Preserving Dockers' Nicknames, from Rubber Legs to Long Balls and Bendego

When a docker was known by a nickname, that would be his name until he died, says Paddy Daly. He started at Dublin Port when he was 16, in 1954.

“People who worked with a man for years would never know what his Christian name was,” says Daly.

There was “Swinger” Bisset and “Snipes” McDonald, “Rubber Legs” Gaffney and “Granny” Farrell, “Terrier” Caulfield and “Crab” Carberry.

Now “Masher” Hutch, “Boxer” Elliot and “Blue Nose” Byrne join these on the list of 180 nicknames Daly has recently compiled, recalled from his days down Dublin Port.

“My Name’s Not Greyhound”

Seeking an explanation for dockers’ nicknames can lead to speculation, and, at times, misinterpretation, says Daly, who is sat with a coffee near the entrance to the CHQ building on North Wall Quay.

There were a number of ways a man came about his given nickname. “Firstly, some nicknames are self-explanatory,” he explains.

“Boxer” Elliott, “Fatser” Curry and “Baldo” McAuley were given their sobriquets by virtue of physical appearance, a physical trait, and a previous occupation.

Secondly, some nicknames were inherited, passed down through generations of Ringsend and East Wall dock workers. “There were hundreds of nicknames used on the deep-sea section of Dublin Port”, says Daly.

There was no guarantee you’d get a nickname, though some young dockers desired them, and there was no ceremony if you did get one.

But they played a key role when it came to the foremen, who’d decide whether or not you’d pass muster.

“The biggest thing you had going in your favour would be, say, a little bit of infamy,” says John Walsh, who worked down the docks between 1962 and 2009. “If you got a nickname that was sort of funny or self-demeaning it stuck in the foreman’s head.”

In Daly’s time on the docks, men like “Eat the Baby” Carras, “Foot and a Half” Curley and “Canadian Joe” Reilly lined up under a wooden scaffold, seeking work in the morning “reads”.

The “read” was a selection process. Carried out by the foremen, who stood atop the scaffold. Many foremen knew men only by their nickname, says Daly.

Foreman Willie Downey, for instance, could pick out three or four gangs of men for a ship while relying solely on nicknames, he recalls.

A dock worker’s nickname was key to keeping on the foreman’s radar. Even if, at times, he forgot it. Take the man that Daly remembers as “Terrier” Caulfield, for instance.

During the morning read, Patsy Kelly, the foreman, forgot Caulfield’s nickname, recalls Daly.

Kelly stood and stared and pointed at him for several minutes, but he refused to move. He wanted to be properly addressed.

Finally, Kelly thought he had it. “‘Ah, I’ve got it! Greyhound!'” Kelly said, according to Daly.

“Terrier”, crestfallen, concedes and walks out. “But he looks up at the foreman on the stand and says, ‘By the way, my name is NOT Greyhound, it’s Terrier,'” says Daly.

Recalling foreman Kelly’s reaction, Daly starts laughing. “‘Oh, right, sorry about that. I just knew it had something to do with a dog,'” Daly recalls the foreman saying.

One of Caulfield’s relatives says that his first nickname was actually one-letter different from “Terrier”. He was “Kerrier” Caufield, according to Mary Caulfield.

That was because “he was born with a head of tight curls and when the Uncle Tom, his father, saw him he said he looks like a Kerry Blue,” she said.

The morning read. Image courtesy of Declan Byrne.

“Rolo’s delivering the milk!”

Research into dock workers’ nicknames is scant, for now.

But they’re a tradition that existed in Ringsend for generations, says Declan Byrne, who helped to found the Dublin Dock Workers Preservation Society in 2011.

Byrne reckons that two-thirds of deep-sea dockers in Dublin were from Ringsend or Irishtown. The remainder came from East Wall.

During the docks’ heyday, says Byrne, between 1,000 and 3,000 men rocked up in search of work each morning.

As part of the society’s activities, Daly came on board to offer a hand in compiling as many nicknames as possible.

“The reason I gave their surnames was to legitimise them, if you like,” he says. “We had other ones [nicknames] but those names were not from the docks … so these ones are the men who actually worked on the docks.”

While some nicknames are self-explanatory, and some inherited, the origins of others are unclear. “Bendego” is a good example.

