13 Jul A view of the boom from above
Gulls don’t come near him. This spring, he had the ratcheting call of magpies, who made a nest on his crane. He stepped over it every day to reach his cab. Two chicks hatched from the clutch of five eggs. Then one day they had all disappeared. He doesn’t know if they made it.
Brian is one of more than 100 men – and they are all men – who work in the clouds above Dublin, registered with the union Unite. They operate dozens of tower cranes on the city skyline, one or two to a cab. They are called Rope Jockeys or Eyes in the Sky by building site colleagues. They have other nicknames too, but Brian says these are unprintable.
He knows crane operators who leave homes in the midlands or Mayo at 5am on workdays. Many of them are building a city in which they cannot afford to live. The last leg of their journey is the climb from ground to cab. It takes anywhere from five to 20 minutes, depending on the height of the crane. They are at their controls by 7am and may stay there for up to 12 hours or more, sometimes taking their breaks in the cab, lifting and lowering concrete, timber, glass and steel as the city’s office buildings, hotels and student housing blocks rise up from the ground to meet them.
Depending on the height of their crane, some of the men will climb down for a break during a shift, but if the pressure is on the crane operator will stay in his cab and take his break there. Unite’s Rob Kelly, regional organiser with the union representing crane operators, says legislation on working hours is routinely ignored.
If a concrete delivery arrives at the end of a shift, Kelly says, they’ll work till it’s poured. When the operators climb down with stiff shoulders and cricked necks back to life on the ground, their cranes hang like huge steel beasts with blinking aviation lights over homes and streets. We move, work, sleep and shop under them, trusting and oblivious. It’s not something Brian overthinks, but many lives on the ground are in the hands of a Dublin rope jockey.
Brian is not his real name, but he says it’s easy to get unofficially blacklisted by the agencies who employ crane operators. “The majority are working through agencies,” Kelly says. Work can be on a week-to-week basis with a text message to tell the operator at the end of the week whether he’s needed the following week. Brian has been a crane operator on and off for 20 years. After the last economic crash, he left for Europe, and then Australia.
The only voice in his cab connecting him to the ground is his banksman, who talks to him through the walkie-talkie. Then there’s the odd podcast or audio book (he likes non-fiction). Every crane operator works with a banksman (or several banksmen) who connects the rigging to the loads, and tells him when it’s clear to lift and lower. Brian has worked with the same banksman for years. These kinds of partnerships are not as common as they were during the last boom, he says.
Sometimes I wonder, what kind of a city are we building? I come in early and already there are lads sitting in their cars eating their breakfasts at the wheel
Everything in this boom is more focused, bigger and engineered to keep the money flowing upwards to the big construction companies, and the international funds behind them. Crane operators keep their mouths shut and do what they’re told, Brian says. The worst days happen when you’re teamed with a banksman who’ll send panic up the crane, scream into the radio until your head is fried. A calm approach is everything.
And a head for heights? “You work yourself up into the crane. If I rush up the crane, sometimes I’ll get to the top and it’ll feel like too much,” he says. “You take your time going up and you adjust as you go. If you have a bad banksman, the first thing you do is take him up the crane. The height will scare him and he’ll see how difficult cranes are to operate.”
What does he make of this boom from his seat in the sky? “Sometimes I wonder, what kind of a city are we building?” he says. “I come in early and already there are lads sitting in their cars eating their breakfasts at the wheel.” He has a unique 360º view of the ant colony below. “You can actually see the rhythm of a city,” he says. He can spot the same cars coming and going at certain times of the day. Sometimes he wishes they’d write something on their roofs, just to liven up the view.
‘Bottle of home brew’
And yes, he urinates in a bottle. There is no Dublin tower crane with a toilet, according to Unite’s Rob Kelly. Everyone brings down a “bottle of home brew and maybe worse, depending on the height of the crane”, Brian says, miming tucking a bottle into his jacket to free up his hands for the long climb down. Because, of course, you can’t carry your bottle down the crane. You need both hands free for the ladder.
Very few cranes have air conditioning, so on a sunny day it’s like sitting in a stationary car for hours. Lots of cranes have plenty of space on the back jib (the horizontal beam of the crane) for toilets, even a kitchen, he says. “I’ve got 15 metres of space on the back of my crane. It’s quite big. You’d nearly live in it.” But the comfort of workers is not a priority. Having the crane operator at his controls at almost all times is what’s required.
When it’s windy, the best way I can describe it is that it feels like sitting on a boat
There can be 30 lifts on a quiet day, and on some days 30 lifts before your first break.
He is keeping a note of all the issues with the crane he is using at the moment, in a small black notebook with the crane’s serial number written on the front. He flips through the pages filled with dates and notes. These are the incidents, the times that something has gone wrong. “I’ve got to keep this for when an accident happens,” he says. There is an official form to be filled in weekly for faults like power problems or radio outages, but it’s a process that comes with its own hassles. Crane owners who don’t want to spend the money fixing the faults “will go mental and attack the integrity of the driver”, Brian says.
He’s worked in many kinds of weather. “When it’s windy, the best way I can describe it is that it feels like sitting on a boat.” It takes all his skill to try to control a load on the end of the rigging when the wind gets up. Get a thin, long and wide load, and it will get whipped around “just like a kite in the sky”, he says. Small solid loads are easier. Then there are the radio failures, where your eyes on the ground are lost. That’s when all your training and reserves of calm come into play.
Dublin is tower crane city. Every month, this newspaper’s unofficial crane correspondent Justin Comiskey goes onto the roof of The Irish Times building on Tara Street and counts the cranes. In March, Dublin reached peak crane when Comiskey logged a record high of 123 cranes. In the US, Seattle holds the record for the largest number of cranes in an American city, thanks to a wave of office and apartment building for tech companies. But the US crane capital’s crane count earlier this year was just 60, half the number in operation in Dublin.
In April, one of Seattle’s cranes collapsed in a storm, killing four people on the ground. Brian has watched the footage repeatedly, trying to work out what happened.
Dublin’s biggest tower crane accident happened 15 years ago in February 2004, when a 60-metre crane snapped near the Dart track in Ringsend in a storm. No one was injured, but Irish Rail lost more than €150,000 in ticket revenue, and dozens of homes in Emerald Cottages and Barrow Street had to be evacuated as the stricken crane swung in the…