‘Dublin Port was very dangerous 300 years ago’: Inside the port that keeps Ireland going

Out on the balcony the view is incredible, despite the fog. Beneath us, the river Liffey meets the sea

We are cruising at 23 knots along the end of the river Liffey towards the Irish Sea at 6am at the tail end of Storm Babet.

The small pilot boat, the Dodder (Dublin Port’s four pilot boats are named after Dublin’s rivers), is manned by two Louth men, Sean Flanagan and Andrew Markey.

“I’m the good looking one,” says Flanagan.

It’s still dark. The water feels bumpy but it’s nothing like it was a couple of hours ago, Flanagan says. Markey is at the helm. It’s Flanagan’s job to help a pilot climb from this small boat onto the container vessel, the Pavo J, which has come up from Spain and needs to be piloted into port.


“They’ll have had a bad trip,” he says.

Of the 7,500 ships that come in and out of the harbour every year, around 2,000 take a pilot. The captains of these boats have not taken a test and have not been granted a licence to pilot their own ships in Dublin Bay.

The pilot to be transferred is named Colm Newport, which feels a bit on the nose.

“When I get on board, they’ll say, ‘What’s your name?’ and I’ll say ‘Newport’ and they’ll say, ‘No what’s your name?’ and I’ll say, ‘That is my name!’ Some of them get a laugh out of that.”

Like the other 11 pilots who work for the port, Newport is a former ship’s captain. He doesn’t miss it. He likes going to his own bed in the evening. But now, in the middle of Dublin Bay in a storm-rocked sea, he’s about to step from the tiny Dodder onto a very large container vessel. He seems very relaxed.

“They’re using your enhanced local knowledge, your handling ability, to basically protect the ship from the port and the port from the ship,” he says.

It’s not a casual matter.

“There are over 300 shipwrecks in Dublin Bay,” says harbourmaster Michael McKenna, who is also a former captain.

“It was a very dangerous port 300 years ago. When the walls were built, the North Bull Wall and the Great South Wall, that put order on the river flow. The challenge [nowadays] for the pilots at Dublin Port is the volume of traffic going up and down the channel. Ships are passing each other all the time.”

“It’s a very old profession,” says Newport.

“Hundreds of years old,” adds McKenna. “They used to row out to the sailing ships and compete for the business.”

We leave the Liffey, which officially ends at the Poolbeg and North Bull Lighthouses and enter the Irish Sea where things are a bit bumpier.

“Easterly [wind] that’s the one we don’t like around here,” says Flanagan. “That’s the end of an easterly gale.”

Newport points out Dún Laoghaire and Dalkey.

“There’s a bit of fresh air for ye lads,” says Flanagan, opening the back door to reveal the lights of the city receding behind us in the darkness. He’s concerned one of us will “feed the seagulls”.

“I was the captain of the Asgard, the training ship, for a long time and we used to call that the vomit comet,” says Newport. “We’d have 25 people on that spewing for Ireland.”

There’s a big bump as we hit “the wake” of the Pavo J. Then we come up alongside the 140-metre vessel. Newport and Flanagan go onto the deck at the front of the tiny boat and in seconds Newport grabs the wooden ladder dropped down from the deck of the Pavo J and climbs aboard. He waves from the deck.

Later, back in port, Newport says: “You have to be careful. You could see the ship was rolling – the way the ladder shortens – you don’t want to be nipped in there [between boats]. Luckily here we haven’t had a major pilot accident for some years.”

Back on dry land, McKenna explains that he thinks people suffer from a form of “sea blindness” when it comes to ports. Some 4,000 people work there, 150 directly for Dublin Port Company across 640 acres, north and south of the river. There are 130 tenant companies; 5,000 trucks come through every day; 21 ships arrive and depart each day. He doesn’t think many people realise how many necessities come through here.

“If we have two days of bad weather, suddenly we start running out of bread,” he says. “We don’t mill flour in this country anymore, except maybe for a few niche flour mills.”

McKenna and his colleague, land operations manager John Fairley, give me a tour. We watch 160 lorries spill from the Irish Ferries ship Ulysses. There are two types of cargo “ro-ro” (roll on, roll off) and “lo-lo” (load on, load off), the latter typically unloaded by huge yellow, red and blue cranes operated by three competing businesses.

There’s a sea of containers. Some 36.7 million tonnes of cargo travels through here annually. There’s also a lot of space newly given over to customs, immigration and the Department of Agriculture thanks to Brexit. There’s a large white tent that was set up as a reception area for Ukrainian refugees. Very occasionally, says Fairley, security people find a stowaway has cut their way out of the back of a trailer with a Stanley knife.

McKenna points out a large ship called the Seraphine, a “Brexit Buster”. He says eight or nine of those come each week from ports like Rotterdam rather than use the “land bridge” through the UK and avoid all the red tape that comes with the post-Brexit border controls with Britain. There’s also a large tanker filled with bitumen which is being named today: the Baltic Narwal.

“They’ll break a bottle of champagne on the ship… The ship would have cost €150 or €180 million, so a bottle of champagne is nothing in the scheme of things,” he says.

On a visit to the port another day, heritage director Lar Joye is in a refurbished ESB substation where he’s giving a lecture on the port’s military history. Here you can see a part of Dublin’s original ‘East Wall’, discovered during building work, through a transparent glass section of the floor.

Joye oversees an archive that dates to the origins of the port company as the Ballast Office in 1707. He’s also interviewed hundreds of pensioners for an oral history project. The archives, he says, are “only half the story.” He shows me where the planned Tolka Estuary greenway will run at the edge of the port, the former pumphouse turned performance space and the old Odlums site which they hope to develop into a cultural quarter with artists’ studios and a museum.

Why is it important to bring people in here? He says we need to think more about how our supply chains work. “Can we still bring in all the fruits and vegetables and everything else we’re bringing in but not think about the impact of it?”

We walk along the craggy stones of the Great South Wall, completed in 1795, to the Poolbeg Lighthouse. To our left, there are little platforms in the bay from which cormorants dive and endangered arctic terns nest. It’s a nature reserve. For years, the port authorities had been vying to infill more of the bay, what they called “the 52 acres”, to expand the port.

“It was proven to be a huge feeding area for birds in the summer and that’s how they lost the case,” says Joye.

The lighthouse was originally built in 1767 but further floors were added by “the godfather of Irish lighthouses” George Halpin in 1820. People frequently ask if it could be used for AirBnB but it would be too difficult to plumb properly due to the protected nature of the wall (in the past the plumbing ran straight into the sea). And it’s also possible that people wouldn’t be able to open the rusty metal door. We spend 30 minutes banging and pulling at it but the sea salt has seemingly welded it shut.

Two older men are fishing nearby for mackerel. One of them, Des O’Donoghue from Cabra, says he knew the last lighthouse keeper, Joe Cox. It was manned until 1964.

“I’d come down here on a bike and we’d all be sitting out there talking about catching lobsters. When I came over here first, they’d say, ‘There’s that fecking eejit from the northside.’ That’s my rock over there, where I stand,” he says.

He winces at the banging sounds made by Joye as he tries to open the door.

“I know some lads who could come down and show you how to get into that,” O’Donoghue says, joking. “And there’d be no fecking noise I can tell you.”

A week later, after a visit from a maintenance crew, the door glides open. Inside is a spiral staircase. On the top floor there are names and dates etched in the green paint going back decades. “Dermo” has been here. As has “Neville”.

The most recent names etched there date only to 2022. Out on the balcony the view is incredible, despite the fog. Beneath us, the river Liffey meets the sea.