How storms transformed Dún Laoghaire

Last week, Dún Laoghaire and harbour and piers were closed for public health and safety and 15 young sailors were rescued from the sea, as storm Brian and ex-hurricane Ophelia both blasted the country in the space of a week.

Extreme weather has tragically shaped Dún Laoghaire and Dublin’s history. Indeed, if it wasn’t for a calamitous snow and vicious sea storm in November 1807, and the subsequent loss of life, Dún Laoghaire harbour might never have been built.

Before the construction of the harbour, Dún Laoghaire was just a sleepy fishing village at an inlet near the Purty Kitchen pub and Old Dunleary Road. The harbour’s success led to the construction of the railway. In 1817, the population was only about 300. By 1860, it had dramatically mushroomed to 12,500.

Commemoration plaque for the Rochdale and the Prince of Wales, Seapoint

Nearly 400 people perished in the Rochdale and Prince of Wales disasters, most of them on the rocks at Seapoint. A violent storm had blown both ships back. There was no harbour in those days, so they were left to their own devices in complete darkness and a relentless snow storm.

During the outcry that followed, a petition opened in Monkstown church calling for the construction of an asylum harbour in Dún Laoghaire. It took years to get the project off the ground, but the foundation stone was laid on May 31, 1817, nearly a decade after hundreds of people died at Seapoint and Blackrock. The bicentary of this event was commemorated with a the unveiling of a plaque by President Higgins at the end of May this year.

President Michael D. Higgins, Councillor Corman Devlin and Harbour Company CEO, Gerry Dunne unveil a plaque and lay a time capsule to commemorate the bicentenary of Dún Laoghaire harbour.

Another terrible day in Dún Laoghaire’s history was Christmas Eve, 1895. An awful storm, described as “the most severe of the century” had developed with waves crashing over the lighthouse on the East pier. A Finnish ship called the Palme got into difficulty and fired distress rockets. The lifeboat deployed at Dún Laoghaire to assist them was destroyed with a single devastating wave in full public view and fifteen lifeboat men drowned.

The funerals are said to the biggest Dún Laoghaire has ever seen. Flags were lowered at ports across Europe in tribute. The victims, aged 22 to 60, were all buried in Deansgrange cemetery. At noon on Christmas Eve every year, a lone piper leads a procession down the East pier and a short memorial ceremony takes place. This memorial stone is located between the anchor memorial for the Leinster and St. George IV’s obelisk and not far away from Michael D’s harbour bicentenary plaque and time capsule.

Kingstown Christmas Eve Disaster memorial stone

There is also a monument on the East Pier in memory of Captain John McNeill Boyd and the storm victims of 1861, which included five of Boyd’s crew and 21 townspeople.

The harbour was littered with debris and wreckage in the aftermath of the tragedy. Legend has it Boyd’s dog followed him to the grave. When Boyd was buried in the cemetery adjoining St. Patrick’s cathedral, his dog lay on top of the grave and refused to leave. He eventually died of hunger.

In addition to the East pier monument, which was erected by the Royal St. George yacht club, there is a statue of Captain Boyd in St. Patrick’s cathedral and a memorial plaque in Christ Church, Cheltenham, where his brother was minister, and another in St Columb’s Cathedral in Derry, his birthplace. There is also a plaque in St. Anne’s Church in Portsmouth, and a sculpture in Carrickbrennan Graveyard in Monkstown.

Boyd monument inscription

The number and prominence of these memorials testify to Boyd’s heroism and immense popularity with his peers and the general public. The Derry man joined the navy at the age of 13, and worked his way up to Captain and Commander of the Dublin Coast Guard.

These are all terrible tragedies, but I’d like to conclude with an uplifting story about how a sea storm became a source of inspiration rather than in resulting in loss of life and limb.

Samuel Beckett grew up in Foxrock near Dún Laoghaire. The local landscape greatly informed and inspired his work. There is a plaque dedicated to Beckett’s memory and acknowledging his Nobel Prize for Literature win in 1969 on the lower section of the East pier under the weather station.

Samuel Beckett plaque on the East pier

The quotation “great granite rocks flying up in the light of the lighthouse and the wind-gauge spinning like a propeller, clear to me at last…” is from Beckett’s famous one-man play Krapp’s Last Tape. While not as iconic as Waiting for Godot, it is one of Beckett’s major works. Actors who have played Krapp include Harold Pinter, John Hurt, Patrick Magee and Michael Gambon.

The storm in the play is said to echo a Joycean epiphany that the young Beckett experienced walking the East pier in a storm. Some speculate that he actually had this experience at the harbour in Greystones, and biographer James Knowlson thinks Sam’s epiphany was based on watching his mother suffer from Parkinson’s disease, but it has become so associated with Dún Laoghaire (which Beckett beautifully describes in a poem called Serena II as “a little kindergarten of steeples) that a plaque quoting Krapp’s Last Tape was erected on the lower part of the pier underneath the anemometer.

In another poem, Beckett memorably likened Dún Laoghaire harbour to “a woman making to cover her breasts”, while in Murphy he mentions the “hopeless harbour look” of a mortuary. How It Is invokes the “silent location of steeples and towers.”

In Krapp’s Last Tape, a mature Krapp listens to old recordings by his younger self. He stumbles upon a section where he is talking about a stormy shore. This is the complete passage:

“Spiritually a year of profound gloom and indulgence until that memorable night in March at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision, at last. This fancy is what I have chiefly to record this evening, against the day when my work will be done and perhaps no place left in my memory, warm or cold, for the miracle that . . . (hesitates) . . . for the fire that set it alight. What I suddenly saw then was this, that the belief I had been going on all my life, namely–(Krapp switches off impatiently, winds tape forward, switches on again)–great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighthouse and the wind-gauge spinning like a propeller, clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality–(Krapp curses, switches off, winds tape forward, switches on again)–unshatterable association until my dissolution of storm and night with the light of the understanding and the fire–“

Krapp’s Last Tape concludes with one of my favourite Beckett lines and a gloriously defiant and resilient sentiment. Stormy weather in Dún Laoghaire inspired Beckett’s work, and he immortalised this pivotal personal event in literary history.

“Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.”

– Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape

Here is a short video of a Samuel Beckett interview recorded in Paris in 1987, two years before he died. The sound and picture quality isn’t great, but it is the only footage of his voice I am aware of apart from a German reading of Watt. Beckett speaks in a south Dublin accent despite having lived in France for most of his life.

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