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Do Dublin Bay’s Excursion Cruise Ships Always Have A Second-Hand Theme?

2nd March 2022
Facing both ways…..the push-me-pull-you Dublin Bay excursion paddle steamer Erin’s King at the Customs House Quay in 1895. For 25 years, she’d been the Mersey Ferry Heather Belle
Facing both ways…..the push-me-pull-you Dublin Bay excursion paddle steamer Erin’s King at the Customs House Quay in 1895. For 25 years, she’d been the Mersey Ferry Heather Belle Credit: courtesy Cormac Lowth

In recent years we’ve become accustomed to the handsome blue mini-cruise-liner St Bridget plying her day-excursion trade along the coasts around Dublin Bay between Dublin Port, Howth and Dun Laoghaire. She’s now a welcome and integral part of the summer scene, and appropriately will begin her 2022 service on St Patrick’s Day, March 17th.

This occasion will provide an instant topic of conversation among passengers as to whether St Patrick deserves to be our patron saint, when St Bridget (or more accurately Brigid) has equally strong claims. And if there happen to be Waterford folk on board, they’ll close the discussion by claiming that St Declan of The Decies was there before the lot of them.

The St Bridget from Galway Bay is now a popular part of the Dublin Bay sceneThe St Bridget from Galway Bay is now a popular part of the Dublin Bay scene

Another possible topic of conversation is the story – which may or may not be true – that we only have St Bridget operating in Dublin Bay because a major re-vamp job on the pier at Doolin in County Clare beside the Cliffs of Moher meant that for at least one trading year, she’d no base in Ireland for her ferry service out to the Aran Islands. There was no way the County Galway-based ferries at Rossaveal were going to welcome a Clare boat like St Bridget onto their pitch, so she went east across Ireland looking for business

Which way will she go? Erin’s King was a matter of continuing debate among Dublin’s quayside pundits. Photo: Courtesy Cormac LowthWhich way will she go? Erin’s King was a matter of continuing debate among Dublin’s quayside pundits. Photo: Courtesy Cormac Lowth

But having come to Dublin for a season in order to get by, St Bridget’s owners found they were doing better than merely breaking even, and now their company Dublin Bay Cruises is well established. Yet they continue with the same rugged vessel, which has acquired the personality of a character ship in contrast to the latest ferries operating on Galway Bay, some of which look more like waterborne space-ships.

Days of wine and roses……a newspaper ad for the Erin’s King activities in her Dublin prime suggests a very busy ship, although the late-night return voyage from Wicklow Regatta might have been a decidedly mixed experience. Image Courtesy Cormac LowthDays of wine and roses……a newspaper ad for the Erin’s King activities in her Dublin prime suggests a very busy ship, although the late-night return voyage from Wicklow Regatta might have been a decidedly mixed experience. Image Courtesy Cormac Lowth

And in being a vintage classic, St Bridget is in line with the traditional of Dublin’s coastal cruisers, which have long had the reputation of operating in a precarious market, as coastal railways with excursion trains, and quickly-accessed scenic roads with cars and buses, are always eating into their share of the seaside tourism trade. Thus while I’m more than willing to be corrected, the feeling is that all of Dublin’s coastal cruising vessels have started life as something else – there have been few if any purpose-built for the seemingly tenuous Dublin Bay business.

As ever, it was that one-man maritime museum known as Cormac Lowth who revived this line of thought. By now, Cormac can only be living in his garden shed, as every room in his house must be packed to the ceiling with his maritime memorabilia, with so many ancient photos that from time to time he’s able to test his inner group of aficionados by circulating ancient nautical images as a knowledge test.

Erin’s King at the Customs House – she might not have been the first choice for an excursion steamer to serve the Dublin Bay trade, but she was available at the right price after 25 years hard service in the Mersey. Photo courtesy Cormac LowthErin’s King at the Customs House – she might not have been the first choice for an excursion steamer to serve the Dublin Bay trade, but she was available at the right price after 25 years hard service in the Mersey. Photo courtesy Cormac Lowth

Thus at the weekend, we found ourselves grappling with some photos of a small passenger paddle steamer obviously operating out of Dublin at a time when smoke emission controls weren’t even thought of. But the point about this mystery ship was that she was very clearly double-ended, bow-shaped at both ends and the steering positions apparently two-faced.

So she was a push-me pull-you, as able in astern as ahead, even if this meant a disconcerting float-free moment as the engines were shifted as quickly as possible into reverse rotation.

In the Liffey and Dublin Bay, the little ship’s name was Erin’s King - though Classicists might have preferred Janus - and she was very much part of Dublin life for the entire 1890s. But before that, she’d been built in 1865 by Vernon’s of Liverpool as the Heather Belle, a Mersey ferry which shuttled back and forth with maximum efficiency between Liverpool and Birkenhead. (She'd been previously mentioned on Afloat here)

Is she coming or going? Dublin in the rare old times, when smoke was good for you, and the Erin’s King looked as though she was coming up-river when she was heading seawards. Photo: Courtesy Cormac LowthIs she coming or going? Dublin in the rare old times, when smoke was good for you, and the Erin’s King looked as though she was coming up-river when she was heading seawards. Photo: Courtesy Cormac Lowth

So by the time she started operating in 1891 as the “Dublin Bay and Environs” excursion steamer Erin’s King, she was well stricken in years. And although the Mersey can be quite rugged going with wind over tide, it must have been interesting to try to run a profitable excursion with the Erin’s King when a real easterly was sweeping into Dublin Bay, as was recorded in one of the recollections in Ulysses:

