Dublin Bay: Nature and History

The following text was kindly supplied by Richard Nairn from the wonderful book Dublin Bay: Nature and History. Essential reading for those who wishes to learn more about the history and inhabitants of Dublin Bay.

Stone Age Dubliners

Over 6,000 years ago there were several small settlements around the shoreline of Dublin Bay in the Mesolithic Period (Middle Stone Age). These people lived in small huts made of timber poles, perhaps roofed with rushes, turfs or even seal skins. This was a boat-based community with transport routes along the coastline and camps at the river mouths. Here there were shellfish to collect, fish to trap and seal pups to hunt in the breeding season. Although the Viking discoveries in Dublin are best known, recent excavations at number of city centre locations have revealed that Dublin has a much older, prehistoric past. The earliest of these sites was uncovered at Spencer Dock on the north side of the Liffey near what was then the mouth of the river. Here a previously unrecorded Mesolithic shoreline and the remains of up to five wooden fish traps were identified. The traps were formed around rows of stakes driven into the sand at low tide. These were interwoven with wooden rods to create fences that were used to funnel fish at high tide into traps formed out of wattle baskets. Fish swimming in with the incoming tide would get caught in the traps and could then be retrieved by fishermen at low tide, when they could walk out across the sands from the shore.

Viking Dublin

When the first Viking raiding parties beached their wooden ships in Dublin Bay in the ninth century, they found a wide estuary with river channels winding between sand and mudflats. At least 59 Viking graves have been discovered in the Kilmainham-Islandbridge area. Each of the Vikings was buried with artefacts such as weapons which shows that large numbers of warriors were coming to Dublin at this time. The Vikings established an enclosure or longphort on the banks of the river Liffey which they could defend and use as a base to raid other parts of the Irish coast. Excavations in this area have shown that the town was enclosed by an earthen bank beneath a post and wattle fence. Within it there were streets laid out around the hill. The outlines of at least 150 houses have been uncovered in this area, each with vegetable plots, gardens and refuse dumps. There were animal enclosures, workshops and storehouses in the town suggesting a settled community that was farming the surrounding land. The town was a hub for craftmakers using raw materials such as wood, leather, bone, antler, amber and metals. By the late ninth century Dublin had become an important trading centre.

Medieval Dublin

By the end of the 13th Century the Anglo-Norman town of Dublin had outgrown the original Norse-Irish Settlement in both size and sophistication. Churches dominated the urban skyline and the wooden quaysides on the Liffey were being replaced by stone piers. Because of the dangers to larger ships from the shallow sandbars in the Bay and the river the King was informed that merchants might no longer have access to the town. Dalkey at the southern limit of the Bay was already being used as a mooring to transfer goods to smaller vessels which could then enter the river. In 1610 a lease of some waterfront lands at the mouth of the River Poddle, east of the city, marked the start of reclamation of islands and mudflats on the south side of the Liffey estuary that would ultimately continue all the way to Ringsend. John Speed’s map of the city in 1610 shows a number of waterside walls on both north and south river banks. By the 17th century Dublin had become a major international trading centre and the early maps show a rapid expansion of building around the Bay.

Beginnings of Dublin Port

The modern history of Dublin Bay and the Port of Dublin began in the early eighteenth century, with attempts to alter the Bay to suit the needs of shipping and commerce. Previous alterations had taken place along the banks of the Liffey, extending the land out into the water and enclosing the river within quays or walls. Much of the land occupied by Dublin’s quays today was reclaimed from the river. The beginning of the eighteenth century saw this trend change to encroach on the Bay itself, rather than just the river banks. At this time, Ringsend was a narrow spit, projecting out into the Bay with a broad swathe of water between this spit and the city. Early maps show channels near to Ringsend Point strewn with wrecked ships, which reflects the danger the Bay presented to shipping, with its shifting sands and shallow waters. At the edge of the Liffey, near to the northern side of the present Butt Bridge, a series of wicker baskets full of stones, known as kishes, were set down in the water to form a barrier and behind this an embankment of sand, gravel and mud was piled to create an enclosure. This was the beginning of Custom House Quay and North Wall Quay.

Dublin Port Archive
The Silting Problem in Dublin Bay

In times past, Dublin Bay had a long-running problem with silting, notably at the mouth of the River Liffey. After years of primitive dredging, an attempt to maintain a clear channel more effectively was begun when, in 1715, the first piles were driven of what was to become the Great South Wall, completed in 1730. This barrier was breached by storm action some years later, and in 1761, a stone pier was commenced, working from the Poolbeg Lighthouse (1768), back to shore, the construction of massive granite blocks being completed in 1795. It was during this period that the building of a North Bull Wall was also proposed, and when it was seen that the South Wall did not solve the silting problem, the authorities responsible for Dublin Port commissioned studies on the matter. Captain William Bligh, of Bounty fame, surveyed Dublin Bay for the Ballast Board in 1801, highlighting the potential of the North Bull sandbank. Its purpose was to clear a sandbar by Venturi action.

Accidental Creation of a Nature Reserve

A wooden bridge, the first Bull Bridge, was erected in 1819 to facilitate the construction of a stone wall, based on a design by Ballast Board engineer, George Halpin. Started in 1820, the Bull Wall was completed in 1825, at a cost of £95,000.

Over the succeeding 48 years, the natural tidal effects created by the walls deepened the entry to the Liffey from 1.8 m to 4.8 m. Much of the silt now scoured from the river course was deposited on the North Bull, and a true island began to emerge, with people venturing out to the growing beach. The volume of visitors was increased by the commencement of horse tram services to Clontarf in 1873, and further by the laying of a full tram line to Howth, opening in 1900, with stops in the Clontarf / Dollymount area, and a Coast Guard station was built at the landward end of the Bull Wall.

Early Usage of the Island

The island continued to grow in extent, from the Bull Wall towards Howth Head. In addition to picnics and swimming, the island was used for shooting practice, and in 1880, an international rifle match between Ireland and the USA was held there, with an audience numbering several thousand. In 1889, the Royal Dublin Golf, then located at Sutton, sought and received permission of Colonel Vernon and the Dublin Port and Docks Board to lay out a golf course at the city end of the island, and construct a clubhouse.

Sometime in the early 20th century, a track suitable for walking and handcarts, running from a slipway at the point where the Howth Road comes from Raheny's village centre down to the coast, was formed. Usable at low tide, this 150m track allowed access to the island for leisure and beachcombing (timber, coal and other items lost overboard from ships accessing Dublin Port were washed up on the island's strand).

Between 1906 and 1907, a new Bull Bridge was constructed – it is still standing. Then, in 1912, the Dollymount Sea Scouts (9th Dublin (2nd Port of Dublin)) were formed, taking part of the disused Coast Guard station as their den ("Crow's Nest") – the troop continues to operate from there, now called 5th Port Dollymount.