Historical introduction – the City and the Port
Unlike at the present time when Dublin port is located at a significant distance from the city centre and functionally separated from the city centre, in medieval times the city and port of Dublin were completely intertwined. If we had visited Dublin in the seventeenth century, we would find the heart of the city, a thriving port, much further upstream – close to the present-day location of the Civic Offices and the Four Courts. This is surprising given that Dublin is not a natural port given its tidal and rocky character and tendency to silt-up very quickly. From the Anglo-Norman period, residents and officials engaged in successive attempts to modify the shape of the river channel to protect the economic viability of the city. Beyond what is now O’Connell Bridge, the river naturally widened dramatically into the bay which was full of dangerous sandbanks that made the approach to the city hazardous and resulted in many historic shipwrecks.
By the late-seventeenth century the idea of altering the river channel permanently resulted in the construction of ‘Wood Key’, ‘Blind Key’ and ‘Custom House Key’ on the southern bank of the river and later Ellis Quay on the north side of the river. But these did not solve the major problems of navigability and gardaully the port began to relocate eastwards in search of deeper water. Numerous proposals were also put forward to channelise the river to protect the economic viability of the city. In 1716 work began on the construction of a wall on the south side of the channel from Ringsend to Poolbeg. On the north side of the river, the North Bull Wall was constructed. The location at which the North and East Wall met became known as the Point and is the present-day location of the 3 Arena – formerly the Point Depot. The construction of these walls led to the reclamation and creation of new land east of the urban heart of the city at the time. These slob lands, captured between the north and east walls, had been surveyed in 1717 and divided into allotments or Lotts by the city council. New streets were laid out and street names, which remain today, honoured different powerful individuals at the time: the mayor, sheriff, guilds and the commons.
Continuous migration of the port eastward transformed the relationship between city and port on the northern side of the river as well as on the south side. The construction of Sir John Rogerson’s Quay in 1728 provided a clear indication that the focus of commercial activity was beginning to shift away from the medieval city. In the early eighteenth-century houses were constructed along the length of Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, even while water remained behind it. Like the area north of the river, the new land created on the south was divided into lotts to become known as the South Lotts.
Given the challenging nature of navigation and the need to ensure the continued operation of the port, Captain John Bligh, commander of the infamous HMS Bounty, was sent to Dublin in 1800 by the Admiralty to undertake a survey of, and suggest improvements to, the problematic river channel. He proposed the construction of a wall on the north side of the river parallel to the Great South Wall to improve the natural scouring effect of the channel. That wall was never built but it seems to have influenced the thinking of Francis Giles, who came to Dublin almost twenty years later and designed the North Bull Wall. Following the completion of this project in the 1830s, the river channel became much deeper enabling the docking of much larger vessels and growing trade.
Like today, the fortunes of Dublin city and port in the nineteenth century were closely tied to and dependent on external trade. The rapid expansion in global trade that occurred in the second half of the 19th century generated significant demand for deep-water berthage. The Dublin Port and Docks Board responded by developing deep-water quays downstream, entirely abandoning the area around the Custom House Docks which reverted to warehousing rather than ship-based activities. While the North Wall extension and the opening of the Alexandra Basin in 1885 had negative repercussions on the port areas further upstream, it did facilitate the accommodation of larger vessels and secured Dublin Port’s economic importance. The subsequent construction of a port wall and gates on East Wall Road to secure the port created not just a physical boundary but also compounded the functional separation of the city and port. However, on the positive side, it released large tracts of land for other functions including industrialisation of the former port lands. Coke works, chemical works, slaughterhouses and gasworks occupied key locations. The gasworks were attracted to the port because of their requirements for imported coal and coke and the need to use large quantities of water as a raw material to produce town gas. The production of town gas gave rise to several by-products that were used in developing the chemical industry, adding to the range of incompatible land uses that already existed in docklands. However, this economic activity and employment supported the development of a growing residential community. The St Laurence O’Toole Church built in the 1840s on Sherriff Street and the development of artisan cottages marked the beginnings of the development of a strong community in the area.
By the first half of the 20th century, the Dublin Port and Docks Board were continuing the reclamation of land from the bay. This continuing pattern might have been necessary to sustain trade, but it made large areas that were once central to the vitality of both the city and port completely obsolete. This gathered pace throughout the twentieth century, entirely altering the physical shape of Dublin Bay and the economic and demographic structure of the city. In 1941, the State transport company (CIÉ) acquired land from the Dublin Port and Docks Board to construct Busáras. This success was followed by the construction of a new postal sorting office at Sherriff Street, and the construction of Memorial Road over the original Custom House Dock, which had been infilled in 1927. During this time, the three blocks that became known as the Sheriff Street flats (St Laurence’s Mansions, St Bridget’s Gardens and Phil Shanahan House) were also constructed and remained a significant part of the history of this area until their demolition in the late 1990s.