For the summer of 2017 at least, it looks as though Dun Laoghaire Harbour is going to remain free of the threat of the installation of a new liner berth. W M Nixon reckons this provides a unique opportunity for town and harbour to come together as they may have done once upon a time, but have failed to replicate for many years. He provides the background, and makes some suggestions.
The trouble with Dun Laoghaire is that there’s nowhere else quite like it. There isn’t really a truly comparable totally artificial harbour anywhere else on this scale set on the edge of a city, in the midst of an area of general affluence and recreational expectations. It is arguably unique. Nowhere in the world is there a similar setup from which those who hope to manage Dun Laoghaire Harbour effectively might learn lessons on how to make a viable proposition of their port and its future.
Although the original asylum harbour was built by engineer John Rennie and others in majestic style, at the time it had only one simple purpose – to provide shelter for unwieldy sailing ships when Dublin Bay was storm-beset and Dublin Port with its very shallow bar entrance was inaccessible.
The original plans show a sublime indifference to the existence of the little old harbour of Dunleary immediately to the west of the proposed location of the vast new structure. And the little port there has long since disappeared under high value property development to an extent which the early harbour planners cannot have begun to imagine.
For the idea was not that this would be a port. On the contrary, it would only be a place of temporary shelter in which vessels of importance – particularly those on British government business - would be secure until conditions improved. It was not envisaged that there would be any significant shoreside contact during their short time in what very quickly became Kingstown Harbour.
For of course, no sooner was a harbour under construction, than a town began to develop beside it. It was notoriously un-planned, so much so that fifty years later a critic mocked its name of Kingstown – conferred with a Royal visit in 1821 – by pointing out that far from being a King’s town, it was rather more of a republic of selfish building anarchy.
At the beginning – which we now date to 200 years ago, with the first stone officially laid on May 31st 1817 - significant shoreside development had not been intended. As historian Hal Sisk has pointed out, at no time did the official plans include anything so basic to a proper port town such as warehouses, let alone shipyards or even boatyards. But the basic existence of the harbour in its earliest form by the late 1820s saw the first regatta being staged in 1828. Recreational sailing and the harbour have been intertwined ever since. And the irresistible growth impulse of Kingstown was underlined by the arrival of the railway from Dublin in 1834.
We take that date of 1834 for granted, but in terms of world railway history, it was very early indeed. And it in turn roped Kingstown into other unplanned developments. As long as the entrance to Dublin port remained dangerously shallow, Kingstown had all the advantages for the rapid development of the cross channel ferry trade. It was all done initially on an ad hoc basis, but it worked for the ferries, while the already proven attractions of the place as an innovative recreational sailing location made it central to world sailing development by the 1860s and 1870s.
So for most of the two hundred years whose history we’ll be celebrating in July, Dun Laoghaire/Kingtown has been struggling with the fact that the basic concept of the harbour - which by its monumental and historic scale still dictates what can be done with it today – was planned with virtually no attention paid to the sea/land interface.
Ideally, when the harbour was being built, at least as large an area ashore should have been set aside on the adjacent land to provide for a proper harbour town. But nothing remotely like this was done, and the railway was brought in by the easiest possible shoreside route, thereby putting another barrier between the growing town and the harbor. As a result, the town/harbour relationship has always been problematic. This is particularly so when allied to the fact that areas of conspicuous affluence are almost cheek by jowl with what seem like semi-deprived areas by comparison.
On top of all this, there’s the eternal problem of paying for the harbour’s maintenance. It was superbly built in the first place, but it would be an insult to those early engineers, and their incredibly industrious workers labouring under dangerous conditions, if we failed to maintain the harbour properly in a manner which respects its original concept, while continuing to give it validity for contemporary life.
Since the ferries pulled out to re-locate entirely in Dublin Port, taking their guaranteed income stream with them, the struggle has gone on between those who wish to develop any potential the harbour might have for a cruise-liner port of call, and those who feel it should be seen more as a sort of maritime version of the Phoenix Park. They envisage it as a vast breathing space, ultimately maintained by public funds if there’s a shortfall between the income generated by recreational use, and the routine maintenance and administration expenses.
