The sign high on the wall bounding the main road through Passage West declares that a dockyard behind it was established in 1832 and “named by our gracious Queen on her first visit to Ireland, August 6, 1849 - ROYAL VICTORIA DOCKYARD.”
The sign wasn’t always painted in the colours which it now displays: Green, white, and yellow.
Passage West is known for Republican traditions, so it is not unreasonable to assume some association with the repainting of the dockyard sign!
Not far from that sign and 73 years after the event it commemorates and also in August, troops of the Free State Army, as it was then known, made a landing during Ireland’s Civil War. With artillery and armour, they were on their way to Cork, to capture the city, which was held by anti-Treaty Republican forces.
The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, whose purpose is “identifying, recording, and evaluating the post-1700 architectural heritage of Ireland”, says the former dockyard was “established during Cork’s maritime boom and is a reminder of Passage West’s industrial heritage.
“Shipbuilding and repair were once important local industries, significant sources of employment and centres of maritime engineering expertise and excellence.”
It quotes the The Cork Examiner as reporting in 1932 that “while the closure of the dockyard was economically disastrous, the loss of the sound of hammers and the screeching of cranes made the area residentially more desirable”.
Vessels built in Passage dockyard are still afloat today. They are part of the maritime heritage of Ireland, though they have not been seen in Cork waters since their construction.
These are known as ‘heritage boats’ and their owners are part of the Heritage Boat Association.
Its “aspiration” is to protect, promote, and celebrate “the floating heritage on the inland waterways of Ireland.
“What is remaining of our floating heritage provides us with a direct link to the past and includes both commercial and pleasure craft that plied the inland waterways through the different eras of the canal, lake, and river systems.”
Between 1895 and 1897, Passage dockyard completed a contract to build nine barges for the Grand Canal Company. They were often horse-drawn along the canals, though many were later motorised. The yard also had naval and other commercial contracts and built boats for use on the River Shannon.
The heritage boats have been restored and modernised by owners who purchased them, often in rundown condition and even sunken, to raise and to return them to the canals and the inland waterways. I have been aboard a few of them to see the painstaking work, which has taken several years to complete. In publications by the Heritage Boat Association, the names of ‘Bowler’ and ‘Tristan’ are recalled, as are numbers such as the 4E.
There was a second dockyard in Passage West in the 19th century.
Hennessy’s yard was situated in what is now Fr O’Flynn Park. In 1815, this yard was involved in launching the City of Cork, the first steamship built in Ireland.
The Royal Victoria was the bigger of the yards, costing £150,000 to build and equip.
It changed ownership several times. During the First World War, 1,000 workers were employed there. A slump in shipbuilding led to most of that workforce being made redundant by 1925 and it closed down in 1931.
Amongst the plans of Passage West Maritime Museum is an exhibition about the history of the docks.
The still existing barges of the Heritage Boat Association may be the last of the surviving examples of what the men who worked in the Passage Dockyard built.