Personal Reflections

Richard Thomas
Richard Thomas engineer of Kingstown Harbour

The Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser 

(Leeds, England), Saturday, May 12, 1838; Issue 26
On the 24th April, 1838; at his residence, Crofton Place, deeply regretted by his family and friends, Richard Thomas, Esq., engineer of Kingstown Harbour. He was the second son of the late Mr. William Thomas of Halifax, and had been appointed director or manager of that great national work now carrying on in Dublin, under the direction of Colonel Burgoyne, and the commissioners of the Board of Works.

Ambitious of affecting the great undertaking in the most complete manner possible, and to the satisfaction of all who are concerned of it; he laboured night and day for that purpose, and by his intense application to the discharge of his worldly duties he has become a sacrifice to their pressing necessities.

The Board of Works and the public have thus lost in him a useful and efficient member of society, as he possessed all the necessary requisites for forming a character of the first rate abilities in his business. He was a man of strict honour – unflinching integrity – just and encouraging to his workmen, and charitable to the poor.

At the request of the men employed at the works to testify their esteem, his remains were alleged to borne to the grave by them, as a mark or token of respect justly due to his memory, for the upright manner in which he discharged his duties during life. He has left a widow and a family of young children who lament his loss.

John Brennan
The Harbour has many unique features but one of the most remarkable is a human one – boat builder John Brennan who has worked in the Harbour for the last 65 years.

Born in 1932, John began work in the Harbour when he was ten years old in 1942. His uncle Ted ran a rowing boat hire business from the slipway next to the Carlisle Pier and John would help him whenever he could. When Ted died in a tragic accident in 1944, his brother Isaac, John’s father, who worked for the then Dun Laoghaire Borough Corporation took over the business and John continued at his side.

The boats were hired for six pence (about three cents today) per person per hour and were available from ten o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night in the summer time. John remembers in particular how business lifted each year during the second week in July as many visitors from Northern Ireland came to Dun Laoghaire during their traditional holiday week.

One of the characters in the boat hire business who John remembers was a man called Jem Pluck who made his oars from solid oak. The huge weight of these oars meant his boats could never go far and thus the risk of boats being abandoned elsewhere or stolen was greatly reduced. Even fifty years ago, boats were at risk. Since hirers only paid when they returned the boat, some people tried to avoid paying and just abandoned the boat around the harbour or further afield. John remembers some boats being rowed across the Dublin Bay to Sutton and left there. Others were left closer to home in Blackrock and along the southern coast of the Bay.

The Coopers were another family John remembers in the boat hire business then.

He also remembers the East Pier gun battery in use by the army during World War Two as it fired blanks at a German aircraft over the Harbour to warn it that it was over a neutral country. Years later, in 1956, John worked in the battery removing the old wooden floor. One feature of the floor was that it had no metal nails, only wooden nails called trunnels. Metal nails could not be used for fear of ever causing a spark that might ignite the explosive materials that were in the battery for so many years.

In 1948 John was apprenticed as a boat builder to Eddie Gray who worked in the Coal Harbour and he spent the next five years acquiring his qualification, which included two years at the Technical School on Eblana Avenue.

The Harbour has changed considerably in John’s time there. He remembers the old mail boats to Holyhead – especially the Princess Maud – and the train line that ran out onto the Carlisle Pier. The waterfront sailing clubs have all expanded outwards – at one stage he could row under the National Yacht Club deck.

John recalls the fishing business run by Brigham Young from a shed called the fish bank, where the Motor Yacht Club now stands. This involved baiting long lines of anything between 140 and 200 hooks and then taking them out in a 14 foot rowing boat to places like Sandymount, leaving them overnight and coming back the next day to see what had been hooked.

Handling boats was heavy work – it took four men up to two hours to get a boat out of the water and up to the turntable in the Boat Yard. Other heavy work was shovelling coal. The coal boats from the west coast of England coming into the Harbour were also a familiar sight to John up until the early 1950s. A railway track ran from the existing station across the current Irish Lights site and onto Traders Wharf to take the coal away.

