In Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Sylvia’s Lovers (1863), the provincial whaling town of Monkshaven (based on Whitby in the north of England) is thrown into a state of excitement by the return of a Greenland ship, and a crowd immediately gathers around the harbour to watch its arrival. The Illustrated London News also published numerous images showing people thronging to witness various spectacles on the waterfront, including the naming of monstrously large steamships (14 November 1857), the filling up of new dock basins with water (28 August 1858), and the arrival of exotic animals (21 May 1864). Dublin port was no exception. In 1856, a tobacco warehouse on the Custom House Dock, known as Stack A, famously became the site for a large-scale entertainment, when returning soldiers from the Crimean War were treated to a huge banquet on the premises.
Irish soldiers made up around 30-35% of the British army at the beginning the Crimean War (1853-55), with an estimated 30,000 Irishmen serving in the conflict overall. Perhaps surprisingly, given very recent memories of the Famine and the failed Young Ireland rebellion of 1848, there was enthusiastic civilian support for the troops. Crowds lined the streets and cheered departing regiments. However, at first their return was not marked with the same degree of celebration, and this prompted prominent individuals – including three Irish MPs (Isaac Butt, Sir John Esmonde and Patrick O’Brien), the lord mayor of Dublin and a number of the city’s councillors, county lieutenants and gentry – to organise a banquet in their honour.
The ‘Crimean Banquet’ mimicked events that had already taken place for homecoming troops in Edinburgh, Folkestone, Portsmouth and London. Nevertheless, it was an extravagant celebration in its own right. A contemporary report in Freeman’s Journal reported that:
There were laid 250 hams, 230 legs of mutton, 250 pieces of beef, 500 meat pies, 100 venison pasties, 100 rice puddings, 250 plum puddings weighing one ton and a half, 200 turkeys and 200 geese, 2,000 rolls, 2,500 lbs of bread, 3 tons of potatoes, 8,500 quart bottles and 3,500 pint bottles of port. (23 October 1856)
This impressive menu was funded by public subscriptions and donations from local merchants and tradesmen. For example, a Dublin wine merchant named Henry Brennan provided the wine and a pint of port or sherry for each of the 4,000 guests, made up of 3,000 soldiers and 1,000 army pensioners, constabulary, officers, the Dublin city council, and journalists.
None of the state buildings usually employed for national events had sufficient capacity to house so many people, hence the decision to hold the banquet in one of the capacious warehouses by the docks. The building was transformed for the event. Walls were hung with flags and banners; garlands and weaponry were displayed on the building’s iron pillars; a bandstand was set up in the gallery; and huge brass sculptures stood opposite the top table. Indeed, so spectacular were the proceedings that subscribers and the general public were offered the chance to buy tickets to watch the event from the galleries.
In this large-scale celebration we see intersections between the life of the port and the wider city and country, which continued to play out in other crowd-pleasing entertainments over the course of the century, even while the city’s maritime workers began to challenge their often precarious working conditions.