While there are many families with a long tradition in Dun Laoghaire Harbour, none has a lineage like the three generations of Johnny Kelly’s active in the Harbour today.
Johnny Kelly Senior is 83 years of age and can still be found out on his boat minding his lobster pots. His son – the middle Johnny Kelly – is a 43 year old pilot boat coxwain in Dublin Port who also works with the National Yacht Club on maintaining its moorings and does some fishing from the Harbour. In turn, his son, 18 year old Johnny Junior is a maintenance worker in the Marina and is also a volunteer with the busy Lifeboat based in the Harbour.
Johnny Kelly Senior is a sprightly man with a remarkable recollection of the many people and ships that have been around the Harbour since he started working as a ten year old with his grandfather, Paddy Carroll, in 1936 hiring boats at the harbours in Dun Laoghaire and Sandycove. He has a detailed memory of his many experiences and has inherited further stories from Paddy and his great-grandfather Martin Carroll, who also worked in the boat hire business around the Harbour at Dun Laoghaire and Sandycove where he had a small shed. Martin Carroll lived to the great age of 97 making Johnny Carroll Senior the direct modern inheritor of an oral history line about the Harbour that goes back over at least 150 years to the middle of the 19th century.
Johnny was born and brought up in Glasthule and his earliest memories as a young boy was getting up at 4 am to start work on the lobster pots at first light for several hours before going to school at the local Harold School. After school, at weekends and holidays, he would help his grandfather in what was then a booming boat hire business in and around the Harbour. His grandfather was so busy and successful at this, that the first set of steps from the East Pier down to the water were known as Paddy Carroll’s Steps.
Johnny remembers the names of all the owners who hired out boats alongside his grandfather.. There were over 40 boats there when he started, owned by men such as the Coopers at Rogan’s Slip, Joey Pluck, Ted Brennan, Dick Hughes, Din Berry and Mickey Gallagher. Long queues would build up on fine Saturdays and Sundays as people waited their turn to get on the water. Johnny recalls that in those days there were no accidents and no trouble. Anyone who said they could row could hire a boat or be taken out. Lifejackets were unknown.
While men were allowed hire a boat to take out provided they could assure the boatmen of at least some basic rowing ability, women had to have someone to row for them and from an early age Johnny was heading out to sea with passengers. Boats were hired for a half crown per hour (about 16 cent today).
The lobster business was important in those days and Johnny remembers his grandfather emptying his lobster pots between 4 and 6 in the morning before taking an early tram into the fish market in Dublin city centre to sell his catch.
At an early age Johnny learnt about the lobster pots in the rocks at the back of the East Pier and along the coast by Killiney to Bray. It was common to row the whole distance to Bray and back with the assistance of only a shifting sail on board to check the pots and their contents.
As the lobsters became scarce in winter, herring fishing became an important replacement and Johnny remembers more early morning starts as the yawl (a boat over 18 feet long) would drift off Poolbeg in Dublin Bay to haul the catch in. Whiting was also a common catch there from long lines baited with up to 500 hooks.
After leaving school, Johnny spent a few years hiring boats at Sandycove, fishing and making lobster pots. When the lure of longer journeys took over he worked for several years on a three masted schooner on the Irish Sea, making trips between all the main cities and towns in Britain and Ireland and occasionally to France.
When he returned to Ireland in the 1950’s he took up work with the Dublin Port and Docks board as a driver on one of its pilot barges. In those days the shifts were 48 hours on / 48 hours off and the crew took to the Bay with their own two day food supply and worked alternative six hour shifts on watch. He worked in the Port until 1991.
Coal was a big feature for many years in the Harbour when Johnny was a younger man with four coal yards in the Harbour and regular coal boats landing from the west coast of Britain. The coal would be landed and then bagged around the Coal Quay and old harbour before being brought around the borough by horse-drawn drays which he remembers with fondness.
One of Johnny’s most vivid memories goes back to July 1937 when the huge German training ship the Schleswig-Holstein visited Dun Laoghaire on its way back to base from a trip to South America. The ship was a former First World War battleship which had fought at the Battle of Jutland, and was flagship of the German navy from 1926 to 1935. It was then converted to a training ship but was still heavily armed. It anchored in Scotsman’s Bay and for days Johnny ferried sightseers out and back from the Harbour to the ship where they could take tours. The ship’s band came ashore to play on the East Pier and its 300 cadets – trainees for Hitler’s navy – went back and forth from the town. The Schleswig Holstein later was credited with firing the first shots of the Second World War when under the guise of a courtesy visit to Danzig it opened fire on the Polish garrison at dawn on September 1st 1939.
A strong reminder to Johnny of the constant danger of going to sea in small rowing boats, was the tragedy on the fourth of January 1939 when his uncle Mick Carroll and stepson Jem Baker were drowned. With bad weather forecast the two set out from Sandycove Harbour to check their lobster pots off the East Pier. Caught by an easterly wind, Jem fell out of the boat and in trying to reach him, Mick let go of the oars and the boat turner suddenly pitching him in. Johnny still remembers three horses which were pulling coal drays near the seafront having their reins taken off and brought down the Pier to try to pull the boat and men to safety with no success.
Pleasure cruises were also a popular feature in the Harbour in the 1950’s and John remembers the John Joyce, Royal Iris, Golden Hind and Larsen among others. The Larsen went on tours to Bray and back every day and other ships ran night time tours.
Middle Johnny Kelly is active in the Harbour and Dublin Bay where he is a pilot boat coxwain with Dublin Port Company.
While these days the pilot boats no longer work the 48 hour shifts of his father’s time, they are busier than ever with commercial shipping entering and leaving the Port. Considerable additional traffic for pilots is also generated by the increasing number of large cruise ships to visit Dublin Port. Over 80 are expected this year including the famous QE2 in October.
As well working on the pilot boat, Johnny works part-time in the National Yacht Club on its mooring bridles. Johnny Junior works full time in the Harbour in the marina and also on call as a lifeboat volunteer where he has been on 24 launches out of Dun Laoghaire already this year.
All three men still live in the locality. Johnny Senior made the short move some time ago from Glasthule to Sallynoggin and his son and grandson now live in Shankill.