'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.
The 1780s and 1790s marked one of the busiest construction periods in the history of Dublin. Such enterprise was undoubtedly boosted by the fact that, from 1782 until 1800, the island’s Parliament operated with a considerable degree of independence from Westminster. This effectively enabled projects like the new Custom House to be fast-tracked. That said, there was nothing particularly quick about the Grand Canal. The idea of a canal link between Dublin and the River Shannon had been voiced as far back as 1715 but did not commence until 1757. By 1768 an enormous amount of money had been spent on the scheme but it was still eons away from completion. In 1772, a group of noblemen and merchants established the Grand Canal Company which, assisted by public subscription, would bring the canal across the Bog of Allen and complete the job. In 1790, the Company began work on a new circular line to run around the outskirts of Dublin City. It ran from Portobello through the fields of Ranelagh, across Baggot Street and down to meet the Liffey in the reclaimed South Lotts behind Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. Here amid the duck-filled slob-lands, the directors of the Grand Canal Company commissioned the creation of a large harbour where boats could pass from the Grand Canal to the River Liffey and Dublin Port beyond.
In 1791, the Grand Canal Company purchased 24.5 acres of slobland in the South Lotts. Here they would create the Grand Canal Docks, the largest docks the world had yet seen. The project was supervised by Edward Chapman, whose father William Chapman devised the scheme along with William Jessop, the greatest dock engineer of his day. The contractor was John McCartney, knighted by Lord Camden at its official opening in 1796. It cost over £112,00 and provided the City with its first purpose-built docking facilities for sea-going vessels. Also known as the South Docks or the Ringsend Docks, the new L-shaped harbour comprised two large deep-water basins (or ‘floating docks’) and three dry (or ‘graving’) docks, accessed by two ship locks and a barge lock. These were bordered by two thousand yards of new quayage - Great Britain Quay on its western entrance, Hanover Quay along the northern side, Charlotte Quay directly opposite, and Grand Canal Quay running along the most westerly flank. A single-lane lifting bridge ran across the two basins, where McMahon Bridge stands today, connecting New Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street) and Ringsend Road. A new 3.5 mile canal of seven locks, known as the Circular Line, was simultaneously constructed between the Grand Canal harbour at Portabello and the southern end of the new Docks. This ultimately provided barges with direct access from the Liffey all the way to the Shannon, with stops at the towns and villages along the way. The first vessels to complete the journey from the Shannon to the Grand Canal Basin arrived in July 1804. The Docks were also connected via the Barrow Navigation to Athy, Carlow and Waterford.
At 11 o’clock on the morning of St George's Day (23rd April) 1796, the Earl of Camden, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and his Secretary Pelham, sailed in through the eastern lock on board Sir Alexander Schomberg’s yacht. They were met by a royal salute fired by artillery stationed somewhere along Hanover Quay. Twenty vessels ‘of considerable size’ then entered the basin, each likewise saluted, followed by a large number of small craft, barges and handsomely decorated pleasure boats. A thousand of ‘the principal nobility and gentry’ were gathered along the quays. His Excellency came ashore approximately where Gallery Quay now stands, formally opened the new docks and addressed the crowd before everyone headed ‘into a breakfast prepared in tents’. The event was captured on canvas by William Ashford in a painting called ‘The Opening of Ringsend Docks’.
The cutting edge Grand Canal Docks were destined to enjoy a short period of prosperity. The Act of Union, which closed the Irish Parliament and brought Dublin’s Golden Age to a halt, was partially to blame. The rival Custom House Docks built by the Ballast Board on the northside of the river also presented a major challenge. But there was also the fact that the new merchant ships were simply too big, a fact compounded by the heavy silting which occurred at the mouth of the Dodder, hindering the use of the outer harbour. In 1815, the channel leading into the Docks, known as the Ringsend Gut, was dredged and deepened but it was already obvious that the sea-locks leading into the Grand Canal Docks were just too small for the bigger ships, and took far too long to open. (The Custom House Docks experienced precisely the same problems in the 1830s.) As such these bigger ships continued to berth along the riverside quays. This included the valuable coal importation business of the Dublin Gas Company, which owned a huge tract of land between Hanover Quay and Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. Nonetheless, large warehouses and flourmills sprung up along the handsome quaysides. In January 1847, with the famine well underway, several vessels were reported to be in the Grand Canal Docks, ‘discharging cargos of foreign wheat, corn and other produce’ into canal boats from where such urgently needed supplies ‘were forwarded to the interior’. But with the advent of the railway at this same time, the inland waterways were in decline, and the Grand Canal Docks with it.