with one child also Alice who died in infancy, during the census taking of 1911.

His father also William, kept a trawler, the Rose of Avondale, in the river opposite their house, where several brothers of my maternal Granda lived.

The trawler was named after Daniel O’Connell’s home, Avondale.

Despite being very much a Republican family, the McGowan’s boat worked on Admiralty cartography around the coast of Ireland.

I can say this for certain, because I have an original logbook for one of the cartographical trips undertaken in 1912.

My paternal grandfather’s house at number 15 City Quay, was certainly there in 1865, when Thom’s directory listed it, as a dwelling on three floors, and shipwrights place of business.

It was probably built towards the end of the eighteenth century and had reached a good age by the time it was reduced to rubble.

My great grandfather, Willam Nilsson, a Swedish seaman, his Irish wife Marcella, and their four children were living in 19 City Quay in 1901, when it seems to have been a dwelling house for other families also, with a general grocery shop run by my great grandmother, to the front on the ground floor.

By 1911 Willam and Marcella had increased their family to 6 children and still shared the house with others.

My Granda describes in his handwritten memoirs, that while his father Willam was away at sea, his mother, Marcella, ran a ‘Hucksters ‘shop on the ground floor, selling all manner of things essential to life.

The general population of the tenements on the quays in those days was very poor, and he also tells of her altruism, never refusing anyone whether they had money or not.

My ancestral families seem to have avoided the terrible poverty widespread in Dublin at that time, probably because they plied their trades at sea on the ships, carrying Guinness beer, general cargo, livestock, humanitarian aid, and once or twice it seems, guns for the war of independence.

My Swedish great-grandfather died of pneumonia in 1920.

Again, in my grandfather’s memoirs, he describes the incident which can be directly linked to his death.

A boat that had been moored opposite the house, broke its moorings during a storm and risked being smashed to pieces on the quay wall.

He somehow single-handedly re-secured the mooring rope, but in so doing became soaked to the skin, developed a fever and less than a week later succumbed to pneumonia. 

By the time my Swedish great grandfather died, our family surname had been anglified to Nelson, and my grandfather was also at sea.

He worked his way up to bosun and went on to work for various companies before settling with the British and Irish Steam Packet Company, which was to become the B&I line , or as he always called it “the B plus one”.

At some stage before 1920, after the death of my great-grandfather Nilsson, my grandfather, also William, moved to 2 floors in number 15 City Quay, and after the deaths of the last two tenants, School mistresses Miss Deegann and Ms Geoghegan, who lived on the ground floor, bought the whole house and lived there with his wife and children until he died in 1984. My grandmother Nelson pre-deceased him by four years, and the remaining family continued to live on the quay until 1989.

My father William (Willie) was born in 1917 in 19 City Quay; he was the firstborn of Willo and Kitty’s ten surviving children, one set of twins, and the twin of my aunties Claire died in infancy.

 They were William, Marce, Kathleen, Gerard, Clare, Sean, George, Jimmy, Marie, and Alice.

My own memory spans the early 1960s to the 1980s.

Every single Sunday morning we followed the strict ritual visit to City Quay church for mass, where da sang in the choir with his brothers and sisters, and afterward called into Nana and Granda’s, two doors away, da for a cup of tea, us children for fizzy minerals, and biscuits from the tin in the huge walnut press which sat heavily, taking up almost the full width of the sloping dining room.

There, surrounded by the smells of the Sunday dinner cooking wafting from the kitchen, and pipe smoke, my Granda sat, always in his huge wing-backed chair by the fire, great clouds of smoke emanating from his big bent shank pipe.

Apart from my four aunties and one uncle who still lived there, one or two of the priests from city Quay tended to drop in for tea and a sandwich after mass, and then the married offspring and their children all seemed to visit around the same time.

Conversation swirled around the table, three or four totally independent dialogues rising falling intertwining, as thick as the smoke and the delicious cooking smells.

The huge dining room table, which sat 10 comfortably, was heavy mahogany, covered with a printed plastic tablecloth and a see-through lace, tablecloth over it.

It’s substantial legs, on one end were chocked up on two, two-inch timber dowels to compensate for the slant of the room.

This slope on the house, caused when the Port and Docks Board removed the original timber jetty, and replaced it with the concrete quay wall and cobblestoned road, caused some alarm to adults introduced to it without warning, but caused no such shock to us children, perfectly used  to the precipitous incline from infant-hood.

The front room had an even more pronounced slant, but in that case, towards the dining room.