There are several buildings and features, now disappeared that John remembers well in and around the Harbour:

  1. The Dun Laoghaire morgue was situated between Traders Wharf and the Royal Irish Yacht Club. There was also a Board of Works stone yard there;
  2. The old sailors home in the Coal Harbour where visiting sailors and seamen could sleep in a cot free of charge. While the home was out of use in John’s time, he remembers the cots and Charlie Blackmore who lit a fire there and offered cups of tea;
  3. The very rudimentary “French toilet”, made of granite, on the old quay with a drop of 20 or 30 feet straight through to the sea below;

John worked as a shipwright for the Commissioners of Irish Lights for 16 years between 1953 and 1969 and for many years he also did maintenance work for the RNLI in Dun Laoghaire, polishing the metal work and testing the engines to ensure the boat was always ready for action. He retired from the boat hire business in 1954 as problems with vandalism and people not returning boats to avoid paying made the enterprise very difficult.

He remembers the Harbour Swim, of which his father was an active organiser, from what he calls the age of “iron men and wooden ships”. The swim used to go through the tunnel under the Carlisle Pier, on to the Coal Quay, over to the West Pier, on to the Melampus Buoy and back to Rogan’s Slip.

The township regatta was another popular event which was a week long series of boat racing involving a stevedores race using shovels instead of oars in rowing boats. Skiff racing was also very popular and involved 25 foot long boats competing against each other. Clubs still exist today in Ringsend, Greystones and Dalkey. A popular application was a mixture of stale porter and black lead which was painted onto the boat bottoms. When dry, the polished surface was said to help the boats travel faster.

While John has many memories of the Harbour, he has also left a huge legacy in terms of the many wooden boats he built that still sail there. The water wags (the original dinghy which instigated the concept of one design boats) are still going strong in the Harbour after 105 years and many enjoy their continued seaworthiness and beauty to John’s skilful repairs and maintenance. He has also built a number of Shannon One Design (SOD) boats which are sailed on the Shannon and Lough Derg. John has also built a number of Glen class keelboats and their long 35 foot masts made of Oregon pine pose a special, but enjoyable challenge.

The Mermaid class owes a considerable debt to John – he built 17 of the boats that still sail in Dun Laoghaire. He recalls that in 1961 it cost £475 to put these boats on the water, a considerable sum in those days.

The optimist has become one of the most widely used entry level sailing boats for junior sailors and are made of fibreglass nowadays. However, in an earlier age they were made of wood and John remembers building one in the 1960s in the front room of his house. When it was time to take it out, there was a half inch to spare in getting it out the door! In those days, an oppie cost about £30 for the hull.

While the demand for new wooden boats is light these days, John enjoys good health and continues to work in the boat building and repair business in and around Dun Laoghaire Harbour with his two sons Edwin and Nigel.

Jim Lightfoot Photographs
Click image to view photography by Jim Lightfoot

The Lighthouse
by Barbara Botham

A true story from 1963

THE PIER was always an integral part of our weekly visits to Dun Laoghaire. While the adults caught up on the weekly news, we children would play around the seafront. The tiered pier with its rocky breakwater on one side and wide flat promenades atop and on the lee side became our playground. In the long summer evenings we had lots of time to walk all the way to the end of the pier. Soon it became a tradition that we would walk the full length of the pier. It always seemed a long walk–particularly as we would add to it by taking the steps to another level for a change of view, or to get closer to the small boats in the shelter of the harbour.

At the end of the pier was the big round wall that encompassed the lighthouse which had been guiding mariners for over a century. A walk to the end of the pier was not complete unless you touched the big blue wooden door in the wall. No cheating was allowed. If one of us became sidetracked and had not made it all the way to the end, we would all watch as they ran to the end and make sure the connection was made with the door.

One stormy evening, when my sister and I were in our very early teens, we decided we would ‘do’ the pier. Although it was fairly sheltered at the house, we knew it would be wilder on the pier. So, dressing in our hooded gabardine coats, we headed off. It was heavily overcast when we reached the harbour and we were delighted with the fierce waves that battered the pier from the open sea.

We stood and watched for a while to determine the possible danger in walking the deserted pier. We could see occasionally some of the waves were splashing over the top wall, and on the lee side the lower level was often awash, but we’d be safe enough on the upper level sheltered by the wall. Right, we’d do it!

