Dublin Bay is one of the three sites on the Irish Sea chosen as a case study in the ‘Cultural Value of Coastlines’ project. Encompassing the capital city of Ireland, the bay is horseshoe-shaped, extending from the Hill of Howth in the North, and around to Dalkey Hill in the South. The shores of the bay are characterised by extensive, shallow sands, known as the North and South Bulls, which are widely used by Dubliners for recreational activities. The bay is estuary to three main rivers – the Liffey, the Tolka, and the Dodder – and is also home to an island, North Bull Island, which was formed in the nineteenth century as a result of the development of the port infrastructure.
Dublin Bay has obviously had a determining influence on the history of the city of Dublin since its formation, and it continues to do so. The capital was shaped by maritime trade, particularly across the Irish Sea with Liverpool, Glasgow and Bristol. Dublin has been a port-city since its foundation by the Vikings in the tenth century, and it became a thriving port and the second city of the British Empire under colonial rule. However, the bay had a reputation among sailors as treacherous and difficult, and it is estimated that more than 1500 shipwrecks took place within its shores since records began. The entrance to the bay is made difficult by a notorious sand bank, the Kish Bank, and the entrance to Dublin Port was often made shallow by silt and shifting sands which formed into a bar across the mouth of the Liffey. Larger ships in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were compelled to unload their cargoes on to lighters (barges) at Ringsend. As a result, the port was developed in the late eighteenth century with the construction of the South Wall, and then in 1823 with the completion of the Bull Wall. The walls serve both to prevent the sands from the North and South Bulls from clogging up the port entrance, and, by allowing tidal flows to scour the entrance, to maintain a clear channel into the mouth of the Liffey. A number of small islands and sand bars existed within the bay until that time, but the completion of the walls reshaped the flow of sands and resulted in the emergence of one extensive island, the North Bull Island, which is approximately three miles long, and is a major sanctuary for seabirds and wildfowl.
The demand for a safe haven within the bay also led to the construction of an asylum harbour at Dun Laoghaire in the early nineteenth century, and with the completion of Ireland’s first railway between Dublin and Dun Laoghaire in 1834, it became the principal ferry port between Ireland and Britain. Passenger and mail services operated between Dun Laoghaire and Holyhead in Wales until 2015.
Dublin Bay boasts a rich cultural heritage of interaction between the city’s inhabitants and the coastline. Physical evidence of this heritage can be found in the numerous examples of distinctive coastal architecture, such as lighthouses, Martello towers, swimming baths, harbours, and port facilities. Evidence can also be derived from the importance of the bay to the city’s writers and artists, such as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Eavan Boland, Jack B. Yeats, and George Moore. Moore, for example, wrote the following description of Dublin Bay in 1886:
From where I stand I look down upon the sea as on a cup of blue water; it lies two hundred feet below me like a great smooth mirror; it lies beneath the blue sky as calm, as mysteriously still, as an enchanted glass in which we may read the secrets of the future. How perfectly cuplike is the bay! Blue mountains, blue embaying mountains, rise on every side, and amorously the sea rises up to the lip of the land. These mountains of the north, these Turner-like mountains, with their innumerable aspects, hazy perspectives lost in delicate grey, large and trenchant masses standing out brutally in the strength of the sun, are as the mailed arms of a knight leaning to a floating siren whose flight he would detain and of whom he asks still an hour of love. I hear the liquid murmur of the sea; it sings to the shore as softly as a turtle-dove to its mate.
The coast is also highly valued by Dubliners for the vast array of leisure and recreational activities associated with it, including fishing, boating, kite-surfing, swimming, walking, bird-watching, diving, and many more. In the past, and to a lesser extent today, the bay has been an important source of food, as remembered for example in one of Dublin’s most famous songs, ‘Molly Malone’, a cockle seller, and in the popularity of the ‘Dublin Bay prawn’.
Along with its cultural heritage, Dublin Bay is also highly cherished for its ecological importance. Bull Island was designated as a UNESCO Biosphere in 1981, and the designation was extended in 2015 to the whole of Dublin Bay. You can find out more about the Dublin Bay Biosphere here.
View our gallery of images from Dublin Bay here.
View our StoryMap about cultural representations of Dublin Bay here.