‘Now I walk back again. To look at these great walls of blackened bricks. The gas works. Sooty grime and fire in there through these bars. Dark shadows. Men moving with their lighted end of cigarettes’ –
The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, JP Dunleavy.
When Hanover Quay was first built in 1800, all that separated it from the River Liffey were the walls of Sir John Rogerson’s Quay and a sizeable acreage of marshland sprinkled with the occasional apple tree. By 1876, the area was dominated by two industries, flour-milling and gas production. Bottle-making, sugar refining and the manufacture of chemical fertiliser were also increasingly notable. The land between Hanover Quay and Rogerson’s Quay was owned by the Dublin Gas Company and was effectively been divided into three lots. Diners at the Riva and Ely hq restaurants are eating amid the ghost of a huge Coke Works where an extraordinary amount of imported coal was burned in order to provide Dubliners with the benefit of gas. A timber yard ran down its westerly flank of Cardiff’s Lane to Sir John Rogerson’s Quay (where the Gasometre was pitched in 1934). Directly east along the waterfront stood a vast tar works, from whose pits the stinking coal-tar was unloaded onto iron barges. A Corn Store occupied the eastern frontier by Great Britain Quay, with easy access to the entrance locks. Behind these works were the Chemical Works of Misery Hill, where coal-burning by-products such as chemical manure, guano and sulphuric acid were manufactured. In 1864, a conservationist called Brophy lowered a barrel of freshwater containing healthy live salmon into the water along Hanover Quay. They died within two minutes. When he cooked one of the salmon, it tasted of gas. This was not perhaps the most auspicious era for the quarter mile long quay named in honour of the Royal House of Hanover. But the manufacture of coal-gas was always going to be dirty work.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, vast tracts of woodland across Britain and Ireland were felled to provide timber for ships, industry and housing. As wood became a scarcer commodity, so the entrepreneurs turned to an alternative source of energy, coal. Coal on its own is a non-runner as a household or industrial fuel – it’s far too smoky and full of sulphur. However, in the 17th century, a breakthrough came when someone baked coal in an airless oven at an intensive heat. The result was that all the coal’s smoke-making properties vanished – specifically water, coal-gas, and coal-tar – leaving a rock hard, highly porous substance of smokeless fuel, or coke. Hence, coke became the main energy force driving the Industrial Revolution in Britain. In the late 18th century, scientists worked out how to extract both gas and tar from the coal, as well as coke. They also discovered that the extracted coal-gas (or town gas) could itself serve as a fuel, particularly for lighting street-lamps.
Stroll any of the smart streets of Dublin today and you will see the elegant manhole covers down which the coal was poured for each individual household. Ireland does not have a lot of coal. Hence we’ve been importing it since at least 1665 when it ranked as third in a list of Irish imports from England. In 1720, Jonathan Swift’s urged Dubliners to ‘burn everything English except their coal’ which, remarkably, became one of the slogans of the Economic War with Britain in the 1930s. In 1820, the Dublin Gas Light Company was established by a parliamentary act. This empowered 29 commissioners, headed up by the Duke of Leinster, to oversee the lighting of the streets and squares of Dublin. A notable stipulation of the act was that ‘the refuse be not permitted to run into the river Liffey’. Judging by the ill-fated salmon alluded to above, this proviso was somewhat overlooked.
In 1866, the Dublin Gas-Light Company and four other private gas companies were formally amalgamated into the Alliance & Dublin Consumers’ Gas Company. Sixteen years earlier, Henry Shaw’s Dublin Directory noted the company had works at 40 and 41 Sir John Rogerson's Quay. The Alliance & Dublin —more usually known as the Dublin Gas Company— was very quickly at the forefront of gas production, storage and distribution throughout the city. Indeed, it dominated Ireland’s coal-gas market for the next 100 years. From 1889, they had the monopoly on public and private electric lighting throughout the southside, replacing the ever-dim oil lamps there previously. The implications of the Coal-Gas Age were enormous. Industrial production accelerated at an unseen pace. The eyes of many a tycoon gleamed with the realisation that these bright gas-lights could enable their unfortunate minions to work nightshifts too. The well-to-do could subscribe to have gas piped directly to their houses; further manholes from this era can be seen on the city streets today. Gas quickly became the preferred fuel of Dublin’s middle class, particularly for their gas cookers and stoves. The streets also became safer, enabling people to feel more at ease socially, while the possibility of being able to read and write by night provided a huge boost to education.
The Dublin Gas Company originally had its principle wharfage along the quaysides of the Grand Canal Docks. Here, the colliers from Liverpool delivered the increasingly large quantities of coal required. There was also an abundance of water, an important raw material in the coke-making process. When the company’s coal requirements increased, it transferred wharfage operations to Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, which was better placed for larger coal ships. By the 1880s, gas-related structures dominated the South Lotts landscape from the Barrow Street Gasometre to Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. The Gas Company horses were stabled down at the Benson Street end of Hanover Quay.
