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Once more on the Docks I’ll be seen

the life , demise and rebirth of the Liffey Ferry

Co Author:
Joe Mooney
© by Jeanette Lowe

On 20th October 1984 the East Link Toll Bridge opened, to much praise and excitement. For the first time one could walk or drive across the Liffey at a point further down river than the Custom House. But as this one mile stone of connectivity was being celebrated, another was being lamented.

The previous day the Liffey Ferry had crossed the river for the last time. It was an end of a tradition that stretched back through the centuries – the first service across Anna Livia was in 1385, and a ferries had operated along North Wall Quay for 300 years. It is said at one time there were as many as six in operations, gradually reduced to just the one, located on the River almost directly opposite the Point Depot.  

Dublin City as we know it began, prospered and spread out from the River Liffey. And of course, if you’ve got a thriving city with a river right up the middle of it then people need to cross it conveniently. At one time there was one such bridge, which in 1385 collapsed into the waters below. A ferry service was introduced to provide traverse, with a toll levied to help fund construction of a replacement bridge.

A 1665 Royal Charter established a Dublin Corporation ferry service, to operate from one hour before sunrise and finish one hour after sunset. As new bridges were constructed over the centuries, the scale of the service was reduced until eventually it existed only beyond the Custom House. At the beginning of the 20th century the old row boats were replaced by ‘modern’ motorised versions. The ferry provided a vital lifeline between the communities and workplaces on the opposing docks , though by the 1980’s the hundreds of thousands of annual journeys were reduced to just fifteen thousand, and even a price hike from 6p to 10p couldn’t save the ailing service.

Like the old Mars Bar advertisement claimed, the ferry helped the Dockland population ‘work, rest and play’, spanning the approximately 120 yards of river. It not only brought men and women back and forward to work each day, but also for some a trip home for their dinner-break.

Jack O’Reilly from North Wall (whose father was a player on the Dublin team on Bloody Sunday at Croke Park) recalls the excitement of travelling over the South side at weekends to see Shelbourne play. For others it gave them an opportunity to check out the bingo nights enjoyed by their neighbours across the water.

For locals like Mary Dunne and Angie Markey Wigglesworth, who were only youngsters when the ferry operated, it still invokes strong memories. Mary recalls being amazed at her father’s ability to whistle loudly enough to summon the ferryman from the far wall, while Angie recalls the trip as “a treat” which also included a bag of sweets.

The original ferry in 1365 had an interesting pricing scheme – it was one farthing for a person, and variable prices for cows, horses sheep or pigs (whether alive or carcass). But it was the heavily pregnant mother of (the yet to be born) historian Ann Matthews that tested the wits of a ferryman when she made a crossing to visit Holles Street Maternity Hospital – he quipped that he didn’t know whether to throw her off or charge double!

As the words of the Pete St John song reflects:
The little boats are gone from the breast of Anna Liffy
The ferryman is stranded on the quay
Sure the Dublin docks is dying and a way of life is gone
And Molly it was part of you and me.

It is not just the ferry that is gone. Much of the way of life of the Dockland community has changed, and the employment opportunities are long gone. Even the physical landscape has changed almost beyond all recognition. However, members of the community, local historians and former workers are striving to ensure that the memories are preserved – saving the stories, pictures and memorabilia for future generations to share.

Thanks to Dublin Culture Connects some former Dublin Port workers recently had the opportunity to take a journey out on the water on one of the original ferry boats. It was a great experience, almost like stepping back in time and once again crossing the Anna Livia as we used to do, and as generations had down through the years. Hopefully this was only the first of many such trips, and other Dubliners and visitors alike might one day get to share this part of our City’s heritage.

by Joe Mooney – East Wall History Group

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