Turtle Bunbury

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'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 undertaken for the project which may or may not be used in the final book.


For nearly 200 years, Pigeonhouse Harbour was the main packet station for the boats that came from England laden with post, commercial missives and government directives. These packet boats were the swift, cutting edge ships of their day and frequently carried well-to-do passengers on board. Indeed, during the late 18th century, the Pigeonhouse became a fashionable rendezvous for society’s wits and intelligencia. As Ringsend lay between the Pigeonhouse and the City, the village attracted considerable business from the passing trade until the early 19th century when the main packet ship station was transferred to Howth and later to Kingstown. The loss of this trade had a profound impact on the village’s revenue and it went into decline.

The Green Patch

The Green Patch is a small isolated parcel of land between the Salmon Pool and Poolbeg, which remains dry at high tide. [Is it still there!] Pitched at the entrance to Dublin Bay, its strategic location became pivotal in the 17th century when the English Tudor elite built a fortified outpost. Faced by the constant threat of an Armada invasion from Europe, they were determined to keep watch over any dispossessed Irish chieftains tempted to set sail for Spain or France in pursuit of military assistance. In those times, few of the heavy merchant ships would dare cross the treacherous Dublin Bar. At this time, trade ships tended to dock in Dalkey Sound and unload there; the goods being carried overland along the coastal road to Donnybrook. However, the Green Patch also served as a useful staging post for these ships to unload onto lighters and rafts in the estuary.

In 1731, the Green Patch marked the point where the wooden piles used to build the Great South Wall came to a halt. Indeed, it was known as ‘The Pile Ends’ when the Ballast Office brought their stone wall out to the Green Patch. Completed in 1759, the wall provided both vital channel protection and a new road link to the fishing village of Ringsend (and from there to the City). In 1766, the Ballast Office directed that two new wharfs be built at either side of the South Wall near a building, already complete, referred to as the Blockhouse.

A Snack Amongst the Pidgeons

The Blockhouse was almost certainly the first building of the Pigeonhouse precinct. Its purpose was simply to store tools along with useful flotsam and jetsam salvaged by the Corporation. It also acted as a watch house and place of refuge for those forced to land in bad weather. Legend has it that it was built by John Pidgeon in 1760 and that he became caretaker of the store the following year. While the South Wall was under construction, the gentry were frequently seen sailing their pleasure craft between here and Ringsend in summer months, to examine the works in progress. Other interested parties came by road. Mr Pidgeon, a man of initiative, redesigned the Blockhouse as a place where these same well-to-do Dubliners might avail of light meals and refreshments, gamely served up by Mrs Pidgeon and her daughters. In time, Mr Pidgeon purchased a boat, painted it in bold colours, and rented it out to his distinguished visitors. And lo, ‘his rude hostelry soon grew to be a noted resort of distinguished citizens and wits, while the owner found himself on the fair road to fortune’. The blockhouse came to be known to all as "Pidgeon's House", or the Pigeonhouse, and so it is to this day.

The Pigeonhouse Hotel & the Long Coach

In 1786, the year of Mr Pidgeon’s death, the Ballast Office was established in Dublin. Before 1786, there were three buildings on the ‘Green Patch’ (the Pidgeon’s Blockhouse, a secondary storehouse and a customs and excise outpost). In 1787, the Ballast Office developed the precinct considerably with the construction of an eight room lofted building. The principal resident was Francis Tunstall, stonecutter, mason and, most importantly, the Board’s new Inspector of Works. Also accommodated here was the new caretaker, Patrick O’Brien, and his wife. The O’Brien’s continued the Pidgeon tradition of serving refreshments. In 1793, the Pigeonhouse Habour (or Dock) was completed when new walls built in the Liffey channel met with the South Wall to form a calm water basin. Although never a brilliant harbour, this dock served as a Packet Station for the Holyhead ships and enabled passengers to disembark at the Pigeonhouse quays. In order to cater to these new visitors, the Pigeonhouse Hotel was built, with Mrs Tunstall as its manageress. According to a contemporary account, the hotel boasted twenty five chimney pieces – fourteen of black stone, nine of Kilkenny marble and two of mountain stone. From here guests were transported to and from Dublin City in a ‘Long Coach', a half hour journey in a rickety carriage capable of ‘holding 16 inside passengers and as many outside, with all their luggage’. A passenger on this Long Coach in 1810 likened his journey to an ‘earthly purgatory’ on board Noah’s Ark, ‘the clean and the unclean’ together, everybody crammed together and smelling of sea-sick. It was, concluded the author, ‘no bed of roses’.[1]

