Turtle Bunbury

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From 'Dublin Docklands - An Urban Voyageby Turtle Bunbury (MPG, 2008).

RINGSEND - the early years


In 1841, the British essayist Edward Mangin claimed the name Ringsend was simply ‘an absurd corruption of Wring Sand, the proper name of the suburb’. When respected writers say things like that, you tend to believe them. However, Mangin was talking claptrap. In 1859, Richard Stephen Charnock quoted an old Dublin pilot called ‘old Jemmy Walsh’ who remembered seeing ships moored between Sir John Rogerson’s Quay and Ringsend with ‘their ropes run through the rings of the wooden piles on the river’. Where these rings came to an end, Charnock explained, is the place we now know as Ringsend. Alas, Charnock is also talking gobbledygook. The origin of the name is considerably more ancient than the rings of Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. It is a simple corruption of the Irish expression ‘Rinn-abhann’, meaning ‘ the end point of the tide’ or ‘the end spit of the land’.


Before the reclamation of Poolbeg and the South Lotts, Ringsend was an isolated dry spit that rolled out to the Irish Sea, frequently washed by the tidal waters of the Liffey and the marshy streams of the River Dodder. Humans have been fishing these shallow waters and tidal flats for over a thousand years. The spit was a well-known landmark for approaching ships in medieval times. In 1566, Dublin merchant Gerald Plunkett, guardian of The Book of Kells, placed a series of buoys, or perches, along the spit by Poolbeg, signalling the start of a new age for the harbour. Some years later, the Tudor elite built a fortified outpost on the Green Patch, a small isolated parcel of land between the Salmon Pool and Poolbeg, which remains dry at high tide. 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 heavy merchant ships would dare cross the treacherous Dublin Bar. Trade ships tended to dock in Dalkey Sound and send their cargo overland along the coastal road to Donnybrook. However, the Green Patch did serve as a useful staging post for some ships to unload goods onto lighters and rafts in the estuary. By 1600, though by no means perfect, Ringsend had superseded Dalkey as the main deep-water port for Dublin. A thriving fishing industry brought large numbers of merchants and coopers to the village. In 1620, the customs and excise commissioners built a fort approximately where the Caroline Row entrance to Ringsend Park is today. Two years later, two entrepreneurs, Edward Gough and James Sedgraw, attempted to establish a herring station in Ringsend but came up against strong opposition from the influential King family of Clontarf.


As an independent Liberty, Ringsend paid no taxes to the City of Dublin and enjoyed its own jurisdiction. During the late 16th century, the spit was granted to Sir Thomas Fitzwilliam of Merrion Castle, Vice-Treasurer of Ireland (1559) and Sheriff for Co Dublin (1564). In 1629, Charles I elevated Sir Thomas’s grandson to the peerage as Baron Fitzwilliam of Thorncastle and Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion. At about this time, he began to lay the foundations for present day Thorncastle Street, Fitzwilliam Quay and Moryon (Merrion) Street. In 1666, Charles II granted the 2nd Viscount Fitzwilliam a vast estate in Dublin, including present-day Ringsend, Donnybrook, Baggotsrath, Merrion, Simonscourt and Dundrum. The Fitzwilliam family retained ownership of this estate until 1816 when, in the absence of any sons, the 7th Viscount bequeathed the property to his cousin, the 11th Earl of Pembroke. As a young man, the 7th Viscount had fallen in love with a local barmaid. His horrified father packed him off on Grand Tour and married the barmaid to another man. The desolate 7th Viscount vowed never to marry, thereby ensuring the complete extinction of his entire line and title.


The 1640s were one of the most miserable decades Europe has ever known. If you weren’t wiped out by a troop of marauding soldiers, you would probably succumb to famine or disease. Or maybe you’d simply be strung up on a tree for believing in the wrong version of God. If there were any trees left, that is. A civil war had raged across Ireland since 1641 leaving untold thousands dead. In 1646, the English Parliament despatched its commissioners to Ringsend to negotiate a peace settlement with the Confederates. The failure of these talks ultimately prompted Oliver Cromwell to take action and bring the Irish Confederates to heel. On 15th August 1649, an armada of 35 ships sailed into Ringsend with Cromwell at their head. Henry Ireton landed two days later with a further 77 ships. The combined fleet carried 8,000 foot-soldiers and 4,000 cavalry, as well as a large train of artillery, battering rams, wagons and other vitals. In his memoirs, Ludlow recalled how the men-of-war and other ships moored in Ringsend rang a loud peal in celebration of their safe arrival. It is believed that Cromwell himself landed close to the Thorncastle Street - York Road junction. A nearby flight of steps leading down to the river, known as Cromwell’s Steps, was buried beneath the new approach road to the East Link Toll Bridge. Upon disembarking, Cromwell met with senior civil and military officers in Ringsend. Here he received full details of their resounding victory over the Confederates at the battle of Rathmines twelve days earlier. However, the Ringsend garrison, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Ferneley, were badly mauled by a detachment of Lord Ormonde’s soldiers shortly before the battle. Cromwell despatched men to take Viscount Fitzwilliam’s home at Baggotsrath and convert it into a garrison. A new bridge across the Dodder and a fortress for 70 men was also built at Ringsend. Less than four weeks after his arrival, Cromwell’s army stormed Drogheda.


