Running Dublin’s Docks.
The closer we get to Brexit, with its implicit threat of a border, either hard, around the six counties of Northern Ireland, or wet down the Irish Sea, the more my dock running PTSD affects me.
Hard or wet, the imposition of a border between Ireland and Britain, means the re-imposition of customs formalities, hence my Post Traumatic Stress Disorderdness..
Despite the title, I was never actually responsible for the running of Dublin’s docks.
I just ran around them.
In 1975, I was eighteen years old when my father organised a job for me with a now long defunct shipping company, on Sir John Rogerson’s quay, in the heart of Dublin’s South Dock lands. .
Their offices were in Transit House, a building from which both my father and grandfather had worked as stevedores for most of their working lives.
The machinations of shipping, haulage, or freight forwarding were alien concepts to me at the time, and I was oblivious to the fact, that I was about to become a very small cog, in the huge machine that facilitated the mostly speedy movement of freight through Dublin Port.
The role that I was poised to undertake was explained briefly to me at a perfunctory interview/ explanation of the job, by the owner and managing director of the company, in his office on a cold late October Friday afternoon.
During the job briefing I was asked if I could ride a bike, to which I answered honestly yes.
And if I could ride a Honda 50 motorcycle, to which I also answered, but somewhat less honestly, yes.
The prospect of having a motorbike, even though I didn’t know how to ride one yet, was very exciting. I had youth’s confidence in my own ability.
It was explained that I would have to learn how to make out customs entries, and deliver them to the relevant customs offices (landing stations) around the port of Dublin.
Initially, I would have to travel by bicycle, there was one available but I could use my own if that suited. The motorbike would arrive after a month or so.
I started work on the following Monday,
Like all first day on the job introductions, they are a blur, but from the owner down, my new work colleagues were all nice people.
There were three permanent entry clerks, one girl and two men, a girl on reception and the switch, an accounts clerk girl, an accountant and office manager, a salesman, an elderly man who walked with a stick and who told jokes all the time, and I mean literally all the time!. He was the father of the owner, and also the grandfather of the receptionist, the younger of the male entry clerks and the female one; he was currently the dock runner also. And then finally the owner himself, whose office was behind a two-sided timber and glass partition in one corner, the partition walls did not quite reach the ceiling, and it rattled ‘glassily’ when his door was opened or closed.
I wasn’t to have an exclusive, ‘dedicated to me’ desk just yet, I would sit in with the clerks until I was reasonably proficient at entry preparation, and then I would be driven by everyone’s granddad, around the port to the Customs House and the many ‘landing stations’ for my first week. For the moment I could use a spare desk and tariff book.
In the world of customs clearance, paperwork was king, and there was a customs and excise form for just about every ‘freighting’ eventuality imaginable, copies of which were available by the dusty pile load, from the stockroom in the Customs House.
Immediately applicable to me were ‘Free Import Entries’ on white A 3 forms, ‘Duty and VAT Entries’ on green A 3 forms and export entries on EX CU 29 (white A4 forms).
Every shipment coming through the port had some of the following documents ; shipping manifests, commercial invoices, EU Transit forms, bills of lading, packing lists, ATA carnet’s, certificates of origin, import licenses.
Then there was end-use certificates, inward processing declarations, drawback authorization, temporary importation verifications, goods in transit, tariff quotas practically ad nauseam.
And every shipment was liable for either Nil Duty, Ordinary Duty at the rate determined by Customs and Excise, VAT at varying rates, Anti-Dumping Duty determined by customs and excise, and then there was Excise Duty, payable on alcohol and cigarettes.
The entry clerks were great, things were very relaxed and they really took the time to explain to me, the intricacies of the arcane system that was customs clearance in the 70s.
The vocabulary alone was mind-boggling, but it wasn’t good enough just ‘to talk the talk,’ you definitely had to ‘walk the walk’.
It was of paramount importance, to know where all those strangely named documents fitted in order to create the synergetic whole, which would result in customs clearance, and a stamped docket proving such to be the case.
Two groupage (mixed consignment) trailers and two or three 20 foot containers of woollen yarn arrived from the agent in the UK every week. The trailers were unloaded into the B and I Ferry Port customs controlled, groupage warehouse, and the containers were cleared for delivery to the small warehouse under our office on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay..
Every entry was hand written in triplicate, so in any week over a hundred entries would be produced and processed through the customs clearing system.
On the first day I was driven by everybody’s granddad, who brought me into the Customs House and showed me the various desks in the Long Room, where Duty entry’s, Free entry’s Excise entry’s and VAT entry’s, were handed to a generally uncaring civil servant, in a jumper, who was more concerned with the weekends GAA football and hurling, than a customs clearance agent bearing a big pile of newly written entry’s.
For the rest of the week my elderly colleague drove me in his car, and waited while I went in and out of the various Landing Stations lodging entries and collecting clearance slips.
