‘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 undertaken for the project which may or may not be used in the final book.
With a wack-fiddle-day
Paddy gonna go on a holiday
Leavin' on a B & I Ferry
Ain't gonna be no sorrow
Cos I'm leavin tomorrow
From 'B & I Ferry', written by Shane MacGowan
‘The British & Irish Steam Packet Company’ was founded in 1836 by a group of Dublin businessmen including Francis Carleton (also a director of the City of Dublin company), James Jameson (of the distillery) and Arthur Guinness (of the brewery). The company took over the business of the Dublin & London Steam Packet Company. Its first ships were all wooden paddle steamers operating between Dublin and London, calling at Southampton and Plymouth. In 1842, their new ship, the Duke of Cornwall, began services from the North Wall in Dublin to London, stopping at Plymouth and Falmouth.
In 1845, the company announced it was abandoning paddle steamers in favour of propeller driven iron ships. The Rose and the Shamrock were the first such steam ships to run the Dublin to London gauntlet. In 1860, B&I transferred its offices from Eden Quay to 46, North Wall. By 1878, the now limited liability company was based on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. Their riverside sheds are still there on the waterfront today. They stand opposite the large two-storey Edwardian redbrick building where B&I's new offices were established in 1906.
By the 1880s, the company was announcing new builds every few years. Ships such as the Lady Wolseley (1894), Lady Roberts (1897) and Lady Gwendolen (1911) were considered amongst the best in Europe before the Great War with 100 saloon, 50 second class, and steerage cabins, as well as state rooms, smoking rooms, and bathrooms.
In 1917, B&I was one of a number of shipping companies operating on cross-channel routes absorbed into the massive new UK based Coast Lines Group. In 1920, B&I took control of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company’s assets and so began the legendary B&I link between Dublin’s North Wall and Liverpool. That acquisition included the City of Dublin’s four cargo and passenger ships – the Wicklow, Kerry, Louth and Carlow. In accordance with B&I traditions, these were given the prefix of ‘Lady’ in 1920. These were soon replaced by new tailormade passenger ships, with the same names, built at the Ardrossan dockyard in Scotland. The Lady Wicklow would go on to serve the company as a general cargo and livestock ship until 1949 after an impressive fifty four years of service. A new Lady Louth was launched in 1923 and the Lady Limerick in 1924. They also acquired the Lady Longford (formerly Ardmore) from the City of Cork Steam Packet Company. In 1929 these ships were transferred to another line and replaced by three large ships – renamed Lady Conaught, Lady Munster and Lady Leinster - that had formerly operated between Belfast and Liverpool.
By the 1930s it was apparent that two modern motor ships could cover the Dublin to Liverpool run far more effectively and economically than three old steamships. Harland & Wolff duly secured the commission to build two new ships. Launched in 1938, the Leinster and Munster (the ‘Lady’ prefix was dropped) had a gross tonnage of 4,300 tons and were far and away the most advanced cross-channel ferries in existence at that time. All the company’s ships were henceforth named for provinces, while their cargo ships took the names of Irish counties and towns.
With the outbreak of war in 1939, the Dublin - Liverpool service was suspended. The Munster was transferred to the Belfast – Liverpool service and sunk in Liverpool Bay by a mine in February 1940; all 200 passengers and 50 crew were rescued by the Wallace Brothers Ringsend-based coalship, the Ringwall. The Innisfallen was bombed and sunk in Liverpool. The Leinster served as a hospital ship and survived the war intact; she later moved to the Belfast – Liverpool line and was renamed Ulster Prince.
In 1946, B&I began rebuilding its fleet and ordered two new ships from Harland & Wolff. Slightly longer, slightly smaller, the new Leinster and Munster took up the Liverpool Service in 1948. The transport industry was in constant revolution during the 1950s; spanking new ships could quickly seem very outdated. Coast Lines hesitated with the development of the B&I Line and consequently allowed it to stagnate. In 1965, the Irish government purchased B&I from the Coast Lines Groups and appointed a new board.
Two years later they made the controversial decision to replace the passenger ships with roll on-roll off (ro-ro) car ferries – two for the Dublin-Liverpool service and one for the Cork–Swansea (later Pembroke) service. The new service opened in 1968 and soon had three 5000 ton ships operating - the Munster and the Innisfallen (both built in Pensburg, Germany) and the Leinster (built at the Verolme Dockyard in Cork). The Munster survived until 1979 when replaced by the Connacht, built at Verolme and the largest vessel ever built or owned by B&I. A new Leinster joined the service in 1981.
In 1980, B&I opened a new daylight passenger service to Liverpool using a Boeing jetfoil. With the journey time now reduced to three hours, it was possible to operate two services in each direction in summertime. A combination of high running costs, low passenger numbers and bad weather proved too much – the jetfoil was suspended in late 1981.
In 1982, the company opened its service from Dublin to Holyhead but met with considerable opposition from the Sealink owned port. Sealink staff successfully used small boats to prevent the Connacht from docking on two occasions. The B&I Line was struggling. The Cork service was closed and the Munster sold. Losses kept mounting. Officers went on strike. The Liverpool service was closed and the Connacht sold. In 1990, the government privatised the company and sold it to the Irish Continental Group, trading as Irish Ferries. Today, Irish Ferries run two ships from the North Wall [check] to Holyhead – the Jonathan Swift fast ferry (1 hour, 49 minutes) and the company's flagship, the Ulysses, which was the world's largest car ferry at its construction in 2001.