Sir John Rogerson’s Quay runs for exactly half a mile along the southern banks of the River Liffey, beginning by the Sean O’Casey Bridge on City Quay and culminating at the proposed site of the U2 Tower on Britain Quay. The quayside takes its name from Sir John Rogerson, one of the most enterprising men in Ireland three hundred years ago. (see page XXX) In 1713, this ship-owner and former Lord Mayor secured a lease from his colleagues in Dublin Corporation for the fee farm estate rights to approximately 133 acres of sand-swept marshland on the south bank of the Liffey channel, otherwise referred to as ‘the Strand betwixt Lazy Hill and Ringsend’. Also known as ‘Rogerson’s Ground’ or the ‘South Lott’s, this grant contained all the land bounded by the Liffey, the Dodder and modern Bath Avenue, including the ‘old Steyne coast’ of Grand Canal Street, Denzille Street, Sandwith Street and Creighton Street. There was also a narrow strip of land just east of the Dodder, bounded by the spit of Ringsend.
In July 1713, Sir John gave notice of his intention to ‘very speedily take the Strand’ in what the late J.W. de Courcy described as ‘possibly the most significant privately funded development project in the history of the Liffey’. This was the first speculative quayside development of the 18th century. The new wharf commenced when a series of wooden piles were driven into the sand to embank the river between ‘the anchor-smith’s shop and Ringsend point’. (Merchant ships frequently tied themselves to mooring rings set upon these piles. The rings came to an end in Ringsend which, understandably, gave rise to a fabled origin for the name of that village). (See page XXX). Two parallel stone-walls were then built behind the piles, and the space between them was filled with rocks, gravel and sand dredged from the river. The river material did not come free – Sir John paid the City three-pence a ton for it. But the dredging had an added benefit in that it simultaneously deepened that part of the river channel. The walls themselves were constructed with large stones shipped from Clontarf by John Vernon. Sir John and Vernon subsequently became embroiled in a legal battle when the former accused the latter of fobbing him off with a considerable quantity of undersized stones. Vernon had huffily dumped these stones into the river just off the Quay and they were proving ‘a great nuisance’ to every ship and gabbard that passed, scratching and cracking their hulls. Eventually the City stepped in and removed them at their own cost. It is not known if or when Sir John ever felt compelled to smash open a bottle of champagne and celebrate the opening of his Quay. One suspects a few lively nights down at The Fountain, said to have been built in 1718 and thus the first building on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. When Brooking etched his map of Dublin in 1728, four years after Sir John’s death, he indicated that the Quay was complete, but his description of its eastern end was unquestionably vague. Perhaps this was due to a change of plan, by which the new wall turned suddenly at a right angle right where the River Dodder meets the Liffey, running along the Dodder to the bridge at Ringsend. This short section was presumably reconstructed when Britain Quay and the entry lock system for the Grand Canal Docks were built in 1795.
Dublin Chronicle, 28th January 1792: His Grace, the Duke of Leinster, went on a sea party, and after shooting the breach in the south wall, sailed over the low ground in the south lots ad landed safely at Merrion Square’.
The Fountain Tavern may have had to wait a while before it had any seriously regular customers. Sir John Rogerson’s Quay was not an immediate success. In the first half of 18th century, Ireland’s trade was hardly booming. The island’s available resources were still extremely thin after all the warfare of the previous century. The ships that loaded on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay were probably exporting agricultural products such as salt beef, pork, butter, hard cheese and, latterly, grain. Undoubtedly a good deal of the ships that arrived from afar carried fine French wines for the thirsty elite.
The marshy strand behind the Quay was divided into allotments and called the South Lotts. Sceptics derided the commercial value of the South Lotts which, like the North Lotts across the Liffey, were prone to flooding in storms. Dubliners frequently bathed in these flood-waters, while some budding entrepreneurs cultured oyster beds there. In 1759, Gabrielli Ricciardelli painted ‘A View of Dublin from the Sea’, depicting the Quay as a roughly surfaced strip, peppered with people and horses. The land behind it consists of water-logged marshlands and a meadow of haystacks. On 28th January 1792, the Dublin Chronicle reported that the Duke of Leinster had managed to sail his ship across the South Lotts and land safely at Merrion Square. This came about when part of the wall collapsed, allowing ‘a dreadful torrent’ to break through into ‘the lower grounds, inundating every quarter on the same level as far as Artichoke Road’ (Grand Canal Street). Communication with Ringsend and Irishtown came to a halt; ‘the inhabitants are obliged to go to and fro in boats’.