As a child on those Sunday mornings, I navigated the forest of legs in the parlour, staring up into the smoke swathed peaks of the adult mountains, drinking my lemonade and eating my biscuit, until Da had drank his tea, smoked his cigarette and began to round up his children as the time had arrived for us to leave.

It’s only at the remove of fifty-five years, that I can speak with any surety about the people that we met on Sunday mornings in City Quay and at the Hopkins flat.

At the time I had no idea which relative belonged to whom. It turned out later that some of those seemingly permanent fixtures in number 15 were not relatives at all, but friends of the family. However, they were all very kind to me so they all seemed to be my aunties and uncles.

All six of us were disgorged on to the quay through the ground floor back parlour, with its delicious smell of confectionery, and out through the paper, cigarettes and sweet shop where (Da’s) Auntie Alice Hopkins would stand up from her seat behind the counter, to say and wave good bye.

There always seemed to be one representative of the Guinness fleet, moored in the river behind the great grey casks of stout waiting on the quayside, just outside the door of the shop.

On good weather days, the local men, brewery employees and not, dressed in their Sunday suits and flat caps, congregated around the small Guinness hut which sat on the berth. Some were seated on the timber seat, and others standing.

The hut painted grey with the Guinness logo on the side sat there for as long as Guinness ships were loaded and unloaded at that berth. It served as an office and canteen for the bargemen and the sailors when the berth was working, and as a convenient place to sit, talk and smoke, when it was not.

For decades the fleet of Guinness boats and barges loaded and unloaded casks of Guinness and empties, just across the road from Nelson’s hall door.

From the late 19th century until the 1990s The William Barclay, the Carrowdore, the Clare Island, the lady Grainne, the Lady Gwendolyn, the Lady Patricia and finally the Miranda Guinness carried the precious Irish stout to England, through all weathers and two world wars.

The barges brought the great big grey casks of Porter down the river from the brewery at James’s Gate, and unloaded them noisily onto the quayside by crane.

They came down on low tide to get under the bridges along the route, and after unloading the full casks and loading the empties; they then had to wait for the next low tide to make the return trip upriver.

While waiting, the crew entertained themselves playing football on the quay or having a quick pint in one of the local pubs, until the captain blew the whistle to notify them of departure.

Ned Byrne, the father of a very famous media Byrne, was one of the barge captains who spent a lot of time in the Nelson shop, chatting while waiting for the tide.

The priest’s house was, and still is just the other side of the church; so it was difficult for newly appointed curates, or visitors, to sleep through the ear-splitting clang of the Guinness casks being landed on the quayside in the small hours of the morning when tides dictated.

The Nelson’s slept through any nocturnal loading or unloading, habituated to the noise over generations.

Perhaps it was the ability to ignore very loud noises occurring at close quarters whilst asleep, that allowed my Da to sleep through the German bombing of North Strand and the din of the Irish Ack Ack battery firing at the Luftwaffe plane from Ringsend Park less than a mile or two from where he slept.

 He was a uniformed member of the LDF (Local Defence Force) the forerunner of the FCA, the reserve army, and possibly might have felt duty-bound to report, somewhere.

Nana, who was awake and could see the flashes of the bombs and the anti-aircraft fire, and hear and feel the explosions clearly from the front parlour window, thought that it could have been an invasion, and she was not going to risk her eldest boy, fighting an invading army be they German or Allied.

As we poured out through the shop, Invariably Da’s uncles (Nana Nelsons brothers) Georgie and Charlie Hopkins were among those men assembled at the Guinness hut, so a brief,  waved and shouted salutation would take place as we were loaded into the car for the short journey down to 22 City Quay.

The Hopkins’s occupied one floor at that three storey Georgian tenement  , where us children were served more ‘minerals’ and fancy Jacobs biscuits, while Da had another blue china cup of tea, and perhaps a sandwich carved from the Sunday joint of corned beef.

In my earliest memory, we were served by Aunt Mary and Alice and later by Rosie and Lil.

The Hopkins’s had lived there since at least 1911 when the census records nine people, the parents William and Catherine and seven children living in the two-bedroom flat.

Their only water was cold and came from a tap in the yard, where the solitary toilet, in its outhouse was located.

During the War of Independence, William was arrested by the Black and Tans and incarcerated in Kilmainham Gaol where he contracted pneumonia and died shortly after his release.

The Hopkins family and many, many others living in turn-of-the-century Dublin, suffered real privations.

Things had improved somewhat of course by the 1960s, and our visits there were filled with happiness and love, the smell of lavender polish, fizzy red minerals (pronounced ‘minerghals’ by all of our old aunties) Sunday cooking, and were genuinely joyful experiences.                  

