This poem looks back at what working life was like for one of the thousands of casual labourers who worked at the Dublin docks in the mid-twentieth century. The foreman, or Stevedore, allocated work to men daily. Those labourers would often be left standing in rain and snow for hours before some were selected for work. The selection of men was called 'the Read'.
'Button men' were those labourers who held a badge that gave them priority in being given work, as well as greater ability to select their own preferred work (easier or higher-paid jobs). These badges had been handed to those men who were working in the docks prior to World War Two, after which point new workers were flooding in for work. Long after the end of the war, the button was passed down in families. Often the death of a father would mean the eldest son inherited the button, leaving a younger son to face more difficult work.
The 'button' system could therefore cause envy and resentment among the dock workers, even within families.
The Read song
Blowing on your hands as the wind blows through you
Stamping your feet to keep yourself warm
There’s a lumber ship in from Takoradi
It’s to be back on the tide before early morn.
There two coal yanks in from New Orleans
A banana boat in to be discharged by noon
Should get a call for a day or a mi mi
Depends on the foreman and the mood he’s in
Shape up here he is fuck it’s the Finger O Reilly
The bastard ignores me cause I’m not a Southsider
The width of a river can often decide.
It starts like a roll call, you know he has favourites
Dempsey, Butler, Byrne and Mc Bride.
He looking he sees you but stares right through you
Murphy, YoYo, Budgie and Doyle
The rains coming in so he get this done quickly
Shelley, Halpin, Smith and Mc Carthey.
His eyes are back your side maybe he’ll spot you
Nelligan, Rashers, Mc Quaid and Fitzroy.
Ah cmon you bollox don’t leave me standing
Danger, Mulligan, Hopper and Flanagan
O Neill, Mc Ferran, Lennon, Mc Partlin,
Taylor, Burke, Ringo and Slatts.
The Dunnes are getting narky there’s none of em called out
There will be uproar and mayhem if they’re overlooked
Rhattigan, Farrell, Mahony and Cooke.
Molloy, Sweeney, Briody and Dancer,
O Donnell, Mc Donnell, O Reilly and Quinn.
He’s coming back this way stand close to Ringo
He usually calls him, he’s a mate of his son.
Ringo, Bulger, Dunne, Dunne and Dunne.
I’ll take the cap off it might make a difference
Murray, Dolan, O Farrell, Mc Grath.
Cmon now finger don’t be a bastard
It’s the daughters communion and the sewing machines broke.
Mc Nulty, Nolan, Joyce and Fitzgibbon,
Nelson, Darcy, Bumper and Roche.
The buttons are all picked now I fancy me chances
Hotdog, Ennis, Cleary and Clarke.
Ah cmon you fucker you know I’m a grafter
Nolan, Gavin, Bailey and Harris,
Lewis, Mc Guinness, Mullen and Potts.
I’m on me tippy toes now surely he sees me
If I don’t get a call now what will I do.
Maguire, Chaney, Thompson and Cassiddy,
Bergin, O Malley and lastly, eh, you.