Plucking the Pigeons

When the Earl of Westmoreland left Ireland after his Lord Lieutenancy had finished in January 1795, it was to a packet ship at the Pigeonhouse that the State Coach took him. He was escorted by a squadron of dragon guards, as well as the Lord Mayor, the Sheriffs, several Aldermen and many leading citizens. His Lordship was in for a tough journey. The crossing from Holyhead in these frail vessels generally took between eighteen and thirty hours. Sometimes winds were so contrary, the ships were obliged to ready about and return to port. Arriving at the Pigeonhouse Customs was not always a pleasant Irish start for those stomach-churned and exhausted passengers as they became prey for what the initiated knew as ‘Plucking the Pigeons’. In 1806, for instance, Sir Charles Hoare complained bitterly how, in addition to paying standard duty at the Customs depot, he was obliged to pay no less than twelve different Customs officers before he could proceed on his journey. That said, if the voyage was unduly delayed, the passage itself was taken as complimentary. Hoare’s remarks evidently caused a stir for, by 1810, Nathaniel Jefferys praised the Customs for ‘giving as little trouble as possible to persons frequently fatigued by a tedious passage and sea-sickness’.[2]

Press Gangs & Other Rascals

Life at the Pidgeonhouse was not all and crumpets and tea. Luckless emigrants headed for England were sometimes press-ganged. There were occasional attacks and plundering by ‘desperate banditti armed with swords and pistols’.[3] In 1793, the Half-Moon Battery, a three-gun platform battery, was built along the South Wall to protect ships from such privateers. Smugglers were often at large, awaiting darkness and fog so they might sail under Annesley Bridge and unload their contraband in Fairview. There was a constant threat of invasion from France. And in 1798, it became suddenly apparent that there was a massive danger of a rebellion within Ireland.

"On Friday morning 27 poor haymakers attending at the Pigeonhouse in order to be put on board ship for England, were seized by a press-gang and put on board a tender - the commander of the press-gang telling them at the same time that if they were able to mow hay, they could have no objection to mow the enemies of their country, and they should have passage, diet, &c., gratis."
The Dublin Chronicle, 3rd August, 1790

Hotel Barracks

Following the 1798 Rebellion, the government requisitioned the hotel as a military stronghold. The ‘Hotel Barracks’, as Captain Bligh called them in 1800, remained an army base for nearly 100 years. By 1800, they had built the Pigeonhouse Fort, with the hotel at its heart. This was to serve partly as a repository for State papers, bullion, and other valuables in time of disturbance, and partly for the defence of the Port against attacks from either land or sea. Work was soon to get underway on the fifteen Martello Towers that would ring Dublin Bay. After Emmet’s rising of 1803, an armoury and a guardhouse were built to command the road from Ringsend. 24-pounder guns were installed and trained upon the river mouth; they can still be seen today [check, where?]. The War Department subsequently built soldiers quarters, stores, batteries, a magazine and tanks for fresh water. Two defensive gateways were built along the South Wall, protected by trenches cut into the paved surfaces and crossed by windlass-operated drawbridges. In 1814, the Government formally purchased the hotel and other buildings from the Ballast office.