We set off confidently, but were soon slowed by the buffeting winds. Bent into the wind, and keeping our heads below the top of the wall, we held our collars tight and plunged on. Occasionally we got a great thrill when a wave cleared the wall and splashed ahead of us. We’d run through what appeared to be a dodgy area and managed to avoid being doused by a full wave.

We battled our way to the end of the pier and ran the last few yards to the blue door. Just as our hands touched the door we both let out an unmerciful scream, as not only did the door give way but a dark figure appeared in the opening. As we recoiled, the wind buffeted us about. The figure beckoned us impatiently, yelling above the roar of the wind and waves to come in out of the storm.

We knew we couldn’t stand where we were, and so we stepped into the small opening. The man hurried us across a courtyard and into the lighthouse.

We were absolutely charmed. Here was a perfectly round room, furnished to suit. Against one side was a curved sofa. On either side of it were low curved bookcases. A cosy fire burned, and everything oozed solitude and comfort. As we gazed around in awe and delight, the Lighthouse Keeper shot questions at us. What were we doing out on the pier on a night like this?
“Oh, we usually walk the pier when we come here.”
“But on a night like this!”
“Yes, it was windy.”
“Windy! I’ve been watching you through the binoculars all the way. I couldn’t believe someone was out on the pier tonight. I saw you nearly get blown off and then you kept on coming! I couldn’t believe you kept on coming!”
“Well, we couldn’t believe when that door opened. The wind didn’t scare us, you did!”


He was a fairly young man. He told us he’d been stationed there for a couple of years, and loved it. Although he worked alone much of the time, there was always something to keep him busy and, mostly, he was very content. He was looking around his living space with what seemed a new appreciation, as he hadn’t felt there was anything charming about it.

It was now approaching dusk and he was just going to light the lamp, so he invited us to mount the spiral staircase and watch him. What a thrill! We followed him up to the lantern and watched him reach with a blowlamp to ignite the light. Then we watched the lens make its turn, before descending back to the living area. We noticed the peculiar angle of the glass. He told us this was to increase the distance from which the beam’s flashes could be seen.

He would have been happy to host us longer but he was worried about our return trip, now that it was dark. He admonished us to keep our heads down and stay close to the wall. He would watch us until we made it back safely. The pier was close to a mile long; but we were very excited and, with the wind now behind us, we seemed to fly back. As we stepped off the end of the pier, we turned and waved to our unseen guardian.

Barbara Botham is now living in Canada and wrote this recollection in the spring of 2006

My Dún Laoghaire Harbour
By Justin Merrigan

From a very early age Dún Laoghaire Harbour has always held a strong fascination for me.

From the age of five when from the back of my father’s car I loved nothing more than to see one of the mailboats at rest on the east side of the Carlisle Pier, through the years until the day when I brought my own children to the harbour to view the operations of high speed craft, the harbour has been my very own place of tranquillity. More recently, in September 2003, I revisited the port from my home in Australia and, despite the addition of the new marina, it was almost as if I’d never left!

During my school years Dún Laoghaire Harbour was my playground. Friendly Harbour Constables and Sealink staff nurtured within me a deep interest in the port’s link with Holyhead, served by countless British Rail, Sealink and later Stena Line ferries. How privileged I was to be permitted to view the ferry operations at such close quarters!

This interest developed to the point where I embarked on a career in the ferry industry, firstly and briefly at sea before moving to port operations at both Dún Laoghaire and Dublin, and then moving to Australia as Public Relations Officer with Incat, builders of the Stena Sea Lynx, built for the Holyhead run in 1993.

I was first introduced to my favourite vantagepoint, the end of the Carlisle Pier, in 1980 at the age of ten. From here I was permitted to view the departure of the route’s penultimate steam turbine ferry, the Avalon. I was hooked!

From this vantagepoint I have since recorded on camera every ferry to have served on the route. And through the years and the various ships I have made lasting friendships with the many Captains, officers and crew members who maintained the crossing day in day out on a year round basis.

How I loved to stand on the end of the Carlisle Pier during the late 1980s and early 1990s, now with a basic understanding of the artform that is ship handling, and watch as the master brought his command gently into the berth. Of course, during the winter months it could be very different! With an easterly gale and low water the master’s every skill was tested as he brought the St Columba alongside, fighting the wind and keeping in mind propeller cavitation with reduced water under his keel.