But for the moment, any further development has been postponed awaiting a court case. In it, the point is to be made that making the harbour accessible to functioning liners, with emission-spewing machinery working on a 24/7 basis, will have the effect of polluting the atmosphere in and around the harbour - particularly along the East Pier, the regular promenade for thousands of Dubliners in search of fresh air.
Apparently this point had not been made in the original hearings, so the result is that for the summer of 2017, Dun Laoghaire Harbour will continue as it is at present, with new areas of open sailing space available following the removal of the Stena installations.
In the circumstances, surely this is a golden opportunity for the organisers of the Volvo Dun Laoghaire Regatta 2017 to take a look at any section of their enormous and very varied entry list, and select classes which could be given the treat of having at least one of their races finish within the harbour?
Increased ferry traffic was just one of the reasons why the racing for larger craft was obliged to take place outside the harbour. For national and international events, the obsession with committee boat starts and finishes further dictated the move seaward. In Dun Laoghaire, it meant that the connection between the town and active highly-visible sailing became more tenuous than ever.
Yet if we look back to old photos of Dun Laoghaire when it was in the full pomp of its years of Kingstown yachting glory, it was the action in the harbour which brought the whole show to life, and gave everyone a sense of involvement. So let’s hope that the powers-that-be realize that the deferring – permanently we hope – of the proposed liner berth offers an opportunity. Liners Out, Sailboats Back In – that could be the slogan for 2017.
Of course we don’t expect that the really hot classes will agree to finish in-harbour. But there’s something about the Volvo Dun Laoghaire Regatta which attracts a significant segment of participants for whom a bit of fun is central to the sport, and indeed there are many who think that the real sport would be in having to make an in-harbour finish.
The Classics and Traditional Craft will be playing a significant role in this special year. In addition to a dedicated berth with lots of pontoon length being provided for them in the area off the National Yacht Club, the word is that on one day at least, they will have their start in the harbour, highly visible from the East Pier in the area immediately beyond the Carlisle Pier.
With boat types such as Drascombes coming as a fleet, the notion of the potential accessibility of sailing could be given an enormous boost. What could seem more approachable than the presence of Drascombe man Jack O’Keefe and his mates in friendly competition within the harbour, along with all sorts of other exotic craft such as the Shannon One Designs?
Water Wags, more than ever a part of Dun Laoghaire sailing and Dun Laoghaire Harbour. At this week’s launching of Volvo Dun Laoghaire Regatta ing of Volvo Dun Laoghaire Regatta 2017 in the National Maritime Museum, there was something very touching about the way that the only surviving boat of the original Water Wag class of 1887, the world’s first One Design, had been moved to the centre of the former Mariners Church. The little boat was there in pride of place as the great and the good of Irish sailing networked with each other as plans were revealed of the remarkable amount of behind-the-scenes work that goes into ensuring that this largest of all Irish sailing events runs smoothly.Not least of such exotica will be the
In the 1890s, there must more than a hundred of these little boats in and around the Greater Dublin area. Even Erskine Childers, with part of the summer of 1894 unfilled in his plans, arranged to have one carted up into the Wicklow Hills to the mountain lake of Lough Dan near the house of his mother’s family, so that he could go sailing when the mood took him.
Yet with the new larger boats introduced in 1900, the little old double-enders just faded away. Fortunately, someone noticed that an odd-looking little canoe-sterned dinghy with a centreplate case on the beach at Malahide was one of the original Water Wags. She was being used for the occasional fishing trip, and it had been a long time since the centreplate had been used for sailing.
She was saved in the nick of time, and is now kept fully rigged in the Maritime Museum. But as the Wag Class historian Vincent Delany assured me at the Volvo reception, she really is absolutely the only surviving original example of a boat which was once so numerous, and fundamental to the global development of sailing.