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. .
The machinations of shipping, haulage, and freight forwarding were alien concepts to me at the time, but where I was about to become a tiny part of it all, was outlined to me at a perfunctory briefing, with the managing director of the company, in his office on a 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.
I was so excited at the prospect of having motorised transport, that with the confidence of youth, I thought how difficult can it be?
It was further explained that I would have to learn how to make out customs entries, and deliver them to the relevant customs landing stations around the port of Dublin.
Initially, I would have to travel by bike , the motorcycle would arrive after a month or so.
I started work on the following Monday,
My new work colleagues were three permanent entry clerks, a girl on reception and the switch, an accountant and office manager, and an elderly man who walked with a stick and who told terrible 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, and two of the entry clerks; he was currently the dock runner as well.
I wasn’t to have an exclusive, desk, 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 Customs controlled ‘landing stations’ for my first week.
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 CU 29 on buff coloured A4 forms.
Every shipment coming through the port had at least 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, end-use certificates, inward processing declarations, drawback authorization, temporary importation verifications, goods in transit and tariff quotas practically ad nauseam.
And every shipment was liable for either Nil Duty, Ordinary Duty ,VAT at varying rates, Anti-Dumping Duty determined by customs and excise, and 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.
It was of paramount importance, to know where all those documents fitted in, in order to create the synergetic whole, which would result in the clearance of the freight and, our sole reason for existance, its ultimate delivery to the consignee.
Two groupage (mixed consignment) trailers and a couple of 20 foot containers of wool, arrived from the agent in the UK every week. The trailers were unloaded into the Customs controlled B and I Ferry Port groupage warehouse, and the containers were cleared for delivery to the small warehouse under our office
Every entry was hand written in triplicate, so in any week around two hundred entries would be produced and processed through the customs clearing system.
On the first day I was driven by the elderly joking gentleman, who brought me into the Customs House and showed me the desks in the Long Room where the various entries were to be handed to a generally uncaring civil servant, who was more concerned with the weekends GAA football and hurling, than a clearance agent bearing a big pile of 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 to be processed, would go to the bottom of the inward processing pile.
So despite the urgency I waited quietly, smiling in a friendly manner, at the counter until somebody noticed and took my entries.
Before I knew it, my week was up and come the following Monday morning I would be on my own and on my bike, ineptly and hesitantly joining the societly of dock runners.
Like army ants, not in numbers but in behaviour, we walked, cycled, motor biked and some even drove cars around the Customs stations in Dublins docklands.
The weather that morning was sunny 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 morning.
Crossing the Liffey on the ferry with my bike hooked over my shoulder was akin to being caught in a storm at sea. I was drenched with spray before I even got to the North side.
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, British Railways and B & I Lo Lo (Lift on Lift off, containers as distinct from trailers Ro Ro Roll on Roll off) a little further down the North Wall, all now long defunct and or buried under the IFSC, and then the dreaded cycle down 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.
Oftentimes, until my Honda 50 arrived I dismounted and pushed.
A Meteorlogical phenomena never explained allowed that wind to blow with equal ferocity, up and down that two mile stretch of road at the same time.
The train tracks from the Point Depot, which in those days was an actual railhead, turned at the top of N. Wall Extension.
So the novice cyclist expecting traction on wet tram tracks, was destined to be disappointed and tipped onto his arse
The Customs Clearance ritual was 99% pure. The paperwork went through the Long room, where I paid the Duty, VAT or excise, and once processed there, to the customs landing station.
Using speed, guile, charm, flirtation, seduction, tears and when necessary bribery, I secured clearance eventually, so that the shipment could be delivered.
However, much as I abhor corruption and abuse of power, 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 items, that they would really like a gift of a size 9 pair of shoes, a size 16 ½ shirt or a large tracksuit.
The officers power at landing stations where they worked was absolute. They had no immediate boss handy, to whom one could complain, so best to give them a little gift to get things moving.
The pilferage was mostly not even noticed, and even the worst offenders of them, was unlikely to ask for a car engine, or an agricultural tractor.
A month after I started with the company, I was presented with my Honda 50 motorcycle and yellow crash helmet, and at around eleven that morning, I slung my satchel of entries across my breast, and 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 putt-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 gear and I was away, wobbly yes, and blessed that no cars were passing at the moment that I shot out 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.
I steadied myself quickly and I tried to select second gear, because the engine was squealing alarmingly . However, try as I might that lever would not select anything, so my only option was to de-accelerate which slowed the progress of the bike considerably, and then accelerate again and repeat the process, YehYawing up city Quay , 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.
When I had reached the extension gates, I almost gave up.
Of course it was raining and even though I hadnt exceeded three or four miles an hour at any stage of the journey, I came crashing to the ground, when my front wheel-tire lost traction on the smooth wet railway tracks.
We made it to B and I and I did my job, then I yeh yawed back up North Wall, and when halfway up, with a profound sense of relief, I saw the motorbike of a fellow runner outside British Railways.
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 and
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 motoring around.
After a year or so, when I had invested in my first four wheeled jalopy and when my tenure on the docks ended with my promotion to fully-fledged entry clerk. I handed the Honda 50 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.