My grandfather Nelson was a strong swimmer, and did not shirk his responsibility when it came to the Liffey, diving into the water at least twice to rescue people who had fallen in.

On one occasion he rescued a young boy, and when he had safely brought him back to the steps, the boy’s mother asked whether my grandfather had rescued the child’s new cap.

In his latter life, when the weather was fine he took to sitting in the doorway of the house, smoking his pipe and watching the quay.

Even as I remember him in his old age, he looked to me well capable of diving into the river again if necessary.

His life had been intrinsically linked with the quays and the sea, and perhaps because of his experiences, he was also a deeply religious man, believing fundamentally in the power of our Lady Star of the Sea to protect sailors and yeah right and he was determined, along with others, to give Dublin a permanent monument to her.

A committee created to this end, was founded in the 1950s, and as the treasurer, he spent more than twenty years collecting money from Dublin’s dockers, sailors and businesses, whilst lobbying politicians for legislation and a site.

The project, so close to his heart, came to fruition in 1972 when the Realt Na Mara statue at the end of the bull wall, was unveiled. https://www.realtnamara.net.

My Maternal Granda McGowan served as an able seaman on the SS Hare from 1913 until she was sunk by the German U-boat U-62, near the Kish light on 13th December 1917.

Of the twenty-three crew, Granda and ten others survived, but three men from the Ringsend area, one actually a neighbour from Pigeonhouse Road, were lost.

The SS Hare and her crew had achieved renown during the Dublin lockout of 1913, when Jim Larkin and his fledgling ITGWU in cooperation with the British TUC, used her to transport food aid to the starving families of the strikers in Dublin.

She had been strike bound in Liverpool with a cargo of Stout from the Guinness brewery.

Larkin negotiated the offloading with the unions in the UK and obtained Guinness’s authorisation to use the vessel for the relief of hardship at home.

They were hard times for the working class of Dublin, and that food aid from the brother unions in England, staved off starvation for many of the families here.

It’s hard to believe the callousness and greed of William Martin Murphy, newspaper magnate, businessman, and a fellow Irishman, who tried to break the nascent union by bringing in scab labour.

The Hare undertook more humanitarian runs across the Irish Sea during the lockout and was soon joined in that life-saving traffic, by the SS Pioneer and the SS New Fraternity.

The humanitarian trade of the Hare was so important as to warrant a mention in James Plunkett’s towering fictionalised story of Dublin at the time, Strumpet City.

My maternal grandfather survived another close call during WW II whilst serving on the SS Carrowdore when an aerial torpedo launched from a Stuka dive bomber skipped off the water, shot through the fantail rail of the ship, and out the other side where it exploded. After the excitement, the torpedo’s tail cone with the propeller still attached was found jammed in the railing. It is on view in the Guinness museum.

Many of the big things in my early childhood seemed to happen in City Quay.

The 22nd of August, was the feast of the immaculate heart of Mary in those days (apparently it’s in June now).

I remember as a small boy being brought in to see the decorations and the bunting, all over the City Quay parish.

Practically every household had an altar outside the front door and festooned the place in bunting and decorations.

Neighbours vied with neighbour to have the biggest and the loveliest altar, and the best decoration outside the house.

Those living on the quay were entrusted with hanging bunting between streetlamps and the Port and docks cranes, which were put in position especially by the crane drivers the day before.

Again each house vied with their neighbours to have the most extravagant bunting display between their windows and the cranes.

One year some women took it into their own hands, to string bunting between the Guinness ships at berth and their flat windows.

So the Vista was ‘bunting full’ for all those families taking a stroll around the parish on Saturday night to view the altars and the incredible bunting display.

However on Sunday morning, the morning of the procession, the tide had turned, the river had emptied and of course, the ships had dropped at their berths, and all the beautiful bunting fell on the road.

My grandfather was a deeply religious man, so the evilest adjective he could ascribe to those responsible was ‘so and so’.

Of course, everything was back in place by the time the solemn procession was solemnly processed around the parish.

The statue of our Lady was carried on a bier, by members of the confraternity, adult men of the parish who wore red cassocks, in a very Italian or a Sicilian display of veneration.

There is a film of one of the processions. My grandfather leads, with the entire Nelson family, me included I am sure, following behind, and my dad acting as a steward, directing things along the route.

Even Pearse Street Gardai got involved in giving a motorcycle and police car escort.

The procession started on City Quay at the church; went up Moss Street to the flats on Townsend Street, then down Erne Street and back onto City Quay.

