Wicklow Harbour

Wicklow harbour is situated on the East Coast of Ireland at Latitude 52°59′ and Longitude 6°02′ west, 30 miles south of Dublin, on the mouth of the Vartry or Leitrim river. The origin of the names Vartry and Leitrim, is attributed by the Ordnance Survey Letters of 1838 to “. . . .the names of small territories as they actually are, situated on its banks high up about Calary and Roundwood. . . .”

The estuary of the river has been used for centuries as a harbour, by the Celts who called it Inbhear Deas, the beautiful inlet, and later Cill Mhantain, the Church of St. Manntain. The Danes called it Wigginge Lough, the Lake of the Ships. In the tenth century they used it as a base for raids into the interior and eventually as a trading post. The Normans built a Castle on a rocky promontory at its mouth in 1176 naming the area “Wygyngol (1185), Wykingelo (1186), Wykloe (1443) and finally Wicklow in English”.

In common with most harbours it had a bar, (a bank of sand or gravel at its mouth partially blocking the entrance). Proposals were put forward periodically for the removal of the bank, the improvement of the quays and the building of a pier or breakwater to protect the port.

The building of the Stone Bridge in the 1680’s prevented any expansion upriver. It left approximately 390 yds. on the north bank and 440 yds. on the south bank of riverside for use as quays. The river was on average 50 yds, wide with depths varying from 7ft, to 131/2ft. The early development of the port was piecemeal. Merchants usually built their own quays, “Jan. 1733 Mr. Daniel Peekes seeks permission to build a Mill and quay on the South side of the river . . . Mr. Peekes to outlay £300 in the cost of building Mill and Dock”. (Borough Council Records).

One of the early plans for improvement was drawn up after a Committee was formed in 1755 to “. . . . get some proper person of skill and knowledge to view the river and barr of Wicklow and make an estimate, what will cost to build a pier and make a safe entrance to the River of Wicklow”. In 1756 Mr. Wm. Tighe a Committee member was reimbursed the sum of five guineas, he had paid Mr. Omer for coming down to view the Bar. The Committee has some success in fund raising. “The start was made by an advance of £8,000 from the Government in 1761. Then £12,000 was raised on loan from General Luscombe, the Corporation or Town Estate being mortgaged for the amount, at 41/2 per cent. Neither of the attempts were successful”. Map 1 shows the layout of the Harbour in 1765. It is from a survey taken by Bernard Scale and William Richards, they also give a brief description of the Harbour, “Wicklow harbour at present admits of nothing but small craft, the bar having no more than seven and eight feet at High Water Spring Tides. In making for the Bar, you must give the Rock at the Black Castle a good birth. There is now a channel cutting across part of the Murragh, from which great advantages are expected, which may be better described, when experienced, than at present”.

In 1835 an application was made to the Government by Merchants and Traders of the port for the building of a large and secure harbour. It was unsuccessful as the cost was too high being estimated in the region of £80,000. Further plans were advanced in 1840, these were drawn up by E. W. Dickson, C.E. (Map 2); these involved the rebuilding of quay walls, the erection of a West Pier of 285 yds. and an East Pier of 88 yds. with a harbour mouth 44 yds. wide, the purchasing of various plots of ground in the port area, the removal of the Bar, and the dredging of the river.

Map 1

The Town Commissioners were still promoting the Harbour in 1848, and on the 1st May they agreed that “Information be conveyed to Lord Milton and Sir Ralph Howard, that may be likely to assist them in carrying out their promises to obtain the establishment of a Harbour at Wicklow”. In 1850 a Harbour Committee was formed, the members being: John Edwards, James Dillon, Matthew Travers, Richard Nolan, William Nolan, Joseph Morton, John Chapman. Mr. George Doolittle was appointed Harbour Master in May 1851 at a salary of £40 per annum. A letter of protest was received in October 1852 from Ships Captains and Owners re: the state of the harbour and berthing facilities. The Harbour Commissioners undertook to improve them, and a breakwater for the river at an estimated cost of £8,000 was proposed. Mr. Brett’s plans for a pier etc., in the Harbour, which were submitted in 1855, were accepted. These works were eventually carried out (see photo of pier and breakwater).

