We’re off to meet a friend for dinner – the perfect conclusion to a weekend break in Dublin. And we have time in hand. “Come along,” I chivvy my reluctant entourage, who are quite happy to lounge in the hotel in front of the telly, “We’re going to walk there along the river.”
The Liffey and Dublin’s History
The tide’s in as we set off. This is something of a blessing: It’s a warm day and the stinking, weed-covered mud, when exposed, doesn’t do the city any favours; but with the glint of the evening sun on the water it’s a beautiful sight. On the opposite side of the Liffey the site of the original Viking settlement is buried beneath new buildings. The site of the dig is marked by engraved archaeological artifacts in the paving stones.
In Your Bucket Because…
- The Liffey is central to Dublin’s history and development.
- The great famines which struck Ireland in the middle of the nineteenth century should never be forgotten.
- Great for anyone with Irish roots or an interest in history.
You can’t escape Ireland’s history. Our walk began at Ellis Quay, where a swathe of grass holds the graves of otherwise unremembered rebels. As we pass along Bachelors Walk and cross the bridge we get a good view up O’Connell Street. Here Ireland’s Easter Rising began and ended in six days in 1916: the General Post Office, occupied by the rebels still stands and the statues of heroes dot the centre of the street.
The Famine Memorial
But it’s not this twist in Ireland’s dark history that we’re here to see: It’s perhaps the most tragic tale of all. In the 1840s the island was visited by repeated episodes of famine with the failure of the potato crop, the staple of the population. No-one knows how many died or how many, desperate, left their homes as a result of ‘The Hunger.’ But many of those came where we’re going, to Custom House Quay, where they embarked on the ships that took them from their homeland. Most never came back.
A replica of one of the ships is moored alongside the quay and serves as the famine museum. Smaller than you’d think, the original Jeanie Johnson ferried thousands of emigrants away from Ireland, with more success than most – conditions on some of the ships were so bad, and the survival rates so low, that they earned themselves the chilling nickname of ‘coffin ships.’
The unfortunate irony of walking this particular walk on the way to dinner comes to me on the quayside. Gaunt figures seven or eight feet tall make their emaciated way along the quayside, frozen in metal. Clad in rags, clutching pathetic bundles and clutching starving babies, even accompanied by a snarling, skeletal dog, these sculptures, their eyes fixed on the ship ahead, are a memorial to those who left and to those who never made it.
I’m not normally one to think too long about my ancestry but today I can’t help it. Like so many others my great-great grandparents left the Emerald Isle in the aftermath of the famine and, by so doing, made me a part of the global Irish diaspora. It’s conceivable that either or both may have walked along this very quay and boarded a ship just like the Jeanie Johnson.
Eastwards and Onwards
You can only bear to spend so long among these statues, despite the fascination they impart to the well-fed, well-dressed tourists who wander among them, pointing to modern day prosperity. We proceed eastwards, in the direction that my ancestors sailed away, to cross the elegant, harp-shaped Samuel Beckett Bridge.
The bridge belongs to the new Ireland, the period of prosperity that burst forth here in this former port quarter in a rash of striking, state-of-the-art office blocks. Just to the east, though, the money ran out. There’s a half-completed office block, mothballed, and beyond it the old warehouses where progress hasn’t reached. Here you can see the point where recession hit, the place where the Celtic tiger was tamed.
It’s a reminder, if one was needed, that history never stops, that our present is the history of the future. Food for thought, if I dare call it that….
- In your stay in Dublin you’re almost bound to cross the Liffey, which flows through the historic heart of the city. The centre’s compact and walkable.
- Alternatively, you can take one of the many bus tours which run along the city. Not all of them run along as far as the Famine Memorial but a number of them do – and they sell a 24-hour ticket.
- The Jeanie Johnson is open from January to December (guided tours only). For details of tour times and prices, check out the website.
- The famine memorial sculpture, on the quay, is free.