Dublin as a Medieval Riverside Port

With few exceptions, ports in medieval Ireland were positioned on riverbanks. Dublin was no exception and the best-known example is Wood Quay.


At the time of the takeover of Dublin by Anglo-Normans in 1170, what is now Essex Street West may still have been serving as a place for loading and unloading ocean-going trading vessels. Before then, the archaeology of Wood Quay revealed flood banks and defensive embankments rather than port facilities.

Starting in the very early thirteenth century a whole succession of quaysides was built farther and farther into the River Liffey at Wood Quay. Wooden revetments were constructed, presumably at low tide, and materials of many different kinds were used to create new land. Ships’ planks were recycled for some of the revetments. This process may have been completed with a stone quay wall by c. 1260.

The main reason for extending the quayside in this way was that merchant ships known as cogs were getting bigger with deeper draughts in the thirteenth century. Simple hoists were used to raise and lower heavy goods such as iron, millstones, timber and wine. Wood Quay was so called not because it was made of timber but because wooden beams for house building in the English half-timbered style were becoming fashionable.

Down to c. 1268 what would become Merchant’s Quay farther upstream is referred to as The Strand. By the time of the threatened Scottish attack by Edward and Robert Bruce’s army in 1317, however, a similar arrangement was probably in place, since we are told that a defensive wall was built along the quays. The port of Dublin had become one of the island’s most important.

By 1406 a crane and crane-house had been installed at the eastern end of Merchant’s Quay. Special porters were appointed by the city authorities to maintain and operate this device, which depended on human muscle-power. Failure to keep the hoisting rope in good condition would cost them a fine of 6s. 8d. and loss of office.

On the north bank of the Liffey at Arran Quay archaeology has produced evidence of three timber revetments built in the early fourteenth century; these were replaced by stone walls late in the same century and extended towards the river c. 1500. On the opposite side of the river a small harbour was made in the angle of the city wall at some point in the thirteenth century.

Two north-side monastic houses appear to have made their own arrangements for acquiring fish. The Cistercians of St Mary’s Abbey had a harbour called The Pill in the estuary of the River Bradogue, while the Dominicans of St Saviour’s Priory had a slip near the bridge chapel dedicated to St Mary.

Silting in the river and sandbars in the bay hindered the development of the port of Dublin from the fourteenth century onwards. In c. 1396 Merchant’s Quay is described as ‘unsuitable for large ships’. This is why many international traders used Dalkey and Howth as outports, where goods were unloaded on to smaller boats for the city’s quays. Impressive tower-houses used by merchants for storage and residence are still to be seen in Dalkey.