“You’re on Earth. There’s no cure for that.”
― Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
In March, 2018, Storm Emma and the so-called ‘Beast from the East’ wrecked Dún Laoghaire’s East Pier and brought Ireland to a standstill. The previous October, fifteen young sailors were rescued from Dún Laoghaire harbour when storm Brian and ex-hurricane Ophelia landed joined forces to create a lethal weather bomb.
As I watched Emma’s enormous waves crash over the pier and flood the DART tracks at Seapoint, I remembered how extreme weather events have shaped and haunted Dún Laoghaire over the years like a monstrous phantom.
Lest we ever forget, if it wasn’t for a fatal storm in November 1807, Dún Laoghaire’s iconic harbour might never have been built. Since the 5th century to the early 1800s, Dún Laoghaire was a small and sleepy fishing village around an inlet near where the Purty Kitchen pub stands today.
The harbour changed everything. It directly led to the construction of the first commuter railway line in the world from Westland Row to Kingstown, which in turn led to development of the town we know and love today. In 1817, the population of Dún Laoghaire population numbered about 300. By 1860, it had mushroomed to 12,500.
But before growth and prosperity, there was a terrible tragedy. Nearly 400 people died in the Rochdale and Prince of Wales disasters in November, 1807. There was no harbour to take refuge, so the ill-fated vessels were left to their own devices during a blizzard and vicious storm.
During the outcry that followed this disaster, a petition book opened in Monkstown church demanding the construction of an asylum harbour. 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 bi-centenary of this event was marked by President Michael D. Higgins the unveiling of a plaque by President Higgins at the end of May, 2017.
Christmas Eve, 1895, became another dark day as a storm described as “the most severe of the century” caused waves to crashed over the lighthouse. A Finnish ship, called the Palmé, got into difficulty. The lifeboat deployed to rescue it was destroyed with a single devastating wave and fifteen lifeboat men drowned. The harbour was littered with debris, wreckage and carnage.
The funerals are said to be the largest Dún Laoghaire has ever seen and flags were lowered to half mast at ports across Europe. The victims, aged between 22 to 60, were buried in Deansgrange cemetery. At noon on Christmas Eve every year, a lone piper leads a procession down the pier and a short memorial ceremony takes place.
February 1861 was plagued with severe coastal storms. On February 8, three vessels got into difficulty trying to take refuge in the harbour, the Neptune, the Industry, and the Mary. The Neptune smashed against the rocks of the East pier.
HMS Ajax came to its assistance, but Captain John McNeill Boyd, five of his crew, and at least 21 townspeople perished. The Captain, whose body was not recovered for weeks, is commemorated by the Boyd monument on the East pier, and is buried at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where there is also a statue in his honour.
Legend has it that his faithful Newfoundland dog lay on top of his filled grave and never got up, eventually dying of starvation. There have been reports over the years of a ghostly dog haunting Boyd’s statue, even from a former Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
The worst tragedy of them all occurred on November 10, 1918, when a German u-boat torpedoed the Leinster mail boat. The sinking of the Leinster and loss of an estimated 541 lives was the key historical event commemorated by the state in 2018. More Irish people died on that ill-fated final voyage than on the Titanic or Lusitania.
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, and an creative epiphany that changed the course of literary history.
Samuel Beckett grew up in Foxrock, near Dún Laoghaire. The locality greatly informed and inspired his work. There is a plaque dedicated to Beckett’s memory, and acknowledging his Nobel Prize for Literature accolade in 1969, on the lower section of the East pier under the weather station.
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 written for Patrick Magee. While not as iconic or well known as Waiting for Godot, it is one of Beckett’s major works. Distinguished actors who have played Krapp over the years include Harold Pinter, John Hurt, Barry McGovern and Michael Gambon.
Krapp listens back to recordings of his younger self. The storm he talks about is believed to be based on an epiphany the young Beckett had while walking the east pier in a storm. 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–“
The play concludes with one of the famous Beckett lines, which is a gloriously defiant and resilient statement, especially considering all the catastrophic loss of life and limb that Dún Laoghaire has witnessed over the years.
“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.”