Docklands: A History

The city of Dublin has, for the most part, developed around the Docklands over the last three centuries. The structure, shape and character of the Docklands area itself was firmly established during the Georgian period of Dublin, approximately between 1700 and 1825.

The impetus behind this development was the desire to make navigable an extremely hazardous Dublin Port. At the beginning of the 18th century, the Liffey mingled with the Dodder on the southside and the Tolka on the northside to create many dangerous and unpredictable sandbanks across the mouth of the Liffey. These semi-submerged bars were a great danger to navigation and ships often ran aground.

In 1717 the Dublin Civic Assembly (now Dublin City Council) set about improving this situation. Their plan was a simple one. They built restraining walls on the north and south of the Liffey - the 'North Wall' and 'South Wall' respectively - defining a channel for 7 kilometres, and built another to contain the Tolka - the 'East Wall'. The North Wall and the East Wall meet at the 'Point', creating a new peninsula of reclaimed land in Dublin Bay. The Assembly named the new streets within this new area after themselves: Sherriff, Mayor, Common and Guild and they divided the land into small lotts that were distributed by lottery, hence the name 'North Lotts'.

On the southside, the embankment of the Liffey reclaimed another area of land, similarly termed 'South Lotts'. The South Wall itself, one of the best constructed breakwaters of its kind in the world, eventually extended from Ringsend into the Bay for nearly three and a half miles, preventing the build up of sand deposits and thereby improving passage for approaching ships. The safety of the port was finally assured by the building from the northern shore at Clontarf, in the 19th century, of a similar breakwater, the 'North Bull' which nearly meets the south wall and completes the enclosure of the mouth of the Liffey.

The improvements to the port meant that the previously flourishing area around Ringsend, which relied on being the safest point of access for shipping trade, was now bypassed and by the mid-19th century it had already began to decline. The exodus of the wealthy population during the 19th century from the city to the suburbs, encouraged by improvements in transportation, rendered the north inner city an almost exclusively working class society with all the attendant deprivations.

By the early 20th century the pressing issue of sanitary housing provision resulted in a great majority of people being rehoused in new suburban areas. This trend was further encouraged by the Myles Wright Plan (1966), adopted by Dublin Corporation which proposed a new echelon of outer suburbs to the west of the city, served by new roads. This in turn encouraged land-zoning, excessive car reliance and suburban sprawl á la the American model (prompting some to quip that "Myles Wright was miles wrong").
The mounting problems of the north docklands were compounded by the loss of its major source of traditional employment in the port industry, from the 1950s on, when containerisation largely replaced dockers' labour. Until then boats were loaded by the shoulder but now one container did the work of 20 men. Huge unemployment ensued and many families moved out. At the same the Corporation started to use the consequent vacancies in the newly -built Sherriff Street flats to house many families-at-risk. These factors combined with a heroin problem amongst the unemployed destabilised the community until the current renewal efforts in the 1990s, although conversely they fostered a strong community spirit determined to break the cycle of hardship.

Posted by Reflecting City Team on Wednesday, September 17, 2008
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