Since 1997 the day-to-day running of Dublin Port is managed by Dublin Port Company (DPC), which traces its 300-year-old history back to 1708, writes Lar Joye, port heritage director, Dublin Port Company.

Dublin Port Company is a self-financing, private limited company wholly owned by the state, whose business is to manage Dublin Port.  

Due the presence of nature reserves and special areas of conservation, the port, which has been moving eastwards though reclamation since 1708 ,can no longer expand that way. Therefore DPC set out the Masterplan (2012-2040) and how it aims to improve the capacity of the port while integrating with Dublin city.

Restoration of 19th century Diving Bell

Central to that redevelopment is the idea of Port City Integration and using its 300-year-old archive to tell the story of the port. To show its commitment DPC has recently developed a series of heritage projects including the restoration of a 19th century Diving Bell in 2015(1) and the opening up of the area around Dublin Port's headquarters in 2017(2).  

At the same time, the port has created a 'soft values' policy and Port Perspectives Engagement Programme which engages with the communities around the port through art, music and theatre aimed at integrating Dublin Port with Dublin city and its citizens.

In 2016, DPC sponsored an exhibition of the work by the Belgian artist Eugeen Van Mieghem at the Hugh Lane Gallery and commissioned three artists to create site-specific public artworks in response to the theme of Dublin Port's relationship with the city. These were: Sheelagh Broderick 'Port Walks'; Silvia Loeffler 'Gateway: A deep mapping of Dublin Port'(3); and WEMI and Cliona Harmey 'Port/River/City'.

In the same year. DPC worked with 12 of Ireland's leading songwriters to compose and perform songs based on the same theme, the symbiotic relationship between the port and city.

Curated by Irish songwriter Paul Noonan, and Gary Sheehan of the National Concert Hall, the songs were performed there over two nights in June 2016 and, more recently, this has been turned into a film, Starboard Home, directed by Rob Davis, Elton Mullally and Moira Sweeney.  

In 2018 DPC commissioned two theatre projects with the Abbey Theatre: In our veins by Lee Coffey and Last orders at the dockside by Dermot Bolger.

Vast collection

Under the 1996 Harbours Act there is requirement for Irish Ports to look after its archives and, in 2017, I  was appointed to look after the Dublin Port Archive. Within these 300-year-old chronicles, which cover the history of the port from its foundation in 1707, there is a vast collection that includes:

  • 60 charts and maps from 1660 to 1819;
  • 78,000 photographs from 1861 to 2017 including 3,300 35mm colour slides. From 1955 to 1970;
  • 950 bound registers detailing the history of the port;
  • 30,000 engineers' drawings, and including one showing the move eastwards of the port;
  • Miscellaneous artefacts such as a diving helmet and sextants etc;
  • Paper material covering the period from 1790 to 1960s. 

The archive is housed in a number of buildings and does not yet have a reading room for researchers, so a website has been created to highlight the collection. 

The cataloguing of archive collection is continuing, with the scanning of the nationally important engineering drawings beginning in 2019. This will provide public access to 4,500 engineering drawings from the 19th century later in 2019. 

The eventual plan is to have an archive building which will house the port collections as well as a National Maritime Archive.

Important role of engineers 

What the port archive collection helps tell us is the history of Dublin and its port. In particular, the important role of generations of engineers in expanding the city eastwards. Dublin was not always the country’s largest port city.

In the 17th century, Dublin bay presented major dangers for shipping and trade with Britain and Europe. In 1674 it was described as in its natural state, “wild, open and exposed to every wind”. Ships frequently had to seek shelter at two small seaside villages, Clontarf to the north, or at Ringsend on the south of the city.   

In certain wind conditions ships could not reach the city for several weeks at a time and shipwrecks were common. In addition, the Liffey river silted up, denying ships access to city, while many ship captains dumped excess ballast into the river causing blockages. At this time ballast was needed on sailing ships when they were not full of cargo.

