Dublin’s South Bull Wall

Dublin Bay has long thrown its arms wide to embrace the incoming voyager. Howth Head curves around to the north while the southern arc is framed by the Dublin Mountains to the rocky conclusion of Killiney Head at Sorrento Point. It is a spectacularly beautiful embrace, though it often proved treacherous for the unwary mariner. The silting of Dublin Bay, specifically across the mouth of the Liffey estuary, meant that medieval Dublin had to outsource its port to Dalkey at the southern tip of the bay. Two major sandbanks formed on each side of the estuary, the North Bull and the South. A sand bar frequently connected the two, hampering access to the Dublin quays. At low tide the South Bull formed an extensive sandbank enclosing a tidal pool known as the Poolbeg, from the Gaelic for ‘small pool’. 

In the early eighteenth century it was decided to remedy this situation. Sir John Rogerson funded a quay extending from the city centre to the confluence of the Dodder and Liffey. Further east, construction began on a barrier of oaken piles which effected reclamation of land to the south around Ringsend and Irishtown. The Piles was completed in 1730 but while it helped reclamation and navigation, it quickly showed signs of decay. It was decided to install a wall, using granite from Dalkey quarry. The wall connected Ringsend with the lighthouse, Poolbeg, which had previously been a floating lighthouse. The stone lighthouse was completed in 1767, although replaced in 1820 with the current structure, and painted bright red.

At the start of construction a house was built for the caretaker, John Pidgeon. Pidgeon opened a restaurant for construction workers which proved very popular amongst mariners and visitors. A hotel was established later and this became known as the Pigeon House. The great wall was completed in 1796, at which stage it was the longest sea wall in the world at three miles long. The resulting formation of the Poolbeg Peninsula and its development as a major industrial area means the remaining sea wall is now just a mile long. Following the rebellion of 1798 there was military development with the installation of a gun battery known as the Half Moon, owing to its shape. The fact that this name now applies to a swimming club probably conjures a different sense of meaning. A fort was constructed in the 1840s, its remains still visible. The Half Moon Swimming and Water Polo Club, founded in 1898, is still alive and kicking.

By the twentieth century development concentrated on industry. The first generating station was built in 1903 and has since been attached to the Pigeon House name. The new station in the sixties came with the two iconic chimneys. Over two hundred metres tall, they remain the tallest structures in Ireland and are visible from all over the county. Being tall, the authorities were determined to demolish them when decommissioned this century, but fortunately they’ve been listed for preservation and the ESB has undertaken to maintain them.

Three centuries of development crowd and clash in this fascinating urban area. In around 1640 the first bridge crossed the Dodder to connect Dublin and Irishtown, which was then the native ghetto. Cromwell landed for his Irish tour and it’s been full steam ahead ever since with this the setting for surging industrial and architectural modernity. Standing in the lee of the East Link Bridge, looking west to wards the city you’ll note, at the end of Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, the Capital Docks building. This is Ireland’s tallest storeyed building at sixty nine metres. It is very much an exclamation of the city, a portal of sorts; right where the Dodder River, the Grand Canal and the Liffey join with the sea. 

Nearby lies the ancient urban village of Ringsend. Also known colloquially as Raytown, being the source of the famed fish supper of Long Ray and Chips, A maritime atmosphere still pervades with such pubs as the Oarsman, the Yacht and the South Dock which I’d bet shelter the stray salty dog. While one can still imagine the port of old, it has been overlaid by blocks of Art Deco flats from the thirties. Past the library, another Art Deco gem from 1937, Ringsend merges into Irishtown and on to the Poolbeg peninsula. This was the Waxies Dargle in the nineteenth century. The name derives from Waxies, a nickname for shoemenders, while Dargle is the river of Bray, then a posh resort. The workers couldn’t afford the trip to Bray so the seashore hereabouts was the alternative. 

Breaking out onto the seafront at Sean Moore Park is to feel the heart lift. Sandymount curves away to the south, on out to Dun Laoghaire. The strand at low tide is a huge panorama of flat sand, reclaimed at intervals by the shallow sea. We can follow the shore all the way out to the Poolbeg Generating Station and it majestic twin towers. Alternatively, you can follow a more northerly route through the industrial heart of the peninsula. Either way, both roads meet at the Pigeon House, and when you get to the east of the generation station, the remaining mile of the sea wall points out into the open sea. Overall, the route is about five and a half kilometres from Ringsend to the lighthouse, an 11k roundtrip.

A walk along the South Bull gives a bracing snapshot of Dublin city and is a means by which Ireland’s capital can best be understood. This is the port, ancient and modern; from when Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria pinned it to the map of Europe in the 2nd century, to the growing nest of spires of twentieth century Dublin. Walk along its narrow causeway, you’ll sometimes literally be walking on water. All around the ships sail in and out, passengers and cargo and pleasure sailers, all part of the ceaseless throbbing heart of Dublin.

Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun

I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes

Watching the ships roll in

Then I watch ’em roll away again, yeah

I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay

Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh

I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay

Wastin’ time

Sitting in the dock of the bay was written by Otis Redding and Steve Cropper. Redding was inspired to write the song while staying in a houseboat in Sausilito on San Francisco Bay. He recorded it days before he died in a plane crash over Lake Minona, Wisconsin in December 10, 1967. It became a posthumous number one for him in America. The song fades evocatively into a lonesome whistler heard over the sound of seagulls and waves. If you stand alone on the South Bull Wall you can hear it, and whistle along.