For three decades, the Dublin Port Diving Bell stood idly by on Sir Rogerson’s Quay, looking vaguely impressive, but useless. It was big, oddly shaped, and orange. But it was inaccessible, in every sense of the word. If you weren’t a marine engineer, you wouldn’t have known what it was, never mind the history behind it.
Then, earlier this year, the Dublin Port Company took the simple but dramatic step of raising it onto a platform, with doors, and installing explanatory exhibits inside, along with some watery special effects. And now suddenly, it’s Dublin’s newest museum – a miniature one, to be sure, but packing more fascination per square metre than most of the others.
Even with its roof raised, the bell is about the size of an average living room. During its century of operations on the seabed of Dublin bay, however, it had just enough head clearance for a six-footer to stand up straight inside it. But up to six men at a time did so, working four-hour shifts. And their combined labours, over several generations, were key to the transformation of Dublin from a tidal harbour to the deep sea port it is today.
Engineer of genius
Luckily for them, the operation was presided over – at least in its early years – by an engineer of genius. The magnificently named Bindon Blood Stoney had designed not just the bell, but also the enormous pre-cast concrete blocks used to construct the quay walls – at 350 tonnes each, seven times larger than the biggest blocks made previously.
The job of the bellmen was to flatten the sea-bed for them, shovelling up mud and laying gravel. It must have uncomfortable and claustrophobic work.
The hermetically sealed chamber had twice the normal atmospheric pressure which, among other inconveniences, made conversation impossible. The men selected for the job had to get special medical certificates to qualify. But they were in good hands. In nearly 90 years of operation, from 1871 to 1958, there is no record of a fatality in the workforce, or even a serious injury.
In 1930, an unidentified
reporter joined the workers in descending the 11-metre-tall funnel through which the bell was entered. This involved first waiting in an air-locked chamber at the top, until the pressure (maintained by a steam engine on the barge that always accompanied the work) was equalised with that below – a process that involved a painful drumming in the ears and a sensation of head-swelling. This lasted only a minute, on the way in and out of the funnel.
As for his experience in the main chamber, the reporter found it pleasant enough, if strange, and warmer than he expected, because of the compressed air.
By that time, the main chamber was equipped with such luxuries as electric light and a telephone.
Also, the shift had been reduced to 2½ hours. But the reporter didn’t envy the men who did the work, noting that the more inexperienced ones sometimes suffered bleeding ears and noses until they got used to it.
Speaking of blood, Stoney (who inherited the first two-thirds of his name from his maternal grandfather, Bindon Blood, nicknamed “the Vampire”) was long gone by then. He had retired in 1898 and died in 1909. But his innovations lived after him, as do several of the Liffey bridges, and the Boyne viaduct, which he also built.
The Stoneys were a family of scientific and engineering wonders. A brother of the engineer, George Johnstone Stoney, was the man credited with coining the term “electron”. A niece, Edith Anne Stoney, was also a noted physicist, but of the medical variety. And another cousin of the family, recently the subject of a film, was Alan Turing, the man who cracked the German Enigma code during the second World War.
Small as it is, the new bell-based installation was the work of some very talented people too, including architect Sean O’Laoire, sculptor Vivienne Roche, and Tom Cosgrove, professor of engineering at the University of Limerick.
The group also included the late Mary Mulvihill, science writer and tour guide, who died in June. She used to include the bell in her Ingenious Ireland walking tours, at a time when the structure couldn’t speak for itself. Now, it’s almost as eloquent as she was. And as well as commemorating the man who made it, and the many who worked in it, the new self-interpreting bell may also be considered a tribute to her.