To overcome these problems, in 1706, Dublin Corporation established the Ballast Committee as a separate entity to manage the port. Prior to that, port affairs were conducted as a department in the corporation.  

In 1716 work began on a bank to protect the southside of the river, running from Ringsend to Poolbeg. The south bank provided only limited protection for shipping and in 1753, after a particularly stormy winter, the bank began to be replaced with a wall – the South Bull Wall.  

A 'bull' is another word for 'strand', and the strands on either side of the mouth of the Liffey were known as North and South Bulls. The Poolbeg Lighthouse was built next and was lit on September 29, 1767.  

Longest sea wall

Over the next 30 years the construction of the wall would work its way out to the lighthouse, finally being completed in 1792 – making it the longest sea wall at the time with a measurement of 5km.

In 1800, a three-month survey of Dublin bay by Captain William Bligh, who is remembered for his role in the mutiny on the HMS Bounty, recommended that another wall should be constructed, parallel to the South Bull Wall to prevent sand building up in the mouth of the harbour.

He correctly forecast that this would create a natural scouring action that would deepen the river channel. It would be another 19 years before construction was begun by the Inspector of Works, George Halpin, and the surveyor, Francis Giles.  

When the North Bull Wall was completed in 1824 sand gradually accumulated along its side until an island emerged – Bull Island, which is now a nature reserve, beach and part of the Dublin bay UNESCO designated biosphere.

Two hundred years later both walls are still providing the function of keeping the modern port open, while the south wall is now a protected structure, acknowledging its engineering importance and 18th century structure.

Dublin merchants dissatisfied

Despite the building of the wall Dublin merchants were dissatisfied with the running of the port at the end of 18th century and, in 1786, control of the port was transferred from Dublin Corporation to a new authority, the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port Of Dublin, which was controlled by merchants and property owners.  

Later it was given responsibility for maintaining lifeboats in Dublin Bay in 1801 and in 1810 lighthouses around the country. George Halpin was the inspector of works for 50 years and worked in developing Dublin Port and building lighthouses around Ireland while his son, who worked as his assistant, took over and served until 1862.

Throughout the 19th century the port developed eastwards from the city, leading to the development of the quays and the building of various bridges. The first big move was the new Custom House, which opened in the 1790s.  

This move was initially opposed by many merchants who had their business in the older medieval city based around Dublin Castle. Five years after the opening of the Custom House a purpose-built dock began operating in 1796 and, in 1821, it was supplemented by George’s Dock.   

From 1836 construction work began on deep-water berths at the North Wall extension and this was extended in the 1870s. This work was undertaken by the new port engineer, Bindon Blood Stoney, who used the diving bell and large concrete blocks to build the new quays quickly and efficiently. 

Shipbuilding also started in the port with the building of a graving dock by William Dargan.   

In 1867 the Ballast Board was replaced by the Dublin Port and Docks Board and, by that stage, it had lost responsibility for lifeboats and lighthouses.  

The Commissioners of Irish Lights took over the responsibility for lighthouses, a role it still has today as does the Royal National Lifeboat Association for lifeboats.   

A bespoke headquarters office was built for the port at 19-21 Westmoreland Street, overlooking the River Liffey. Though the building itself was not distinctive in design, it formed part of an elegant streetscape framing a view to Trinity College and the Irish Parliament Building (now Bank of Ireland). 

What made the building famous in Dublin and distinctive was the ‘Ballast Office Clock’ mounted over the front door. In 1870 the clock was connected by telegraph wire to Greenwich Observatory making this the most accurate public clock in Dublin at the time.

It became established as a popular rendezvous point for people – 'Meet you under the Ballast Office Clock' was a well-known refrain in Dublin.

Creation of deep-water berths

For the port, expansion continued as the Alexandra Basin led to the creation of more deep-water berths. The foundation stone for the basin, laid by Princess Alexandra, Princess of Wales, in 1886, and it finally opened before the beginning of the First World War.    

