Employment in the Docklands
Nineteenth-century Dublin was not a city of factories. Most working men were employed as labourers and carters on the docks and railways. A lot of this work was highly irregular and casual. Sailing ships often spent weeks in port, so their cargoes were discharged at a leisurely pace. Owners of more expensive steamers were keen to discharge and load ships as quickly as possible, so they hired large numbers by the day, or even by the hour. There was a strong seafaring tradition among docklands families that survives until the present.
Many other jobs in Docklands were dependent on the port. Coal merchants were scattered along the quays, particularly south of the Liffey, and carters brought coal to homes throughout the city. In 1900 a large house would use a ton of coal a month. There were few jobs for women, though some earned a living from dealing or domestic service in more prosperous parts of the city
Working conditions in the Docklands were tough; injuries were common. There were often two or three men available for every job, so older men found it difficult to get work. Wages were often paid in public houses, and some dockers had to bribe a stevedore in order to be hired. Personal contacts were also essential, so most dockland workers were natives of the area. The harsh working conditions gave rise to many industrial disputes; the most famous was the 1913 Lock out led by James Larkin.
Most of the factories in the area depended on the port. Ringsend was a traditional centre for boat building. The Ballast Board was optimistic that Dublin could become a major centre for shipbuilding and repair, so in 1851 they commissioned William Dargan who is known as the ‘father of the Irish railways’ to construct a dry dock at the North Wall. This was leased to a ship building firm. They prospered for some years even building their own ship boilers and commissioning engines from another Dublin firm, but in 1870 they went bankrupt. After that the Dublin yard concentrated on repairs. The business folded after World War 1. In 1870 there were five glassworks in Ringsend. Glass manufacture used large quantities of imported coal. One glass firm made bottles for Guinness stout. The Irish Glass Bottle Co. opened in the 1930s.
Live cattle, the main agricultural export provided few jobs except for drovers and handlers. However Goulding’s fertiliser company and the Dublin and Wicklow Manure Company in the North Wall supplied Irish farmers with artificial manures, which were manufactured from imported materials. Until the Famine of the 1840’s most bread was made from Irish-grown wheat, but imports of wheat rose rapidly from that time and several large flourmills opened in the Docklands. A large building firm T and C Martin opened a joinery plant, using imported timber, and before 1900 there was a sugar refinery in the south Docklands, which processed imported cane sugar. There were plans to open an oil refinery in the 1930’s, but they were abandoned when World War II broke out, though a large proportion of Ireland’s oil and petrol are distributed from the Docklands. After World War II the number of jobs in the Docklands fell with the growth of container traffic and the switch from rail to road. Coal became a less important source of fuel, so there were fewer coal men. Many of the older factories closed down.