All along the bunting-strewn route, loudspeakers allowed the crowd to listen to the singing of the church choir, who had stayed behind to sing for us. The choir, which included my uncles Georgie and Sean, both of whom are deceased, and both of whom had extraordinarily beautiful voices.

My da also had a wonderful voice and was a member of that choir. It was seldom that he let the opportunity to sing getaway, but it seems that marshaling the procession was more important that day. I’m sure that he sang our way around the route of our solemn walk through the parish.

A neighbour of the family, Nelly McCann (Barry) was in possession of a three-dimensional picture of our Lady and the Sacred Heart.

Mrs. Barry would lend this treasure to the Nelsons to put in the shop window at number 15, for the feast day.

People came from far and near to see it, and crowds formed outside the shop, moving slightly left and right, watching the image change as if by magic.

The Nelson house seemed to be always full of priests.

There was father Donal Flavin who could make record players radios and televisions.

He made our first TV, he was a genius.

At a time when most people considered electricity and electronics to be akin to the ‘dark arts,’ here was a priest, who not only fully understood both, but was producing high quality, technically cutting edge electrical goods, for the greater Nelson family.

I believe that I remember, even though I was very young, the arrival of the TV in our house.

It was a large wooden box with a very small glass screen, made entirely by the priest.

Father Flavin, plugged it in and fiddled with the vacuum tubes in the back of the set as they heated up, producing a screen full of snow initially, and then after adjusting the rabbit ears aerial, holding it over his head, against the wall, towards the window, eventually producing, as if by magic, a picture. I will accept corrections, but I think that I remember the first show that came on before a huge audience in our front room, was the cowboy series Paladin, starring Richard Boone.

Father Aidan Burke competed with Granda to produce the most impenetrable pipe and cigar smoke cloud in the house.

He looked down from his great height on children and cracked a joke after joke.

In my early childhood, I saw priests as sort of demigods.

However one time I was press-ganged by Da to assist with bringing a very large wardrobe down from the top floor in number fifteen.

The weird bendiness of the house, the twists, and turns of the landings and returns, and the sheer size of the piece, meant that it was extremely difficult to manoeuvre it down all those flights of stairs. I was in the vanguard, lifting but mainly navigating for the men above, Da and father Joe Hogan.

By the third or fourth return, things were becoming heated and I heard, to my horror, a priest swear like a docker.

It was an epiphany moment for me, I suddenly realised that priests were human.

Because of all this exposure to priests (despite their humanity) I was a very holy child, a bell ringer and altar boy in the Star, and an arch believer in God and everything else associated with the church.

There were very many more priests, whose names I cannot remember.

They came to the house for refuge from their puritanical boss, the parish priest who tried to rule by fear.

The Nelson’s offered them endless cups of tea and sandwiches, but most importantly they offered them companionship and welcome.

We had occasion one time to embark en-famile minus Ma, with one of my elder sisters in charge, on the point ferry from Ringsend to the North Wall. We were to meet Da who was working there as stevedore foreman for the B and I.

It must have been late afternoon because he was still busy when we arrived, so we played chicken, in the death trap of the shifting bales of timber being offloaded from the ship and landed on the quayside. Even to imagine such a scenario today, would surely bring the full fury of the health and safety brigade, down upon one like those infernal Furies of mythology.

However, we all survived, and not only did we survive but we espied and heard, our Da, as he supervised the dockers carrying out the work, effing and blinding at them….. Like a docker! It was another epiphany moment, there was never bad language used in our house, and we were warned about being unduly influenced, by our next-door neighbour, where every second word was dubious, and where we spent a great deal of time.

So hearing him effing and blinding was a real eye-opener, but most definitely not an invitation to us children, to turn the air blue at home.

I think that the reason that we went to meet him, was that he took us, on his bike? To the Francis Xavier Hall , where he was in a show being staged by what seemed to be every auntie and uncle that we had, but was actually the Glasnevin Musical Society.

I could conceivably sing along to any song from the Desert Song, the Mikado or a lot of shows, the names of which elude me, the words of which I obtained by osmosis at the innumerable productions that I joyously attended during my formative years.

Obviously, Christmas day was the most important day in my childhood year.

One’s birthday might be cited as the second most important, but as my birthday fell in the hangover (a purely metaphorical comparison) period between Christmas and New Year, and was mostly, not quite ignored, but not taken much notice of either, except by my God Mother auntie Ellie in America. So in my case, St Stephen’s Day in city Quay was definitely the second biggest day of my year.

When I was a child, children quite literally worried themselves sick in the months coming up to Christmas.