During the 1740s, Doctor Mann, Minister of St Matthew's Chapel, Ringsend, and Chaplain to Lord Chancellor Jocelyn, came upon ‘an old man, with newspapers under his arm, whose aspect denoted he had seen better days’. Dr Mann enquired of the man’s health. The man replied that he had indeed ‘once been in affluent circumstances, that his name was Clenahan and that he had kept a brazier's shop in Back Lane’. However, in order ‘to push his fortune’ he had taken a lot of ground at the rope walk to the rear of Sir John Rogerson Quay, ‘whereon he expended a large sum in building two houses which he had not money to finish and in consequence was ruined’. This place was known as Clenahan's Folly. This unfortunate soul then told how he had served alongside the Doctor’s father during the siege of Derry in 1688. Doctor Mann duly ‘related the particulars’ to the Chancellor who secured Clenahan a post as an officer in the Invalids Hospital. Clenahan retained the post, clad in his regimentals, ‘happy throughout the remnant of his days’.
Tom O'Brien's Ferryman Pub claims to have been built in 1780, at which time the quay walls were again repaired. If so, it was the most easterly building on the Quay for many years. Neither Faden’s map of 1797 nor Bligh’s surveys of 1800 – 1803 indicate any other developments any further east along the Quay. The first major building on the quay was the Hibernian Marine School, built in the 1770s, and captured on canvas by a James Malton’s drawing from 1796. Malton seems to have caught the Quay at low-tide on a quiet day. A ship stern is under construction in Matthew Cardiff’s shipyard next door. A coach is arriving in from the city. Men are at work hauling in a raft and a couple of boats are resting on a sandbank. It’s difficult to make out whether anything is happening at Burnett’s Marine Hotel, or Williamson and Lloyd’s rope-works behind the school. A lone horseman surveys all. Nor is there any hint of the two hotels – the Marine and Rogers’ – recorded in Wilson’s Almanac of 1797.
Joseph W. Hammond gave a rather more buoyant description of how the Quay might have been in 1796 in a paper read to the Old Dublin Society in 1942. He envisioned ‘a pleasant suburb’ with ‘a touch of glamour and romance … enlivened now and then by the passing of military patrols in their scarlet and buff uniforms, the sinister press gangs swaggering with muskets or cutlass, and the boys of the Marine School in their dark blue jackets and white ducks. Florid topers in the brandy-fumed taverns looked out over their tankards at the spreading canvas of ships going by and the only sounds on the air were the cry of the gull and the curlew, or the refrain of sailors at the capstan. Time there went by ship’s bell or the bugle and drum of the Marine School. Nightfall brought forth the mellow strains of the violin or the notes of a harpsichord from behind closed shutters and bolted doors, and the only sounds outside were the steady tramp of the patrol, and an occasional call of ‘Halt!’ or the scurrying patter of the press gang after a pedestrian who had changed his mind and turned back’. Press gangs were certainly on the prowls. In November 1793, for instance, over 100 seamen were reportedly ‘pressed’ from vessels in port to serve in His Majesty’s Royal Navy.
Fast forward sixty years and we find a row of buildings and yards running all along Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, occupied by a miscellany of ‘shipping agents, shipbuilders, makers of ropes, sails and pumps, bakers of ships’ biscuits… side by side with vintners, grocers and timber yards’. Paddle steamers, coal ships and grain barques frequently berthed alongside the quay but it was in a somewhat dilapidated state. This was the departure point for Irish holiday makers bound for the Isle of Man for over 120 years between 1846 to 1968. The Dublin Gas Company were also headquartered here in an early incarnation of the gasworks that so utterly dominated this landscape from the 1860s until the arrival of natural gas in the 1980s. Between 1870 and 1888, the Port engineer Bindon Blood Stoney and contractors such as William J. Doherty rebuilt nearly 4,000ft of quay wall between Creighton Street and Great Britain Quay, as well as deepening the river channel by 23ft. Dublin Port was now able to offer waters deeper than most harbours in the world and Sir John Rogerson’s Quay boasted 1.2km of that much sought after berthage. The lands directly south of the quay were duly made available for warehousing and industry. They were soon smothered in chemical works, coke furnaces, abattoirs, tar-pits, timber yards, foundries and gasworks. Such works were the epitome of a booming industrial city in Victorian times. It did not matter that one’s lungs were being choked so long as the skyline was commanded by factories, smokestacks, bridges and railways.
Just outside The Ferryman, you will find a barely legible plaque, unveiled in 2001, which tells the story of Ireland’s very first ambulance call. The catalyst for this tale was the sudden snap of a steel wire rope upon a steam trawler some 25 miles off the Irish coast. The wire whipped back with such ferocity that it fractured a man’s legs. The skipper steered straight for Sir John Rogerson’s Quay and alerted the firemen on duty at the quayside station. The brand new ambulance arrived presently. The man was stretchered into the ambulance, where his injured legs were bandaged and placed in splints, and ‘conveyed with all haste’ to Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital where the house surgeon was waiting, anesthetic in hand. Unfortunately the man died two days later. Nevertheless, much positive praise was bestowed upon the concept of being treated en route and upon the ambulance itself, which was designed by Captain Purcell, chief of the Dublin Fire Brigade.
