Urban dereliction is not new. When the plans to build the Custom House were first announced, families living in elegant Georgian homes in nearby streets, such as Marlborough St or Montgomery St – now Foley St – protested that the traffic, dirt and noise from the port would damage the value of their properties. They were correct. For over a hundred years, thousands of cattle walked to the North Wall every week soiling the streets and causing traffic chaos. The Georgian mansions near the Custom House became some of Dublin’s worst slums. Cumberland Street, which was beside Westland Row Station was another notorious slum.
In Victorian times low-lying areas such as the Docklands were regarded as unhealthy. The smell of the River Liffey was another disadvantage. Until the end of World War 1 most of Dublin’s sewage was discharged into the river. The smell from the gasworks, and the fertiliser plants at the North Wall were another cause of urban blight. Suburban development in Clontarf suffered from proximity to Docklands, and the fashionable area in PembrokeTownship was well removed from Ringsend.
Many of the houses built in the Docklands during the nineteenth century were cheap, of low quality, and they were often squashed in back lanes and alleys. When the Dublin Corporation began a programme of slum-clearance and re-housing, some of its earliest schemes were in Docklands, in Townsend Street and in Foley Street – formerly Montgomery Street. But clearance schemes often worsened the problem of urban dereliction. Properties were often closed or demolished, but their sites were not redeveloped, and the population fell. When Dublin Corporation and the Irish government set out to tackle the city’s housing problem in the 1930s they preferred to re-house families in the suburbs, because it was less expensive. They gave little consideration to the fact that the new areas lacked the shops, schools and the strong sense of community that existed in the city centre. The population of Docklands was halved between 1900 and 1980s.
Economic trends added to the dereliction. From the 1950s containerisation and roll-on, roll-off ferries removed the need for storage facilities and large dockside areas where cargoes could be unloaded, so sites became derelict and jobs disappeared. After Ireland joined the EEC in 1973 some of the long established factories closed down. Despite this until the 1980s government policy encouraged new industries to locate outside Dublin. While many of the companies shipped their finished products and raw materials through the port of Dublin they provided very little employment for the Docklands community. The 1986 Custom House Docks Area Renewal Act marked the first sustained effort to tackle urban dereliction and to regenerate the Docklands Area.