It wasn’t that we got an enormous amount, we certainly did not, but we were deeply concerned as to whether Santa Claus would view us as good or bold (naughty), and the prospect of coal in one’s Christmas stocking was very real in those days, cruel yes, but as a big stick, it worked almost as well, as a really big stick.

Thankfully, perhaps because of my holiness, coal was never an issue for me on Christmas morning, even though I almost electrocuted myself, plunged the house into darkness, and broke way more windows with footballs than anyone else. My beatific disposition must have been something to behold.

Once the relief of Christmas Day and the receipt of your preferred or not quite so, present from the North Pole, was out of the way, St Stephen’s Day loomed hugely.

There might be a quick run-through on Christmas morning in the visit to number fifteen, without mass this time, because we had already been to 6 AM Mass in the Star as was our custom.

Our visit to Nana and Granda Nelson’s might coincide with other cousin’s visitation, but it was all too rushed that day, the quick drop-in, was exactly that.

I never realised until years later when I was a young adult that the reason for the gathering of the clans in city Quay on St Stephen’s Day, was to celebrate Granda’s birthday.

He was even less fortunate than I, with his choice of day of birth.

Imagine, when he was a child receiving a gift on Christmas morning, “and that’s for your birthday also.” It happened to me, and my birthday was on 29th December, a full four days later.

That was the real reason, but for us grandchildren, I have no doubt that we believed it was simply to allow all four hundred of us, to meet, play, perform and babble excitedly.

The excitement coming up to the time for us to leave Sandymount was palpable.

Da would often sit at the fire having a turkey ham and stuffing sandwich and tea, watching whatever big movie was on the TV, while we younger children almost disentwined with anticipation.

By 6 PM, I certainly was anyway, in a lather of sweat waiting to go, still in the same, not so new, Christmas clothes, from the day before.

My clear memories go back to when I was around five, so 1961 when we would make it to the quay in the early evening.

The house would be full by then, full of people, full of light, that beautiful chandelier in the front room, an object of amazement for me, twinkled and shone particularly on that day amid the babble of conversation.

I mentioned the figure of four hundred grandchildren earlier, which was a bit of an exaggeration; it just seemed like that amount, we were actually seventeen, nine boys, and eight girls.

There seemed to be hundreds of people arriving at the house, not only cousins, aunties, and uncles, but friends.

Everyone had to be fed with cake and ham sandwiches, and tea by the vat full issued from the kitchen off the dining room.

Christmas was one of those times when the front room was fully thrown open to visitors, and a constant stream of party attendees moved between the two rooms, with side plates either laden with food or empty, seeking re-ladenment.

Every adult in the house was asked four or five times a minute if they were okay, by my auntie’s.

The magnitude of infrastructure for that evening must have been enormous.

Where all that cake and all those sandwiches came from, was never given a second thought by us children. Everything just seemed to come as if on a conveyor belt from the kitchen, and that required a huge amount of strategic planning.

All through this pell-mell activity, Granda sat impassively as the Sphinx, either in his wing-backed chair in the parlour, or in an equally impressive wing-backed chair in the front room, smoking his pipe for Ireland.

In the early days of transatlantic communication there occurred on St Stephen’s Day, the hugely symbolic telephone call to Uncle Jimmy in Miami.

Uncle Jimmy was an icon for me, and I think for all my cousins.

I was named after him; he was the most handsome man I had ever seen, even judged by the seriously handsome metre stick of the Nelson men and before I even understood what handsomeness was.

The framed photograph of him in his American army uniform was like a Hollywood A-lister 8 by 4 promotional glossy. As a toddler, before I understood who was who in my father’s family, I gazed wondrously at that picture on the piano in the front room, and wondered who that beautiful man was.

The story of his visit home, in uniform, as I recall hearing, from his base in Germany is the stuff of legend.

He lived in Miami, in the Fontainebleau hotel.  Living in a hotel how cool is that? I have a glass ashtray from that same hotel, on the shelf in front of me here as I write. Everything about him impressed me.

There was another photograph of him during that visit home, in civilian attire this time, on a day trip to the zoo with us Sandymount Nelson children, me being a babe in arms literally. So minus Dessie, Again he just looked so American and gorgeous, GI haircut, white T-shirt, and built like Charles Atlas.

The phone call was a great production, through the operator of course, who took the number and then did whatever they did in those days to connect the call, while we waited for them to phone us back.

In the interval, us nieces and nephews were lined up in order of succession, waiting patiently for the operator to come back to us. We were drilled in protocol and we rehearsed the line that we were to speak into the cupped mouthpiece. “Hello Uncle Jimmy this is Jimmy,” and nothing more.