Leopold Bloom in 1904 in Ulysses recalls an outing some years previously in the Erin’s KingLeopold Bloom in 1904 in Ulysses recalls an outing some years previously in the Erin’s King

Nevertheless, she became a much-loved and familiar part of Dublin life, her daily routine a matter of general knowledge as this little notice from the Freeman’s Journal suggests, with its hint of the end of an era:

End of the line? There’s a hint of adieu in this Autumn ad for the Erin’s King in the Freeman’s Journal. Courtesy Cormac LowthEnd of the line? There’s a hint of adieu in this Autumn ad for the Erin’s King in the Freeman’s Journal. Courtesy Cormac Lowth

For by 1900, the Erin’s King was literally gasping her last, and she was broken up at the end of that season. Others have followed, after originally serving elsewhere like the Erin’s King as the Heather Belle, and the St Bridget is in that tradition while being an Atlantic-capable vessel. But then, when you’re pushing the envelope a bit by taking tourists to sea in a Dublin Bay easterly, it’s good to have a proper little ship under you, rather than some floating spacecraft.

WM Nixon

About The Author

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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Dublin Bay

Dublin Bay on the east coast of Ireland stretches over seven kilometres, from Howth Head on its northern tip to Dalkey Island in the south. It's a place most Dubliners simply take for granted, and one of the capital's least visited places. But there's more going on out there than you'd imagine.

The biggest boating centre is at Dun Laoghaire Harbour on the Bay's south shore that is home to over 1,500 pleasure craft, four waterfront yacht clubs and Ireland's largest marina.

The bay is rather shallow with many sandbanks and rocky outcrops, and was notorious in the past for shipwrecks, especially when the wind was from the east. Until modern times, many ships and their passengers were lost along the treacherous coastline from Howth to Dun Laoghaire, less than a kilometre from shore.

The Bay is a C-shaped inlet of the Irish Sea and is about 10 kilometres wide along its north-south base, and 7 km in length to its apex at the centre of the city of Dublin; stretching from Howth Head in the north to Dalkey Point in the south. North Bull Island is situated in the northwest part of the bay, where one of two major inshore sandbanks lie, and features a 5 km long sandy beach, Dollymount Strand, fronting an internationally recognised wildfowl reserve. Many of the rivers of Dublin reach the Irish Sea at Dublin Bay: the River Liffey, with the River Dodder flow received less than 1 km inland, River Tolka, and various smaller rivers and streams.

Dublin Bay FAQs

There are approximately ten beaches and bathing spots around Dublin Bay: Dollymount Strand; Forty Foot Bathing Place; Half Moon bathing spot; Merrion Strand; Bull Wall; Sandycove Beach; Sandymount Strand; Seapoint; Shelley Banks; Sutton, Burrow Beach

There are slipways on the north side of Dublin Bay at Clontarf, Sutton and on the southside at Dun Laoghaire Harbour, and in Dalkey at Coliemore and Bulloch Harbours.

Dublin Bay is administered by a number of Government Departments, three local authorities and several statutory agencies. Dublin Port Company is in charge of navigation on the Bay.

Dublin Bay is approximately 70 sq kilometres or 7,000 hectares. The Bay is about 10 kilometres wide along its north-south base, and seven km in length east-west to its peak at the centre of the city of Dublin; stretching from Howth Head in the north to Dalkey Point in the south.

Dun Laoghaire Harbour on the southside of the Bay has an East and West Pier, each one kilometre long; this is one of the largest human-made harbours in the world. There also piers or walls at the entrance to the River Liffey at Dublin city known as the Great North and South Walls. Other harbours on the Bay include Bulloch Harbour and Coliemore Harbours both at Dalkey.

There are two marinas on Dublin Bay. Ireland's largest marina with over 800 berths is on the southern shore at Dun Laoghaire Harbour. The other is at Poolbeg Yacht and Boat Club on the River Liffey close to Dublin City.

Car and passenger Ferries operate from Dublin Port to the UK, Isle of Man and France. A passenger ferry operates from Dun Laoghaire Harbour to Howth as well as providing tourist voyages around the bay.

Dublin Bay has two Islands. Bull Island at Clontarf and Dalkey Island on the southern shore of the Bay.

The River Liffey flows through Dublin city and into the Bay. Its tributaries include the River Dodder, the River Poddle and the River Camac.

Dollymount, Burrow and Seapoint beaches

Approximately 1,500 boats from small dinghies to motorboats to ocean-going yachts. The vast majority, over 1,000, are moored at Dun Laoghaire Harbour which is Ireland's boating capital.

In 1981, UNESCO recognised the importance of Dublin Bay by designating North Bull Island as a Biosphere because of its rare and internationally important habitats and species of wildlife. To support sustainable development, UNESCO’s concept of a Biosphere has evolved to include not just areas of ecological value but also the areas around them and the communities that live and work within these areas. There have since been additional international and national designations, covering much of Dublin Bay, to ensure the protection of its water quality and biodiversity. To fulfil these broader management aims for the ecosystem, the Biosphere was expanded in 2015. The Biosphere now covers Dublin Bay, reflecting its significant environmental, economic, cultural and tourism importance, and extends to over 300km² to include the bay, the shore and nearby residential areas.

On the Southside at Dun Laoghaire, there is the National Yacht Club, Royal St. George Yacht Club, Royal Irish Yacht Club and Dun Laoghaire Motor Yacht Club as well as Dublin Bay Sailing Club. In the city centre, there is Poolbeg Yacht and Boat Club. On the Northside of Dublin, there is Clontarf Yacht and Boat Club and Sutton Dinghy Club. While not on Dublin Bay, Howth Yacht Club is the major north Dublin Sailing centre.

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