We know the nickname “Bendego” was given to men who broke the strike during the 1913 Lockout, and who were therefore deemed “scabs”. But we don’t know exactly why. It’s thought that a man named Bendego gathered men to break the strike in 1913.

Years later, this nickname became the catalyst for arguments and sometimes physical bust-ups among dockers, says Daly. Like the sins of the father, it was passed down from dock workers who’d broken the strike to their sons.

“It was very unfair,” says Daly. “Some of the sons, you’d know them, and they were good lads.”

Most nicknames were harmless, but some were meant to hurt, used by “the unscrupulous to win an argument”, says Daly.

But it went both ways down the docks. Some of the foremen even had nicknames.

He remembers one in particular, a man who had earned the nickname “Rolo”. “Rolo” was driving to work one morning in poor weather conditions, when he struck a horse pulling a milk cart. Some days passed. At one of the morning reads, the senior foreman asked after his whereabouts. There was silence, recalls Daly.

The men below stood hushed until one docker bellowed: “‘The horse died and Rolo’s delivering the milk!'”

When foreman weren’t busy killing livestock, they were up on the scaffold picking out their men for a day’s work.

But some had other methods, recalls Declan Byrne. One foreman lived at the top of the Ferryman pub on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. “He used to open his window every morning and there’d be 200 men outside and he picked them from there,” he says.

So it was that the likes of “Bogey” Dixon, “Silent Pencil” Fulham and “Long Balls” Murphy found work.

“Every Part of the Body”

That last nickname is self-explanatory. A dock worker’s physical traits were, indeed, often his label for life, says Walsh.

Take “Two Thumbs” Murphy, for instance. “It was exactly that,” recalls Walsh. He actually had two thumbs on one hand.

There nicknames based on thumbs, shoulders, ankles, and knees too, says Walsh. “Jesus, you know, every part of the body we had.”

In his day Walsh was known as “Miley” Walsh, a simple reference to his father, Miles, who’d been a docker.

“Skipper” Dunne referred to Paddy Daly by his father’s nickname. “But I wouldn’t take any notice and within three months he didn’t call me anything other than Paddy,” says Daly.

Byrne, of the Preservation Society, had a short-lived nickname. “Jimmy Greg gave me a nickname and I nearly sewed it on me jacket,” says Byrne. “It was ‘Jack Dash.'”

It didn’t stick. Again, there were no guarantees.

Both Byrne and Daly agree that a dock worker’s real name would often only be discovered through his obituary.

Last year, Byrne received a Christmas card from George “Bronco” Dennis. “George?” says Byrne. “‘Who’s George?’ I said. It took me ages to figure out that was Bronco’s name!”

More recently, Byrne, Daly and other members of the Dublin Dock Workers Preservation Society gathered to run through these nicknames.

Francois Gray was on hand to film proceedings for Dublin Port, as part of a video series commemorating the port’s history. The film should be available online shortly, says Gray.

But “you could go on forever” when it comes to docker’s nicknames, says Daly. Be they obvious or inherited, the bizarre and the bawdy stuck too.

There was one cocky docker known simply as “The Flange”, says Daly, about to depart the CHQ. “It was the way he used to say it. The innuendo was always there,” he recalls.

So, what was “The Flange” like? Daly, smiling and pivoting slightly in his chair, simply replies: “The Flaaaaaange …”

[UPDATE: This article was updated on 24 August at 16:57 to include comments from Mary Caulfield about “Kerrier” Caulfield.]

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Reader responses

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Cormac
at 13 July 2017 at 19:09

Great story! Very enjoyable read.

Patrick
at 13 July 2017 at 22:45

Great Read with the exception of the two thirds from ringsend and a third from east wall. In fact the vast majority originally came from City Quay.

Mairead Fullam
at 21 July 2017 at 09:20

My dad was a Docker his name was Jas Fullam,his uncle was Rolo he did the reads ,always had a pkt rolo in his pocket,he also had a friend working on the docks called saltbox..which I thought was gas

Dick elliott
at 30 October 2017 at 02:07

Well done paddy just looking at the book and I started to reminis of my time on the docks you know it never leaves you once a docker always a docker I never lost my nick name never lost it even up to today well done to you and the lad that put the page with all the nick names up well done

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