Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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THE DOCKLANDS - EAST WALL

'Dublin Docklands - An Urban Voyageis a work in progress, commissioned by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, and due to be completed in the autumn of 2008. The following tale represents research I have undertaken for the project which may or may not be used in the final book.

EAST WALL - A POTTED HISTORY

Three hundred years ago, the streets of East Wall (An Port Thoir) comprised of nothing but mud flats, almost entirely submerged beneath the tidal waters of the River Tolka and Dublin Bay. In 1710, the Ballast Office began construction of the North Wall in order to contain the Liffey and reclaim the North Lotts. By 1728, the City’s engineers had constructed the first sections of a massive enclosing wall - the East Wall - that effectively created the lands on which the residential precinct of the East Wall now stands. The reclaimed area included most of the North Dock Ward and the Catholic parish of St. Laurence O'Toole. The East Wall Road runs from the Point Village on the North Wall, up the north-west side of Dublin Port to meet Poplar Row at Annesley Bridge. The west side of East Wall is bound by North Strand Road, which crosses the Royal Canal at Newcomen Bridge and meets the East Wall Road by Annesley Bridge. This working class stronghold is home to the East Point Business Park and the Docklands Innovation Park.

The Railways

Initially the community here had a distinctly nautical bent, focused upon the Royal Canal and Dublin Port. With the coming of the railways in the 1840s, the new residents of East Wall combined a traditional sea-faring role with that of servicing the new railway system. Skilled and unskilled, Catholic and Protestant, rural and urban ... the East Wall was soon swarming with men, women and children from all over the British Isles. Many from Ulster found work as engine drivers and railway men with the Great Northern Railway where Seán O’Casey would later work. A mostly Protestant influx from England, Scotland and Wales found employment with the London & North Western Railway on the North Wall. Still more were to be found working as mechanics and ship-builders or queuing up along the docks of the Liffey, awaiting the nod of the stevedore. The large number of streets named after places in Wexford suggests a considerable presence from that county. Sean O’Casey’s father Michael came to the East Wall as a teacher. The Protestant 'swaddlers' got their church of St Barnabas in 1870. The Catholics attended St Laurence O'Toole's Church on Sheriff Street, opened in 1850, until St Joseph’s Church (known as ‘The Little Tin Church’) was erected on Church Road in the early 1900s. (The engineer Bindon Blood Stoney lived in the next door Fir Cottage).

1911 School Boy Strike

Prior to the First World War, East Wall was an exceptionally poor area, one of the worst in Europe, with death rates verging on twice the national average. On 13th September 1911, the teachers of the Wharf National School in East Wall arrived to find ominous words written in chalk upon the school door: ‘Strike, boys, strike for Free Books and shorter hours and to get home daily at 12:30 for Lunch’. The school thus became the first in Ireland to go on strike. The revolution was plotted at secret meetings in held in fields by night. The knickerbocker-clad, cap-wearing school boys had formed themselves into a line four deep close to the school and dug in their heels. Any boy who attempted to go to school was turned back by pickets. When the School Attendance Officer approached, he was loudly booed. Generally it was a peaceful affair although blacklegs were pelted with cabbage stalks and stones and, when some parents tried to intervene, they were attacked and driven back. The next day, the strike continued. And the next, and the next. Their grievances were perfectly reasonable. The schools were often filthy and many children became ill because of the long hours they were obliged to spend there. Books were so expensive they cost a hard-working man a full weeks wages to but juts one copy. Alas it seems the strike petered out after a week without any of the schoolboy’s demands met. But one can only imagine the sense of purpose it gave to a class of 12 year olds on the eve of the War of Independence. (Information courtesy of Kevin Byrne, East Walls Schoolboy Strike 1911, East Wall Festival Brochure 1975).

Gradual Isolation

The community became increasingly isolated after the great railway tracks were laid upon the ground in the 1840s, cutting the main arteries of Church Road, East Road and West Road off from direct access with the North Wall communities of the Sherriff Street neighbourhood. Now known as an East Wall stronghold, Church Road originally came to a point just opposite St Laurence O’Toole’s Church in the North Wall. As the railways and canals expanded, the southern end of Church Road was cut off from Seville Place. Adding to the sense of claustrophobia, the construction of the Great Norther Railway embankment removed North Strand’s once uninterrupted view of Dublin Bay. Many lived in new cottages built and owned by the companies who employed them. Men worked hard and drank harder while the women raised their large families and scrubbed the home floorboards spotless every morning. But if life was difficult, the people were generally tough and buoyant. Music was a ritual, and sport an institution. As early as 1904, the four young Grace brothers of Caledon Road were to be found playing handball against the side wall of Brennan’s shop on Church Road. (An icon of this sport was Seamus O’Hanlon of Church Road who went on to found the Irish Amateur Handball Association). Despite the pre-eminence of the GAA, there were two local soccer clubs, Strandville and St Barnabas, who played in Fairview Park. These would later inspire the rivalry plot in O’Casey’s ‘The Silver Tassie’.

