It is just after 1.45am and the temperature outside the factory falls below freezing. Inside, the workers are kept relatively warm by a large industrial type heater. It blows out thick, humid, recycled air. The air doesn’t feel like it’s the healthiest to be breathing and the heater is so noisy that people can barely hear each other speak. Sometimes it is better to leave it off and suffer the biting cold so that you can actually experience the comfort of real, undiluted human company. In the background, Neil Prendeville’s voice can be heard echoing off the canteen walls as a few of the workers tune-in to the late night repeat of the morning show. The TV, in the corner, is left on mute. The moving pictures on the screen provide some colourful, if not captivating, stimuli for the senses.
I eavesdrop on the conversations between the workers while checking in on the Facebook and Twitter pages. There is nothing strange or startling about their conversations except that their words are set against the backdrop of a situation that is most unnatural. A few cars pass outside, cruising along Pearse Rd in the early morning haze. There is stillness in the air. However, it is a stillness that is being caressed by an electric tension that I can only liken to the pent-up energy of a boxer sitting in his corner – bruised, fatigued but still itching to get on with the fight. The people, who are sitting alongside of me, have been floating like butterflies for seven weeks now. They are not afraid of the next round.
I realise that I have been staring at the clock on the wall, above the sign that calls out Day 49, for the last three minutes – the second-hand just ticking around. The lives of these men & women are just ticking by. This is wrong. Behind where I am typing I hear some of the workers talk about the songs from their youth that have stuck in their minds. One of them sings a line from ‘Hello Mary-Lou’ in a very hushed tone.
I knew Mary Lou, we’d never part
So hello Mary Lou, goodbye heart
Greg Marshall remembers that I am a Liverpool supporter and he snorts “Sure ye are only a second division team.”
“Who did ye get in the 5th round of the cup again?” I reply. My adversary throws his eyes up to heaven. I know what that gesture means. There is no adequate response of which I can think. It amazes me that here, amidst a bitterly protracted industrial dispute and a human rights violation, normality seeps in between the cracks -the cracks in the fabric of family and life. Although ‘the ordinary’ is a fleeting visitor, it reminds me of the line “all these things that don’t change, come what may” from the Neil Young song ‘Four Strong Winds’. I do a quick scan of the room and notice that some of the younger workers have their hoods up as protection against the cold.
The sound of ABBA crackles out from the radio and Tim Burke mutters “ahhh Dancing Queen.” A reflective smile forms on his face. His eyes and I suspect his mind drops away to happier times. Maybe the song reminds him of his first girlfriend or a first kiss? Who knows? But that moment is his to keep. It is something that Jack Ronan can never touch or take away from him.
I check back on Twitter and Facebook to see messages of support from San Francisco, Boston and New York. It is gone fairly quiet on both pages. PJ Coogan is also spending the night in ‘The Ice-Box’ as we have labelled it. He taps away on his laptop across the table. I consider the possibility that he may be a workaholic. John Daly looks at me and says “Don’t worry. There are two hours gone… only a few more to go.”
I need to use the toilet. Tim leads me out the door of the canteen and suddenly the “real cold” hits me. Jesus! How can people live like this? How can Jack Ronan treat fellow human beings with such disdain? There is no morality in it; there is no soul to be found in this.
Tim leads me across the factory floor and points in the direction of the toilet.
“Right down to the back and it’s into your left boy,” he explains in a strong Cork accent. I walk in the direction, in which he is pointing, into the pitch dark passing by idle machines and stacks of foam. Out of nowhere a light,which is hanging from the roof, pierces my eyes and guides me to my destination. I wonder what it is that acts as the light, for these workers, in the shadow of fifty days of injustice. I hope that the goodwill of all their friends and all the people who have passed through their lives adds to their strength. I hope that every glint of love and affection ever extended to them, transient or otherwise, sustains them at this vital hour. All the people who have passed through my own life flash across my mind. As I observe these people and the direness of their situation I feel genuinely glad of everybody who has ever cared about me. I think about my friend Veronica and how it must feel to watch your Dad go through such an ordeal. Now matter how close you are to the campaign, it is impossible to get that close.
Myself and PJ go for a walk on the factory floor and trade words of bewilderment at the ignorance of Jack Ronan.
“How can he wake up with a clean conscious?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I couldn’t. These guys are cut from a different cloth,” says PJ as we walk across the same stretch of ground walked ,for over forty years, by workers such as Jimmy Power, Sean Kelleher and Cal O’Leary
“No matter how wealthy I ever became, I couldn’t treat people in this way. I wouldn’t be able to look my father in the face if I did,” I exclaim and I mean it.
“And that is the thing, isn’t it?” says PJ in tone that suggests that there is not much else to say.
At 3am, the crew are carried along by their second wind. Mick Delaney busies himself by attempting to get a Mel Gibson DVD to play on a hard-drive that is hooked up to the TV. Unfortunately it doesn’t work out for him. He slumps back into his seat and he forgets about watching Braveheart. Or is it The Patriot?
I spring up from the canteen table and challenge Tim Burke to a game of Shanghai Darts. I can tell that he appreciates the opportunity to escape into the banter of a simple game. A please that we all take for granted. Anyway, it is now 5am and entertainment has been reduced to staring blankly at infomercials and adverts for Tallafornia on a loop – its mind-numbing stuff to say the least. Jack Ronan should be arrested for cruel and unusual punishment.
Regina Hickey a worker with 26 years’ service gets up from her seat to stretch her legs. She mutters
“There is only so much sitting you can actually take.”
I no longer feel as though I am freezing as John Daly and I throw our darts from 20 down to 1 in an epic encounter that energies. Still, the chill in the air is constant and unsettling. At the other end of the canteen PJ Coogan looks for volunteers to be interviewed on 96FM news at 7am.
Suddenly, Cal O Leary who had spent the night sleeping on the frigid factory floor appears with a large slab of foam upon which the number 50 is inscribed. He steps up on a chair and places it next to another slab of foam with the word ‘Day’ in the canteen window. The man looks visibly shocked at the reality of what he has just done. Words fail to describe such situations.
Jack Ronan you should hang your head in shame.
Coordinator of the Support the Vita Cortex Workers Online Campaign