Emmet & the Pigeonhouse Fort

The barracks were one the chosen targets for attack during Robert Emmet’s ill-fated rebellion of 1803. When Sean O'Casey and his brothers took up acting in East Wall in the 1880s, they must have been familiar with Dion Boucicault's profoundly inaccurate 1884 play ‘Robert Emmet’, which depicts Emmet as a Roman Catholic, John Philpot Curran as a Unionist, and concludes with Emmet being killed onstage by a firing squad. Educated at Trinity College, the 24-year-old Protestant revolutionary Robert Emmet was determined to reinvigorate the spirit of rebellion that had been so miserably crushed in 1798. Amongst his friends was the timber merchant Thomas Brangan. Over the course of 1802, Brangan’s horse-drawn carts had conveyed two or three wagon loads of arms to a secret depot in Irishtown. A ‘great quantity of pikes’ were concealed in hollow beams of timber. This presumably included a weapon of Emmet’s invention - a folding pike, fitted with a hinge, which could be concealed under a cloak. Brangan was all set to lead an assault on the Pigeonhouse Fort. Madden relates that ‘on several occasions, they [Emmet and Brangan] walked across the strand when the tide was out to take plans of the Pigeon House and make observations’.[4] Indeed, the rebellion was supposed to begin at the Pigeonhouse. However, on 23rd July, another arms depot exploded prematurely. The authorities were alerted, Emmet gave the nod and the rising erupted on the streets around Dublin Castle. In Irishtown, Brangan and his men awaited the signal to attack – a rocket which was to be fired into the sky. It never happened. Emmet was appalled by the violence of his supporters. Lord Kilwarden, Chief Justice of Ireland - and a man who had sympathised with Wolfe Tone – was dragged from his carriage by a frenzied mob and hacked to death. When Emmet personally witnessed a dragoon being hauled from his horse and murdered, he paled and called the rising off. Brangan quickly went on the run, abandoning his wife and four children, and made his way to Portugal. He became a Captain in the 3rd Regiment of the Irish brigade, served gallantly in the Peninsula War and was killed in a duel in 1811. Meanwhile, Emmet was captured when he tried to see his sweetheart, Sarah Curran. Under sentence of death, he delivered his powerful Speech from the Dock: ‘Let my character and my motives repose in obscurity and peace, till other times and other men can do them justice. Then shall my character be vindicated; then may my epitaph be written.’ On 20th September, he was taken by coach to St Catharine’s Church at Thomas Street where he was hanged and beheaded once dead.

Tragedy on the Rocks

In November 1807, the Prince of Wales and the Rochdale sailed from Pigeonhouse only to be wrecked with enormous loss of life on the South Bull between Blackrock and Sandymount two days later.

Changing Times

When the North Bull Wall was built in the 19th century, it provided the necessary receding tide to sluice away the Dublin Bar to a manageable depth of 16 feet. In 1813, the Packet service was transferred to Howth. The average duration of the passage from Pigeonhouse to Holyhead was 18 hours. From Howth it was only 12 hours; seven hours when steam packets were introduced. Pigeonhouse harbour continued as an occasional landing place, especially for the Liverpool packets. Although still technically available for guests, the hotel was now an officer’s quarters. When the Duke of Dorset passed away in 1815, some 200 ‘carriages of the Nobility and the Gentry’ escorted his coffin to the waiting ship at the Pigeon-house.[5] In December 1821, the Marquis of Wellesley arrived at the Fort amidst heavy rains to take up the Viceregal office. His voyage had been delayed by three days. As he disembarked, he was informed that he had missed a procession of ‘the broad-cloth weavers of the Liberty’ who, accompanied by a golden fleece and a flag inscribed ‘The Sons of Jason welcome the Marquis Wellesley’, had gathered along the South Wall to pay him homage.[6]

The Times Tragedy

By 1850, the old Revenue Barracks had become the fort hospital. The location of some form of medical centre made sense given the high number of ships that seemed to collide in the foggy estuary. In June 1853, Dr Gilburn, the resident physician, and Colonel Savage of the Royal Artillery, were faced with a horrific tragedy when a boiler on board the Times screw steamer exploded just as the vessel was passing the Fort. This instantly scalded many of those on board, humans and livestock, creating an utterly appalling scene. At least eight people were killed.[7] The steamboat had only been built 18 months earlier and was sailing for the Dublin & Liverpool Steam Packet Company.

Action Stations!

