Turtle Bunbury

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


By 1730, Ringsend was a village on the rise. It boasted a well-established, largely Protestant community, comprising ‘officers of the Port and seafaring men’. The wealthier inhabitants drank in the King's Head Tavern, ate Poolbeg oysters in The Good Woman, and fresh cockles and shrimps in The Sign of Highlanders. They travelled the 3km journey to and from Dublin City by Ringsend Car (see p. XXXXX). From 1703, the Protestants had their own church, St. Matthew's, built on the old shore of Irishtown Lough. The Catholics also had a small chapel that managed to survive the penal clampdown. The village was still cut off from Dublin by the wet sands and constant floods but any sense of isolation must have been tempered by the constant presence of merchants and travellers. For the entire 18th century, Pigeonhouse Harbour was the main packet station for the boats that came from England, laden with post, commercial missives, government directives and goods. As all such incoming traffic passed through Ringsend, the community prospered. The merchant’s horse-carts carried a regular supply of useful produce - apples and cheese, copper and silk, lead and coal.


A lucrative indigenous industry commenced when an English undertaker established a salt works. Shortly afterwards, John and William Clarke founded an iron-works for the manufacture of steam-engines, machinery, iron boats and ‘utensils of various kind’. Messrs Bunit and Simpson employed local women to pluck and sell the delicious Poolbeg oysters at the markets in Dublin. The strand at Irishtown was at one time noted for its cockles and shrimps, but after the severe winter of 1741, known as ‘The Hard Frost’, the shrimps completely disappeared. The herring fishery also employed a good number while many more were employed building ships and making ropes and sails. Some boat-builders, such as the Huguenot families of du Moulin and Beckett, later turned to house-building.


In the 1750s, Ringsend was hailed as one of the most beautiful, clean and healthy environs of Dublin. One visitor described it as ‘very clean, healthy and beautiful’, with vines trailing up the walls of its high-gabled houses, handsome orchards and well-stocked gardens that bloomed in maritime sea air. During the summer months, it was a popular seaside resort. Gentlemen raced horses and cars along the charming strand. When tempers flew, they met for duels near Londonbridge. In 1727, a curious ballad was published entitled ‘Warning to Concolds - A New Ballad on the Whipping-Club Held at Rings- End’. Presumably some of its club members belonged to the well-to-do ladies and gentlemen who came to avail of the famous sea-baths at Seapoint Avenue. The Cranfield baths were said to have been the first hot sea-water baths in Ireland.


In April 1728, James Annesley, the 13-year-old son of the late Lord Altham, was abducted at the Ormond market, thrown into a boat and taken to a ship in Ringsend. From Ringsend, the vessel sailed for North America where the heir to the house of Annesley was held as a slave for 13 years before he escaped. This wicked deed took place in full view of the boy’s uncle Richard who subsequently declared him dead and claimed the title of Lord Altham. A celebrated court case ensued when James returned to Ireland but he was unable to raise sufficient funds to prosecute his uncle and ultimately predeceased him.


The turning point for Ringsend may have been the collapse of yet another ‘Ringsend Bridge’ in 1782, swept away during a rainstorm that ‘continued for fourteen hours with a violence that was truly alarming’. Ringsend, said one visitor, resembled a town that had ‘experienced all the calamities of war [and] been sacked by an enemy’. A new bridge was begun in 1786 but destroyed by another bad storm the following year. A basic timber bridge was erected in 1789 and miraculously stayed up 14 years. The bridge was essential. The only alternative routes to Dublin were a hearty trek north to Ballsbridge on the Dalkey to Dublin highway or a wade across the marshlands. Between 1785 and 1796, Councillor Vavasour reclaimed the Dodder delta and laid a useful new road laid across these marshes, about where Bath Avenue runs today. The construction of the Custom House at this time was another positive, bringing the city business closer to Ringsend. However, in 1802, the new British Parliament changed the tariff rates on glass in an early indication of what a terrible, terrible mistake it was for the Dublin Parliament to vote itself out of existence. As the Ringsend glass-works reeled, local confidence was not improved when the floods yet again swept away Ringsend Bridge. A new bridge was built in its place and named for Princess Charlotte, the baby daughter of George IV. That is the same arched granite bridge that we know today. It features an unusual strengthening feature whereby its ellipse curves unbroken through the abutments and under the channel of the river itself to form a complete elliptical ring. This ingenious concept ensures good hydraulic flow conditions under the bridge in times of flooding.


Many of those bodies found in the tidal marshes around Ringsend after shipwrecks were buried in St Matthew’s Church. On 8th May 1743, The Dublin Gazette reported on a sailor who had been brought ‘from Rings End to Irish Town … to be buried but when they laid him on the ground the coffin was observed to stir, on which he came to himself’.


The first building of the Pigeonhouse precinct was a Blockhouse, built to store tools that were being used during the construction South Wall, as well as some of the more useful flotsam and jetsam salvaged from the waters. This also acted as a watch-house and a place of refuge for those forced to land in bad weather. In 1761, an enterprising man called John Pidgeon became caretaker of the store. He noted that the gentry frequently sailed their pleasure craft between the South Wall and Ringsend to examine the works in progress. Other interested parties came by road. Taking the initiative, Mr Pidgeon redesigned the store as a place where these same well-to-do’s might avail of light meals and refreshments, gamely served up by Mrs Pidgeon and her lovely daughters, Mary and Rachel. Mr Pidgeon also purchased a boat, painted it in bold colours and, together with his son Ned, took the distinguished visitors on guided tours of the South Wall. The blockhouse came to be known to all as ‘Pidgeon's House’, or the Pigeonhouse, and its owner found himself ‘on the fair road to fortune’. In 1786, life for the Pidgeons took an abrupt turn for the worse during a night-raid on the house in which Ned’s hands were so badly slashed by a sword that he died some time later. There was some consolation in the peculiar fate of the four raiders who killed one another during a subsequent argument. However, destitute and distraught, both Mr and Mrs Pidgeon was also soon dead, leaving their daughters to fend for themselves. One evening the girls sailed to the rescue of an Americans ship wrecked in a storm. As well as the captain, they saved a wealthy widower from Philadelphia and his three-year-old son. Mary subsequently fell in love and married the American. The sisters duly emigrated to Philadelphia where Rachel also struck lucky and found a husband.


