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Should Dublin Become Port Disneyland?

26th February 2022
Lively city, dead port – as seen from the top of the Empire State Building, the QE 2 was the only ship moving in New York as she headed seaward past empty berths
Lively city, dead port – as seen from the top of the Empire State Building, the QE 2 was the only ship moving in New York as she headed seaward past empty berths Credit: W M Nixon

The debate about the future form of Dublin Port moved up a gear or two in mid-February with the revelation of the existence of the Docklands Business Forum, and its enthusiasm for moving the working docks elsewhere. With 200 or so members, and more than a few of them from the heavy hitters among the docklands-headquartered global hi-tech communications companies, it has all the makings of a nice little earner, coming complete with a Chief Executive and supportive quotes from some universally-recognised corporate names.

Fair play to all involved, it seems to have struck a viable chord at a time when marketable new business ideas are strenuously sought. That said, knowing the hidden difficulties of a mega-project like port re-location (particularly in the constrained circumstances of the East Coast of Ireland), we can’t help but wonder if it’s just an attractive and marketable idea rather than a viable concept.

Major ports are three-dimensional entities, and the most important dimension is the one you can’t see – the depth of the water. Yet most of mankind tends to see the sea as no more than a watery surface. Thus this new movement’s current central theme is slightly reminiscent of the Boris Bridge across the North Channel, whose proponents argued that as the shortest sensible distance – between Donaghadee in Ireland and Portpatrick in Scotland – is only 19 miles, then it should be perfectly possible to build a bridge, as there already is a 37-mile long bridge in China.

But as it happens, many miles of the Chinese Bridge were built across water so shallow it could have been a causeway. Making it an impressive bridge was something of a vanity project. By contrast, where the tide-riven storm-tossed North Channel isn’t already quite deep, it is instead very deep indeed, with those ultra-depths filled with dumped World War II explosives for an added construction challenge.

Dublin Port’s situation is – in the broadest sense – unique, and it has to find its own solutions instead of expecting to draw on “international best practice”.Dublin Port’s situation is – in the broadest sense – unique, and it has to find its own solutions instead of expecting to draw on “international best practice”

So the idea was quietly discarded (after a Feasibility Study costing more than €1 million), and those attracted to grandiose infrastructural projects will probably have turned their attention elsewhere, such as towards the Let’s Cover Ireland With An Astrodome Movement, or the Dublin Airport Should Be Underground Project.

But enough of that. Let’s be clear that in Dublin, the Docklands Business Forum is putting forward serious ideas in promoting the re-location of Dublin Port’s activities regardless of the problem of depth requirement elsewhere, and the Forum is doing so in the genuine belief that their ideas will improve and enhance the city’s waterfront environment.

If implemented, their ideas would certainly improve and enhance the already large collection of fine old banknotes held by certain high-profile property developers. But we’ll set that aside for now, and respect the fact that despite the highly-regarded skill with which Dublin Port is managed within its constrained activities space, powerful spokesmen for the DBF demand that Dublin follow “international best practice” elsewhere, and move the port, even if it involves the dispersing of its activities to several locations.

By so doing, they argue, space would be created in the former docklands estate to build much-needed accommodation for their expanding staff. Occasionally the word “housing” comes in, but it’s difficult to escape the feeling that they’re talking of apartment blocks, and in Ireland apartment blocks aren’t housing, let alone homes - they’re flats, which are fine for couples, but few families like them.

Dublin Port have already identified Bremore north of Balbriggan as the best possible location for an alternative port, but to function successfully its construction would have to be a “mega-project” of incalculable expense, unjustifiable for the foreseeable future.Dublin Port have already identified Bremore north of Balbriggan as the best possible location for an alternative port, but to function successfully its construction would have to be a “mega-project” of incalculable expense, unjustifiable for the foreseeable future.

