A nostalgic visit to the North Wall Quay in Dublin

View from North Wall Quay today

View from North Wall Quay today

A recent visit to the impressive and imaginatively designed Convention Centre in the International Financial Services Centre located around the North Wall area of eastside Dublin brought me to a place I had not been to since the 1960’s, as a youngster travelling from Birmingham to the west of Ireland for the annual holiday with grandparents.
That whole area has been transformed dramatically since I was last there. It is now a conglomeration of modern day edifices of concrete, steel and glass. Some remain empty, while others await final completion or whatever fate may be in store for them, all casualties of the frenetic, unprecedented, construction and development boom that took place in Ireland during the so called Celtic Tiger era. A time from which the country has, sadly, learned a much documented hard lesson and for which its economy, and its people, have paid a bitter price.

The modern scene that presents today gives no indication of the very different scenario that once existed along the North Wall quay on the north bank of the River Liffey, the major river artery flowing through Dublin and meeting, a short distance down river from the North Wall, the waters of the Irish Sea. A convergence overlooked over by the two tall, historic, and landmark “Poolbeg Chimneys” part of the Poolbeg Electricity Generating Station, still known locally as “The Pigeon House”, the name of an earlier generating station at this location. The North Wall was indeed a significant part of the whole “docklands” area spread along the north and south banks of the Liffey between Dublin city centre and the sea.

In earlier times the scene at the North Wall was quite different from the present aspect, with busy goods warehouses ranging along the length of the quay, cargo and passenger ships arriving and departing, and all the bustle of a busy dock area which provided welcome employment for local workers. The mix of traffic along the road outside, cobbled in places, included a variety of horse drawn carts conveying goods to and from the dock warehouses.

Across the road from the quay stood the buildings of the London & North West Hotel owned by an English railway company and ship owner of that name (later to be known as the British Rail Hotel) and that company’s office building and railway goods yard. Both buildings are still extant, silent and empty, their architectural design of yesterday contrasting refreshingly with their neighbouring modern day structures.

Dublin Convention Centre

Dublin Convention Centre


All of the activity I have described has now gone from this area, overtaken in the march of time and progress by more modern means of travel, particularly with the introduction of high speed passenger/vehicle ferries and the advent of cheaper air travel, and innovative “multi-modal” methods for the handling and transport of cargoes. Essentially, the old “docklands” area of Dublin is now thriving in a new location developing near the river mouth, busy as ever with passenger traffic and cargo handling.

My visit to the North Wall was nostalgic as, standing at the edge of the old quay, now a pleasant walkway, I recalled how as a youngster in the 1950’s and 1960’s, with my family, I had at this very place on many occasions disembarked from and embarked upon the B& I Line vessels “Leinster” and “Munster” tied up at the quayside. These vessels resplendent, as I recall, in an attractive dark green white and black livery “sailed” overnight, departing Liverpool and Dublin at 10 o’clock in the evening and arriving at their respective ports of destination around 7 o’clock in the morning. Cabins could be taken for the night for restful sleep before the early morning arrival in Dublin.

The two ships, floating illuminated palaces to an impressionable youngster like myself, would silently “pass in the night” somewhere along the North Wales coast. Travelling on these ships was a wondrous adventure and an integral part of the annual holiday “pilgrimage” to the west of Ireland.

To stand at the deck rail of the ship as it ploughed the dark waters of the sea somewhere below, braving the wind and the occasional lash of sea spray in the face, and looking over in the direction of the North Wales coast before gaining or leaving the pitch blackness of the open Irish Sea, a myriad of town and village lights could be seen, stretching the whole length of the coastline like a string of fairy lights.

The early morning arrival of the ship at the North Wall and its tying up at the quayside was a captivating experience for the young observer. The ship, having turned around near the mouth of the Liffey, would navigate stern first up river to come alongside the quay at the North Wall where deckhands and onshore “dockers”, with the casting and catching of ropes and all the loud vocal exchanges that would accompany the task in hand, would proceed to firmly secure the vessel to quayside bollards and other “mooring” fixtures. I noted that some of the latter are still in place.

On one occasion, following disembarkation, youthful inquisitiveness and a tentative enquiry of one of the ship’s crew as to how the ship was “driven” resulted in an enthusiastically taken up invitation (an invitation which probably could not be extended nowadays with Health & Safety restrictions!) to my brother and myself to go below decks, into the very bowels of the ship, to see its engines. On reaching the engine room, and meeting a wall of heat generated by the hard labouring of the engines during the ship’s nocturnal journey we viewed, wide-eyed, the mighty diesel turbines which powered the ship. An enviable experience, we decided, and one to boast about to our peers when we returning to school after the holidays!

London & North West Railway Offices

London & North West Railway Offices

In those pre-drive on/drive off ferry days my father would book passage on the ship for the family car. At Princes Dock East in Liverpool the car would be craned into the ships hold and craned out again at the North Wall in Dublin by large dockside cranes essentially used for loading and unloading ship’s cargoes. On disembarkation at the North Wall we had to wait for a period for our car to be extracted from the ship’s hold and then it would appear, being pushed through the warehouse to where we were waiting by a gang of dockers. Then, a friendly “resident” member of the RAC (Royal Automobile Club) would assist my father with Custom’s Clearance and all the legal formalities associated with the “importation” of a vehicle into the Republic of Ireland, albeit for a short holiday period, before we sped off to our holiday destination in “the West”.

A feature of the post-holiday voyage from the North Wall back to Liverpool by the “Leinster” or the “Munster” I recall would be the early morning offloading of Irish cattle from the ship at Birkenhead Docks, with the ship then navigating across the River Mersey to enter the Liverpool tidal lock system enabling it to access its berth at Princes Dock East.

No more do these two ships “pass in the night”. All the above has gone, consigned to the proverbial annuls of history. Coincidentally, during my short visit to Dublin which led to my nostalgic journey back in time, news came that Stena Line, the present day operators of the seasonal high speed ferry service between Holyhead in North Wales and Dun Laoghaire south of Dublin, had finally, for economic reasons, closed down that service, ending many centuries of passenger travel, and countless journeys by Irish men and women on that sea route. A great many of the travellers were emigrants in pursuit of gainful employment and a new life away from Ireland. Thus, ends an historic service, one which in its time had also been entrusted with the important carriage of mails to and from Ireland, and the closure of yet another maritime era.

Michael Fox – February 2015