I came between Gerard and Sean Behan, so listening to them as we rehearsed right up to the point of the receiver being handed to us, I lived in fear that I would say “hello Uncle Jimmy this is Gerard, or Sean, or even Elizabeth” two spaces away.

When the great big white Bakelite phone on the landing between the parlour and the front room, rang noisily after minutes filled with anticipation, Auntie Alice would answer and after a few hellos, can you hear me? Hello Jimmy, hello, then the line of kids would begin to shuffle forward to recite the prescribed few words.

“Hello, uncle Jimmy this is Joan”” hello Uncle Jimmy this is Mary” “hello uncle Jimmy et cetera et cetera, until it came to me and terrified I intoned “hello uncle Jimmy this is Jimmy” and I heard through the muffle of distance “hi Jimmy” in that beautiful American accent.

One time Elizabeth from two spaces away, having said her piece then lit up, and as she handed the receiver on, she said “he called me honey”. That was a wonderful time for us.

I suppose that the adults had a little chat after that, but the cost of long-distance phone calls in those days was truly onerous, so I’m sure they kept it to a minimum.

Poor Jimmy, he had attended enough St Stephen’s Day celebrations in 15 City Quay, to know what great occasions they were. I hope that he was among friends in Miami on that most poignant of nights.

After the phone call, we children networked furiously, we were three boys, my older brother Bill, me and my younger brother Dessie, three girls Joan, Mary and Pat along with my four Behan cousins, Michael and Kathleen’s four boys Gerard, Sean, Michael and Donal, and Betty and Gerard’s, three girls and one boy, Elizabeth, Jackie, Jerry and Michelle, and Pauline and Georgies two girls and one boy, Anna, Paul, and Deirdre.

Joan Mary, Pat, and Bill were too old to join in the childish games of the rest of us, by the time my memory neurons began working, so between thirteen of us, some sort of a play was lashed together quickly, usually taken way too seriously by my more sensitive female cousins, who reacted badly to the howls of adult laughter, which invariably greeted our production.

Ten minutes or so was put aside for this entertainment, after which every one of us had to do a party piece, usually a song but it could be a piece of poetry or even some ballet, but one needed to be aware that ballet, was likely to be laughed at mercilessly by a certain section of the audience.

There was a huge sofa in the front room upon which Da’s aunties, our old aunties, and Nana sat.

There were Mary, Alice, Lil, Rosie, and Nana, and then as spaces became vacant through the passing on of the older ladies, mammy, Nan Toole, and auntie Kathleen.

My aunties Marce and Betty usually sat on arms of the sofa and laughed until tears flowed down their faces at the amateur dramatics.

In later years when we had grown into young adults, and the dramatic productions were a thing of the past, Patricia my sister, would mock shock the audience with her rendering of the semi-risqué ‘The Minute you Walked in the Joint’ from Sweet Charity, and then join with Joan and Mary, to deliver their harmonious versions of ‘The Little Bird’, the Walker Bros hit about a plane crash and ‘Ten Guitars.

There was not a dry eye in the house for those little bird and plane crash ones.

We boys sang rebel songs and ballads, which might include some words considered questionable in polite society.

My party piece for more than twenty years was Waltzing Matilda, the Australian anti-war song which contained the words ‘arse’ and ‘Christ’.  And each time I sang those words over that time, in their turn Rosie or Lil would exclaim in a mock whisper. “Jesus Mary and Joseph, did he just say arse?” or “Jesus Mary and Joseph, did he just say Christ? Even after all these years, that memory brings a smile to my lips, and a tear to my eye.

Rosie often intoned during my performance “he has buushifull diction.”

At any party in fifteen City Quay, whether it was St Stephen’s Day or because the ‘little nuns’ Granda’s cousins, were home from Savannah Georgia, or friends were visiting from anywhere, usually America, or when Joe Delaney a Guinness worker and great friend of the Nelson’s, showed his 8mm Hollywood pictures, in a precursor of home videos, or oftentimes, it seemed to me, at the drop of a hat. The talent that could be called upon literally at a moment’s notice was without peer.

Almost, every one of the Nelson’s sang, Sean and Georgie, Da’s brothers were semi-professional tenors and thrilled the crowd in the front room and parlour with their superb renditions of Girls were made to love and kiss from the Franz Lehar operetta Paganini, Sunrise Sunset from Fiddler on the Roof, and many, many more light operatic stalwarts. And when Da sang Old Man River or in Happy Moments day by day, in his deep rich bass voice, the walls of that old house seemed to deflect outwards, as he filled the room with it. My auntie Alice always gave a wonderfully theatrical performance of Second Hand Rose.