I learned extreme politeness doing that job, any hint of rudeness, agitation, desperation, exasperation, anger or aggression, on the part of the agent, would mean that the entry that you desperately needed processed, would go to the bottom of the inward processing pile.
So despite the urgency, the awful weather, the pressure, the stress and the terrible jokes in a constant stream, I waited quietly at the counter until somebody noticed and took your entries, you then smiled politely.
The customs officers in the Long room took particular glee in rejecting entries, which they did for the smallest error or omission.
They would smile imperiously as they handed them back.
If I could, I dealt with rejected entries in the house, getting them back in as quickly as possible. But once an entry was rejected, upon next submission it was going to be inspected with a microscope, so in many cases they were rejected a second time, after which they had to go back to the clerk who prepared the original.
Each agent had a pigeonhole in the foyer, where other runners left paperwork for shipments which had arrived on other services, but which were routed through them. It was also my responsibility to pick up such paperwork and prepare the entries on the greasy counter in the Long Room, where a grubby, dog-eared tariff book was left for us to use.
Of course I left any paperwork going the other direction in the appropriate pigeonhole.
Before I knew it, my week was up and come the following Monday morning I would be on my own and on my bike.
On that last Friday afternoon, I was terribly nervous about the future, and profoundly unsure of my ability to do the job after such a relatively short period of training.
I was sitting at the spare desk late on the Friday afternoon of my first week, desperately looking at the open tariff book in front of me, as if I might remember every tariff code contained therein.
The boss came out of his office, walked quietly up behind me, and put one hand on my shoulder, whilst depositing my see-through pay packet on the open tariff book in front of me.
Then he said so that everyone in the room could hear, “don’t worry Jimmy, it will be fine. I have been watching you with our entry clerks, and dad reports that you have learned very quickly, now have a good weekend”
And so, hesitantly and ineptly I joined the society of dock runner’s, like army ants, not in numbers but in behaviour. We walked, cycled, motor biked and some even drove cars.
However our common behaviour was to follow the well-worn routes via the Customs House, to the various landing stations of Dublin Port, and tenaciously pursue our objective, getting a stamped clearance docket!
My bike was a comfortable six-speed Raleigh ‘United States Tourer’ which I opted to use rather than the twelve gear racing bike offered by my new employer. I did however take the set of yellow rain gear which went with the bike.
The weather that morning was rather benign, but it was unlikely to stay like that for the rest of the winter.
It didn’t even stay like that for the rest of the day.
Crossing the Liffey on the ferry from the steps at Sir John Rogerson’s quay to those opposite on the North Wall, with my bike hooked over my shoulder and for a few pence (recoverable as expenses) was akin to being caught in a storm at sea. I was drenched with spray before I even got a chance to put my rain gear on.
I muddled through the first weeks of my novitiate, with the help of a couple of my friendlier fellow runners, who witnessing my bewilderment when up against an unexpected obstacle, offered assistance.
We became friends and swapped our itineraries offering to take entries to such and such a landing station, to save each other journeys to the more desolate ones, at the end of North Wall extension and South Bank Quay.
Of course, because my company’s freight was landed at the B and I Ferry Port, the bulk of my work was down there, and no matter how keen to assist me, my new mates were, I had to keep up my relentless pursuit of clearances at that station in person.
My twice-daily trip, pretty much every working day, took me across the Liffey on the ferry, to the Long Room in the Customs House, to stack F which was only across the road, buried now forever beneath the gleaming outrageously monstrous, AIB bank building. There might be a call to stack R a little further down the North Wall, now buried under the IFSC, and then the dreaded cycle on blustery wet days of yesteryear, the thousand miles (or so it seemed) of the North Wall extension to the B and I Ferry Port.
On windy winter days, the trip became positively Sisyphean. For every 360° cycle of my bikes pedal crank, it felt like I had been pushed back -720 degrees.
Oftentimes until my Honda 50 arrived, I dismounted and pushed.
As the result of phenomena, never explained, the wind seemed to blow both up and down that desolate stretch of road.
The train tracks from the Point Depot, which in those days was an actual railhead, turned at the top of N. Wall Extension Rd.
So the novice cyclist expecting traction on wet tram tracks, or hoping to be able to turn without getting the wheel of his bike stuck between the rails, was destined to be disappointed and tipped onto ones arse
One learned to dismount for the turn onto North Wall extension.
If a Hot bitumen train passed while one made one’s way along the extension, the cloying smell of it would choke you all the way to the ferry port.
Once during that first month, I had needed to go to Southbank Quay in Ringsend.
It was a long way away, but the approaches were not as exposed to the weather as North Wall extension.
However, I remember the smell of coal dust and the taste of it in my mouth and throat, from the truck after truck motoring heavily past me, on their way up from the Coal Quay, trailing in their wake, like a malevolent Disney characters cloak, the black dust of their cargo.