The Irish Free State was created on December 6, 1922, with the last British Army soldier leaving the new state on Sunday, December 17, from Dublin Port. 

The consequences for the port were substantial as imports from England were no longer exempt from customs regulations. Joseph Mallagh, the chief engineer from 1916 to 1940, extended the port and built bonded transit sheds, warehousing and customs facilities for the new state. 

During the Second World War, Ireland remained neutral and, naturally, less ships visited the port but expansion continued when the Ocean Pier, to the southeast of Alexandra Basin, was completed in 1945.

The 1950s brought the first roll-on, roll-off services, and container traffic increasingly dominated port business from the 1970s. The older parts of the port around the Custom House could not service larger modern ships and this area was handed over to a Docklands Development Agency in the 1980s. Today the port operates in the area east of the 3Arena and the East Link bridge on both sides of the river.

Future plans

In 2018 a Port Heritage and Communication’s Department (PHC) was created to assist in the implementation of the key aims of the Masterplan 2012-2040 and this team are involved in a variety of corporate social responsibility policies, tangible and intangible soft values, and various port heritage projects.

Looking to the future plans, permission has been given for a 4.2km greenway along the northern edge of the port. It will tie in with a heritage trail from O’Connell Street bridge down to the port and a proposed greenway along East Wall road. 

In December 2018, the Port Heritage and Communication’s team tendered for an architect-led multidisciplinary design team to create and develop a masterplan for the Flour Mill Cultural Quarter.

In May 2019, Grafton Architects were awarded the contract for the masterplan. At the same time, other parts of the port's physical history will be restored including the 1905 Electricity substation, the Graving Docks Heritage Zone and the reinstallation of Crane 292 on the quays.  

Finally, the embracement of theatre will also continue over the next year when the award-winning theatre companies Anu Productions and Landmark Productions will stage a site-specific theatre show based on the collections of the Dublin Port Archive about the War of Independence. 

Port engineers and inspectors of work

  • Francis Tunstall, supervisor of works from  1787 till his death in 1800.
  • George Halpin, inspector of works from 1800.
  • George  Halpin II, engineer of lighthouses and works 1854 to 1862.
  • Bindin Blood Stoney, chief engineer, 1862 to 1898.  *
  • Sir John Purser Griffith, chief engineer, 1899 to 1913.
  • John W Griffith 1913 to 1916.
  • Joseph Mallagh, chief engineer, 1916 to 1940. *
  • Francis Bond, chief engineer, 1941 to 1953.
  • Cornelius J Buckley, chief engineer, 1953 to 1965. * 
  • Paul M O'Sullivan, chief engineer, 1965 to 1974. 
  • Michael C Smyth, chief engineer, 1974 to 1986. 
  • Michael F Ennis, chief engineer, 1986 to 1989.
  • Brian D Torpey, chief engineer,  1989 to 1999.

*Presidents of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland

Author: Lar Joye, port heritage director, Dublin Port Company.


[1]1.) The 90-ton Diving Bell dates from 1871 and was designed by the then Dublin Port engineer Bindon Blood Stoney. DPC decided to create a more permanent display raising the Diving Bell off the ground and building a small museum underneath which opened in 2015. This popular museum receives 105,000 visitors each year.

[1] 2.) In October 2016 DPC announced details of a new project to soften its boundaries to the city and provide public realm at Port Centre for the first time in 35 years. This so far has been the largest physical intervention by Dublin Port to reintegrate the port with the city, as committed to in the company’s 2040 Masterplan. The original Port Centre had been built by Scott Tallon Walker and opened in 1981. The aim of the project was to significantly soften and enliven the port’s boundaries with the city creating new public spaces, a maritime-inspired garden, architectural design and the reinstallation of a 1957 heritage crane. It was opened in October 2017 by the then Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.


4.) [1]