And Rosie’s son Joseph Cadwell and a dear friend of the family, Dan Mulville, performed as a comedy duo, as Dan used to say they were the Symbolics, and he was Sym!

They were hilarious, for ten or fifteen minutes their often irreverent brand of slapstick, had priests, nuns, old aunties, and children, crying with laughter.

Joe also performed as a solo character; becoming Fagan before our eyes as he sang the Ron Moody piece Reviewing the Situation, from the musical Oliver, or Jimmy Durante when he sang about his “Schnozz, ”  He also co-starred in a musical duo with his wife Gemma, as They Walked up the Avenue, a Couple of Swells to rival Fred Astaire and Judy Garland.

Then came all those people who I thought were aunties and uncles, Emily Cummins, Dympna Hackett, Dessie cloak, Joey Welch, and Father John O’Brien, both of the latter who provided piano accompaniment when required. There are so many more whose names I cannot recall.

The common denominator among them all was that they sang, they were all in the Glasnevin Musical Society or sang in City Quay church on Sundays.

Granda Nelson always sang My Pal Jack for his noble call on his birthday, lustily helped along by us all at chorus time.

The talent appeared endless, they sang and performed for us the audience, but also we sang along, simply for the joy of participation.

Whispering Hope towards the end of the evening and performed by the assembled guests caused the spirit to soar.

The house as I have mentioned was sliding inexorably towards the point, and even though Cachetage Anchors had been used in an attempt to arrest the slide, it seemed unstoppable and stretched the house beyond any civil engineering tolerances I’m sure. However, it refused to fall, eventually surrendering only to the wrecking ball.

In the time that my father’s family lived in that old house, certain events occurred which are so woven into the Nilsson, Nelson DNA that, not to recount them here would be tantamount to an attempt to rewrite history,

The Nelson’s had a dog for a time, a brown cocker spaniel named Topsy.

Every evening, Da’s uncle Georgie Hopkins took him for a walk along the quay. Canines have wonderful memories for the enjoyable activities in their lives, so every evening Topsy waited with nervous anticipation on the stairs, listening for the click of the big key in the lock when he would tear down, timing the run precisely for just as Georgie swung the big door open, and Topsy would fly out to meet its walker.

One night he almost met its maker instead.  The surge down the stairs and out the door was particularly energetic, propelling the dog not only out the door, past Georgie, but across the road and over the quay wall into the river. Luckily there were steps just opposite the house, so it was able to doggy paddle over, and walk up to where a much-relieved uncle Georgie waited.

Every night after their walk, Georgie went into number fifteen and watched a few minutes of TV with the family, then he would take his leave and on the way out give Topsy a small bar of Cadbury’s plain chocolate and say good night, after which Topsy went contentedly back up the stairs to bed.

They also had a cat called Kola, who stowed away on one of the Guinness boats but finding herself hungry, and on the high seas, she identified herself to a member of the crew, who looked after her until the boat came back to city Quay.

My own father, again William, followed my grandfather into stevedoring in the

B and I, even after he had served his time as a pipefitter with the gas company.

They worked together through the hard times of the 40s, 50s and 60s, when the port seemed to be in terminal decline, and the majority of the dockers were casual workers, hired on a day-to-day basis depending on the vessels to be loaded or unloaded.

In 1975, following my leaving certificate examination, Da used his contacts in the shipping industry to secure for me a position as a dock runner, for a small freight forwarding company on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay.

We acted as agents for a reasonably sized English company, who sent two or three trailers of groupage (mixed consignments) a week from their depot in Bury, for us to discharge customs formalities and deliver in Ireland.

I worked out of the offices in Transit House on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, the original headquarters of the British and Irish Steam Packet Company, nicely closing that circle.

The “discharge of customs formalities” was where I came in.

For the first eight months of my tenure, I cycled and later drove my Honda 50, to the Customs House and up and down the North Wall and the North Wall extension, to the B and I’s new headquarters at their ferry terminal, two or three times a day to prepare customs entries, pay VAT or customs duty and lastly to secure clearance at point of entry.

All through November, in the teeth of winter gales, rain, sleet, and snow, daily carrying my bike down the slippery steps to take it with me on one of the Liffey ferries at the point, at city Quay or Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, depending on where I was going. The winter cycle down North Wall extension was almost Sisyphean. I often felt that I was going backwards or having fallen off the bike for the umpteenth time, when the tires failed to find traction in the wet tram tracks, that I was cursed like the eponymous Sisyphus, and I would never actually make it to the terminal.