It is said the Pigeonhouse soldiers were never called upon to fire their guns in anger, save to intimidate some of the hundreds of thousands who gathered across the river in Clontarf for Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal of the Union monster meeting. For the most part, the Fort was simply a training barracks from which 21 gun salutes were fired for Royal births, weddings and deaths. They were, for instance, fired at the death of William IV in 1837, the death of Earl Bessborough, the Lord Lieutenant, in 1847; Queen Victoria’s first steps in Dublin during her state visit of 1849; and when Prince Albert (later Edward VII) attended the Irish International Exhibition in 1865. When the Pigeonhouse guns batteries rang, they were generally answered by the firing of a rocket from the Phoenix Park barracks and a salute from the ships of war anchored off Dun Laoghaoire (Kingstown). However, the Fort was placed on high alert during the Fenian troubles of 1866 and 1867. One commentator was Charles Dickens who alarmed the authorities with an eloquent description of just how easy it would be for the rebels to conquer Dublin. What, he asked, would happen if two or three hundred Fenians managed to seize a steamer and make their way to the Fort, ‘lower a boat, send it with half a dozen men and muffled oars to surprise and gag the sentry’. The following year, Dickens returned to the Fort and declared that ‘some military harlequin had come with his wand and touched the place’, renewing the stockades and outposts, refurbishing the guns and drawbridge. In 1868, the Barrack Report registered the full complement at Pigeonhouse Fort as thirteen officers, 242 non-commissioned officers and men (none married), 6 horse officers and 6 troop horses.

The Lazaretto

In 1873, Lord Pembroke offered a site on the South Wall for the building of a temporary hospital – or lazaretto - where cholera sufferers arriving in Ireland could be quarantined before they headed into the city.[8] However, the military in the Fort strongly objected. At the time Dublin’s barracks were under increasing scrutiny from a media convinced the were unhealthy and fever-riddled. Florence Nightingale had set this thought in motion two decades earlier with the Barrack Report. There was a genuine concern that the Fort did not have its own freshwater supply and several soldiers perished of cholera during this time.

Army Retreat

In the 1880s, there were still sentries guarding its portals, armed men tramping around its courtyards and salvoes of artillery resounding around the batteries. During the land agitation of December 1880, a storeship called Staveley arrived at Pigeonhouse direct from the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich and unloaded 20,000 rounds of buck shot and a huge number of trenching tools, lanterns, candles and matches for the use of the army in Ireland. However, the soldiers garrisoned at Pigeonhouse were not summoned into battle that time either. The Fort gradually lapsed into disuse, and was finally dismantled and sold to Dublin Corporation in 1897 for £65,000. The army retained, in perpetuity, a right of way through the precinct for their troops. The fort was never used for military purposes again although during the Great War it was identified as a vital landmark that the German Navy might feasibly attempt to control.

Sludge Systems

At the White Bank, near Costello’s, just east of the Pigeonfort, you can still see a penstock house. (Still there?) Between 1878 and 1881, the Rathmines and Pembroke townships completed a huge drainage project. Untreated sewage was then discharged through a station on Londonbridge Road down a 1.8 metre diametre pipeline and into the Liffey estuary at this penstock house. In 1897, the Corporation began developing a metropolitan sewerage system for Dublin, which opened in 1906. All sewage passed through sludge beds which occupied 90% of the Pigeonhouse Harbour. For many decades, the residual effluent from this was dumped into the Liffey east of the power station while the sludge was taken out by boat and dumped in a line extending due east of the Baily lighthouse.

Rejecting the Toast

An early symbol of troubles ahead came in September 1906 when the Improvements Committee of Dublin Corporation brought a large number of guests on a short cruise down the Liffey on board the Corporation steamer Shamrock to view the new main drainage works at the Pigeonhouse. Among those on board was Alderman Thomas Kelly, described by The Times as 'leader of the Sinn Fein party', and several of his supporters. On boarding the steamer at Custom House Quay, Kelly went to the stern where the traditional red flag of the merchants’ ship was flying, with the Union Jack quartered upon it. ‘He produced a large clasp knife, cut the strings, and threw the flag into the river. The incident created a very painful sensation, but none of the spectators took any formal objection to it. Mr Kelly explained to his friends that he had cut down the flag because he regarded it as an insult to their nationality’. Alderman Kelly was still present for the lunch, along with the Lord Mayor, the Attorney General and the Lord Lieutenant’s Under Secretary. When a toast was raised to ‘The King’, the Alderman and his friends shouted ‘We won’t drink to it’ and stormed out. The Times wrote of the incident under the heading ‘Disloyalty in Dublin’.