In their promotion of this, we’re surely justified in asking why - if they’re really so enthusiastic to radically change the nature of the port area - why were they so keen to build their shiny new HQ blocks in the dockland area in the first place? Why didn’t they cluster their glass cities out in agreeable business parks up towards the Dublin Mountains where they’ll be able to create a sense of remoteness from the nitty-gritty of real life, which is currently to be found in the contemporary dockland scene where ships come and go with frequency every day, and there’s a continuous and invigorating sense of visible commerce and trade.

For of course they were drawn to the Docklands because of the fascinating sense of colourful character about the place, energised by its sense of everyday dynamic interaction with the sea and shipping with a vibrant maritime culture which the Dublin Port authority actively encourages in a laudable and visionary way. Yet in hoping to move the port activities elsewhere, they would be tearing the living beating heart out of it all.

If the corporate office tenants in the Dublin Docklands find shipping and its activities so difficult to live with, then why did they choose to locate there in the first place?If the corporate office tenants in the Dublin Docklands find shipping and its activities so difficult to live with, then why did they choose to locate there in the first place?

If they have their way on this potentially trendy idea, Dublin Port would become no more than Port Disneyland, and the short coastline at Bremore close north of Balbriggan would become the location of a hugely expensive yet totally soul-less ships’ cargo handling installation run by minimal staff, an Orwellian setup with little organic connection to its hinterland.

An Orwellian monster….. if the possible alternative port at exposed Bremore was built to standards of “international best practice”, its cost would be prohibitively expensiveAn Orwellian monster….. if the possible alternative port at exposed Bremore was built to standards of “international best practice”, its cost would be prohibitively expensive

Yet in its favour, we’ll hear that cliché about “following best international practice”. As Dublin generally manages to be a moderately entertaining and liveable place by quite often not following best international practice, that’s a statement which deserves examination, and where better to see the result of leading and very trend-setting international practice than in New York?

Admittedly the significant visit was 25 years ago, but the Big Apple being what it is, even in 1997 New York was a glimpse of today’s possible future in Dublin. Needless to say, it was a sailing-related business, as we’d been down at Annapolis for the 75th Anniversary Ball in the Naval College for the Cruising Club of America’s Blue Water Medal, and we arrived in New York high on the adrenalin of having been shooting the breeze with such Blue Water medallists as Carleton Mitchell, John Guzzwell, Tim Curtis and our own Paddy Barry.

All skyline and no shipping nor sense of the sea nearby – New York’s example would be a mistake for Dublin. Photo: W M NixonAll skyline and no shipping nor sense of the sea nearby – New York’s example would be a mistake for Dublin. Photo: W M Nixon

But you need to be in full fighting trim as you hit New York, otherwise it will hit you first. We happened to be staying in the NYYC which has its little formalities, and in the morning when our bull-necked Commodore arrived down for breakfast with an open-neck shirt, he was politely requested to wear a neck-tie. He stumped off to his room and returned – still steaming - wearing his Royal Cork tie, loudly informing the waiter that he was wearing the tie of a club which had been in existence for more than a hundred years when the site of his little club was still marshland. So thereafter we had our casual breakfasts in Joe’s Diner or some such place next door, while close beyond it was the wonderful Algonquin Hotel to provide an added alternative should the Commodore find further NYYC house rules irksome.

Personally I found the NYYC enchanting, as sailors are my tribe, our clubhouses are our temples, and the NYYC in New York is one of the best of them, while also providing the most convenient of bases for a two-and-a-half day blitz on Manhattan. Even in only that short time space, one day runs into another, but on sunny days in May such as we experienced, I can recommend an early visit to Wall Street and the Stock Exchange, as the smell of serious money first thing in the morning sets you up for the day.

Then maybe a cross-river jaunt on one of the ferries to savour the skyline, for in those long-gone days the Twin Towers still set the tone. Then as it was getting near the thirsty time of day, when the Commodore said he’d go anywhere except McSorley’s expletive-deleted saloon, I suggested Fraunce’s down near The Battery, Fraunce’s being the historic Tavern where George Washington took farewell of his troops on December 4th 1783 after their final War of Independence victory.

