Having recently moved to the Dublin village of Ringsend my attention has turned to all things maritime. Shortly after moving I noticed an unusually looking bench inscribed ‘The Hobblers Look Out Bench’ at the location where the Dodder meets the Liffey on the south side of the Tom Clarke Bridge (formerly the east-link toll bridge) directly opposite the 3 Arena. The same week after noticing the Bench, I received an enquiry from overseas to research a family from Ringsend with long term links to Dublin Docklands. Also the same week while on duty in the NAI Genealogy Advisory Service, in walked as I was later to find out a descendant of generations of Hobblers from, yes you’ve guessed it, Ringsend – clearly it was time to find out more about who these Hobblers were and the role they played for generations in the working life of Dublin Port.
Today Dublin Port is a twenty-four hour hive of nonstop activity of unbelievable proportions and by all accounts growing exponentially as container and cruise ships of ever increasing size motor up the narrow river channel, moor, unload, upload and disembark all alongside neatly formed mass concrete quaysides. The situation was not quite so predictable in the past.
Silting of the Liffey made discharge at the quaysides difficult as ships could not negotiate the shallow channel. In Medieval times the primary port in the Leinster area was Coliemore Harbour at Dalkey but as most goods were destined for Dublin City this was an imperfect solution and goods began to be discharged ‘at sea’ into small craft known as ‘lighters’. The lighters could more easily negotiate the shallow channel into Dublin and it was the men who worked these lighters who came to be known as Hobblers.
Hobblers could spend days at sea keeping watch on the horizon to catch first sight of a vessel and once sighted, competing lighters would race to the cargo vessel. First to arrive (securing themselves by hooks to the larger vessel) won the right to board the vessel, carry out negotiations and once a deal was struck, they began the transfer. Discharge at sea was incredibly dangerous and difficult; rolling seas, freezing conditions and high winds combined with the fact the hobblers did not know what cargo they would be handling until arrival at the shipside and invariable it took several trips to complete a discharge, ferrying the goods to Coliemore, Dublin or Ringsend. The level of danger involved was vast and injuries commonplace.
Once the Liffey Channel had been deepened the Hobblers trade developed naturally into pilots and tug boats for the larger vessels guiding them into the Port. While Hobbler crews from Butt Bridge, East Wall and Dun Laoghaire also competed for business, Ringsend was the heartland of the Hobblers so much so they earned the name ‘Gulls of Ringsend’. Kinch, Lawless, Gough and Pullen are all renowned Ringsend Hobbler family names and nicknames of others such as ‘Highwater Flanagan’ ‘Bulletproof Power’ and ‘Bluenose Murphy’’ provide a glimpse of their character.
Hobbling was often combined with other activities such as fishing and as time went on dock working and stevedoring and this evolution probably explains why so few Hobblers are listed in the Census of Ireland returns for 1901 and 1911. At the time conditions in the Dublin Docks were appalling and the role of Dockers in the Lockout of 1913 has been widely documented. One of the Hobblers’ most famous (unverified) claims was in 1919 when Éamon de Valera escaped from Lincoln gaol, boarded a B & I Ferry bound for Dublin but rather than remain on board until the ferry docked and risk capture, he was (reputedly) spirited away by hobblers who went out to meet the boat whilst still under way in Dublin Bay. Later during the Anglo-Irish War of the early 1920s dockers refused to handle munition ships carrying weapons for the British and unloading halted for a time in Dublin, Dun Laoghaire and at other Irish ports.
In the 1930s some thirty competing Hobbler boats were active in Dublin Bay but in 1934 a tragedy involving the drowning of three young hobblers was part of the instigation for a formal prohibition of Hobbling by the Ports and Docks Board in 1936.
No longer active and almost invisible in surviving written records, the real Hobblers never got to sit on the Bench that bears their name today. Its existence however is worthy tribute to generations of courageous men who risked life and limb providing for their families and the city would be the lesser without such curiosities to whet the appetite of any inquisitive passer-by.
(Much of the information in this short piece comes from O’Carroll, A. & Bennett, D. The Dublin Docker working lives of Dublin’s Deep Sea Port, 2017 and from the Dublin Dockers Preservation Society; http://www.eastwallforall.ie).