Captain William Bligh

One of the most beautiful prospects imagination can form an idea of… a spacious amphitheatre mostly bounded by high shore and the country all round is mostly spangled with white villas’.

Thus was Dublin Bay described by writers Pool and Cash in 1780.

Indeed the harbour and bay of Dublin was and is one of the ‘most beautiful sights in Europe’. In 1780, it was one of the deadliest too, littered with the sea slimed timbers and rotting hulls of vessels wrecked upon the sandbanks which choked the bay. The much admired spacious amphitheatre offered no shelter from high winds and the tides deposited yet ever more sand into the shipping channels of the Liffey itself. 

Through the 18th century, the merchants of Dublin put their wigged and hatted heads together, to find a solution to their costly shipping problem - a safe navigable passage into the heart of the city. They took thirty years to build a granite sea barrier, the Great South Wall, at the time the longest in the world. At its seaward end a lighthouse blazed a warning for incoming ships - the first candlelit lighthouse in the world. But while the waters were calmer and the winds blew more gently upon the sails of the tall ships, the sands still shifted and the bay claimed its victims.

And so, in 1800, the Directors of Inland Navigation called upon Captain William Bligh. At the tender age of seven, Bligh had been apprenticed to sea. He served under Captain James Cook in the Pacific, saw war service against the Dutch and French and was, of course, the infamous captain against whom his crew mutinied and who set him adrift in the Pacific with a few days supply of food and water. He survived the 47 day, 3,618 mile journey and must have thought Dublin a welcome, quiet retreat from the perils of the Pacific.

Bligh resided at the Ballast House in Sackville Street, now O’Connell Street, many times passing this way, where now the East-Link Bridge spans the river, to conduct his year long scientific survey of the bay. He correctly assessed the need for a second and parallel great wall eastwards from the port along the north shore. Such an expensive project took time and was eventually financed by the sale of the Pigeon House Harbour to the government in 1914. Work got underway in 1818 and was completed on the advice of the great engineer, Thomas Telford, to a length of 3,000 metres, a third longer that was originally planned.

There is an incidental further bridge link in this story. Bligh, who went on to become governor of New South Wales in Australia, had six daughters. While in the antipodes, Mary met and married Sir Maurice O’Connell, a kinsman of Daniel O’Connell.

by Annette Black, Wicklow
Published on 13th September 2013