Sunday 19 November 2017

Dublin Bay's wave of invaders - from Vikings to rising seas

Environment: Dublin Bay: ­Nature and ­History, Richard Nairn, ­David Jeffrey and Rob Goodbody, Collins Press, hardback, 312 pages, €24.99

Ships at the entrance to Dublin Port in the early 19th Century, by William Sadler (courtesy of Adams Dublin)
Ships at the entrance to Dublin Port in the early 19th Century, by William Sadler (courtesy of Adams Dublin)
Dublin Bay: Nature and History by Richard Nairn, David Jeffrey, and Rob Goodbody is out now, priced €24.99
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

Our environment editor on a fascinating book which looks at the bay's history, its rich tapestry of wildlife and argues convincingly that we must act to protect the city and this fragile ecosystem Dublin was a very different place at the start of the 19th century from the thriving capital city we know today.

Dublin Port and Dún Laoghaire Harbour had not yet been built. There was no Bull Wall, and no Bull Island. The railway along the south coast did not exist, and the city's coastline was dotted with farmland and small villages, including Clontarf and Sandymount.

Dublin Bay: Nature and History notes that most of the physical changes which have occurred are man-made, and it is mankind - or the effect humanity is having on the natural environment - that will largely shape its future.

Climate change will likely result in sea levels being at least one metre higher in 2100 than today, leaving some 350 sq km of Irish cities vulnerable, it warns.

In Dublin, economic damages relating to property-insurance claims could be in the region of €339m as residential areas are flooded and livelihoods destroyed. And apart from the damage to property, there will be "great changes" in the bay's natural habitats, with "large parts" likely to be lost, including sands and mudflats which have survived for centuries alongside urban development, and with a devastating impact on wildlife including the loss of rare orchid species and wintering birds.

"Central government and the local authorities need to agree on the best approach to adopt, to avoid the worst effects of climate change impacts on coasts," it says.

"It (Dublin Bay) is… a fragile place, easily damaged by inappropriate development, mismanagement or neglect. The bay needs to be managed in a sustainable way so that it can go on providing the essential functions of sea within a city."

Written by environmental consultant Richard Nairn, Emeritus Professor of Biology at Trinity College Dublin; David Jeffrey, and geographer and planner Rob Goodbody, Dublin Bay: Nature and History tells the story of how Dublin developed from when Vikings beached their longships in the 9th century to today.

It's a rich story, full of colour, with the book noting that in the midst of the capital's human activity which drives the Irish economy, the bay contains some of the best examples of sand flats, dunes, saltmarsh and offshore sandbanks in the State, is home to millions of shellfish, worms, crustaceans and other creatures, is visited by great flocks of migratory birds arriving from Arctic Canada and tropical Africa while seals, porpoises and dolphins are in abundance, with whales occasionally visiting.

And it's huge - some 296 sq km, with the shoreline measuring 65km from Dalkey to the Howth peninsula, including the Liffey banks to Heuston. While it occasionally suffers from a surplus of detail - such as about dune formation, soil structures or numbers of particular species - which may not be of interest to the general reader, the book more than makes up for it in its description of how humans and wildlife interact, and co-exist.

Glasswort, a wild plant found in saltmarshes and which is eaten by flounders, is "a fashionable food in delicatessens", it notes, adding that fish was a large part of Dubliners' diets in recent history, herrings in particular.

"They featured strongly on fast days, so much so that following Lent, butchers led 'Herring Funerals' to celebrate their customers' return to meat, where a herring was beaten through the town on Easter Sunday and thrown into the water, and a quarter of lamb dressed with ribbons was hung up in its place."

There are some 600 recorded shipwrecks associated with the bay, and the book also tells the story of how the city built giant sea walls to help provide safe harbour, setting out a number of surveys including one of 1801 by Captain Bligh, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame.

There's a host of other interesting tales, including construction of Sir John Rogerson Quay and other reclamation projects, of caves in Salthill which appear to be lost to history, of lead-mining in Clontarf, and even references to Clontarf Island, once part of the north bay but since lost to history, its gravel removed to make concrete.

The importance of the city to the wider Irish economy cannot be overstated, and nor can the importance of preserving the bay, which is both home to wildlife and a rich amenity for the city.

"Throughout its long and chequered history the natural ecosystem of the bay has shown remarkable resilience," it concludes. "We have choices to make about the future, and we should face them before they are made for us."

This fascinating book sets out countless reasons why.

Richard Nairn will be part of a panel, Saving Ireland's Nature and Natural Habitats, at 2.30pm tomorrow at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin as part of the Dublin Book Festival

what might have been: A mini-Manhattan to sewage island

While most of the physical changes to the city over the last 1,000 years have been positive, only through good fortune and public opposition have some projects been avoided.

WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN: A MINI MANHATTAN TO SEWAGE ISLAND

* Sewage disposal on Bull Island

Bull Island began to form in the early 19th century from the sand which used to lie at the Liffey, and the area rapidly became a leisure resort. By 1868, Dublin Corporation had plans to use the island as a dumping ground for the city's sewage which had become a major health hazard. It was planned to erect a wall around the island, and ferry the human excreta down the Liffey on barges and cover the island. Influential landowners in Clontarf managed to have the idea dropped.

* The 'Blue Lagoon'

In 1929, a "hare-brained" scheme proposed to create a barrage at either end of Bull Island, forming a permanent lake which would be used for sports and as a tourist destination. In 1945, maps were also produced setting out plans for a Blackpool-type development on Bull Island.

* Oil refinery in Dublin Port

Originally proposed in 1936, the plan was resurrected in 1972 for a site at Sandymount Strand. It was eventually rejected following public opposition.

* Redevelopment of Dún Laoghaire baths

Built in 1843, the baths were continually used until the 1980s before they were closed. During the Celtic Tiger, a €140m redevelopment plan included 180 apartments, retail units and restaurants, and an indoor swimming pool. Councillors scrapped the plan.

* 'A New Heart for Dublin'

High-rise office blocks, apartments, hotels and even artificial beaches were proposed in the Docklands and across to the Poolbeg Peninsula under a 'mini-Manhattan' proposal. The economic crash in 2008 put paid to the plans.

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