Extra funding was required to continue the work. “Jan. 1857 Application to be made to the Lords of the Treasury for an extra 21,500 to complete Harbour works. In the same year a proposal from the Grand Jury to build a new bridge, found the Commissioners willing to cooperate, but unable to provide funds. They did advise that a Swivel Bridge be built so as not to interfere with the navigation of the river.

The Commissioners wrote to the Lords of the Treasury in September 1865 expressing their satisfaction at the Pier, Breakwater and Harbour works completed, but as ever short of money, they looked for a postponement of the repayments on the debt of £12,000. The Lords replied in December refusing any postponement.

“Charles Stewart Parnell had a great influence on the affairs of the county although involved nationally as President of the Land League. It was largely through his influence that Wicklow Town and Harbour Commission obtained a loan from the Treasury to build a breakwater and steamship pier. In 1880 a Government loan of £50,000 was secured and harbour improvements were begun mainly through the efforts of Parnell and his fellow Member of Parliament W. J. Corbet who became known at Westminster as ‘the local question member’. Parnell however accredited the success of the harbour scheme to local initiative and enterprise and he proudly asserted that “as long as the foundations of the earth last, these piers will stand”.

The Town and Baronies were used as security for the repayment of the loan. The plans drawn up by Mr. William G. Strype, M.Inst.C.E., Manager of the Dublin and Wicklow Manure Company, were for the building of an East Pier or Breakwater and a Steam Packet Pier. “The Breakwater (East Pier) was made of solid concrete throughout so that it is much stronger than sea walls constructed with outer and inner walls of large blocks with rubble hearting between. It is 250 yds. long and is founded for two-thirds of its length on rock and the remainder on marl. . .”

“The Steam Packet Pier or Deep Water Quay, on the opposite side of the harbour, has a frontage of 100 yds. . . . and has a total height of 30ft. . . . The wall was returned at an angle on the northern side and the enclosed space was filled up with the surplus dredged material to form a quay. The exposed end of the northern wall was protected by a deposit of 300 tons of granite boulders”. Some of the quay walls were rebuilt and others repaired and the river and channel dredged. “The remainder of the works consisted of a roadway to the Breakwater, mooring buoys, boundary walls and other minor works”. The work forms the basis of the harbour as it is today.

In 1860 Dublin Corporation stated that it was its intention to build a reservoir on the river Vartry at Roundwood. This would reduce the flow of the river, and cause silting in the Harbour. The Town Commissioners had their secretary write to Mr. Toomey requesting that “. . . he will take immediate steps as may be necessary for the protection of their interests in relation to the proposed diversion of the river Vartry”. This led to protracted negotiations with Dublin Corporation, eventually in 1863 agreement was reached, a survey of the river and channel leading to it was carried out by Staff Commander R. Hoskyn, R.N. in November. It was agreed that the Corporation would maintain the depths in the survey by dredging. On the completion of the East Pier in 1884, the Corporation maintained that the Commissioners had interfered with the mouth of the river, and that they were no longer liable to maintain the water depth. After lengthy legal arguments, Dublin Corporation won the case.

Composite picture of Wicklow Harbor 1861

All was not well, however, as the Wicklow Newsletter of January 31st 1885 reported “There seems to be a very good chance of the Steam Packet Pier becoming an island at no distant date. A few more easterly storms such as that of last week — the first of any consequence that has visited us this season — will be sufficient to do the business. A large portion of the Murrough, at the base of the Pier, was cut away by that storm, in spite of the barricade of stones which had been constructed for the protection of this point. There will shortly be an extra expense in providing a bridge to form a communication between the Pier and the other portion of the North quay”. The Commissioners’ Engineer recommended that sea weed be left on the beach, to rot, and bind the gravel. Prior to this the sea weed had been removed by farmers for use as fertiliser. The Engineer’s remedy caused a local wit to comment “They have queer notions in Wicklow of making piers. First they made one of furze bushes, when that disappeared, they made another of stirabout, and now that feels like fading away, they are going to start another of seaweed”.