By-products from the gas, such as coal tars and ammonia, provided a vital ingredient for both the dye and chemical industry, and chemical factories also emerged in the South Docks during the 1870s and 1880s. Parents and children with respiratory problems such as asthma were actually encouraged by their physicians to come and breathe in these soothing sulphur fumes. A short term remedy perhaps. The major factories were Morgan Mooney & Co, William Jos. Kane & Son, and W.H. Goulding Limited. Morgan Mooney specialized in fertilizer, acid manufacturing and animal feed. Its site was later acquired by Kilsaran Concrete. Kane & Son, which made saltcake (sodium sulphate), sulphuric acid and bleaching powder, was founded by John Kean, a 1798 rebel who mastered chemistry while in exile in France. He later changed his name to Kane and his son, Sir Robert Kane, was one of the most eminent chemists of the Victorian Age. Goulding’s made their fortune from chemical manure, with a focus on sulphuric, hydrochloric and nitric acids
As the demand for British coal increased across Ireland, so the Grand Canal Docks became an increasingly convenient location for the coal importers to maintain wharfage. It was not just useful for customers in South Dublin but also for accessing clients all along the Grand Canal and Barrow Navigation. In 1918 the large dry dock was filled in and the ground leased to Heiton’s as a coalyard. Two of the graving docks were also filled in and taken over by the Gas Company. During the First World War, it became extremely difficult to maintain the vital coal supply from Britain. In 1916, the Alliance & Dublin Gas Co. purchased their own ship, the 440 ton Ard Rí followed by the 400 ton Braedale. The Ard Rí still docked off Sir John Rogerson’s Quay but the slightly smaller Braedale was able to slip through the Grand Canal Locks and directly access the company depot. In 1920, the company purchased a new ship, the 460 ton Glenageary which was tailormade to access the 150-metred long Camden Lock and so brought the Dublin Gas Company right back into the Grand Canal Docks. From 1919 to 1968, it had its coal depot on the site of present-day Gallery Quay and Grand Canal Square. The Glenageary ultimately became the flagship of a successful fleet of four raised quarterdeck steamers, the others being the Glencullen, the Glencree and, from 1946, the Glenbride. With a normal crew of 11, these steamers brought coal from Liverpool to the Grand Canal Docks, a journey of between 16 and 18 hours. They operated on a clockwork system so that there were always two at sea, one loading in Liverpool and one unloading in Dublin. During the summer months, when only light coal supplies were needed, the fleet was chartered out to carry other cargos on the seas. During the Economic War of the 1930s, the Glencullen collected its coal from Rotterdam. Harry Gilligan bestowed considerable praise on the masters and crew of these coal steamers for braving the German bombers during World War Two, just to ensure Dubliners got their gas. The steamers were frequently bombed and strafed by machine-guns but amazingly survived the war with just two crew members injured. These hearty voyagers were unique amongst seamen at this time in that they were responsible for their own meals. ‘On the other ships they'd feed you’, says Sonny Kinsellagh. ‘But these boys would be over and back in a day and had to bring their grub with them’.
Hanover Quay in 2009.
Fifty years ago, the Hanover Quay landscape was a frenetic if unhealthy blend of agriculture and industry. Along its eastern front were the stations and furnaces of the gasworks. Then came the Hammond Lane foundry and Donnelly’s coal yards where Dublin author Eamon MacThomas used to work. Harry Crosbie's waterside house was a store for Guinness for all the sacks of barley that came in from the countryside on Grand Canal barges. The coal merchants and salt manufacturers Flower & McDonald stabled their horses just to the right. Another large grain store stood alongside Britain Quay, behind the ice stores and Gas Company stables. All the quaysides of the Grand Canal Docks were full of steam-grab cranes and black steel-hulled colliers. Between Butt Bridge and Rogerson's Quay there were six coal merchants, and another four were based on the Grand Canal Docks.
The coal-gas industry continued to prosper through the first half of the 20th century as more and more appliances became gas-operated, such as fires, cookers, refrigerators, washing machines, central heating and air conditioning. Its nemesis was electricity and, by 1960, most of Ireland had an electricity supply. From the 1950s, the British coal trade was also affected by new and better coal, first from America, then from Poland, and later by the petro-chemical industry. But coal-gas was already being derided as ‘nasty, smelly, dirty and dangerous’. The dockers were also reeling as mechanization made their careers increasingly redundant. In the 1940s they’d watched as lorries replaced horses. Before long they were to be replaced by forklift trucks and hydraulic cranes. And then came containerisation. In 1961, mechanized grabs mastered the art of lifting coal out of ships’ holds. By the 1970s, unemployment was rampant as more and more of the Port’s employees were laid off.
