A Docklands Group Co-write Songs for the Area

A handful of people file into the Liffey Trust Studios, the multi-purpose community space behind the Point Village.

They climb two flights of stairs and enter a waiting area where they are greeted by the voice of an aerobics instructor barking orders in sync with a Lady Gaga remix.

Everyone not kitted out in fitness gear has come equipped with either a notepad, photographs or a guitar. They are old and young, choir singers, musical theatre aficionados, and former dock workers.

All have a mutual interest in the Docklands and all have the intention, before the day is out, to write a song about the area.

Before these Sing a Song of Docklands workshops, few had any experience of songwriting.

“It’s so different to what I normally do,” says Declan Byrne, a former dockworker. “I’m trying to get a message, a positive message across. That’s what I’m about.”

Byrne had submitted fresh lyrics ahead of what would be the third of four workshops.

Titled “Dublin Docker, No More to be Seen”, its opening verse reads:

“We were never known for being quiet/ But the picture painted is not quite right/ Drinkers, strokers, smugglers and robbers/ Fails to capture our way of life.”

The Carrick House Gang. Image courtesy of the Dublin Dock Workers Preservation Society.

Sing a Song of Docklands launched in late December. Through the workshops, musicians and writers are collaborating with Docklands locals to compose four songs, with each one representing a specific townland and its history.

Composer Carmel Whelan says she wanted the workshop to veer beyond the well-established portrait of this bit of Dublin’s inner city.

People associate the Docklands with balladeer Luke Kelly and men working on ships, she says.

“We wanted to explore a little more than that and look at the vibrant communities that exist here and the huge amount of migration that happens in Dublin Port,” she says.

The Docklands encompasses Ringsend, Irishtown, City Quay and the Grand Canal Docks on the southside, and Sheriff Street, North Wall and East Wall on the northside.

These are predominantly working-class areas, Whelan says, and the desire is to celebrate that side of Dublin. “Tough working-class areas bond together. There’s a lot of solidarity.”

The different communities are also challenged by changes, she says, citing gentrification.

“Everybody can relate to that, and in an area that is changing, it’s important to tell stories,” she says. “Nobody wants to be forgotten. It’s about being seen. It’s about representation.”

The workshop participants set up, unfolding orange and black chairs in a semicircle, facing a window looking over the old North Wall railway’s terminus.

One woman tells everyone she has come out of pure curiosity. Christian Wethered, the poet and songwriter overseeing the session says, more than anything else, “this is about connecting with other people”.

“We get locked in our own heads sometimes,” he says.

Wethered says he lived in the North Strand for four years, and what he adores about the area is its unconventional grey beauty.

“It’s a difficult thing to describe,” he says, laughing. “There is a sort of calm to it. It’s a very peaceful place and a very beautiful place. Even architecturally, in an unusual way.”

Wethered asks the group seated to split into pairs and engage in icebreakers. One person is asked to talk non-stop about the Docklands for five minutes. The other has to write what they hear.

Once both participants have performed in both roles, their notes are shared and discussed with a view of being developed into lyrics.

The session draws up images of workers on strike and barges in the docks, portraits of hard-working and hard-drinking men, and sex workers from the early years of the twentieth century.

Somebody ruminates on the obsolescence of the nearby train tracks. Another reflects on the couples separated for months on end. Themes of life on the water and waiting come around again and again.

“The tradition in the Dockland communities was for men to sign up as sailors,” Byrne says.

“There’s a whole history of people who would have been all around the world, away from your family for ages,” he says, “and that’s a part of the history that’s not recognised.”

Once the ideas are assembled, the group is divided in half. One bunch join Wethered and his guitar. The others gather around Whelan and her keyboard.

Whelan ran similar workshops in local secondary schools, joined by singer Justine Nantale.

The sessions drove home the diversity of the Docklands today, she says.

Whelan says, the children were either born in or had heritage from all over – from Japan to Nigeria, France to the Philippines.

Says Nantale, who was born in Uganda: “We were trying to link the rich heritage of different people living in these areas with migration through a song that could represent Ireland today.”

The Liffey, both Nantale and Whelan say, is emblematic of migration itself and as they encouraged the students to formulate a lyrical vision of the capital, the river was represented through their writing in multiple languages.

Nantale says it is often easier for her to write in her mother-tongue, Luganda. “So we encouraged students to write in their own mother-tongues if they felt comfortable.”

One female student chose to write in French. It became the song’s opening line: “Une chose la rend différent des autre/ Under bridges the Liffey flows.”

Later, the same song touches upon Dublin as a multicultural capital: “At the port, boats come and go/ Bringing new people, who will make Dublin their home/ Others leave/ Always my home.”

Photo by Michael Lanigan.

Whether or not every song is finished is secondary to the engagement between people who might not otherwise get a chance to meaningfully interact.

Nantale, the singer, says the workshops have delighted her as a way of connecting with former Docklands workers.

Byrne says it has been great to see students assembling songs about the place where he was employed for almost three decades, beginning as a junior clerk in 1972.

One guy had no connection to the docks, Byrne says. “But his lyrics captured the men working in the port. I don’t know how he did it.”

Byrne, as a member of the Dublin Dock Workers Preservation Society, uses the workshops as an opportunity to share its history.

He passes around an A4 print-out with photographs of well-known locals during the 20th century.

There is a shot from the 1930s of the 70 female staff members at the Lever Brothers soap factory on Sheriff Street, and a picture of 20 men by a cement boat, known as the “Carrick House” gang.

On one side is a page from a ledger book containing thevarious nicknames of dockers, such as “Wicked Chicken”, “Never Wrong”, and “Fuck It, It Will Do”.

“A lot of the nicknames the foreman gave,” Byrne says. “Some of them were humorous and some were slightly derogatory, and a lot of the time, you got your father’s nickname to save the foreman the time of even thinking of one.”

Whelan wants one of the songs they write in the workshops to be recorded.

“We want it to be a lasting monument so that it is not just another thing that is forgotten,” she says.

By the late afternoon, as the session wraps up, neither of the groups have completed their songs.

But they are invested enough in the skeletons of these ideas to bring them back the following week.

Wethered plucks what is now a soft folk melody on his guitar and he sings about a nearby scrapyard. It is, he half-sings, half-speaks, “the heart of Sheriff Street, holding so many memories”.

The eyes of one of the older male participants widen and he looks around. “We’ve got a song!” he says.

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Michael Lanigan: Michael Lanigan is a Dublin-based freelance journalist. His work appears in Vice, Totally Dublin, TheJournal.ie and the Business Post.

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