Day in the Life: Dublin Port

Published on 9 December, 2007. By John Reynolds 

From toilet roll to choppers to Ryanair planes, they all pass through the country’s busiest port, says John Reynolds, who spends a day on the docks  

Seven trucks pass through Dublin Port every minute, and up to 10,000 come through here every day.

It’s 6am on a mild morning in late November as a 4km-long line of hundreds of juggernauts pours out of the belly of Irish Ferries’ Ulysses.

Loaded with the sandwiches and ready meals that many of us will buy later that day, their headlights puncture the darkness while diesel fumes mix with the cool sea air. The ship’s 12 decks tower above me as Stena Line’s Adventurer and another Norfolk Line ship unload nearby.

As well as fresh flowers, toilet rolls and cornflakes, many of the electronics, clothes and toys that will be under our Christmas trees start to come through the port in September, with October being the busiest month.

All these goods and more are probably somewhere among the millions of euros worth of product inside the trailers passing by me.

Up to 70 per cent of all consumer goods we buy come through here, according to the port’s figures. So vital is our largest and busiest port to the nation’s economy that one supermarket boss phones every morning to ask if the ferries are on time.

“This is the Irish economy on the move,” says the port’s head of operations, Seamus McLoughlin. As well as these imported goods, 42 per cent of all exports go through here.

One important shipment he kept an eye on was for Intel. The contents of its three temperature-controlled containers were worth €24m.

“Once I saw a helicopter on one of these trailers and another time I saw the fuselage of a Ryanair jet,” he remarks as several eastern European-registered trailers laden with steel pass us.

About 4,000 people are employed by warehousing, stevedoring and other freight companies located around the port’s 700 acres, many competing with each other to keep down freight costs — which haven’t risen in 10 years.

Slimmed down from 465 employees to 190 since it was corporatised in 1997, the Dublin Port company paid a dividend of €4.2m back to the State last year. “We’re one of the few semi-states to do this and we have to show a profit each year,” McLoughlin emphasises.

Having invested €200m in infrastructure over the past decade, last year it made profits of €28.6m — most of which finances ongoing capital investment — on turnover of €66.4m. This year alone the firm has spent about €40m on roads, ramps and other infrastructure to ensure everything runs smoothly.

Occasionally, however, there is a temporary hitch in proceedings. The company’s state of the art 200-camera CCTV system captured the exact moment a truck turned over the previous afternoon on one of the port’s roads.

John Farley, a former New Zealand police officer with Irish roots who is now the port’s head of security, replays the moment the trailer emptied toilet rolls all over the road.

Thanks to number plate recognition, any vehicle can be identified on one of Farley’s six TV screens or four computer monitors in case the gardai need to be alerted.

“It’s a bit like a small city down here — it’s the second largest industrial estate in Ireland,” he says.

As daylight breaks, I head back to the port’s main office. A ship called the Link Star is unloading rolls of paper. Dozens of mobile homes, Volkswagen cars and other Japanese imported cars are parked nearby.

About 176,000 vehicles come through the port this year, many in the last few months of the year in time for the January rush to buy new cars. So too will hundreds of thousands of tonnes of petrol and diesel to fuel them, along with jet fuel, which is piped to Dublin airport.

Passing by the passenger terminal, the cafe inside is full of groups of football fans travelling over to Old Trafford. They’re a fraction of the 1.2m passengers that will come through the port this year, partly thanks to the distinctive €1.5m ad campaign featuring writers such as George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, which is helping numbers grow by four per cent a year, business development manager Brenda Daly says.

Financial controller Michael Sheary has been with the company since 1982. “Despite media reports, there are no plans for us to relocate to Bremore in Co Louth. Over the next decade, more than 8m square feet of retail space will be built around the M50 alone, and we’ll be helping to service that,” he assures me.

Head of HR Michael Lennon has worked here for 17 years and has helped colleagues tackle all the challenges of growing the port operations. “One of our employees has worked here since he was a boy,” he says.

With seven computer monitors and a panoramic view of the port, assistant harbourmaster Fergus Britton and a colleague are manning what looks like an air traffic control system for ships. “A Danish navy ship is just about to leave, so we can follow it,” he says.

Donning a life jacket, I join McLoughlin, Britton and one of his pilot boat crew, Richie Saunders. A couple of minutes into our tour of the port, Saunders lets me take the wheel of one of its €600,000 Cork-built pilot boats. Aided by its GPS navigation and powered by its 1,000-horsepower engines, he urges me to speed up and then to test its manoeuvrability.

McLoughlin and his colleagues are having a bit of a chat and a joke beside me. Along with Dublin Port’s chief executive Enda Connellan, they have decades of experience between them in various roles at sea. Camaraderie and occasional black humour help to do a professional job while dealing with rough seas, adverse weather and all manner of other challenges, they assure me.

Connellan’s career began as an apprentice with Irish Shipping at the age of 17 and included a stint on the ferries and an MBA at UCD before joining Dublin Port as assistant harbourmaster in 1990.

McLoughlin worked as an engineer for Irish Shipping before various roles over 25 years with the Department of Marine. He’s also the proud winner of a National Maritime Awards Council medal for his contribution to maritime safety.

By now it’s midday and the port is a bit quieter. Despite a fear of heights and with safety at the forefront of my mind, I manage to appreciate a bird’s eye view of the port from the top of a 200ft Killarney-built gantry crane that lifts containers on and off ships.

Still overlooking the port, but now from the safe confines of the office, Connellan joins us for lunch, having just returned from a trip to Singapore.

“Not many providers of infrastructure are as good as us. No two days are the same and the challenge is facilitating all the trade that goes through here. The reward is in meeting that challenge,” he says.

In the early hours of the following morning, before rush hour and while most of us are asleep in our beds, the whole flurry of activity here will begin again.

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