'Dublin Docklands - An Urban Voyage’ is a work in progress, commissioned by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, and due to be completed in the autumn of 2008. The following tale represents research I have undertaken for the project which may or may not be used in the final book.
Built to reclaim the lands of the North Lotts from the tidal Liffey, the North Wall Quay was for many years the last call for many Irish emigrants bound for new life on board the various mailboats and steam packets that took off from here. The present North Wall Quay was built in the1860s, but the presence of an early 18th century sea wall of gabions supported the efforts to consolidate and reclaim the ground of the North Lotts. Since the 1860s, the area has been used for railway freight yards and port facilities. With the expansion of the IFSC as far as Guild Street, the North Wall Quay is now undergoing extensive rejuvenation.
Anyone trying to enter Dublin by ship before the 18th century faced a rough ride. Not the least of the hazards were the treacherous and unpredictable sandbanks at the mouth of the Liffey, created by the confluence of the river Dodder on the southside and the Tolka on the northside. Untold numbers of vessels had run aground upon these banks. In the early 18th century, the Ballast Office hatched a plan to tame the Liffey and deepen the river bed. They would build two huge restraining walls on its north and south shores. A third wall to the city’s north east would put manners on the Tolka. These became respectively known as the North Wall, the South Wall and the East Wall. The point where the North Wall and the East Wall meet was helpfully known as the Point, and this is where the Point Village stands today. The erection of these walls resulted in the reclamation of considerable land from Dublin Bay known as the North Lotts.
The Ballast Office commenced the North Wall in about 1712, laying down 686 timber kishes filled with black stones and surmounted by gravel, shingle and mud dug out of the riverbed. These kishes were cubical cages of woven willow osiers, not unlike the steel-mesh gambions used to protect coastlines today. A second wall was built to the rear of these kishes during the 1720s with further filling material added. These works are said to have been carried out by Scotsmen who had been flooding into Ireland since a depression beset the Scottish economy in the 1690s. By 1728 Brooking’s map showed a massive wall running from present day Butt Bridge to a point roughly where the East Link Toll Bridge meets the North Wall. It then turned northwards along what is now East Wall Road to present day Luke Kelly Bridge.
As Gandon noted when he began work on the Custom House in the 1780s, the original wall was shoddily built and a constant source of vexation to landowners in the area. In 1786, Francis Tunstall, the Ballast Board’s first inspector of works, proposed the demolition and reconstruction of the entire wall east of the Custom House. Over fifty years later, William Cubitt, one of the greatest civil engineers of the day, came up with much the same conclusion in a report on the North Wall’s deep-water berthage capabilities.
In December 1810, The Times reported that ‘a dreadful fire’ had broken out in the North Wall. The Windmill and Corn Stores were ‘wholly consumed’ within five hours. The wall was again badly damaged by the great fire of 1833. But somehow, despite the fires and the poor workmanship of the original, the North Wall remained intact, patched together by endless repairs. The Ballast Board had side-stepped the lack of deep-water berthing opportunities when their engineer George Halpin created the ‘North Wall Basin’ (known as ‘Halpin’s Pool’) at the end of the quay (now part of the Alexandra Basin). In the 1840s the North Wall was described as a dismal swamp and had sunk from 10 to 15 feet below the level of the roadway. The gap was filled with the refuse from the streets and the dredging of the river. There was scarcely a building of any kind left on it.
Between 1864 to 1869, the North Wall Quay was finally and formidably rebuilt with the engineer Bindon Blood Stoney at the helm. Foundations were sunk to such depths that berths varying from 16 to 18 feet at low water became available alongside it. Amongst the buildings constructed along the Quay at this time were the L.N.W.R. Hotel, the Iarnród Éireann Freight Offices and the Wool Store. In 1873, the year the Spencer Dock opened, the M.G.W., the G.S.W., the G.N., and the L.N.W.R. railways united to form a general railway centre at the North Wall. This was completed more than ten years later when the so-called Loop Line was constructed connecting Westland-Row (Pearse Street) with Amiens Street (Connolly Station). With rail and canal links thriving in the neighbourhood, the riverside quay was soon studded with stores and warehouses. Many of these belonged to the steam packet companies who were motivated by a keen rivalry to pinch one another's passengers and cargo. By 1900, all the land around the North Wall Quay, the Custom House and Spencer Docks had been taken up by railway lines, warehouses, and cattle yards.
By 1885, Stoney was hard at work on the 1.5 km North Wall Extension down to the Alex Basin, aided by the celebrated Diving Bell, Float and Shears. This extension contained berthage for the biggest four-masted ships. The new deep-water Alexandra Basin, opened and named for Edward VII’s Queen Alexandra, provided room for all contemporary docking and repair requirements. Also here were the Graving Dock, the Customs Watch House, the Hundred Ton Crane and the once prosperous ship-building yard of the Dublin Dockyard Company, established by Messrs. Walter Scott and Smillie.
Conntrary to Lord Ormonde’s instructions in the late 17th century, the city began to turn its back on the river again during the early 1900s. The waterfront along North Wall Quay comprised of a long row of wall-to-wall sheds, warehouses and wharves, almost all of them owned by steam-packet companies. All the great Irish railway companies had depots in the North Wall. Nearly all the passenger traffic and much of the goods traffic of Dublin Port carried on there. The steel and concrete Scherzer Bridges at either end of the quay added to the sense of industrial dominance. The only green oases in this landscape were provided by the L.N.W.R. Hotel and the Harbour Master’s garden. Campion’s Bar was another welcome distraction. Walking down the North Wall Quay, you could quite easily forget that Dublin was on a river. Indeed, the only way to get to the Liffey was through these sheds. And that was the case whether you were a passenger awaiting a B&I ferry to England or a labourer unloading cargo onto a merchant ship. Knocking down that barrier and opening up the river was to be one of the first priorities of those in charge of regenerating the Custom House Docks from 1987.
Today the North Wall Quay presents an entirely new landscape. The Quay itself has been opened to the public and will soon boast two cutting edge bridge links with the southside in the shape of the Sean O’Casey Bridge (completed in 2005) and the Samuel Beckett Bridge (to be completed in 2010). Where once there were warehouses, ships and cranes the waterfront is now a skyline of contemporary glazed low-rise offices from CHQ to the Point Village. Amongst the biggest businesses here are A & L Goodbody (Scott Tallon Walker, 1999), Citigroup (STW, 2000), Commerzbank (STW, 2000) and AIG Insurance (Murray O’Laoire, 2000). The MV Cill Airne has been moored outside the Clarion Hotel since 2007.