Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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from 'Dublin Docklands - An Urban Voyage’, Turtle Bunbury (MPG, 2009)


The Custom House Docks Development Authority was established in 1988 and became the backbone of the entire docklands development project. It remained the foremost power in the Custom House Docks until the establishment of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority in 1997. The idea of developing the Custom House Docks began in the 1970s under the Dublin Port and Docks Board. For many years, the Board’s annual reports had made for gloomy reading – an ever-declining trade, a drop in oil imports, lengthy strikes and unofficial stoppages. The Board tried to resolve labour disputes with the creation of Dublin Cargo Handling, the only authorised stevedoring company in the Port. Many long-standing tenants abandoned the area for bigger, better sites closer to the Port itself. In 1978, that sense of rejection was further heightened by the construction of the Talbot Memorial Bridge, blocking river access to the Custom House for the colourful Guinness ships. The Board was also faced with the costs of restoring the 200-year-old South Wall, extensively damaged by storms in 1982. Even the sturdy 100-Ton crane had begun to sag. The Board believed that developing the Custom House Docks could go a long way to resolving their economic troubles.


However, the government also had their eye on the docks. They reasoned that such a strategically located development could prove vital to the future of the city. In 1982, the government effectively seized control of the Docks on the back of a remarkable deal struck between the newly elected inner-city independent socialist TD, the late Tony Gregory, and Charles J Haughey’s Fianna Fáil government. In return for Gregory’s support, Haughey pledged IRL£91 million for housing and related developments in Dublin’s inner city. The deal resulted in a government proposal to introduce the Urban Areas Development Bill which, inter alia, provided for the establishment of the Custom House Docks Development Authority. The Custom House Docks were to be compulsorily transferred to CHDDA for a price determined by the Minister for the Environment. The bill was never enacted because Haughey’s government fell from power just nine months later. The project would arguably have been dropped altogether were it not for the insistence of Fergus O’Brien, Minister of State at the Depar tment of the Taoiseach (Government Chief Whip) and a former Lord Mayor of Dublin. O’Brien persuaded Garret FitzGerald to set up a special committee to investigate the
Custom House Docks potential for redevelopment. Eighteen months later, this committee gave their view that the area could indeed be revitalised if tax incentives were offered to those businesses willing to relocate in the docks.


In 1986, the Fine Gael / Labour government ushered through the Urban Renewal Act, which specifically targeted the Customs House Docks as being ripe for rejuvenation. It envisaged something similar to the redevelopment of London’s docklands that was then under way. Ownership of the docks was transferred to CHDDA, 118 years after ownership was vested in the Por t and Docks Board. CHDDA was to have a profound effect on the future of Dublin’s docklands. The Authority was formally established in November 1986 with Frank Benson as Executive Chairman and Gus MacAmhlaigh as first secretary. Their mandate was to redevelop the Custom House Docks Area, comprising seven acres of docks and 20 acres of land running east from Butt Bridge to Commons Street, north to Sheriff Street Lower, then south down Amiens Street and Memorial Road back to Custom House Quay. In 1994, CHDDA’s boundary was extended to include a further 12 acres between Commons Street and Guild Street (the western edge of Spencer Dock) and incorporating the Sheriff Street flats. It also included the nor thern half of the River Liffey, indicative of a long overdue interest in revitalizing the river itself.


For most of the 20th century, transit sheds and warehouses ran all the way down Custom House Quay, the Nor th Wall Quay and the North Wall Extension. Unless you walked deep into one of these warehouses, you simply could not see the river. Bonded goods such as wines, spirits, tobacco, grain and slates were held at the Custom House Docks. Tea and other commodities tended to be stored along the North Wall while the flour milling companies were based closer to the Alexandra Basin. The Por t and Docks Board had already transferred the bulk of their warehousing operations from the Custom House Docks to the port estate at East Wall. This freed CHDDA up to clear away the more dilapidated warehouses along the Liffey and examine the potential. In time, all the warehouses, with the exception of the chq building, were felled to bring back the riverfront. Hand in hand with this was the ongoing
restoration of the Custom House, completed in 1991, and the evolution of the International Finances Services Centre.



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