So why is a little piece of Dublin maritime history in danger of disappearing forever?
Because the Naomh Éanna has finally been holed below the waterline. On January 24, the former ferry ship keeled over at her resting place in Grand Canal Dock.
After decades of debate about the vessel’s future, she now appears not to have one at all. For some Dubliners, the Naomh Éanna’s possible demise is symbolic of how we don’t treat our heritage with enough respect.
“We see buildings being abandoned all the time and we ignore it,” says Nathan Wheeler, an artist who has documented the Naomh Éanna’s recent decline. “Now we see a massive ship being abandoned… right down there in the middle of the Silicon Docks, you’ve got Irish history just rotting away and it’s normalised.”
What makes the Naomh Éanna so historic?
The Naomh Éanna was the last great ship built in Dublin’s Liffey Dockyard. She was also one of the last in Europe to have a riveted hull, since welding replaced this labour-intensive method shortly afterwards.
Constructed between 1956 and 1958, the Naomh Éanna was designed to be a CIE freight and passenger ferry between the Aran Islands and the Galway mainland.
The future Taoiseach Seán Lemass, then minister for industry and commerce, said the Naomh Éanna’s passenger list would include “tourists, cattle, pigs, film stars and millionaires”.
One of her first jobs, however, was helping to recover victims from KLM Flight 607-E which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 1958 and killed all 99 people on board.
Many people will have happy memories of taking the Naomh Éanna on summer holidays – or less happy ones of getting sick over her side. Despite the area’s notoriously rough weather, she only missed seven scheduled sailings during three decades of service.
Why was she retired?
By 1988, the Naomh Éanna’s supremacy had been challenged by other ferry services as well as air travel. When CIE decided that her working days were over, she was sold to the Irish Nautical Trust and taken to Dublin’s Grand Canal Basin.
She can be seen in the 1996 film Michael Collins, transporting the Big Fellow played by Liam Neeson over to London for the Anglo-Irish Treaty talks.
What has she been doing since then?
Sadly, not a lot. For a while the Naomh Éanna was used as a surf shop, but this closed and she was then towed to a graving dock largely out of sight. A campaign group called the Naomh Éanna Trust was set up in 2005 to prevent her from being broken up, but repair works were slow and her hull carried on degrading.
In 2015, the Naomh Éanna seemed to have got a new lease of life. Sam Field-Corbett from the Irish Ship and Barge Fabrication (ISBF) bought her for the princely sum of €1. He has been involved in restoring other ships such as the Cill Áirne, which is now a restaurant docked on North Wall Quay.
Field-Corbett’s initial plan was to sail the Naomh Éanna back to Galway and turn it into a floating boutique hostel, complete with a micro-brewery and a museum. When raising funds for that proved difficult, he decided to keep her in Dublin instead and create a 28-cabin room luxury hotel instead.
In 2018, Dublin City Council awarded a licence which would allow the restored Naomh Éanna to berth on Custom House Quay.
So why has the idea gone overboard?
In a word, money. Field-Corbett’s project had a budget of €6.6m, but it hadn’t taken into account something called Covid-19.
As he explained to The Irish Times last week: “We were hit with the pandemic and all our businesses were in the marine industry. Everything had to close and we didn’t get any kind [of support]… we couldn’t get it financed in the end.”
What’s caused the Naomh Éanna to start sinking?
Nobody knows for sure. The ship is an easy target for vandals, who may have helped to scupper her. She also took on some water during our recent cold snap and this could have been the last straw for her long-neglected hull.
Either way, the Naomh Éanna has now effectively fallen over on her left side. Since the graving dock is quite shallow, she remains sticking out of the water and an obvious safety hazard.
A salvage company has visited the Naomh Éanna to shore her up and limit any damage to the surrounding area.
Is there any way now of rescuing her from the scrapyard?
Only if someone with extremely deep pockets comes along, since the State has shown no real interest in getting involved. Someone has painted ‘Save Our Ship’ on the Naomh Éanna’s side, but that increasingly looks like a forlorn hope.
“It’s an eyesore,” Reg McCabe from the voluntary group Inland Waterways Association of Ireland told RTÉ News last week. “And it’s an impediment which is interfering with the prospect of the development of the site overall.
“It needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency. I think at this stage, the prospect for renovating the ship is extremely limited… any reasonable person would say it’s time for it to be removed.”
Who will decide what happens next?
Even that’s not clear. The Naomh Éanna lies within territory that’s owned by the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA). Last week, it said that the ISBF is solely responsible for the vessel and its upkeep.
According to Sam Field-Corbett, however, his company “does not have the resources” to dispose of the Naomh Éanna.
“NAMA must be involved with whatever happens in the breaking of the ship,” he has said. “We have to access the site through them.”
Finally, what does all this tell us about Dublin’s attitude to its history?
That if you neglect something for too long, it may end up beyond saving. Moore Street, the Iveagh Markets and the Poolbeg Chimneys are other examples of famous city venues or landmarks that have been in decline for decades and now face deeply uncertain futures.
The Naomh Éanna was once a proud flagship for Dublin’s maritime heritage – but after surviving hundreds of stormy Atlantic Ocean crossings, she seems to be heading for what old sea dogs call Davy Jones’s Locker.
“Let’s use this as a wake-up call,” the artist Nathan Wheeler has urged. “We mustn’t leave our history as abandoned rusting hulks, because if we do, there won’t be anything left.”
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