'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.
In 1809, the Duke of Richmond, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, directed the Board of Customs to purchase a large plot of land east of the Custom House 'between the river and Mayor Street' for 'the new dock and for doubling the Stores'. These lands had been valued by the Wide Street Commissioners two years earlier although their true worth was a source of considerable debate. This valuation marked the start of the great Custom House Docks scheme.
In 1815, the Scottish engineers John Rennie and John Aird collaborated on the design and construction of the 2-acre George’s Dock (96m x 72m). It lay between the two new Revenue Stores and was sited on an old glass house. This was connected to the Liffey by a locked channel, 11 metres wide and 70 metres long, that came out at the North Wall Quay. Road access along the Quay has always been maintained, originally via a narrow swing-bridge and, since 1934, by the twinned Scherzer Bridges. The dock was named for portly George IV who was scheduled to formally open it in August 1821. His Majesty failed to show up having been detained by ‘a social engagement’ with the delectable Marchioness of Conyngham at Slane Castle. The King was oft seen ‘kissing her hand with a look of most devoted submission’. In his absence the dock was opened by Lord Castlecoote.
Today, pigeons flutter fearlessly around the granite blocks that run alongside the dock. The docksides have been completely renovated, the old cogs and pulley systems repainted, the dock waters diligently cleaned and a concrete base built as a staging area for events. In the summer of 2008, George’s Dock became the location of Ireland’s first ‘urban beach, complete with palm trees, cabanas, beach umbrellas and a sand-castle building area. Visitors were encouraged to practice yoga and tai chi, play chess and volleyball, or kick back and watch the world roll by.
A second channel, also 11 metres wide, leads from the north of George’s Dock through to the 5-acre Inner Dock (89m x 195m), formerly the Revenue Dock, completed in 1824. Following Rennie’s death in October 1821, this dock was completed under the supervision of Thomas Telford, considered the foremost engineer in the British Empire. The Inner Dock is now home to a citadel of residential apartment blocks, some elevated on stilts above the water.
Two huge warehouses were simultaneously built alongside the docks - the L-shaped ‘New West Store’ (otherwise known as Stack B, parts of which now comprise the red-brick AIB Trade Centre) and the ‘New Tobacco Store’ (otherwise Stack A, now known as the chq Building). In the main, these stores housed goods liable to customs duty, specifically casks of wines and spirits held in extensive underground vaults, as well as grain, timber and slates. As such, the Commissioners of Revenue were somewhat alarmed by an anonymous letter of 1816 which revealed that ‘individuals and small groups of both male and female’ had been holding ‘communication with daily watchmen and quay porters’ and that stolen property was exchanging hands. An iron railing and stone parapet was erected at the junction with Eden Quay while, by 1824, a soldier in redcoat and busby was standing guard at the Old Dock entrance. If necessary, these could be stored under bond in the vaults below. A high security wall was consequently built around the whole Custom House Docks complex. Legend has it this ‘Boundary Wall’ was built by French prisoners. At any rate, parts of it are still in evidence today on Commons Street and Amiens Street. The downside of this wall was that it created both a physical and a psychological divide between the City and Port, to such an extent that few who board a train at Connolly Station realise that two substantial water-filled docks lie within a few hundred metres.