I dealt every day, with people who could make my life easy or very difficult, depending on if I rubbed them up the wrong way or not.

A smile, a compliment, a little flirting, could get me what I needed, a passed entry or a customs stamped clearance docket.

I stayed within shipping with my next job as the Ro-Ro manager with an aggressively growing road and sea freight company.

For seven years I maintained my link with the quays, driving up and down the docks (in a car) several times a week, to make sure that our trailers, made it through  import and  export customs and off and onto the ferries at the various terminals around Dublin.

In 1985 I trained as a professional diver and from then until 2016 I worked in many of the bodies of water across the globe.

I began that three and something decade time span, as a professional diver in the Liffey, clearing berths at Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, Coal Quay, South Bank Quay, Hanover Quay and the North Wall Extension. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose,’ before going abroad to work in 1986.

By the time I followed in the footsteps of my seafaring ancestors, things on board ships had changed profoundly.

I never had to climb into the rigging in a gale to trim sails or stand a watch in the Crows Nest. In my experience, there were always plenty of life rafts, and everyone on board a ship, from the mid- 90s on, had to have passed week-long offshore health and safety course, during which one was made familiar with life vests, survival suits, inflatable life rafts, scramble nets, helicopter ditching, rigid life rafts, fire fighting, emergency first-aid and finally, the least preferable way of leaving a sinking ship, full cold water immersion.

The latter being the only way offered to my predecessors in the Nilsson, Nelson, and McGowan families.

I had one or two hairy scary moments as I followed in the familial seagoing tradition, but my time at sea was considerably less white knuckle dangerous than my predecessors I am absolutely sure.

I often wondered why I felt so comfortable at sea, even in the wildest weather and twice in full-blown Hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and Mid-Atlantic.

I was calm, even when the sea was anything but.

Seasickness or fear for my survival were never issues for me, and that’s got to be down to my sea blood.

All parts of my family, going back to at least great-grandparents on both sides, were intimately involved with and lived beside the sea.


The quays and City Quay in particular have had a huge influence on my life, and I would think in the lives of all the members of our greater family.

The memories that I have from when I was a toddler, all the way up to adulthood, and those memories implanted by history and anecdote, are almost all heart-warming and give me a firm anchorage in life. Of course, my great-grandfather dying of pneumonia as a result of his interaction with the river, the deaths of Nana and Granda’s three children in infancy, or the accidental death in childhood, of my Grandfather’s elder sister Clara in Princes Street, are not at all heart-warming implanted memories. These are heartbreaking events in the history of our family, intimately linked to the quays and an intrinsic part of this story.

In terms of physical presence on City Quay, we have almost lost our grip.

I know that my auntie’s Marie and Alice still sing in the church choir on Sundays, and keep in touch with things in the parish through the incumbent priests, and parishioners from of old.

So many people central to this narrative are now dead, so the story of the quays must now pass on to a new generation who have begun to transform, what was once a working port into a wonderful civic amenity, beloved  in a new way of the new Dubliners.

The diving Bell, which rusted, forlorn and almost forgotten on the quay wall at Sir John Rogerson’s Quay for decades, is now a proud and beautifully painted, centrepiece of an Interpretive Centre, keeping the history of the area alive.

Transit house, with its ornamental portico and the British and Irish Steam Packet Company carved deeply into the granite headstone, was saved from the vulture greed that has levelled much of historic Dublin without remorse, and is now a protected building, waiting for a tenant who will no doubt bring its frontage back, to what it was when my grandfather, my father and even when I, worked there.

That history will be interpreted anew, but history is history and those of us who lived through it know what really happened there.

The ghosts of the working boats, and the men who worked their cargoes onto and off the quayside all along the south wall, still drift like a mist through the ultra modernist bridges and buildings that have replaced them.

Those diaphanous tendrils remain alive, and it takes no more than a flick of the memory switch, for me to step back those fifty plus years to my childhood when City Quay, the Basin, Hanover Quay, the Grand Canal, and the ‘Locks’ played such a fundamental role in my development.

The end

One Reply to “A history of my families on Dublin’s Quays.”

  1. Dear Jim, thank you for a wonderful walk down memory lane. I was born in 18 City Quay and later lived in 25 City Quay. My mom was Ellen McCann and my dad Patrick Barry. I remember the three dimensional picture very well. I grew up with Alice and see Alice, Marie and Clare every time I go home. Thanks again for the memories.

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