The quayside was certainly quieter during the 20th century, not least from 1919 when the Gas Company coal-boats that once unloaded here relocated to the Grand Canal Docks. In 1934, the western end of the quay became the setting for the famous MAN Gasometre which towered over the river until demolished in 1993. During the 1940s and 1950s, one of the best known sounds along the South Quays was the voice of Mr Robinson bellowing out instructions from the salmon pink South Hailing Station on the corner of Rogerson’s and Britain Quay. From here, all incoming ships were advised which berth they were to proceed to. The three-bay, one-storey Hailing Station was built in 1907 and stood for a hundred years. As well as being vital to the direction of traffic along the South Quays, it was also a place where dockers could learn of ship arrivals and possible work. From 1916 to 1948, a time ball was located on the Station so that mariners could correct their chronometers, an essential task for estimating longitude at sea. Each day the time ball was released at 1pm GMT (Dublin Time having been replaced by GMT on 1st October 1916). The release of the ball was controlled by astronomers at Dunsink Observatory who determine time accurately by observing the transits of stars. Although a protected structure, The Station was ultimately deemed a health and safety risk and demolished in 2007.
During the International Eucharistic Congress of 1932, the Dutch East Indiaman, Marnix van Sint Aldegonde berthed along the quay. She was one of sixty-three vessels, including a dozen ocean liners and thirteen cross-channel passenger ships, which docked in Dublin that week. When foreign ships like these came in to berth, the quayside filled with curious Dubliners. Flirtatious women riding High Nellies, inquisitive shysters tumbling out of pubs, and an avalanche of children, all jostling to see what the cargo and crew were composed of. If the crew looked suitably gullible, the dockers would swindle the unfortunate visitors by buying their goods in return for Sweepstake tickets which they passed off as Irish currency. When the banana-boats came in, the children would race alongside it down to City Quay, catching bananas as they flew through the sky, thrown to them by genial sailors. The navvies on the American coalboats that moored along Britain Quay would shower children with chewing gum and cigarettes. The old Dublin Corporation ferry used to pull in by the steps, upon which young boys fished for whiting, or ‘joeys’ as they were known. Many women were employed at Britain Quay, gutting and packing fish, and making nets and sails. Conway Shipping operated a useful store here. Other women worked in for the Dublin Trawling Company’s ice and cold storage plant around the corner on Benson Street.
Sir John Rogerson’s Quay has been utterly transformed in the past decade. Where once dockers and sailors were on the prowl, now the streets are full of young city slickers, pram-pushing mothers and foreign tourists. Where once there were six pubs, now only The Ferryman remains. The dusty timber yards, gasworks and warehouses have been replaced by hotels, office blocks, high-rise apartments and public spaces. Many who work here now are employed in this burgeoning legal quarter, by firms such as Matheson Ormsby Prentice, Beauchamps, Dillon Eustace and McCann Fitzgerald. The latter has its impressive offices on the very site of the old Gasometer. Also here is the headquarters of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, who purchased the entire quay as part of the 25-acre Gasworks site in 1997.
By 2012, there will be almost 6,000 children under the age of 15 living in
the Docklands area. As part of their bid to promote the Docklands as a
quality family-friendly quarter, several children’s amenity parks are being
designed. 2009 sees the opening of the 1.5 hectare (3.7 acre) Chimney
Park, located behind Sir John Rogerson’s Quay at the base of the historic
red brick chimney which gives the park its name. This innovative children’s playground area was designed by Snug & Outdoor, working closely with children, schools and community representatives to establish just how they would like to use Chimney Park. A climbing structure made from plasticine by children from City Quay primary school will be incorporated into the actual playground.
Running east of the Docklands Authority’s offices to Benson Street are three new high-rise apartment blocks. Another park to the rear is being built on a theme drawn from the film ‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’. This European-style park will help generate the idea that this really is an area in which adults and children can enjoy living. The old timber yard at Cardiff Lane is now given over to the Maldron Hotel, the Ivory Building, Whitaker Square and the new offices of the Economic and Social Research Institute, co-founded by TK Whitaker.
On April 23rd 1922, a group of about forty men attempted to burn the Ulster Steamship Company’s vessel Rathlin Island while it lay at Rogerson’s Quay. The fire brigade put out the flames before much harm was done.
On July 12th 1939, a British Army pensioner named Thomas McGonagle, a van driver with the Dairy Engineering Company, was taking his wife and children along the Quays in his car when he lost control. The car plunged into the river, killing all four of them. The Times reported that the event took place at ‘Rogerson’s Quay in the heart of the Dublin docks during the morning rush hours, and thousands of people watched the motor car being raised from a crane after a driver had fixed chains to it’.
In December 1956, a car was fished out of the river containing the body of Eileen Smyth, wife of JJ Smyth, managing editor of The Irish Press. She and her husband had been reported missing by their daughter 9 days earlier. There was no trace of Mr Smyth, a Reuter correspondent and Arnhem war veteran, whose body was presumed to have been swept out to sea.
In August 1966, E.B. McManus, a member of the Radio Eireann authority that controlled the sound and TV broadcasting in Ireland was killed when his car plunged backwards off Rogerson’s Quay.