Runner-In's& the New School

East Wall remained unchanged until the Rev DH Hall began building new semi-detached houses in the area after the First World War. By then most of the community were working class Catholics although Canon Hall was careful to ensure his houses were built on an ecumenical basis. In the 1930s, Dublin Corporation followed suit and deliberately established an inner city area in the East Wall, starting at Russell Avenue. The area was still considered part of the countryside at this time. Before the Great War, the well-to-do had sailed their yachts along East Wall Road. The James Long Challenge Cup, based at the Wharf, was a popular excuse for local shipbuilders to showcase their latest yachts. The Wharf Road Sailing Club continued to orchestrate yacht races off East Wall Road as late as 1927 but the sea was already starting to fade out of view as more lands were reclaimed and more factories built.

Many of the new Corporation houses were occupied by former tenement dwellers from Pearse Street. The newcomers were known as Runner-In's. In the 1920s and 1930s, East Wall children were either educated at St Laurence O’Toole’s School in North Wall, or at a school (where the infant’s school now stands?) on the East Wall Road. In 1939, East Wall got its own school when St Joseph’s opened on St Mary’s Road. There were gallant nurses and midwives who looked after expectant mothers. Sister Vincent ran a food centre on Church Road where children would gather with billy cans to be filled with potatos, stew and rice – with a ‘penn-worth of custard’ to flavour the rice. When food became scarce after the Second World War, a horse-trainer called Nugent killed off his herd of cattle to provide a week’s supply of meat to East Wall.

Local Characters

Harrison’s Bakery, Johnny Cullen's Dairy and the Hibernian Dairy were landmarks of Church Road in the 1930s. There were plenty of characters in the neighbourhood. One of Johnny Cullen’s milkmen was a young boy called Seamus ‘Tich’ Tyrrell. With Johnny’s encouragement, Tich approached Brackenstown trainer Paddy Usher and said he wanted to be a jockey. Usher gave him the job and by the 1940s, Tich was Ireland’s top jockey. There was Fluter Good, immortalized in ‘The Plough & the Stars’, whose job was to build jumps out of hay for young horses. For many decades there was no bus service between the city and East Wall but one enterprising soul ran a private shuttle service to Amiens Street. He could not be relied on though as once ‘he had enough made, he’d go off into the Wharf and have a few pints’. More villainous intents were behind Conker Barry, famed for stealing clothes off the lines and pawning them off, and Josh Bollans, the headless horseman who lost all his money in an ill-advised flutter and was hung on West Road.

But the whole community - indigenous East Wallers and the newcomers (known as 'Runner-In's') - were increasingly cut off from the rest of the City, a feeling reinforced by the dwindling employment opportunities and the physical barriers of the ever busy East Wall Road and East Road. Up until the 1960s, the view from East Wall Road took in Dublin Bay spreading out to Fairview and Clontarf. But now the road was developed by portside businesses and the view vanished. The local Protestant community must have felt particularly low when St Barnabas's Church was demolished and replaced by a carwash.

Nonetheless, during the 1960s and 1970s, East Wall was still pulsating with the noise of flour mills, printing works, timber yards, granaries, coal yards, warehouses, dockyards and railways. The biggest employer was the British & Irish Steam Packet Company, commonly known as B&I. Rathborne Candles, Wiggins Teape, Cahill's Printers and Collen Brothers Construction also had a significant local presence.

Pride & Football

Perhaps the sense of isolation was not all bad. It certainly gave East Wallers a common bond, cemented in the clubs and churches, Cusack's and Gringers. From the 1950s through to the 1970s, the community created an increasing sense of identity that permeated throughout the streets. When St Joseph's Church was sold off in the 1940s (to become a furniture factory by the 1970s), two local women Mary Desmond and Clare Carberry launched a church building fund that resulted in the construction of the brand new Byzantone-style St Joseph's Church built in its stead and completed in 1955. The East Wall United Football Club (now East Wall Wharf United) was founded in 1949 – 1950 and became one of the most successful junior clubs in Ireland. At the same time, an East Waller by name of Hubert Fuller and Father Larry Redmond, young curate at St Joseph’s, combined forces with the bus drivers and conductors of the CIE (from the Mens Section of the Legion of Mary) to launch The Famous Streets Soccer League. All the streets of East Wall and North Strand were canvassed for sprightly young lads who’d play ball. Teams were assembled and matches played at Fairview Park. At these matches, the crowds were entertained by the St Joseph’s Boys Club Band, also established by Father Redmond, aided by Sergeant O’Rourke of the Army School of Music. The streets erupted with clubs and organizations, catering to everything from swimming and karate to the Wharf Tavern Social Club and the St Mary’s Youth Club on Strangford Road. Both St Joseph’s Indoor Bowling Club and the East Wall Scouts were formed in 1972; the Wharf Sailing Club was revived in 1975; the Ladies Leisure Club in 1976. In the 1980s, the community combined to build the Viking ship 'Dyflin'.