The departure of the ship was always an exciting time. The pier was a hive of activity, especially in the last 20 minutes or so before sailing. What a scene it was.

The last passengers hurrying for the gangway, as tugmasters swiftly place the last pieces of unaccompanied freight on the vehicle deck. The Piermaster rushes across the causeway from the car ferry compound with the “papers” signifying all is on board and accounted for. Outside the pier gates wellwishers wait as their loved ones wave from the ship’s exterior decks and the gangways and car ramp are taken away.

A cry of “single-up” from the bridge wing and the first wires and ropes are released as a plume of black smoke erupts from the ship’s funnel. Now held by one rope fore and aft, the ship straining to get to sea, the master and chief officer appear on the bridge wing, radar scanner swishing above their heads. “Let Go – Right Time” and before the rope hits the ship’s side the bow thrust and twin screws are already lifting the huge ship away from the granite pier. Moving astern off the berth the ship turns her bow for the harbour mouth and disappears out into Dublin Bay, a course of 100 degrees taking her down to the South Burford Buoy once again.

On the pier an eerie silence always descended. For me it was always a strange experience, the pier, quiet now, when only 30 minutes previously so many people, maybe up to 2000 or even more, had passed through its gates.

Now the Carlisle Pier is quiet once again. But not for long it would seem and I am greatly encouraged to see that regeneration plans are proceeding well. It is my hope that the pier will be redeveloped with a strong understanding of its role since 1857 and will continue to remain a focal point in “My Harbour”.

Living in Hobart, in the Australian Island State of Tasmania, I look back with fondness on my days in and around Dún Laoghaire Harbour. Without hesitation I can safely say the harbour, and the people in it, shaped my life. Indeed my first job was in the port when during school holidays I worked as a boatman in the Royal Irish Yacht Club, ferrying members to their yachts moored in the harbour. Perhaps if the Incat-built Stena Sea Lynx had been deployed to any other Stena Line route in 1993 then I might not be living in the Antipodes!

Justin Merrigan has written other articles regarding the Dún Laoghaire Harbour ferry service, such as the St Columba from Justin Merrigans Sealink-Holyhead Web Site. And that’s not all, Justin has provided a Visual Ferry Gallery showing the many Ferries that have been deployed upon the Dún Laoghaire to Holyhead crossing.

The Kelly Family
The Johnny Kellys – Senior, Middle and Junior!

While there are many families with a long tradition in Dun Laoghaire Harbour, none has a lineage like the three generations of Johnny Kelly’s active in the Harbour today.

Johnny Kelly Senior is 83 years of age and can still be found out on his boat minding his lobster pots. His son – the middle Johnny Kelly – is a 43 year old pilot boat coxwain in Dublin Port who also works with the National Yacht Club on maintaining its moorings and does some fishing from the Harbour. In turn, his son, 18 year old Johnny Junior is a maintenance worker in the Marina and is also a volunteer with the busy Lifeboat based in the Harbour.

Johnny Kelly Senior is a sprightly man with a remarkable recollection of the many people and ships that have been around the Harbour since he started working as a ten year old with his grandfather, Paddy Carroll, in 1936 hiring boats at the harbours in Dun Laoghaire and Sandycove. He has a detailed memory of his many experiences and has inherited further stories from Paddy and his great-grandfather Martin Carroll, who also worked in the boat hire business around the Harbour at Dun Laoghaire and Sandycove where he had a small shed. Martin Carroll lived to the great age of 97 making Johnny Carroll Senior the direct modern inheritor of an oral history line about the Harbour that goes back over at least 150 years to the middle of the 19th century.

Johnny was born and brought up in Glasthule and his earliest memories as a young boy was getting up at 4 am to start work on the lobster pots at first light for several hours before going to school at the local Harold School. After school, at weekends and holidays, he would help his grandfather in what was then a booming boat hire business in and around the Harbour. His grandfather was so busy and successful at this, that the first set of steps from the East Pier down to the water were known as Paddy Carroll’s Steps.

Johnny remembers the names of all the owners who hired out boats alongside his grandfather.. There were over 40 boats there when he started, owned by men such as the Coopers at Rogan’s Slip, Joey Pluck, Ted Brennan, Dick Hughes, Din Berry and Mickey Gallagher. Long queues would build up on fine Saturdays and Sundays as people waited their turn to get on the water. Johnny recalls that in those days there were no accidents and no trouble. Anyone who said they could row could hire a boat or be taken out. Lifejackets were unknown.