The Power House

In 1899, Dublin Corporation secured the Fort and began building a new premises from which they planned on ‘extending and improving the electrical lighting of the city’. The scheme was designed to supply ‘100,000 lamps of eight-candle power’ while 412 new arc lights were to be installed on the streets.[9] In 1903, the Corporation transferred its electricity generating operation from its Fleet Street station to the Pigeonhouse. Over the next ten years, demand grew from 763kW to 5,150kW. In 1927, the Electricity Supply Board was established and the Corporation ceased generating electricity. During the Emergency years 1939 – 1945, Pigeonhouse and the Ardnacrusha hydro-electric power station on the Shannon endeavoured to supply the whole country. However, the quality of the coal arriving at Pigeonhouse wharf was so poor that grass could be seen growing upon the nuggets. In 1949, the ESB built a new oil-fired generating station on the North Wall. Pigeonhouse Station was nonetheless developed to reach an installed capacity of 95,000kW in 1952. In 1955, the ESB built another new station in Ringsend, powered by either coal or oil.

Poolbeg Generating Station

In the 1960s a new power station was built in the lands of Pigeonhouse precinct. Officially called Poolbeg Generating Station, it is today widely known as the Pigeon House. It is also one of the icons of the Dublin skyline on account of its thermal station chimneys, rising like barber shop poles from the water. The first 207.48m (680ft 9in) high ESB chimney was built in 1971, and overtook the Gasometre and the 100-ton crane to become the most prominent landmark in the Docklands. The station was subsequently extended and a second chimney measuring 207.8m (681ft 9in) high was built. Dublin City Councillor and historian Dermot Lacey has initiated a process to list the chimneys for preservation to safeguard their future after the Station closes in 2010. [How likely is this?]

Fuelled by either oil or natural gas, the first two 120MW units of the Poolbeg plant officially opened 1971. These units both have turbo-alternators manufactured by Brown Boveri and 'drum type' boilers built by Fives Penhoet, France. A third 271MW unit was added in 1978, with a turbo-alternator manufactured by Alsthom, France and a 'once through' type Boiler by M.A.N Germany. The Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) was constructed in the 1990s, with two Siemens V92.4A gas turbines (units CG14 and CG15, added in 1994 and 1998 respectively), a HRSG and a steam turbine (ST16, added in 2001). Gas is supplied by the Bord Gais. Oil is stored in five tanks in the site's oil farm, with a maximum capacity of 140,000 tonnes. The Pigeonhouse itself was decommissioned in 1976.

The New Quays

During the late 20th century, the Port and Docks Board built a further three new Liffey-side quays in the precinct west of Poolbeg station. South Quay was designed to handle container traffic. South Bank Quay was for roll on / roll off traffic. Coal Quay was for the importation of coal. At the western boundary of the precinct, the Ringsend Station of 1955 has a coal conveyor gantry that spans across Pigeonhouse Road. The Poolbeg station’s oil storage tank extends the original Green Patch eastwards to meet the remnant of the Shelly Banks strand that still separates it from the White Bank. [what is to become of these three Quays now?]


[1] Nathaniel Jefferys, An Englishman's Descriptive Account of Dublin (1810).

[2] Nathaniel Jefferys, An Englishman's Descriptive Account of Dublin (1810).

[3] Sir Charles Hoare, Tour in Ireland, Monday, 23rd June, 1806.

[4] Madden, Richard Robert, The United Irishmen, Their Lives and Times (J. Madden & co., 1846).

[5] The Times, Wednesday, Feb 22, 1815; pg. 3; Issue 9451; col E

[6] The Times, Monday, Dec 31, 1821; pg. 2; Issue 11442; col A

[7] The Times, Monday, Jun 06, 1853; pg. 3; Issue 21447; col B

[8] The Times, Friday, Aug 01, 1873; pg. 12; Issue 27757; col D

[9] The Times, Friday, Dec 29, 1899; pg. 4; Issue 36025; col F

Scout Attacks: On September 10th 1928, there were a series of bizarre attacks on boy scouts operations in Ireland. In one instance, two ‘young ruffians, armed with revolvers’ arrived at the Sea Scouts Hut on the Pigeon House Road, known as No. 1 Port. The boys were turned out, the building doused in petrol and the building set on fire. The same day, sixteen men raided a Scout camp at Powerscourt and burned down two tents.



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