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Dublin & its Port Have Always Been Inter-linked & Developing Together

7th October 2020
The city of river and sea. Modern Dublin and its port looking eastward The city of river and sea. Modern Dublin and its port looking eastward Photo: Irish Air Corps

If you were asked to name the real centre point of modern Dublin, you'd probably dodge the question by saying that it's somewhere along a line through O'Connell Bridge and Trinity College, and on up Grafton Street or Dawson Street. Either way, that would definitely be locating the city's contemporary focus. Yet four hundred years ago, this modern central axis would have been regarded as being out in the sticks, down in the marshy inner edges of Dublin Bay.

When Trinity College was founded in 1592, its official title described it as being "Near Dublin". It was clearly eastward of the significant mediaeval city walls by slightly less than a mile, and eastward too of the main port area on the River Liffey, which was still centred around what had been the Dubh Linn, the "black pool" much favoured as a berth by the Viking's ships when they set up the makings of a settlement which first achieved some sort of civic status in 841.

Herman Moll's map of 1714Dublin as it was when the book begins, as recorded by Herman Moll's map of 1714. Trinity College is shown as "near Dublin", while building on the north side of the new St Stephens Green has only recently begun. When development of the south side of what was to become Merrion Square was started close to the east of Stephen's Green, a selling point for the new Georgian houses was their "refreshing sea view".

The central location around what had become Dublin Castle remained the heart of town for centuries. But while there was gradual expansion in every direction with the northsider/southsider psychological divide across the Liffey seeming to arise almost immediately – basically it was the Ostmen (the Eastmen or Danes) to the Northside, Normans on the Southside - the real engine of the city's power was always inclined to move eastward.

In his mighty yet very readable tome Dublin Moving East 1708-1844 – How the City took over the Sea, sailor/historian Michael Branagan has set in context the process whereby Trinity College and its environs have become the heart of the city through the machination of urban and port development, such that the main port area has undergone a major shift over the centuries, and is now well to the east of the College. So much so, in fact, that the entire estate of Dublin Port – one of the sponsors of this book - is on land which simply didn't exist when the "College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity" came into being.

The word that is generally used for this land is "reclaimed", as though the nefarious sea had originally pinched it from the decent people of Dublin while they were asleep. Nowadays, with global sea levels rising, how it's described may well become academic. But there is no doubt that - back in the era on which the book focuses - there was some extraordinarily effective land-grabbing going on in Dublin at the sea's expense.

The outcome is the shape of the city as we know it today, much of which results from buccaneering land "reclamation" and inspired development by some extremely determined and occasionally roughshod people whose wealthy descendants became the very souls of civic respectability.

Michael Branagan is a real terrier when it comes to research, and the numerous footnotes to each chapter will lead the enquiring reader along many fascinating pathways of unusual information. Thus it makes for ideal lockdown reading, and if you permit yourself one chapter every two days, there's a month of absorbing and informative reading here. At the end of it, Dublin and its port will never seem quite the same again, and it will certainly seem even more interesting.

Dublin as it was around 1850A city transformed in 140 years - Dublin as it was around 1850. It was still much smaller than it is today, but the basic work had been done – often with very primate equipment – to create the basic structure for a city moving east.

In fact, those who care about Dublin remaining a vibrant port should see this book as required reading, and clearly one of those who care about the port beyond the call of duty is Eamonn O'Reilly, Chief Executive of Dublin Port Company, whose thoughtful foreword is much more than the usual politely token introduction, as it gives us further insights into an extraordinary and pioneering city/port system.

In its entirety, the book gives a sense of deeper understanding of why Dublin should continue to embrace its commercial port, rather than becoming some sort of synthetic skyscraper city, with the real working maritime heart torn out of it for re-location to some soul-less container terminal landing pier in the middle of nowhere.

It has taken a lot to make Dublin the special and unique place it is. Suggesting that the port activities should be moved elsewhere "because that's what they do in other capital cities" is a very lame argument indeed. Dublin is Dublin, and rightly or wrongly in this remarkable place beside its bay between the mountains and the sea, we do things our own way - and our way includes having ships and city in dynamic interaction. Michael Branagan has done everyone a great service in detailing the key years in which a primitive river haven was launched – with the use of some very primitive equipment – towards the transformed situation where it was ready to become the fascinating port city that we know today.

Dublin and its port and bay todayDublin and its port and bay today. While much of the channelled River Liffey in the port has been planned, a very welcome unintended consequence of the building of the South Bull Wall - accelerated by the addition of the North Bull – has been the natural development of the extensive nature reserve of Bull Island in the north of Dublin Bay, created by wind-driven sand augmented by tide-carried silt. This photo also emphasizes the very special role of Dun Laoghaire as virtually the sole access point to Dublin Bay as a waterborne sports and leisure amenity for the large population of South Dublin

Dublin Moving East 1708-1844

By Michael Branagan
320 pp, fully illustrated
Published by Wordwell, €35.

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 Port Information

Dublin Port Company is currently investing about €277 million on its Alexandra Basin Redevelopment (ABR), which is due to be complete by 2021. The redevelopment will improve the port's capacity for large ships by deepening and lengthening 3km of its 7km of berths. The ABR is part of a €1bn capital programme up to 2028, which will also include initial work on the Dublin Port’s MP2 Project - a major capital development project proposal for works within the existing port lands in the northeastern part of the port.

Dublin Port has also recently secured planning approval for the development of the next phase of its inland port near Dublin Airport. The latest stage of the inland port will include a site with capacity to store more than 2,000 shipping containers and infrastructure such as an ESB substation, an office building and gantry crane.

Dublin Port Company recently submitted a planning application for a €320 million project that aims to provide significant additional capacity at the facility within the port in order to cope with increases in trade up to 2040. The scheme will see a new roll-on/roll-off jetty built to handle ferries of up to 240 metres in length, as well as the redevelopment of an oil berth into a deep-water container berth.

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