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Against the tide: Liffey-side industries battle on

Small businesses are flourishing along the capital’s main waterway, but face a host of challenges.

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WHEN COLIN HARRIS’ father established Surfdock in 1991, the Grand Canal Basin was a very different vista to today.

“Back then it was an industrial wasteland. There was the two gasometers, light industrial units, and a hospital waste incinerator.”

Now, the basin is surrounded by steel and glass facades, a five star hotel, and high-end supermarkets.

Wavedock, which runs kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, sailing courses and cable-wire wakeboarding, is one of several businesses that make their living from the Liffey.

wakeboarder in air Wakeboarding in Grand Canal Basin Source: Surfdock

Historically, the river acted as a vital industrial artery through the city. Barges came from the Guinness factory and Heuston, bringing heavy loads to the port.

Low bridges and changing times mean that the river will never again be used as a piece of infrastructure again, but a varied crowd of entrepreneurs are making their mark on the river afresh.

Tourist trade

John O’Neill operates the Jeanie Johnston famine ship, near the Samuel Beckett bridge.

“We’re seeing an increase in passenger numbers year on year…we’re never going to be the Guinness storehouse, they get a million people in through their doors every year. We broke the 20,000 ceiling at the end of last year.”

By default, businesses at the eastern end of the river struggle to make as much of an impact with tourists, who rarely stray far from the well worn trail, which is true also of many Dubliners.

“People in the city tend to forget that there’s anything down this side of the loop line bridge. They built all this (the docklands), and there’s still people who don’t know what’s down here.”

Source: TheJournal.ie

Perhaps because of this, the businesses that operate here do so with limited resources.

“For what we are, we have very limited infrastructure available to us. We’ve just got a portocabin for selling tickets, the pontoon and the ship itself.”

A different view

But when people do come down, Dubliners and tourists alike are taken aback by a unique view on a familiar city.

Hugh Flood works with City Kayaking, a neighbour of the Jeannie Johnston.

“The perspective they get of the city as Dubliners is completely different to what they get every other day of the week. When tourists come in, they’re even more amazed.”

1422602_648210241925313_7431273078828618467_n The Ha'penny Bridge from underneath O'Connell Bridge Source: City Kayaking


Myths about the quality of the river water are just that, according to the people who work on it.

The river is tidal, and so is flushed out twice a day. Much of it is filtered at the Intel plant in Leixlip.

Being off the beaten track brings benefits too. The space which was left over when the march of development stopped during the boom has been seized by businesses with an idea and the energy to execute it.

High water mark

Colin Harris says an observer can see the point where development screeched to a halt. The docklands are like a high water mark for the building boom.

“You can watch the march of it all the way down from the Bord Gais to the Facebook building, and then it just stops. The economy flatlines, and the rest of the warehouses remain.”

Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Many of the businesses that have flourished here during the recession are now nervously looking at plans to develop the area even further. If rents go up, they fear they will be driven out by high-yield office space and the area will be purged of its character.

If small businesses are pushed out, Harris warns that the larger ones may not find the area as attractive.

“There’s no way our enterprises could compete with a Facebook or a Google. By the same token, do they want to have their companies in a place where there’s nothing like us?”

You end up with a very sterile environment. What makes the docklands cool is that there’s people there like myself and the others.

The drug trade

For all its undoubted benefit, the river and the areas around the docklands aren’t without their social problems. Dublin’s long relationship with drugs, particularly heroin, is still strong here.

John O’Neill is accustomed to the problems that it brings to the area around the Jeannie Johnston.

“We had a guy come up here one day and just open up a vein and pop the needle in. I’ve seen that several times.”

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The construction of the Rosie Hackett bridge, in one of Dublin city centre’s worst areas for the dealing and taking of drugs, pushed much of that activity further down the river.

While he acknowledges that the Gardai have stretched resources when it comes to addressing the problem, O’Neill says it still frustrates him.

He suggests that a dedicated police force for Dublin, akin to London’s Met, as a possible solution.

Ultimately though, the power to lay claim to the city’s waterways lies with Dubliners themselves, he argues.

“It’s only ever going to be safe if Dubliners themselves stand up and say ‘this is for me too. I’m not going to stand for people coming down and drinking and doing drugs at the place where I’m going to swim or have a bite on the street’”

“Dubliners need to stand up as well.”

Water’s shortfalls

Another problem facing the small business owners on the Liffey is the comparitive lack of infrastructure. Slips and pontoons need to be put in to improve access. Like any other area, it won’t flourish unless the tools are there for businesses to make the most of it.

“You need to be able to bring people. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a bar or a floating restaurant, but something that gets people to engage with the river in a new light.”

A more streamlined approach to permitting would also help, according to Eugene Garrihy, who operates the Dublin Bay cruise company.

Source: The view from the Liffey

After last year’s record summer, when he launched a cruise from Dun Laoghaire to Howth, his boats are now docking in town en route.

“The natural entrance to the city is from the bay – and it is spectacular. It’s hard to believe we’re the only natural passenger ferry operating on the east coast.”

However getting the consent of all the necessary parties can be a headache for small businesses.

“Along the bay you have three county councils and three harbour boards. You have the East Link bridge and the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, and they’re all independent.”

To get them all singing from the same hymn sheet can be difficult.


The river itself is a huge untapped resource for the Dublin tourist trade, but O’Neill says that first and foremost the city’s population need to lay claim to the waterway. Only then can the Liffey’s full potential be exploited.

“The stuff that we’re putting in to the city shouldn’t just be for tourists. You put it in for the people who are from the city and belong to the city…if they do that, and the city becomes better, anyone who comes to see it will see Dublin is a great place to be.”

VIDEO: People jump off restaurant rooftop into Liffey>

You can walk or cycle over the Rosie Hackett bridge from tomorrow>

About the author:

Jack Horgan-Jones

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