The recent spell of good weather has allowed many people to enjoy the waters of Dublin Bay, whether it be swimming, sailing or just walking beside the stretch of blue calm. Recently, on a clear day, I saw the billowing, colourful sails of yachts and the churning wake of speedboats as many people enjoyed the spray on the warm afternoon. The bay has a special attraction for all marine fans, although many are probably unaware of its dark history and of the man who helped improve the lot of Dubliners long ago.
Dublin Bay looks very benign today, but it was not always the case. Up until the end of the 18th century it was notorious for the number of ships that foundered and were destroyed in its fickle and dangerous waters. Most of the damage caused to ships was as a result of the shallow waters and silting sandbars at the mouth of the Liffey. These presented a major problem to successful navigation by ships in waters that were, in places, often only 6 feet deep. The construction of the Great South Wall went some way to improving the situation, but it was only part of the solution.
The increasing trade and the loss of the ship Hope of Rhode in 1798 put the Dublin Port Authority under pressure and it had to resolve the problem. They asked the British Government for help, and in September 1801 the Admiralty sent one of their best cartographers to investigate the problem, and thus, Captain William Bligh entered the pages of Dublin history. He was a man with him a colourful past, and a history of navigating and surveying some of the most exotic places in the world. He was born near Plymouth, England on 4th October, 1754, and sailed around the world with Captain James Cook (1772-74). On that voyage he impressed Cook with his surveying techniques, and the detailed maps he prepared were used by sailors for years.
Bligh eventually was given command of his own ship, HMS Bounty, in late 1787. He was instructed to sail to Tahiti and collect breadfruit plants for transportation to the West Indies. It was planned that they would be used as a cheap source of food for the slaves that were being brought from Africa by British traders. However, due to prolonged bad weather the crew were forced to stay for months on the paradise island, where indiscipline eventually led to disaster. Soon after collecting their cargo and heading off across the Pacific, a mutiny, led by the first mate Fletcher Christian, broke out, and Bligh and eighteen sailors were cast adrift in a ship’s launch. Under Bligh’s command, and using his brilliant skill as a navigator, he and all men sailed for forty-one days across 3,618 miles of dangerous waters to safety on Timor.
Bligh returned to England, and in 1791 he was cleared by a court-martial of any blame for the mutiny. Later, he resumed his naval career and, during the 1790s as captain of HMS Providence, he returned to Tahiti and brought breadfruit plants to the West Indies.
And so it was in the autumn of 1801 that Bligh arrived in Dublin where he used his considerable knowledge in surveying the treacherous waters of the bay. He spent three months preparing his report in which he proposed the construction of a North Wall, that would mirror the Great South Wall, and increase the speed of the water flow and improve the natural scouring process. Although his proposal was not acted upon immediately, its main points did inform a later investigation and the subsequent construction of the now familiar Bull Wall, although at a slightly different angle to the shore at Clontarf than what he had proposed. His contribution to the improved efficiency of the tidal flow and the resulting increase in commerce and safety of travellers has been appreciated ever since by all the users of Dublin Bay.