When the Irish Parliament voted £21,000, in 1755, to the construction of a harbour at Dúnleary (as it was then known), the village was no more than “the inconsiderable and dirty abode of a few fishermen, in the bottom of the valley”
The 163 yard-long pier was completed in 1767. It gave shelter to the small local fishing fleet, and facilitated the import of coal from Swansea and South Wales, until it became known as the “Dry Pier” because of silt. The problem was not new to the area. Since the late middle ages, Dublin Port became less accessible to vessels as a result of two factors – the growing deposits of sand at the mouth of the Liffey, and the common easterly gales. Wrecks were numerous, particularly between Sandycove Point and Blackrock. Dalkey Sound was a popular alternative refuge for deepwater vessels, and became known as the Dalkey Roads.
In its closing years, the Irish Parliament discussed building a harbour for safe anchorage at Dalkey, with a canal linking the port to Dublin City. Although nothing came of this idea, the necessity of a safe and accessible port in the Dublin region was a pressing matter. Consequently, Howth harbour was built 1807 – 1816 at a cost of £300,000 but proved very unsuitable due to the inevitable build up of sand.
Following a severe easterly storm in November 1807 in which two ships and approximately 380 passengers were lost, a group of Dublin merchants and mariners led by Captain Richard E. Toutcher presented a petition to the Lord Lieutenant for a refuge or ‘Asylum’ harbour to be built at Dúnleary. As the full disappointment of Howth was clear, an Act of Parliament dated 20 June 1816 authorised the construction work at the south Dublin village, granting the project £505,000.
A map of the same year includes the proposed Asylum Harbour, which compromised a single pier of 2,800ft. Captain Toutcher, the principal mover behind the concept, skillfully negotiated an agreement with several landowners in Dalkey, whereby the harbour contractor George Smyth could extract all the necessary granite from the Dalkey quarries, free of all costs. It is estimated that by the completion of the harbour in the 1850′s, this arrangement had saved the Government in the region of £240,000. The first stone of the pier was laid in ceremony by the Earl of Whitworth, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in May 1817. The stone was inscribed “In the hope that it may be the cause of life to the seamen, wealth to the citizens, Revenue to the Crown and benefit to the nation”.
Work was far advanced when the renowned Scottish engineer John Rennie (1761-1821) was invited to assess the harbour design. Rennie was extensively employed by the British Government, and was responsible for numerous canals, bridges and harbours in the British Isles, including Waterloo Bridge, London Bridge and the Irish Royal Canal. Rennie proposed a second, western bridge which, along with an extended original pier, would force sand and deposits across the mouth of the harbour, and not into it. Once accepted, this plan enlarged the scale and prestige of the undertaking. King George the Fourth embarked from Dúnleary after a three-week visit to Ireland, on 3 September 1821. Significantly, he bestowed the title ‘Royal Harbour of George the Fourth’, and the town was subsequently renamed ‘Kingstown’.
A sizeable labouring community emerged in Dalkey and Kingstown, with 600-800 men employed at the latter building site daily. John Rennie died 4 October 1821, after which John Aird, Resident Engineer, and then Sir John Rennie jr, Directing Engineer, supervised the harbour progress. Published in 1832, Samuel Lewis’ ‘Topographical Dictionary of Ireland’ describes the make-up of the piers:
“The foundation is laid at a depth of 20ft at low water, and for 14ft from the bottom the piers are formed of fine Runcorn sandstone, in blocks of fifty cubic feet perfectly square; and from 6ft below water mark to the coping, of granite of excellent quality found in the neighbourhood. They are 310ft broad at the base, and 53ft on the summit; towards the harbour they are faced with a perpendicular wall of heavy rubble-stone, and towards the sea with hugh blocks of granite sloping towards the top in an angle of ten or twelve degrees. A quay, 40ft wide, is continued along the piers, protected on the sea side by a strong parapet nine feet high.”
A two-man diving bell designed by Rennie and costing £975 facilitated the arrangement of the foundation stones, and “so fast was the granite poured into the sea that the East Pier is said to have progressed at the rate of 100ft a month”. Metal rails from the quarries of Dalkey, to the building site brought hundreds of tons of granite daily.
In the 1820′s, the City of Dublin Steampacket Company, and the Government mail service both made Kingstown their Irish mail terminus. The opening of Ireland’s first railway linking Westland Row and Kingstown harbour ensured the growth of Kingstown as a social and commercial success. The population multiplied rapidly, reaching 25,000 in 1861, “composed chiefly of private families, professional gentlemen, wealthy and influential merchants”.
When the Irish Board of Works was established in 1831, one of its many responsibilities was the completion of Kingstown harbour. Work had halted while a debate over the size of the harbour mouth and shape of the pierheads continued. John Rennie’s scheme proposed a mouth of only 450 feet, and pierheads with short jetties. The Admiralty’s view was that considering the prevailing easterly winds, such an entrance was too narrow for safe entry, thus defeating the harbour’s purpose. William Cubitt suggested a wider entrance, and a breakwater 1200 feet outside the mouth, parallel to the shore. A Mr. Walker, another engineer, proposed extending the East and West piers (at the time 3,500 ft and 4,950 ft respectively), making an entrance 650 feet wide, preventing the formation of a sand bar. In their annual report of 1836, it was felt by the Commissioners of Public Works; “At all events, much embarrassment in proceeding, and some unnecessary expenditure, will by the consequence of further delay in this matter”. A compromise was reached, whereby the piers were terminated at their present position, making the harbour mouth 750 feet wide.
The harbour therefore encompasses 251 statute acres. Following the completion of the piers, other works continued, such as Trader’s Wharf, the Carlisle Pier/Mail Boat pier, the Coast Guard Station, and TCD Professor Robinson’s Anemometer on the East Pier, which measures wind speed and direction. The total cost of the harbour works was £825,000.