There was also a problem with sand being washed by the incoming tide into the turnhole below the bank wall. Boulders were placed on a spur of rock running into the river, and in 1889 the Sarah, an old schooner, bought for £10 was grounded at an angle to the rocks. This proved an effective barrier for many years.

Inside of 20 years of completion the breakwater and West Pier needed repairs. The Harbour Commissioners after a hard fight succeeded in obtaining a loan of £28,000. The repairs were carried out successfully, £4,000 of the loan was used to purchase a Hopper Dredger. She was named the Leitrim, and resold in 1913 for £2,100.

The Commissioners then applied in 1908 to the Government for a free grant, to enable them to build the New Pier and protect the beach. They received a grant of £22,000, and the town provided a loan of £5,000. The New Pier cost £17,000 to construct and the balance was spent on 4,000 ft. of protection works along the beach. Unfortunately the foreshore works were built on gravel and inside two years, they were severely damaged by winter gales.

The building of the New Pier was responsible for Wicklow Lifeboat Station being upgraded. “On a visit to Wicklow during February, 1908, the District Inspector reported that a pier was being constructed that would reduce the entrance to the harbour to only 540ft. This would make it difficult for the Lifeboat to leave the harbour in a strong north-east gale. He recommended that the station be considered for a motor lifeboat in the future”. The Robert Theophilus Garden IV was stationed in Wicklow on Saturday March 4th 1911. She was the first motor lifeboat in Ireland.

Wicklow Harbour can now boast of first class facilities. Vessels with a draft of 5.0m can enter the harbour at high water. There are four main berths, the East Pier, Packet Pier, North Quay and South Quay, between them they provide over 430 metres of quay, with depths varying between 4.7m and 5.5m. Mobile cranes are available for hire in the port. The usual cargoes handled include paper, timber, general cargo, stone in bulk, woodchips, containers, vehicles, coal and lignite. The Commissioners have long term plans to extend the port area, which will include two new breakwaters.


Wicklow Journal — Wicklow Harbour, Darren McGettigan.

Gilbert Library, Pearse Street.

Guide to Wicklow, 1913 — McPhail

Wicklow Harbour — J. T. O’Byrne, C.E.

Wicklow Harbour Commissioners

Lewis’s Topographical Directory 1837.

National Archives.

From Dauntless to Anne ‘A History of Wicklow Lifeboat Station’ — C. Doyle.

Charles Stewart Parnell. The Man and his Family by R. F. Foster.

Many thanks to everyone who contributed information for this article.


Did you know that in August 1728 the Borough Council Records record the following . “That all ships that throw out Ballast are to leave it on the Murrow side facing Capt. Theakers garden wall at high water mark and at no other place unless some of the Keys (quays) wants to be filled. That all ships take in ballast at the point of the Murrow facing the rock under Mary Connells garden. That five posts are wanted on the Murrow to moor ships and three posts on the Keys.”

Pictured at a meeting in Wicklow Urban Council chamber in 1948 were:-

Comments about this page

  • Hi Richard, just to let you know that this article was uploaded recently to our site but does in fact date from the Wicklow Historical Society Journal of 1990. For a query such as this it may get more response as a post to our Facebook page. There is a link on the homepage.

    By Deirdre (Editor) (13/01/2020)
  • I am currently researching the history of locomotive builders Black Hawthorn of Gateshead.  There is some suggestion that the company supplied a locomotive to the Wicklow Harbour Commissioners in 1886.  This would fit with your article.  Do you have any record of this?

    By Richard West (11/01/2020)

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