In 1787, the year after John Pidgeon’s death, the Ballast Office built a new eight room lofted building on the site. Its first residents were Francis Tunstall, the new Inspector of Works, and Patrick O’Brien, the new caretaker who, with his wife. continued the Pidgeon tradition of serving refreshments. In 1793, the Pigeonhouse Harbour was completed when new walls built in the Liffey channel met with the South Wall to form a calm 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 25 chimney pieces – 14 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’.


In January 1795, the Earl of Westmoreland concluded his Lord Lieutenancy by departing on a packet ship from the Pigeonhouse. His Lordship was in for a tough journey. The crossing to Holyhead in these frail vessels generally took between eighteen and thirty hours. Sometimes winds were so contrary that ships were obliged to ready about and return to port. For those stomach-churned and exhausted passengers arriving at the Pigeonhouse, the Customs was not always a pleasant start. 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 officers at the Pigeonhouse before he could proceed on his journey. 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’.


Life at the Pidgeonhouse was not all 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’. 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 also a constant threat of invasion from France. 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


Following the 1798 Rebellion, the government requisitioned the hotel as a military stronghold. The ‘Hotel Barracks’, as 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. The War Department also built soldiers quarters’, stores, batteries, a magazine and tanks for fresh water. Two defensive gateways were constructed 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.


The Pigeonhouse barracks were one of the chosen targets for attack during Robert Emmet’s ill-fated rebellion of 1803. Educated at Trinity College, the 24-year-old Protestant revolutionary 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 conveyed two or three wagon-loads of pikes, hidden inside hollow beams of timber, to a secret depot in Irishtown. This presumably included a weapon of Emmet’s invention - a folding pike, fitted with a hinge, which could be concealed under a cloak. On several occasions when the tide was out, Brangan and Emmet walked across the strand to plan an assault on the Pigeonhouse Fort. Indeed, the rebellion was supposed to begin at the Pigeonhouse. However, on 23rd July, another arms depot exploded prematurely. With the authorities 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 was to be fired into the sky. It never happened. Appalled by the murderous violence of his supporters, Emmet had called off the rising. Brangan 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.


In December 1821, the Marquis of Wellesley arrived at the Pigeonhouse 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.


Ringsend’s greatest blow came in 1813 when the main packet-ship station was transferred from the Pigeonhouse to Howth (and later to Kingstown). 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 Pigeonhouse 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 a waiting ship at the Pigeonhouse. The following year, Lord Blayney counselled his readers that Ringsend had become ‘a vile, filthy and disgraceful looking village’. Things had not improved by 1836 when Samuel Lewis described it as ‘mean and dilapidated … having fallen into decay since the discontinuance of its extensive salt-works’. The iron-works, glass works and distillery were also struggling although a chemical laboratory was still operational. Irishtown, says Lewis, was in a ‘less ruinous condition’. In 1832, a new Protestant Male School was built by St Matthew’s Church. There was also a new Almshouse for Widows, and a dispensary to fend off the onslaught of cholera. On 10th January 1839, a devastating hurricane ripped through Dublin, blowing down part of the steeple of Irishtown church which collapsed through the church roof. During the Great Famine, the community were able to sustain themselves through local fish and the importation of Indian corn by Sidney Herbert. Also here in these times were the ‘Tar Bay’s’, fisher-folk from Brixham and Torbay in Devonshire, who settled in Ringsend at the suggestion of the Rev Henry Francis Lyte. The Trinity College educated hymn-writer was a frequent visitor to Ringsend in his youth. He is best known for the haunting words of ‘Abide with Me’, written just two weeks before his death in 1847.


One dark evening in October 1829, Samuel Bartlet, one of the Ringsend ‘Tar-bays’, was out fishing in Dublin Bay when three large boats abruptly hove into view and came alongside him. Upwards of forty men then swung onto Bartlet’s boat. The pirates knocked Bartlet down with a paddle and threatened to throw him overboard. Somehow Bartlet managed to escape but the ‘ruffians’ successfully plundered his vessel of all fish, before cutting up his nets, destroying his gear and hurling everything into the sea.


By 1850, the old Revenue Barracks at the Pigeonhouse 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 particularly 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. The steamboat had only been built 18 months earlier and was sailing for the Dublin & Liverpool Steam Packet Company.


It is said the Pigeonhouse soldiers were never called upon to fire their guns in anger, save to intimidate the hundreds of thousands who gathered across the bay 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. 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 any men-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 rebels to conquer Dublin. What, he asked, would happen if half a dozen men simply surprised and gagged 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 a full complement of thirteen officers, 242 non-commissioned officers and men (none married), 6 horse officers and 6 troop horses.


In the 1880s, there were still sentries guarding the Fort’s 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 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. In 1897, it was sold to Dublin Corporation 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 landmark the German Navy might feasibly attempt to control.

In Irishtown there live's a girl,

Fairer than the flower I'm wearing.

Rose Donohue all fresh and new,

And I love her past all caring

And there she goes, my Ringsend Rose,

In God's garden there's none rarer.

And there she goes, my Ringsend Rose,

Dublin Town has seen none Fairer.

Ringsend Rose, Pete St. John




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