Changing times: Dublin Bay as it was 300 years ago

How will the bay look to us as our environment – and climate change – continue to affect it?

 

You don’t really expect the chief executive of Dublin Port Company to introduce himself as “a fan of the planning process, a fan of environmental-impact assessments”.

Eamonn O’Reilly does, after all, belong to a class of people described by a Belgian author on the social role of seaports as having a “monomaniac capitalist mentality”.

According to Erik Van Hooydonk, ports today have “a very negative image, which is mainly due to the environmental pressures and pollution risks they cause . . . the dubious reputation of the shipping industry, the uninspired, strictly utilitarian design of port facilities and the dehumanisation of port areas”.

But it turns out that O’Reilly is a fan of Van Hooydonk as well, and has sought to incorporate what Van Hooydonk calls “soft values” – respect for cultural and natural heritage – into the company’s master plan for the reinvention of Dublin Port over the next 40 years.

This is what enabled O’Reilly to bring together a remarkable spectrum of historical and environmental specialists at Dublin Bay: History and Environment, a conference to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the modern port this week, organised by the ecologist Richard Nairn.

Most of the participants at this packed public event, who ranged from architects, archaeologists and historians to experts on birds, whales and coastal processes, had led studies commissioned by Dublin Port Company that will feed into the execution of the master plan. For example, BirdWatch Ireland is engaged in an unprecedented study of bird behaviour and response to disturbance in Dublin Bay.

O’Reilly tells The Irish Times that the outcome of such studies will inform and limit the implementation of the plan. The port has to recognise, he continues, that it has “constituents” – the citizens of Dublin – “who have legitimate interests, beyond the range of our immediate customers”.

“It is much better to engage with these constituents before we finalise our plans than to fight them in the courts for the next 30 years. And because I wear a suit and do a particular job does not mean that I am setting out to destroy the environment. We might build a more ‘efficient’ port if we had a free hand, but would it be a better port?”

Most Dubliners probably have little knowledge of the port area. The city certainly celebrates the River Liffey, yet it seems to turn its face away from it once it approaches the sea. But Niall Brady, an archaeologist who has just completed the most extensive underwater survey of the area ever, reminded the conference that the 1297 seal of the city showed maritime trade intimately linked, literally in the one boat, with the city’s guilds.

In a theme that would recur throughout the day, he also pointed out that the development of a port is heavily conditioned by the original topography or shape of the bay, although the port structures will alter that topography almost beyond recognition over time.

Loop Line Bridge

It is hard to imagine that only 300 years ago the river opened into the sea roughly at Liberty Hall, where the Loop Line Bridge is today, that there was a vast inlet on the south side between that area and the narrow spit of land then tipped by Ringsend, and that there was open water where North Bull Island now lies.

An extraordinary series of historical maps shown to us by the planner Rob Goodbody, some of which were uncovered in the Dublin Port Company archive during recent research, vividly illustrated how a sequence of formidable engineering and infrastructural initiatives have changed the topography of the bay.

Adrian Bell, a coastal engineer, demonstrated equally clearly how the fundamental interaction of winds, tides and sand in the bay have responded to those changes.

The gradual construction of the South Wall led to the (fairly) straightforward infilling of the South Lotts area between the old city and Ringsend.

Cormac Lowth, a historian, recounted how, in the 19th century, a dynamic fishing fleet expanded here, based on a close relationship between Ringsend and the port of Brixham, in Devon, whose intimacy is still reflected in local surnames.

Capt Bligh of the

Bounty

The history of the North Wall is also complex, for different reasons. It was not, as is often thought, designed by Capt Bligh of the Bounty. Bligh did propose a north wall in 1803, but his plan was to run it east-west, parallel to the South Wall. Dublin Corporation eventually decided to build the new wall southeast from Clontarf.

The idea was to halt the accumulation of sand – the bar – that coastal dynamics deposited across the mouth of the port and severely limited the size of ship that could dock in Dublin. The plan was remarkably successful, with the bar dropping by several metres over 50 years, an instance of long-term planning we badly need to emulate today.

An unexpected outcome was the creation of North Bull Island as the sand that would have swollen the bar accumulated against this new obstruction.

As Mark McCorry, an ecologist, and Maryann Harris, a city council parks superintendent, amply demonstrated, this accidental island is now a natural habitat of first-rank international importance, and recognised as a Unesco biosphere reserve.

The great significance of the bay for bird, marine and cetacean species was described, respectively, by Nairn, by the marine biologist Jim Wilson and by Simon Berrow of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group.

What emerged above all from these accounts was the dynamism of this complex ecosystem and its creatures, in interaction with an equally dynamic human culture.

The built environment offers some niches to species whose original habitats have been destroyed by development. Terns, for example, evolution’s more elegant variation on the seagull, have taken to nesting on abandoned port installations. Dublin Port Company is now creating entirely artificial floating nest sites specifically for them, and the population is increasing. Brent geese are learning to eat agricultural feed spilled on the docks. Beautiful plants like sea sandwort now bloom in crannies in stone walls.

But it would be culpably naive to conclude that all is well, that there is some kind of self-regulating balance between nature and infrastructure in the port. Most of the speakers made some references to disturbing and growing evidence of negative aspects of climate change.

The final contribution, from the geographer Robert Devoy, was a stark wake-up call that sea-level rises and increasingly severe storms mean “we are at a point of very significant change . . . beyond anything recent generations could understand. We are going to have to get used to coastal towns’ defences breaking down, homes falling into the sea. I am not saying this lightly; we have got to consider retreat from coastal areas.”

I asked Eamonn O’Reilly to what extent his organisation’s master plan was taking such drastic prospects into account. “The level at which we build the port feeds into our thinking already,” he said. “But I believe the timescale will be different to what scientists are saying now. I’m comfortable that what we are proposing over the next 30-40 years will be okay.”

Time will tell.

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