Turtle Bunbury

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Spencer Dock & the Royal Canal

Built on the site of the old Royal Canal Docks, Spencer Dock was built in 1873 to accommodate the coal ships of the Midland and Great Western Railway Company. Serving as both a railway and canal depot, the dock inevitably went into decline as the effectiveness of such Victorian transport options dwindled in the 20th century. In 20**, the site was part of a sizeable area purchased for redevelopment by the Spencer Dock Development Company. Spencer Dock promises to be one of the most dynamic and exciting areas of the 21st century Docklands, with the Samuel Beckett Bridge and the Convention Centre at its riverside entrance, and incorporating such landmarks as the Spencer Dock Bridge and the Royal Canal Linear Park.

The Early Years

In 1789, as France tumbled into revolution, the most enterprising Irish Parliament of the century authorised the construction of the Royal Canal. By 1803, the Royal Canal had carved its way through the misty slobs and early street grid of Dublin’s Docklands, connecting with the River Liffey (and the Irish Sea beyond) through lock-gates at North Wall Quay. Two berthing pools and a spur pool, known as the Royal Canal Docks, ran between the Quay and Sheriff Street, divided by present day Mayor Street. By the 1840s, these were capable of admitting ships of 150 tons. Sometime before 1850, the spur pool was filled in to become the site of Nixon Street and Newfoundland Street.

Midland & Great Western Railway Company

In 1807 a regular passage boat service began operating along the Royal Canal from Dublin through Enfield and Maynooth to Mullingar. Ten years later, the inland waterway celebrated its breakthrough connection with the River Shannon at Cloondara, Co Longford. In 1845 the Midland & Great Western Railway Company (MGWR) purchased the Royal Canal Company with the intention of draining the canal and running a line along its bed. As it happened, they changed tact and decided to build the railway line that famously ran alongside the Canal for much of its Dublin to Mullingar leg.

The Naming of the Dock

By the 1870s, British coal was heating houses throughout Ireland. The MGWR were making considerable money from this business. However, the Royal Canal Docks were simply too small to accommodate the huge new coal ships and the company was losing ground to the Grand Canal Docks on the south. A new dock was thus planned and built. The new dock afforded 3000 square feet of quayage and was connected to an outer dock by ‘an ingenious hydraulic bridge’, the work of the railway’s engineer Mr Price. A secondary railway linked the dock to the MGWR’s terminus at Broadstone (by Constitution Hill). The new dock was a work of ‘entirely private enterprise’ and cost £58,000. On the beautiful afternoon of 15th April 1873, (Sir) Ralph Cusack, Chairman of the MGWR, opened the new dock and formally named it Spencer after the Lord Lieutenant, Earl Spencer, great-great grandfather of Diana, Princess of Wales. When the Earl, on board the Royal yacht Hawk, entered the Spencer Dock, steamships let off their fog horns and there was a flourish of trumpets. The Coldstream Guards, clad in bright scarlet, stood along the riverfront. Flags and inscriptions floated from windows. A military band was set up at the entrance to the dock in Guild Street. Along the river, ships were decked in brilliant bunting and the docks covered in spectators. ‘Numbers of the most daring and persevering class clambered to the roofs of the stores and clung to the rigging of the ships in the river and other prominent but perilous positions’. At dinner that night, the Earl repaid Cusack with a knighthood.[1]

Earl Spencer

The bushy red bearded 5th Earl Spencer was twice Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1868 to 1874 and again from 1882 to 1885. John Ponytz Spencer was an avid supporter of Home Rule for Ireland and, during his Viceroyalty, he oversaw the introduction of the first Irish Land Bill to recognise tenant rights. On the evening of his arrival to take up office for his second term in 1882, a group called the Irish National Invincibles assassinated his Chief Secretary, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and the Under-Secretary, T.H. Burke. The incident became known as the Phoenix Park Murders. The Earl was a passionate huntsman and a close friend of the enigmatic Empress Sisi of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was also great-great grandfather of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Iron Horses, Black Diamonds

In 1873, the year the Spencer Dock opened, the M.G.W.R., the G.S & W., the G.N.R, and the L.N.W.R. railways united to form a general railway centre at the North Wall. This was completed ten years later when the Loop Line was constructed connecting Westland-Row (Pearse Street) with Amiens Street (Connolly Station). By 1900, all the land around the North Wall Quay, the Custom House and Spencer Docks had been taken up by railway lines, warehouses, cattle yards and coal sheds. In 1904, Heiton’s coal importing merchants rented the Spencer Dock Wharf, kitting it out with modern screening plant, rail siding and steam cranes. This enabled coal to be passed over the screens direct from the ship’s hold into ralway wagons, cutting down on handling costs and ensuring the coal was properly screened.

Decline & Fall

In June 1913, a furniture removing van on the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company’s steamer Kerry was found at Spencer Dock to have a number of packing cases containing well-packed, carefully oiled rifles allegedly bound for Lord Farnham in Cavan. The event was another precursor to the violence which would befall Ireland between 1916 and 1922. With the railways in the ascendance, the Royal Canal and its many docks went into decline. Average annual tonnage fell from 30,000 tons in the 1880s to less than 10,000 tons in the 1920s. Spencer Dock became increasingly irrelevant.[2] In 1838, ownership of the Royal Canal passed to the Great Southern Railway who enjoyed a brief boom during the Second World War. In 1944, the Royal Canal was purchased by Córas Iompair Éireann. In 1955, Douglas Heard’s Hark became the last officially recorded boat to pass through the Royal Canal, which closed to navigation in 1961. The original Spencer Dock Sea Lock fell into disrepair. In 1986, most of the Canal was acquired by the Office of Public Works. Much of the land around Spencer Dock still comprised of abandoned freight yards and crumbling warehouses owned by CIE.

The Spencer Dock Development Company

Most of the area was subsequently purchased by the Spencer Dock Development Company (SDCC). This is a joint venture between Treasury Holdings CIE (Richard Barrett and John Ronan) and Harry Crosbie (the SDCC Chairman). The first phase of their development plan involved the conversion of 29 acres into perhaps the most ambitious example of urban regeneration ever undertaken in Ireland. (The site carried over 1,000 metres of messaging, giving it the unique record of having Ireland’s longest digitally-produced hoarding). The first phase - over 500 apartments - sold out over a single weekend in November 2008. Over Easter 2008, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ireland’s leading professional services firm, relocated some 2,000 staff from Wilton Place, George’s Quay and Ashford House to a brand new carbon neutral headquarters at One Spencer Dock. It was the largest move ever over a single weekend in the history of Ireland. They were followed shortly afterwards by Belgain bank Fortis whose headquarters were designed by Michael Collins Associates and built by CMP (Sisk/Treasury). The Central Bank is also due to move to the 7-storey West Block beside the National Conference Centre. The completed development will include over 3000 apartments, offices and shops, as well as the new Spencer Dock Luas Bridge and the Royal Canal Linear Park. Also within this umbrella is the Convention Centre, due to be completed in 2010. Planning is in the pipeline for a 5-star 33-storey Ritz-Carlton hotel, designed by architects Shay Cleary & Associates. The 400 bedroom hotel is designed as part of a cluster of new riverside high rises, nicknamed Manhattan on the Liffey, fronted by the U2 Tower and the Point Watchtower. Progress on all three buildings is presently on hold so watch this space. The new Calatrava-designed Samuel Beckett Bridge over the Liffey should provide a stunning gateway to the scheme.

Restoration of the Sea Locks

In May 2008, aided by a 250 ton crane, a new pair of outer tidal lock gates were installed at the Spencer Dock Sea Lock. This should dramatically reduce the risk of tidal flooding along the Canal's banks between the River Liffey and Newcomen Lock. The inner lock gates are next to be installed [when?] and repairs will also be made to the historic walls around the Sea Lock. Once the restoration is complete, vessels will be able to safely navigate from Spencer Dock through to the River Liffey for the first time since its closure. Preparations are also underway for the diversion of the water, electrical and communication services that presently restrict vessel access from the River Liffey through to the Royal Canal. [3]

Spencer Dock Bridge

One of the most exciting aspects of the Spencer Dock is the new Spencer Dock Bridge—a curvy 131-foot-long span located within the Linear Park, funded by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority and the Rail Procurement Agency. Designed by Future Systems, this bridge will carry automobiles, pedestrians and the new Luas line. The bridge features a 62-foot to 95-foot-wide, shallow deck—just two feet thick—supported at its centre by two piers. The €4.5 million bridge has been likened to a manta ray, although this wasn’t the inspiration behind the design. From west to east, the main deck slopes up like a fin, rising by some six feet along its length. The centre points of the bridge’s north and south sides bow out some 16 feet to form cantilevered decks over the water, offering pedestrians views up and down the canal. These viewing spots are also devised as useful meeting places for people. At night, the bridges white concrete-clad underside will be illuminated by vibrant colored lights bringing it into step with the lights of the Royal Canal Linear Park.

The Royal Canal Linear Park

The Royal Canal Linear Park, sometimes known as the Harlequin Gardens, is an on-going project based on a winning design by Paris-based by French landscape and urban design company, Agence Ter. The six-hectare (1.4km) public green will eventually run from the Liffey, beside the new Convention Centre, northwards for 1.4km to North Strand Road. Blurring the distinction between canal and bank, the design includes floating gardens on pontoons, semi-transparent pavilions, cafes, playgrounds, cycling paths and sports pitches. Trees will be native species, such as oak and white willow, while flower beds will be mostly planted with exotic plants. Lighting designer Yves Adrien, of Coup d'Eclat, will work with the plant colours in his scheme, offering red glows against crimson blooms and such like. Such a setting will work well for events like the Coca-Cola Cinemagic Film and Television Festival for Young People which held its inaugural festivities at Spencer Dock in February 2008. The park should also work neatly alongside the new Luas canal bridge designed by Future Systems. The project will also open up the Royal Canal as a public amenity, encouraging use of the inland waterways between the River Liffey and the River Shannon for boating, walking and fishing.

Other Developments

Liam Carroll owns the seven-acre Brooks Thomas site next to Treasury's Spencer Dock. He has agreed to develop a building of 32,515sq m (350,000sq ft) for Anglo Irish Bank and another one of 5,574sq m (60,000sq ft) for solicitors O'Donnell Sweeney. AIB Capital Markets are also in discussions with Carroll to rent a new high density office building on the site with a floor area of around 37,160sq m (400,000sq ft). The third bank involved, Bank of Ireland, is also in "exclusive discussions" with him to occupy a planned new 51,095sq m (550,000sq ft) back office at the rear of the Brooks Thomas site on Mayor Street. Carroll has attracted the three banks by offering artificially low rents for the first five years in the expectation that they will be reviewed to open market value at the first review. Without the change of maximum heights from seven to 20 storeys it is doubtful if he could have accommodated the three banks as well as other clients’. (Irish Times, Wednesday, June 18, 2008)


[1] The Times, Thursday, Apr 17, 1873.

[2] In October 1920 a British coal ship called the Dinorwic of Silloth struck a submerged object off Lambay Island and sank in Spencer Dock. In October 1930, a steamer called the Lancashire struck Rogerson’s Quay as she left Spencer Dock, fracturing her stern post and smashing her rudder.

[3] The Spencer Dock Sea Lock project is one of the outcomes from a major European Union Interreg IIIB Project, Strategies and Actions for Flood Emergency Risk Management (SAFER). SAFER is founded on a partnership between Dublin City Council and authorities in Stuttgart, Scotland and Lausanne. It was funded by Dublin City Council, together with Dublin Docklands Authority, Waterways Ireland and the Office of Public Works. Pierse Contracting were responsible for design and construction while Royal Haskoning were the Consulting Engineers.



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