Dublin Moving East 1708-1844: How the City took over the Sea, by Michael Branagan, Wordwell, 304 pp, €35, ISBN: 978-1916492264
Derry’s Guildhall, Titanic Belfast, Cork’s Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Dublin’s Custom House: these are all “signature” buildings that have helped define their cities and they have one thing in common. They are all built on “made land”, that is on ground that has been “reclaimed” by human action from sea or tidal river. The sites in each case have an older history, being the locale for dirty industry, quayside warehousing or civic recreation. But all such reclaimed grounds, however ancient the intake, rest close to the water table. In the fullness of time, our descendants may realise that perhaps it is only borrowed land, not something permanently alienated, once the inexorable rise of sea levels begins to be felt.
Michael Branagan’s impressive book has, however, an essentially upbeat tone. “Taking over the sea” is a bold statement, suggesting a purposive agency shaping the process. But as the history of most of Ireland’s cities shows, the reclamation of land outside the walled core of medieval ports was a slow and halting process, one that spanned generations and was punctuated by setbacks and failure. The century and a half that Branagan focuses on here were indeed critical years for Dublin and for the downstream move both of port activity and of the central business district, and this tectonic shift posed both practical and institutional challenges. The shallow and treacherous character of Dublin Bay remained a constant difficulty that was only mitigated in the 1820s with the arrival of steam power on the sea and the (coincidental) elimination of the bar at the harbour entrance. The wider context for this shift eastwards was of course the huge growth in Dublin’s population that had begun in the early seventeenth century and the even stronger growth in the volume of shipping using the port.
Thus there were long and complex struggles to make the port safer for shipping and to increase the capacity of the quays for the loading and discharge of goods and passengers. Others have sought to tell this story – notably HA Gilligan with his History of the Port of Dublin (1988) – and much of it features within the Dublin fascicles published by the Irish Historic Towns Atlas. But Branagan has sought to tell the story with his own particular brio, and he has been fortunate to have attracted sponsorship from the Dublin Port Company, which perhaps explains the remarkable abundance of fine illustrations and contemporary maps. Indeed it is a very handsome piece of book-making.
Appearances however deceive a little. The images in their profusion seem to have an almost independent life, perhaps because the text often wanders far from the theme, reflecting Branagan’s general curiosity about Dublin’s history, rather than teasing out the principal issues. Many images lack relevance and a few are unfortunately mistitled. Some bigger questions are never asked. Why, for instance, was the development of southside docklands so different from the northside; was it all to do with the peculiarities of the Liffey channel, or to proprietorial geography, to railway politics or to the coming of the live cattle trade? And some questions are touched on too briefly, such as the sources for the stone and the infill that were required for the vast process of reclamation and estuarine wall-building; Branagan tantalisingly suggests that apart from the mud constantly dredged up from the river, “night soil” from the city was a major element in creating the broad acres south of Sir John Rogerson’s Quay (and he deploys recent archaeological findings to support this). And where did the labour come from that was engaged in stone-breaking, quay-building, pile driving and the endless movement of mud and middens? There is a striking contrast between the exceptionally slow construction of the Great South Wall, from the 1710s to the 1790s, and the rapid building of the North Bull Wall in the 1820s. The slow completion of the great two-mile mole that extends far into Dublin Bay to the Poolbeg Light reflected both engineering failure and financial constraints – and labour was the principal component of those costs. But we learn almost nothing about that labour: were they “cits” or countrymen (like the railway navvies that came after)? Branagan does point to the very different story of the Bull Wall, where the deployment of labour had an almost military character, with substantial numbers of workers housed on a hulk anchored nearby. Thus the great wall from the Clontarf shore was completed in less than five years.
The maps and minute books, parliamentary reports and private estate papers on which this story depends all give a necessarily top-down view of the process. The voices of the Ringsend pilots or of the packet-boat captains as they coped with the many perils of Dublin Bay are not, indeed cannot, be heard. But Branagan (and others before him) have been a little too inclined to invest public agencies – the Ballast Office (later Ballast Board), the Wide Streets Commissioners, and Dublin Corporation itself – with a more potent role in shaping outcomes than was the reality. Great plans for reclamation were nothing without the smell of profit, and the character of the move eastwards was far more influenced by the actions of the many small and a few large-scale investors and speculators, and it is only the painstaking reconstruction of the proprietorial history of individual streets in the dockland districts that will clarify this process.
There was however one exception, one state agency in that era that really did impose its will on the riverscape. This was the Revenue Commissioners – before, during and immediately after the construction of the new Custom House. The principal commissioner at that time, John Beresford, was almost alone in having a strategic vision as how the port should develop around Gandon’s great palace, and indeed his ambitions for the site directly influenced the Grand Canal Company to construct a link down to the river and create the great white elephant that was the Grand Canal Docks, nearly opposite the gleaming Custom House.
A generation later it was the new railway companies that reshaped Dublin’s east side, the high embankments of both the Dublin & Kingstown and the Dublin & Drogheda Railways dividing fledgling communities and altering property values and commercial opportunities far into the future. Again, these were private limited liability companies, their planning a reflection of topography and cost-cutting, not the prior plans of higher authority.
The story of Dublin’s colonisation of Dublin Bay is therefore a critical element in Dublin’s post-medieval development, and a great deal of what is relevant to understanding that process gets a mention here. But it is something of an opportunity missed, for loose copy-editing and an overly discursive narrative too often distract the reader from the central argument, and one longs for the inclusion of some bespoke interpretative maps. The modern cartographer after all operates to a very different agenda from that of the elegant mapmakers and surveyors whose work enhances these pages. That absence might perhaps be addressed in a revised edition.
David Dickson has recently published The First Irish Cities: An Eighteenth-Century Transformation (Yale University Press, 2021). It was reviewed in the December issue of the Dublin Review of Books.