In reaction to changing times, Córas Iompair Éireann closed down the Grand Canal in 1959. The Dublin Gas Company’s coal-steamers were withdrawn from service when the company converted to oil in 1968. (The Glencullen and the Glenbridge have been spotted in the past 10 years, operating off the coasts of Dubai and France respectively). Three years earlier, a further death-knell was sounded for coal-gas with the discovery of natural gas in the North Sea. In 1971, an off-shore well struck lucky and hit upon Ireland's first indigenous reserve of natural gas off Kinsale Head. By the late 1970s, the entire energy market was in turmoil. Oil prices were doubling and quadrupling. The coal gas industry was imploding, leaving many small private companies in dire financial straits. In 1976, a number of these beleagured companies were coralled into the semi-state Bord Gáis Éireann, charged with building a natural gas infrastructure across the island. Part of the new strategy involved a 240km natural gas pipeline from Kinsale to Dublin, completed in 1983. The arrival of natural gas in Dublin effectively bankrupted the Dublin Gas Company and its assets passed to Bord Gáis. This included the 25-acre Gasworks site in the Grand Canal Docks.
There were suggestions from as early as 1987 that the Dublin Gasworks could be converted into a vibrant, multi-cultura residential and commercial zone. However, the plan was put on hold as the soils were deemed irreparably contaminated. The largst brownfield site in Ireland lay virtually derelict until 1997. The Hammond Lane foundry and Donnelly's Coalyard were closed down. The ice stores and stables were abandoned. Kilsaran Concrete took over where Morgan Mooney once stood. The warehouses beside the tar-pits became a Raleigh Ireland factory but burned down in the 1970s. In that year, Bord Gáis placed the vast bulk of their Dublin operations up for sale, including all the lands between Sir John Rogerson’s Quay and Hanover Quay, as well as the present day site of Grand Canal Square. Under the terms of the Act that created them, the Docklands Authority were obliged to purchase all lands owned by semi-state bodies that were deemed to be of a non-operational nature. The Gasworks more than adequately fitted that description.
In the face of considerable opposition, the Authority purchased the 25-acre site for €17 million in November 1997, the same month their Master Plan was published. The Authority accepted responsibility for decontaminating the site and subsequently spent over €50 million on the clean up. However, they believed whatever they spent would work out in the long run because it was likely every single acre on the site would be worth at least €10 million. Parkinson Consultants identifed the chemicals poisoning the soil as cresol, toluene, xylene, ethylbenzene, ammonia, benzene and napthalene. Carefully monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency, a bentoninte wall measuring 8km deep and 2km long was erected to contain the site. The whole area was then excavated to a depth of 4 metres. All groundwater was pumped out, via a sewer, into a treatment works. Most soil was treated on site, but over 134,000 tonnes of material was removed. The most hazardous soils were shipped to Europe and burned off; some was later used for Belgian flood defences. In December 2002, the site was given a clean bill of health by the EPA. The Docklands Authority had the green light to give planning permission for 180,000 square metres of intensive office and residential developments in the area.
The cost of the purchase and decontaimation was €65 million. By 2003, each acre was valued at €14 million. The whole area was pretty much derelict with the exception of Harry Crosbie’s splendid waterfront property and U2’s nearby Sound Studio. The Authority held fornightly meetings to see how they could best conivince the public that this area was now safe and friendly. The Authority has since generated well over €200 million in land sales from the site. This was a tremendous breakthrough, enabling them to be play the role of developer, including the creation of the public space of Grand Canal Square (which surely no private developer could have afforded) and to fund so many other initiatives. The Grand Canal Docks also has the advantage of being extremely accessible for both cars and pedestrains. Its gasometre dominated skyline was well known to all. Fast forward to the present day and few could possibly believe that Hanover Quay occupies the very same land as that poisonous, coal-infested, ash-splashed horror of old. The most memorable development is the tinted apartment block of Hanover Quay itself, which scooped the RIAI’s Best Housing Award for designers O’Mahony Pike in 2007. Beside this, the old tar works has become the site of Long Boat Quay, with a EuroSpar and Milano’s Restaurant at ground level. On the right, the old Corn Store has been replaced by a large glass fronted pavilion apartment and office block known as the Hanover Reach Waterfront. At ground level, the quay is now home to restaurants Riva and Ely hq, as well as the Urban Retreat Gallery, run by the Cill Rialaig Project.
U2’s unassuming Sound Studio was purchased in 1992 and rebuilt the following year with an interior by architect Felim Dunne. This is where the albums ‘Pop’, ‘How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’ and ‘All That You Can't Leave Behind’ were recorded. In 2004, the band performing a live set for the BBC Radio from the studios to promote their album, ‘Vertigo’. The wall between the Sound Studio and Kilsaran Concrete is smothered in graffiti etched by fans of the band.