While men were allowed hire a boat to take out provided they could assure the boatmen of at least some basic rowing ability, women had to have someone to row for them and from an early age Johnny was heading out to sea with passengers. Boats were hired for a half crown per hour (about 16 cent today).

The lobster business was important in those days and Johnny remembers his grandfather emptying his lobster pots between 4 and 6 in the morning before taking an early tram into the fish market in Dublin city centre to sell his catch.

At an early age Johnny learnt about the lobster pots in the rocks at the back of the East Pier and along the coast by Killiney to Bray. It was common to row the whole distance to Bray and back with the assistance of only a shifting sail on board to check the pots and their contents.

As the lobsters became scarce in winter, herring fishing became an important replacement and Johnny remembers more early morning starts as the yawl (a boat over 18 feet long) would drift off Poolbeg in Dublin Bay to haul the catch in. Whiting was also a common catch there from long lines baited with up to 500 hooks.

After leaving school, Johnny spent a few years hiring boats at Sandycove, fishing and making lobster pots. When the lure of longer journeys took over he worked for several years on a three masted schooner on the Irish Sea, making trips between all the main cities and towns in Britain and Ireland and occasionally to France.

When he returned to Ireland in the 1950’s he took up work with the Dublin Port and Docks board as a driver on one of its pilot barges. In those days the shifts were 48 hours on / 48 hours off and the crew took to the Bay with their own two day food supply and worked alternative six hour shifts on watch. He worked in the Port until 1991.

Coal was a big feature for many years in the Harbour when Johnny was a younger man with four coal yards in the Harbour and regular coal boats landing from the west coast of Britain. The coal would be landed and then bagged around the Coal Quay and old harbour before being brought around the borough by horse-drawn drays which he remembers with fondness.

One of Johnny’s most vivid memories goes back to July 1937 when the huge German training ship the Schleswig-Holstein visited Dun Laoghaire on its way back to base from a trip to South America. The ship was a former First World War battleship which had fought at the Battle of Jutland, and was flagship of the German navy from 1926 to 1935. It was then converted to a training ship but was still heavily armed. It anchored in Scotsman’s Bay and for days Johnny ferried sightseers out and back from the Harbour to the ship where they could take tours. The ship’s band came ashore to play on the East Pier and its 300 cadets – trainees for Hitler’s navy – went back and forth from the town. The Schleswig Holstein later was credited with firing the first shots of the Second World War when under the guise of a courtesy visit to Danzig it opened fire on the Polish garrison at dawn on September 1st 1939.

A strong reminder to Johnny of the constant danger of going to sea in small rowing boats, was the tragedy on the fourth of January 1939 when his uncle Mick Carroll and stepson Jem Baker were drowned. With bad weather forecast the two set out from Sandycove Harbour to check their lobster pots off the East Pier. Caught by an easterly wind, Jem fell out of the boat and in trying to reach him, Mick let go of the oars and the boat turner suddenly pitching him in. Johnny still remembers three horses which were pulling coal drays near the seafront having their reins taken off and brought down the Pier to try to pull the boat and men to safety with no success.

Pleasure cruises were also a popular feature in the Harbour in the 1950’s and John remembers the John Joyce, Royal Iris, Golden Hind and Larsen among others. The Larsen went on tours to Bray and back every day and other ships ran night time tours.

Middle Johnny Kelly is active in the Harbour and Dublin Bay where he is a pilot boat coxwain with Dublin Port Company.

While these days the pilot boats no longer work the 48 hour shifts of his father’s time, they are busier than ever with commercial shipping entering and leaving the Port. Considerable additional traffic for pilots is also generated by the increasing number of large cruise ships to visit Dublin Port. Over 80 are expected this year including the famous QE2 in October.

As well working on the pilot boat, Johnny works part-time in the National Yacht Club on its mooring bridles. Johnny Junior works full time in the Harbour in the marina and also on call as a lifeboat volunteer where he has been on 24 launches out of Dun Laoghaire already this year.

All three men still live in the locality. Johnny Senior made the short move some time ago from Glasthule to Sallynoggin and his son and grandson now live in Shankill.