In the early decades of the 20th century, dockers were a major part of Dublin’s working class.
Each morning, they competed with each other to be selected to work that day. There were often two or three men looking for the same job.  They all gathered in a group and a foreman picked out who would work. The rest went home.

One of the last barges on the River Liffey Dublin

One of the last barges on the River Liffey Dublin.

To combat the degrading system of how workers were selected, a trade union list of full time dockers was drawn up.

These men were known as button men. They were identified by the buttons they wore on their belt.  The foreman was obliged to prioritise button men who were looking for work.

Most men were employed as labourers and carters on the docks and railways. The pay was poor and employment was casual and insecure.

Working in dust filled holds, men shovelled coal and grain with special shovels. Dockers attempted to keep coal dust out of their lungs by sucking on a lump of coal while working in the hatch. Working conditions were tough, the work was hard and conditions were grim.

This spawned many industrial disputes – the most famous being the 1913 Lockout led by James Larkin.  It was the largest industrial dispute in Irish history.

After World War II, the number of jobs in the Docklands fell due to an increase in container traffic and a growing trend for transporting goods by road rather than rail.

This left thousands without work and would leave a lasting legacy of social and economic problems in the North Inner City.

"I worked on the docks for 40 years, well before the Point became a concert venue. I used to load the train wagons that came into the depot."


My father worked on the docks, mostly on the cement boats.

I used to bring him down his tea in a billy-can. I used to pity him when I would see him carrying them big sacks of cement on his back. My mother would rub some Vaseline into his shoulders and back to ease the pain. Those dockers, they worked hard for their money.”


“When I got my first job on the docks I was on my summer holidays from school. That was in 1935.

My mother sent me down to the docks with some tea and sandwiches for my father – he was working discharging a coal boat in Spencer Dock, onto Sutton’s Bank. I was 14 years old at the time. My father came over to me and said, “Son, go home and take them short trousers off you and put a long pair on you.” I just looked at him and he said, “Go on! I’m after getting you a job working with me.”

So I rushed home, changed my trousers and went back down to him.”


“One of the jobs I had after the war was on the docks.

I worked on the Yankee boats.  I remember being called out of the crowds outside the B & I.   I would be there wearing my green trilby hat and he used to pick me out saying, “You, with the green trilby hat”, for the day’s work.”


"I’d stand in the road, get a job, be sent to a ship, start at five o’clock, work till one o’clock, home for your dinner, go back after dinner, get paid that day and get a few pints on the way home. That was a regular thing."


“The barges that used to be on the canal would be pulled by horses if they got stuck.

The man that used to pull them had these two big grey horses.   He kept the horses at the back of William Street School.   The poor man was drowned outside his own house.”


“You were always sure of a job milking cows on vet’s orders.

Cows were milked before they went across the sea to Holyhead. There were ten or twelve pens with about 24 milk cows in each pen. Down at the Holyhead yard, you got one and six a gallon.”


“When I finished work, I used to love going to the pubs in Sheriff Street – to the sing-songs in pubs like Macken’s, Bertie Donnelly’s pub, The Kind Lady and Noctor’s”.


“There were 650 buttonmen.

The button meant that you had to get a job before an outsider.  At that time, a stevedore could come along and pick anyone they liked, as long as they were buttonmen.  But there was no such thing as seniority – it was the poorest form of seniority.”


“I was a casual worker on the docks in 1958 until I got my father’s button.  My father died in 1961 at the age of 41 and his button was handed down to me.

I used to be employed six days a week but later I would be lucky if I got one day a week.  It’s sad to see the way the docks have gone because there used to be plenty of work, not just for the dockers but for other people in the locality.  You would have men standing at different corners all along the roads to the docks and the lorry drivers going down to collect cargo would employ some local men to help load up.

Ships from all over the world would come to the docks.  But not anymore.

It’s a real shame.”


“Since the docks went down, the parish also went down. I am disappointed in the way it’s gone – the people years ago, rough and ready as they were, they had pride in the parish.

For example, you had a pipe band and plenty of football teams years ago. There were seven Masses on a Sunday but now there’s only three. The attendance is after falling down a lot.  I remember a time you would have 400 people in the church.  You had four priests in the parish but now we only have two.”


Do you have family memorabilia or stories about life in the North Inner City? We’d love to hear from you: