The old man is standing upon Seán O’Casey Bridge. Beneath him, the strong Liffey waters surge over the same course they have travelled since Turgesius the Norseman’s longship passed up this way 1,200 years ago. His eyes move slowly left and right, patiently surveying the shimmering new horizons of the Dublin Docklands. He knew this part of the city well in his youth, he explains. His grandfather was the lock-keeper at the Ringsend Docks beyond Sir John Rogerson’s Quay and his mothers’ family were dockers for at least five generations. His eyes widen as he conducts me into the past, his hands like wands, his language raw yet magisterial.
As we talk, people of every race, creed, fashion, dialect and generation whittle by, left and right, mostly on foot but some on bicycles and others on skateboards. Perhaps it’s the sunshine but these faces are excited, smiling, positive, focused. We watch the bumble-bee coloured Liffey ferry make its short progression from the North Wall to Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. ‘You can forget quick what was here before’, he says quietly.
The old man’s childhood was set against the backdrop of the North Wall during the 1930s. In those times the quaysides north and south were overrun with people - the brave and the brawny, casuals and buttonmen, welders and carpenters, farriers and coalmen, gangers and tramps, alcoholics and shawlies, fisher-women, top-hatted gents and hordes of bare-footed children. Between them jostled pie-balled carthorses and skinny donkeys, rickety wagons, rusty black bicycles and the occasional spluttering truck. The air was frequently thick with cold, coal-hued smog.
On the river itself, cargo ships, cattle boats, lighters and barges journeyed up and down, while deep voices bellowed out from the Hailing Station, directing skippers to the relevant berth. Perhaps the most famous vessels were the Guinness ships that moored outside the Custom House. We turn to look at the mighty Custom House, spreading its neo-Classical wings confidently across the waterfront. The old man’s father knew some of those who burned the building down during the War of Independence. Our eyes rise to the 16ft statue of Commerce, destroyed in the fire but reconstructed in 1990, which now presides over the city centre from the central dome. When Thomas Banks carved the original Commerce in the 1780s, the Docklands was still in its infancy. Much of the lands now occupied by the North Lotts, East Wall and the Grand Canal Docks comprised a swampy marshland, washed over by the tidal waters of the Liffey, the Tolka and the Dodder rivers twice daily. On the southside, the shoreline ran roughly from Ballsbridge via Grand Canal Street to where Pearse Street Garda station stands today. On the northside, the salty waters swept in as far west as North Strand Road.
Evolving from its hazy monastic roots, Dublin evolved into Ath Cliath, a major Viking slave depot, during the 9th century AD, primarily upriver at Islandbridge and around the original Dubh Linn or 'black pool' in the present-day gardens of Dublin Castle. As Professor Seán Duffy noted, for instance, the Annals of Ulster ('the most reliable of the early Irish annals') have a reference from circa 871 which reads: 'Amlaíb and Ímar returned to Áth Cliath from Alba with two hundred ships, bringing away with them in captivity to Ireland a great prey of Angles and Britons and Picts.'
During the 17th century, the first major steps were taken to tame the river with the construction of stonewalls, or quays, either side of the Liffey channel. By the 1720s, these walls had extended as far as Sir John Rogerson’s Quay on the southside and the North Wall on the northside. A further wall, the East Wall, was constructed up the River Tolka. These three walls - reconstructed, secured and extended over time - form the basis for the present day Dublin Docklands. They enabled the reclamation of substantial lands at the heart of a city about to enter its greatest era of prosperity.
No commercial boom would have been possible without the Docklands. It was here that everything happened. All goods were weighed, taxed, sampled, loaded, unloaded, stored, imported and exported. During the age of imperialism, Dublin’s masters concentrated on building the necessary infrastructure to make the Docklands more productive.
Completed in 1792, the Custom House marked the start of this newage. It was soon to be joined by ambitious docks and canals on both the north and south sides of the Liffey. Built by the greatest engineers of the age, both the Custom House Docks and the Grand Canal Docks were hailed as pioneering achievements when completed in the decades that immediately followed the opening of the Custom House. However, both were rapidly demoted with the evolution of new merchant ships that were simply too big to access such handsome docks. The Dublin Port and Dock Board eventually responded by commissioning the North Wall Extension and developing new deep-water quays closer to the port itself.
The Victorian architects of Spencer Dock believed they had learned a lesson from these ill-fated Georgian ventures when their new dock opened in the 1870s but it too became swiftly redundant. Indeed, the Royal Canal, through which it linked to the Liffey, was so comprehensively defeated by the evolution of road transport that there was a very serious plan to tarmac the entire thing. Fortunately both the Royal and Grand Canals have survived to the present day. These extraordinary feats of workmanship are now playing a key role in defining the 21st century Docklands as a carefully planned cityscape where businesses, residences, parklands and waterways roll seamlessly from one to the other. The new Royal Canal Linear Park is destined to be a classic illustration of this forward-thinking concept.
The arrival of the railways in the 1840s marked a major evolution of the Docklands as thousands of migrant workers from all across the British Isles poured into Dublin in pursuit of employment. The railway lines carved through the Docklands, separating the East Wall and North Wall communities. Despite considerable challenges from the roads, the railways have survived to the present day. The handsome Victorian stations at Westland Row and Amiens Street - renamed for Padraig Pearse and James Connolly on the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rebellion – continue to service thousands of people every day, as do the new stations at Spencer Dock and Grand Canal Dock.
When the old man was a child, he and his friends ran along the quays catching bananas thrown from ships by kindly American sailors. When the tea ships came in, his uncles stuffed their pants full of tea-leaves and waddled home victoriously to their wives. One uncle rarely made it home, preferring the dark, hazy confines of the pub instead. Sometimes the pub was where you collected the wages. If you didn’t buy a drink for the man who paid you, you might not be chosen for work the next week. The wives were never happy about the pubs. Many waited by the pub doors to catch their husbands going in or out before the weeks wages were spent on drink. Alcoholism was rife and all the symptoms of abuse and depression that came with it.
The old man’s first job was distributing a horse-cart full of coal to the well-to-do homes of Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Street. His uncle skippered one of the Gas Company coal boats. In those days, the docklands were dominated by colliers, sailing in from England and Wales, laden with black nuggets. Every morning, hundreds of thin, peaky capped men gathered alongside the docks with large shovels, ready to dig the coal out of the ships and into the waiting trucks and carts. The first electric cranes appeared in Victorian times and astounded people with their ability to do the work of a hundred men. By the time the old man was a teenager, the coalmen were rightly becoming anxious for the
security of their jobs; technology was advancing fast. In the 1950s, the coalyards began to abandon carthorses in favour of trucks.
In the wake of the Second World War, the Port shifted east and the city began to turn its back on the river. Up until the 1970s, Dublin Port was still the biggest employer in Dublin, providing work for communities north and south through its ships, quays and warehouses. However, the collapse of business in the inner-city Docklands was utterly devastating to those communities who lived there. Much of the North Wall was given over to warehousing, huge sheds racked together like Monopoly pieces, some temporary, others magnificent. The introduction of containerisation to Dublin Port in the 1950s swiftly killed off the need for such warehouses.
The glass-fronted chq building at the northern end of Séan O’Casey Bridge is the last surviving warehouse of the Docklands glory days and has lately been restored with award-winning precision and reopened as a state-of-the-art shopping centre. In 1856, this mighty structure hosted close to 4,000 veterans of the Crimean War to a huge banquet.
By the early 1980s, the inner city of Dublin was one of the most depressed, forlorn and dangerous places in the world. It was a harrowing era for anyone who knew the Docklands. The old man closes his eyes when he talks of it. The area was defined by massive unemployment, a serious drop out rate from schools, rising crime, rampant drug use and intense neglect. The landscape became one of abandoned freight yards, disheveled car parks, poorly surfaced roads, patchy lawns and broken cranes. Once thriving places like the Grand Canal Docks were simply sealed off as no-go areas.
When the city bosses tried to resolve the situation, they often did so without sympathy such as with the somewhat ruthless eviction of the residents of the Sherriff Street flats prior to the destruction of those monoliths. The old man well remembers the hey-day of the Sheriff Street flats when another old man, with a clubfoot and a mysterious bag, would clamber to the brown-brick rooftops and scatter conkers for the young ‘chiselers’ playing below.
Although the regeneration is by no means complete, the extraordinary story of what has happened in the Docklands since the 1980s cannot be overstated. Under the direction of the Custom House Docks Development Authority (CHDDA), the riverside between the Custom House and the North Wall emerged as Dublin’s foremost financial district at the very moment that the Celtic Tigers were preparing to take on the world. Less than 20 years ago, the sites of the megalithic green-glass offices of George’s Quay and the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) comprised a car park and a series of warehouses.
However, while CHDDA succeeded in revolutionising Dublin’s financial sector, it was not in their brief to consider the communities living around them. In 1997, that changed dramatically when the Dublin Docklands Development Authority was formed. The origins of the Docklands Authority lay in a series of working trips made by members of the Industrial Development Agency (IDA Ireland) to Bill Clinton’s United States in 1995 and 1996. All the signs suggested that the wealthy new American technology firms were seeking stylish, low-rent offices, centrally located to attract the finest employees. Nobody wanted to be out in the industrial sticks, in anonymous estates surrounded by out-dated factories. The enormous success of the IFSC had already proved that overseas companies liked being in the centre of Dublin City.
Ruairi Quinn, then Minister of Finance, wondered about the abandoned Bord Gáis site in his own Ringsend constituency. The decontamination of the site might present an enormous environmental and financial challenge, but perhaps it could be made to pay for itself? Quinn consulted Brendan Howlin, then Minister of the Environment, who replied that, as CHDDA’s remit was nearing an end, he was proposing to renew it and extend the remit. This would include the entire docklands, excluding the territory of the working port, covering 1,300 acres (526 ha) and extending from East Wall on the northside to Ringsend and Irishtown on the south, running along the Liffey from City Quay and the Custom House right down to the mouth of the river at Poolbeg. It also included what became known as ‘the hinterlands’, small pockets of Dublin not strictly in the Docklands but where the communities were so destitute that it was deemed both pragmatic and essential to incorporate them into the overall area plan. However, both Howlin and Quinn believed the new authority should have a ‘more comprehensive and holistic’ attitude than CHDDA.