We bellied up to the bar in accepted New York style, and the barman took one look at the Commodore and threw the top of the gin bottle into the bin. Apparently Fraunce’s can get crowded later in the day, so we were having the best of it in terms of attention, friendliness and generosity, such that we concluded that it’s not only a wonder that George Washington could get back on his horse after savouring the Fraunce’s experience, but it’s a miracle that once in the saddle, he was actually facing the right way…..

The QE2 starts her stately progress down the empty Hudson RiverThe QE2 starts her stately progress down the empty Hudson River

To clear your head after Fraunce’s Tavern, zoom straight to the very top of the Empire State building. It’s one of those special life experiences that don’t disappoint, like arriving with the dawn into Venice on a cruising boat, or seeing the mighty botafumeiro whoosh across the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela after you’ve had a decidedly brisk sail southwards across Biscay.

And yet it was atop the Empire State Building on a sunny May afternoon that we finally fully grasped the real meaning of what happens when a great port moves its ship movements elsewhere. For although the city buzzed far below as only New York can, all around the edge was the dead skeleton of a port, and utterly empty were nearly all the berths which had previously heaved with life to give New Yorkers the feeling that they interacted with the wonders of the sea every bit as much as they very clearly interacted with the pure beauty of money.

Of course, with our luck, there were actually two ships berthed among the many vacant berths, and one of them slowly emerged stern-first into the Hudson and headed downriver. She was the QE2. She was the only vessel moving in the entire visible waterway.

With the World Trade Center Twin Towers still standing in 1997, the QE 2’s solitary seaward departure past the Statue of Liberty was perfectly framed. Photo: W M NixonWith the World Trade Center Twin Towers still standing in 1997, the QE 2’s solitary seaward departure past the Statue of Liberty was perfectly framed. Photo: W M Nixon

We watched her head seaward past the Statue of Liberty, and then remembered that somewhere far below us in the empty docks, there was one basin temporarily occupied by a small fleet of sailing superyachts preparing for the NYYC’s Transatlantic Challenge. We found them, and among them we found Peter Metcalfe from Strangford Lough as skipper aboard an enormous purple machine, while just across the way was an extremely good replica of the schooner America, looking as wonderful as ever.

Skipper Peter Metcalfe of Strangford Lough aboard “some big purple yoke” in New York as the fleet of superyachts prepare for the NYYC Transatlantic Challenge 1997, with the replica schooner America in background. Photo: W M NixonSkipper Peter Metcalfe of Strangford Lough aboard “some big purple yoke” in New York as the fleet of superyachts prepare for the NYYC Transatlantic Challenge 1997, with the replica schooner America in background. Photo: W M Nixon

Hello New York – the schooner America and the Empire State Building beyond made for a faint maritime link in ManhattanHello New York – the schooner America and the Empire State Building beyond made for a faint maritime link in Manhattan

But that was it as far as direct interaction is now to be found between New York and the sea which created it in the first place. Manhattan has enclosed itself in a stockade of skyscrapers, and if you move into the city for only a hundred yards, the sea behind you might just as well not be there.

Yet Manhattan is a fortress island, whereas Dublin is an inclusive estuary. Our city embraces the sea. With great ingenuity, the port engineers over the centuries have created massive bull walls which guide the ebb tide to scour the significant dredged depths which provide access to a transport hub for large ships and their many cargoes. Dublin Port, in short, is a work of genius. It behoves us to respect this by keeping it active, instead of turning it into some sort of residential, commercial and hospitality theme park.

For our experience had shown us that if you wanted off-the-wall entertainment for a couple of days, then New York was tops. But as somewhere to live and work and have a connection with real life by land and sea, Dublin is in a league of its own.

Manhattan project for Dublin Port 2050? That could almost be the Ferryman Inn….. Photo: W. M.NixonManhattan project for Dublin Port 2050? That could almost be the Ferryman Inn….. Photo: W. M.Nixon

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WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

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