Before the Pigeonhouse harbour was created, all the cross-channel packet ships from Holyhead landed at Ringsend. Indeed, it was one of the busiest ports on the east coast of Ireland. However, regular flooding made human settlement on the Ringsend spit virtually impossible. In 1670, for instance, a colossal flood swept in over Ringsend as far as Trinity College destroying many frail, timber-built houses in low-lying areas. The embanking of the Liffey and Dodder rivers between 1711 and 1725 had a profound effect on the landscape. Not only was the Liffey now navigable for bigger ships, and its quays more accessible, but a large amount of the surrounding sloblands was also made available for development. The reclamation had its origins in a Royal directive of 1672 when, anxious to prevent Dutch ships plundering English merchant ships in Dublin Bay, London dispatched Flemish engineer Sir Bernard de Gomme to survey the Dodder and Liffey rivers. De Gomme proposed an embankment on the bay’s southside and a vast pentagonal fortress, to be built on a 30-acre site just south east of Merrion Square. The fortress was never built but work on the South Wall commenced in 1717.


On Good Friday 1690, a curious naval battle took place just off the Ringsend coast. A Jacobite frigate was attempting to flee to France in the wake of James II’s defeat at the Boyne. It was intercepted off Poolbeg Harbour by the Monmouth, a yacht commanded by the memorably named Sir Cloudesley Shovel. The two vessels fired upon each other but the Monmouth won the day, killing seven of the frigate’s crew and obliging the rest to jump overboard. Perhaps the most important aspect of the engagement was that James II, the increasingly despairing monarch, was in Ringsend at the time and witnessed the whole thing.


At the time of the Restoration, Ringsend registered a population of 59 persons of English and 21 persons of Irish descent, while the adjoining village of Irishtown had 23 English and 75 Irish. This supports the theory of John Pentland Mahaffy, Provost of Trinity, that Irishtown came into existence when Oliver Cromwell’s son and heir Henry Cromwell ordered all native Catholic Irishmen to withdraw from the metropolis of Dublin. However, Irishtown was also something of a suburb of Ringsend, built as the fishing community expanded into a populous village. Today, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the two, although Seapoint House is deemed to be a useful ‘border’ mark.


Sometimes humanity doesn't pat itself on the back and say well done. We're always achieving awesome things. In Victorian times, much extraordinary work was achieved by the sheer strength of hordes of men physically building something as monumental as the Great South Wall. Layer upon layer of thick granite rock, it was one of the most remarkable and best constructed breakwaters of its kind anywhere in the world. The South Wall extends from Ringsend for nearly three and a half miles into Dublin Bay and measures 32ft wide at the base, tapering to 28ft at the top. It was designed to shield the river channel from the massive breakers that swooshed in during stormy tides, clogging the riverbed with its shifting sands. Work commenced on the wall in 1717. Lighters were employed to deepen the riverbed and the enclosing of the ground on the south side of the river began. By 1731 there were wooden piles all the way to the Green Patch where the Pigeonhouse was later built. Many ships were fatally hurled against these piles during 18th century storms. In the 1740s, the engineers began rebuilding and extending the wall as far as Poolbeg, using wooden cases filled with rocks and gravel from Blackrock. The new wall not only provided vital channel protection but also allowed for a wide roadway to be built to the fishing village of Ringsend, and from there to the City. In 1766, the Ballast Office built two new wharfs at either side of the South Wall where ships could berth and so the Pigeonhouse Harbour was born. The Poolbeg lighthouse was completed two years later. It originally stood alone out at sea but a wall then built back inland from the lighthouse to connect with the existing causeway, a feat completed in 1796 under the direction of Viscount Ranelagh. In 1820, George Halpin redesigned the lighthouse as the present-day handsome red gem.

Today, the South Wall offers a much-treasured 40-minute stroll all the way to the Poolbeg Lighthouse. Catfish and seals, herons, terns, curlews, cormorants and Brent geese are all to be seen. So too are the tiny black guillemots who inhabit the cracks along the side of the wall and occasionally set sail, looking like bathtub ducks, with their jet black feathers, bright orange feet, red beaks and perfect white circles on their wings. The cold, clear waters that crash against the rocky ballast and sometimes sweep over the pier are the same waters in which members of the Half-Moon Swimming & Water Polo Club, founded 1898, are apt to practice freestyle swimming. Rusty ladders clamber up the licheny walls beside their white-washed clubhouse where canons stood in former times. From the Half-Moon to the Lighthouse, the wall is of a markedly better quality, benefitting from a major restoration in 1982. From here, one can marvel at the gliders of Howth and Clontarf, the kite surfers of Dollymount Strand, the Bull Wall bobbing beneath the water. Aside from the heather-clad hills of Howth, the northern view is so flat you can sometimes hear the airplanes taking off from Dublin airport. Looking south one beholds a stunning panorama from the Dublin Mountains and the Sugar Loaf to the steeples of Dun Laoghaire, then north past the RTE mast in Donnybrook to the candy-striped chimneys of Poolbeg. On the eastern horizon, bulky frigates are spread between the billowing sails of yachtsman out for a leisurely summer evening race. In the distance, one hears the fog-horn of the approaching ferry from England.



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