Irish trains are named for rivers, while the planes in the Aer Lingus fleet carry the names of saints. This creates the lovely idea of locomotives flowing through the countryside and aircraft miraculously aloft in the ether.
But what about ships? The naming of ships is a more mysterious business, and anyone travelling along Dublin’s north quays recently might have spotted the intriguing signs that have suddenly appeared on the pair of structures (Scherzer Bridges) that sit over the road at Custom House Quay and North Wall Quay, flashing up odd words, that create a strange sort of poetry:
These are the work of artist Cliona Harmey and are the names of the most recent ships to arrive into and leave from Dublin Port. It’s one of those simple-on-the-surface ideas that can lead the mind down all sorts of fascinating labyrinths. It is also a reminder of the marine traffic that feeds this country with everything from fresh flowers and sandwiches to new cars and engine oil.
The project came out of Dublin City Council's Interaction with the City, a call for proposals, which has also given rise to works such as the Things We Throw Away, pop-up operas by Wide Open Opera and Anu Productions' The Boys of Foley Street.
A mystery to most
Sitting on the top floor of the offices of the Dublin Port Company, which is a partner in the project, as dusk falls and lights start to appear on container ships and cranes, you get a sense of the scale of the port and the massive logistics of shipping on a site that sits close to the city centre and yet remains a mystery to most people.
Dublin Port Company chief executive Eamonn O’Reilly gestures across the expanse of land; there are more than 600 acres here, not including the sea.
“It’s taken 300 years to build,” he says. “But the port has lost its relationship with the city. When large squads of manual labourers worked here and when ships could navigate all the way up to Carlisle Bridge [now O’Connell Bridge], the port was part of Dublin. As mechanisation happened, the community bond lessened.”
Now, with intermittent talk of moving the whole thing farther north, O’Reilly is keen to re-establish that bond and connection with the city.
Nothing reinforces the sense of Ireland as an island nation more than the sight of the huge container ships and the complicated mechanical ballet of loading and unloading that goes on in the port.
Harmey's signage is based on the automatic identification system, through which ships transmit their call signs, exchanged via an online database. A visit to the unexpectedly compelling website Marinetraffic.com reveals that, on average, 600 ships are moving around the edges of Ireland at any time.
During the depths of the recession, O’Reilly says, when fewer goods were being moved around the world, you could see thick clusters of ships parked in the deep water harbours of Singapore and the coastal waters of Scotland, waiting for things to get moving again; last year volume at the port increased by 7 per cent, making 2014 its best year ever.
Go further into the website, and you can discover the destination of each individual ship. So the Jonathan Swift is en route to Holyhead, the Stolt Egret is going to Eastham, while down off Cork, the Aine Christina has registered her destination as "anywhere but here".
For Harmey, who grew up by the sea in Wicklow, the project goes beyond the mysterious magic and meanings that the poetic qualities of ships’ names – which include allusions to maritime trade, cargoes, historical figures and distant places – can impart.
“The work also attempts to interrupt the speed of instantaneous digital data and return it to the speed of movement of real entities in space,” she says. It’s an interesting thought, a timely reminder that we’re connected by a network plying the seas, bringing us all those items, from the luxurious to the necessary, the throwaway to the life-saving, while also providing an export route for our goods.
The idea of time is also important. Back when shipping went right up the Liffey into the heart of the city, a "time ball" was prominent on the roof of the Ballast Office at the corner of Aston Quay and Westmoreland Street. In James Joyce's Stephen Hero, Stephen tells Cranly that the clock is "capable of epiphany" though only "an item in the catalogue of Dublin's street furniture". Leopold Bloom remarks on it in Ulysses. Linked by telegraph to the Dunsink Observatory, the time ball dropped at 1pm Greenwich Mean Time each day, so that sailors could set the clocks in order to calculate longitude, vital then for navigation.
Back then, time elsewhere was a more fluid thing. Different parts of the country had different times, and it was only from the 1830s, when the railways began to spread out across Ireland, that clocks had to be co-ordinated, in order to enable meaningful timetabling. (It wasn’t until 1916 that the 25 minute 21 second time difference between Ireland and Britain was legally eliminated.)
Docklands and shipping have fascinated artists and writers, appearing in contemporary art in the work of Joy Gerrard and Stephen McKenna, and more grittily in TV and movies, including The Wire and On the Waterfront. They are often characterised as vaguely lawless places (although nothing could be more orderly than the comings and goings at Dublin Port). Perhaps, in this way, they're a reminder of that other function of cities: as gathering places for newcomers, new cultures, places of difference and dissent, before these impulses get absorbed, calmed and assimilated out into the community.
Michel Foucault, the French philosopher who had a great facility for noticing things that are only obvious after he's pointed them out, described the idea of places on the edges of society, where we site those things, necessary to the smooth running of our lives, but that we would otherwise prefer to ignore. He called these heterotopias, as a sort of a companion to the idea of utopia, and included prisons, cruise ships and graveyards in the mix. Docks come under this heading too: not quite part of the city, but inseparable from our lives.
Harmey's project is a brilliant reminder of the comings and goings that form the fabric of a connected country. It also injects a magical moment into the rhythm of the day; follow on Twitter @dubships to get an updated feed of what's happening out there. I see that European Endeavour has just arrived, but it's time to wave goodbye to Thun Gratitude.
THE DIVING BELL: A QUAY INSTALLATION
Look out for The Diving Bell, commissioned by the Dublin Port Company, a refurbished diving bell by the beautifully named Bindon Blood Stoney. The installation, which has been designed by Sean O'Laoire, with Vivienne Roche and Mary Mulvihill, is currently being installed on Sir John Rogerson's Quay.