The Customs Clearance ritual was 99% pure; there could be no deviation from procedure under normal circumstances.
The paperwork went through the Long room, where I paid the Duty, VAT or excise by either my companies cheque if the importer could be trusted, or their cheque or cash, if not, and once processed there, then to the customs landing station.
Using speed, guile, charm, flirtation, seduction, tears and when necessary bribery, I did my job.
I abhor corruption, but there were certain individuals back then, who would make it quite clear, that in order to speedily import or export the consignment of sport shirts, shoes, tracksuits or other desirable whatever, that he would really like a gift of a size 9 pair of shoes or a size 16 ½ shirt.
The officers at landing stations were Absolute Christ God Almighty Incarnate on a Blazing Chariot, in the porta-cabin or customs hut that they inhabited. They had no boss to complain to, so best to give them a little gift to get things moving.
The pilferages were never serious, mostly not even noticed, and even the worst offenders of them, was unlikely to ask for a car engine, a fifty-kilo sack of plastic pellets, a carton of air filters or a pallet load of gear cogs.
On a whim these officers could send, one shipment or one whole trailer for Examination, in which case it was my job to make sure that everything was visible to anybody examining the contents.
During my time on the docks, it was up to me how I facilitated his access and egress, I might have to pay a forklift driver a couple of quid to help me out, I might drive the forklift myself, or I might be able to pull everything around in the trailer on my own.
More than once after several backbreaking hours on my part, shifting cargo around, his nibs would come out, look cursorily in through the back doors, and nod his acceptance.
A month after I started with the company, I was presented with an almost new, red and white Honda 50 motorcycle, which came with its own set of blue oilskins and a yellow motorbike helmet.
Everyone had believed my interview lie, so at around eleven that morning I donned my new foul weather outfit, my helmet with raiseaple visor, and slinging my satchel full of entries across my breast, I went down to my motorcycling destiny.
Getting it started and off its stand was reasonably easy, and within a short time I had the little engine put putting away below me. Tentatively I probed the gearbox, by pushing down on the gear-lever under my left foot, and Yahay, it was in first gear and I was away. I was wobbly, yes certainly, and blessed that no cars were passing transit house at that moment, as I shot out from the cobbled area in front of the warehouse gates, on to Sir John Rogerson’s Quay.
My days crossing the Liffey on the ferry with my bike were over so I had no option now but to cross at Butt Bridge, a mile or so up river, towards town.
I had steadied myself after forty or so yards, so I tried to select second gear because the engine seemed to be squealing quite a bit. However, try as I might that lever would not select anything, so I had no choice but to de-accelerate which slowed the progress of the bike considerably, so then I had to accelerate again and repeat the process, YehYawing up city Quay, Past the Nelson homestead and Auntie Marce’s shop at number 15, City Quay church and the priest’s house, over the bridge and so to the Customs House.
I had hoped that one of my motorcycle riding chums would show up, but they didn’t, so after the Customs House, I had no choice but to face down the North Wall, with the prospect of repeating my Yeh Yaw’ ing all the way to the Ferry Port..
When I had reached the North Wall extension gates, I almost gave up.
Of course it was raining and even though I had not exceeded three or four miles an hour at any stage of the journey so far, I came crashing to the ground , when my front wheel-tire lost traction on the smooth wet railway tracks.
The harbour policeman, who came out of his hut enquiring after my welfare, looked down benignly at me lying on the ground in the rain.
His pity left me no choice, for my pride alone I had to keep going.
How my Honda and I got through that journey, I will never know.
We made it to B and I, I did my job, even though I was in a high state of perplexity, it was like a nightmare from which I could not wake.
I was afraid that I was damaging the bike, I actually prayed for somebody of my runner mates to come by, but it seemed that I had been abandoned in this wasteland.
I yeh yawed back up North Wall extension and when halfway up, with profound sense of relief, I saw the Honda 90 of a fellow runner outside the British Railways office.
I pulled in, parked, lit a smoke and waited for my saviour to appear.
Fifteen minutes was all it took to teach me how to change gear. I had not been pulling the gearlever up, I had been persistently pressing down.
Oh the freedom!
No longer did the little engine squeal, it purred contentedly, and I was back at the office in minutes.
The morning’s journey had been exquisite torture, but from the moment that I learned the secret, I took a great deal of pleasure from scooting around, for work and play, on my motorbike.
While not riding, I developed the confident swagger of a dock runner, who knew what he was doing.
When my tenure on the docks ended and I was promoted to fully-fledged entry clerk, with my very own desk and tariff book.
I handed the Honda 50 keys and crash helmet, over to the new dock runner, who had done the job for another company, so he didn’t need me to tell him how to suck eggs. He had, like me, also assured the boss that he was proficient at Honda 50 riding, and he was.