The East Wall Festival

It was this sense of pride the propelled the organizers of the East Wall & North Strand Festival which ran from 1975 to 1978. The event was actually born out of the tragic drowning of Johnny Hogan who, at 18 years of age, was treasurer of the Mini Olympics Committee and a promising Youth Leader with St Mary’s Youth Club. Jim Quigley, Chairman of the East Wall Residents Association, gathered all the clubs and organisations in the area together to plot ways of helping the Hogan family. From this voluntary gathering came the organising committee of the festival. Tony Gregory played a key role. President Cearbhall O Dalaigh was amongst the first visitors. The Festival of June 1976 was specifically designed to halt plans to run a motorway through the community. Alderman Kevin Byrne urged the community to display ‘bunting and flags from every house in every road and street’ to show the world they were a living community with traditions and pride. It worked. The festival comprised a Parade from Russell Avenue Playground up Church Road and then up at down East Wall, concluding on St Mary’s Road. One highlight was the Soap Box Derby, a trolley race down the hump back bridge (known as 'Johnny Cullen's Hill') which separated East Wall from the North Wall. Youngsters would line up trolleys made from old pallets of wood with steel bearing wheels and and then clatter off downhill at high speed while their mothers were busy fixing bunting from the bedroom windows to the garden railing. There was a talent show, a ladies dance, a basketball tournament, a karate match, GAA and soccer matches, sack races, pram races, a fancy dress contest for children, darts and debates, raffles and quizzes and concerts by the likes of Chips and Sandie Jones. The festival may not have survived but it did give East Wall a taste of the aesthetic. Indeed, among those early participants was East Wall sculptor John Behan, RHA, celebrated for his bull sculptures. So too was Joe Moran, whose bronze and wooden sculpture ‘The Door’, was unveiled at the Library Plaza in Ringsend in March 2008 to raise awareness around domestic violence. Alderman Kevin Byrne is himself a poet and writer of repute, and co-founded the Saor-Ollscoil na hÉireann (Free University of Ireland) in 1986.

Modern Times

Under the direction of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority and Dublin City Council, East Wall has witnessed further regeneration in recent years. Dermot Pierce’s East Point Business Park north of the Tolka may have provided an inspiration but it was the community itself who took the lead. A community centre and park, both named for Sean O’Casey, will both be operational by 2009. The local population numbered about 3600 in 2004 with a higher than average number over the age of 65. Most of those who work are employed in manufacturing, transport and commerce. Work is underway on over 400 new houses and apartments along the East Road, as well as a large underground car park. The hook-shaped Church Road is being developed as the centre of a new ‘East Wall Village’ with St. Joseph’s Church as the spiritual, communal and practical focal point. The playground at Russell Avenue East, recently upgraded, provides an additional focal point while the Community Centre on St. Mary’s Road North also has the potential to act as a functional centre piece within East Wall.

Docklands Innovation Park

East Wall Road is home to the Docklands Innovation Park, headquarters of Ireland's only special interest radio station, Dublin City FM (formerly Anna Livia). The station broadcasts on 103.2FM seven days a week from 07:00 - 02:00. Among the programs that the station produces and broadcasts is ‘Sound School’ in which secondary schools from the Docklands present their own show over the course of the school year. The Innovation Park is also home to the After School Study Programme offices, helping local students prepare for the junior certificate and leaving certificate exams.

The Seán O’Casey Park

Located on Church Road, the small pocket park was officially opened by Bertie Ahern on 12th February 2007. The transformation of this hitherto unattractive C.I.E. wasteland was a collaborative effort between the East Wall Community Council, Dublin City Council, C.I.E. and the Docklands Authority. Under the direction of Hugh McKenna, over forty tons of material and topsoil were removed to make way for a plantation covered in dark green Heliz Hibernica ivy and ten semi-mature Silver Birch trees. The black stone wall was also rebuilt and new gates installed. The Seán O’Casey Park is an example of the Dockland’s Authority’s commitment to social regeneration, ensuring both young and old now have easy access to an important and vital amenity.

The Sean O’Casey Community Centre

The memory of Seán O’Casey is also recalled in the Seán O’Casey Community Centre in the East Wall. The Centre has been designed by award winning architects O'Donnell + Tuomey. Due to be completed in 2009, it will offer a range of facilities for the entire community, particularly senior citizens and pre-school children, including a theatre, gym, pre-school, games room, pottery room, gardens and café.

With thanks to Joe Mooney (former chairman of the East Wall Residents' Association), Marcel Lindsay and Owen Binchy.

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