"The sights of ships entering and leaving the port day and night throughout the year spark the imaginations of most people, but unless you go far eastwards along the quays or out along the coast, the movement of ships will be unseen by most."
CEO Dublin Port Company.
When Dubliners was published one hundred years ago, James Joyce described a typical scene of dock working in the following terms:
We came then near the river. We spent a long time walking about the noisy streets flanked by high stone walls, watching the working of cranes and engines and often being shouted at for our immobility by the drivers of groaning carts. It was noon when we reached the quays and, as all the labourers seemed to be eating their lunches, we bought two big currant buns and sat down to eat them on some metal piping beside the river. We pleased ourselves with the spectacle of Dublin's commerce...
With the change in activity since Joyce's time, the important historical and cultural link between the port and the city which it spawned and nurtured has been, to a great extent, lost. This has happened in cities across the world. In some cities the port has been forgotten altogether and has been gentrified as cargo handling has moved to new locations. In other cases, notably in Northern Europe, the link has been maintained and strengthened in many different ways; sometimes by innovative urban design, sometimes by cultural and heritage initiatives.
Although the link that existed in the past between Dublin Port and Dublin City has been weakened, the redevelopment of the Docklands has created an opportunity for the port and the city to be re-integrated. If the concept of Dublin in the public consciousness as a port city has dimmed, the importance of Dublin Port to Dublin City and to the country as a whole has grown in the decades since Ireland shed its insular aspirations of self-dependence and, instead, looked internationally for opportunities to trade.
The importance of Dublin Port can be described in statistics which, while capturing the scale of port activity, are unlikely to stir the imagination: how many tonnes, how many containers, how much fuel, how many passengers.
The sight of ships entering and leaving the port day and night throughout the year do, however, spark the imaginations of most people but unless you go far eastwards along the quays or out along the coast, the movement of ships will be unseen by most.
A century ago, astronomical measurements at Dunsink Observatory timed the daily dropping of the timeball on the top of the Ballast Office at O’Connell Bridge to give a visual signal to ships to synchronise their chronometers with Greenwich Mean Time, thereby enabling them to determine longitude and plot their positions far at sea. This daily spectacle was there for Dubliners to see in the heart of the city and Joyce captured it when Leopold Bloom remarks that it is “After one. Timeball on the ballast office is down”.
The timeball is no more, the ships are mostly unseen and the link between the port and the city has stretched to breaking point. But yet, the port and its activities still stir the emotions and the imagination.
Cliona Harmey’s Dublin Ships installation on the Scherzer Bridges on North Wall Quay uses the modern manifestation of astronomy and the timeball to display to Dubliners close to the new heart of the city the name of each ship as it arrives or leaves the port. A modern reminder of Dublin's timeless fascination with trade and travel.