Periscope towards the past, in Dún Laoghaire

The winds of change are swirling through Dún Laoghaire. This harbour town, home to a mailboat servicing Dublin to Holyhead for over 170 years, recently lost its only ferry service, which served the same route. Plans are afoot for an artificial beach and floating river barge containing a heated swimming pool of treated seawater. The harbour company has sought planning permission to replace the old ferry terminal with a berth for large cruise ships. A diaspora museum is among cultural plans for the old Carlisle pier. These might banish the slightly abandoned feel that consumes some of a seafront that perhaps should be bustling.

Part of the town’s future appeal to visitors interested in its maritime identity might be the national maritime museum. A minute’s walk from the seafront, this museum is housed in a former mariners’ church built in 1837 to serve the seafaring community. The venue is ideal: large, wide, bright, unusual, and two-storeyed. Within these four, former hallowed walls, the Maritime Institute of Ireland (which manages the museum) provide exhibitions on the lives and equipment of those who have worked on the waters throughout the ages. It houses exhibits on everything from the Irish Navy, to mariners’ old apparatuses and clothing, to old boat types.

Of topical interest are the exhibitions on infamous sinkings. Most topical is that on RMS Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat in mysterious circumstances one hundred years ago this month. 1,198 lost their lives. The RMS Leinster, the mailboat that travelled between Dún Laoghaire (then Kingstown) and Liverpool, was also torpedoed by a German submarine. Over 500 were killed when it sank in 1918. The museum also documents the RMS Titanic, which had several Irish connections, and details of the tragedy that cost 1,513 lives in a contemporaneous shipping insurance company’s log.

A small but striking object upstairs is ‘the real map of Ireland’. The visual and factual details of Ireland’s seabed territory are surprising. Exploration of all that exists within this vast expanse, mainly to the west of the island, and the potential for ‘blue’ growth, are themes tourists are likely to learn more about when visiting Irish maritime museums in years ahead.

Open daily from 11-5, the museum provides a brief history of Dún Laoghaire’s maritime past, but more could be given. There is also great potential to spruce up the artefacts exhibitions and to re-tell the stories of those who lived or found refuge in this maritime town. Tourist attractions like this usually depend upon volunteers to maintain them and its helpers’ efforts to refresh and communicate are evident. Yet the shipping, boating and maritime worlds continue to evolve. Dún Laoghaire is a case in point. The curators are spoilt for choice.

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