One Child's Triumph Against the Odds
It has nothing to do with birds, and everything to do with navigation!
The story begins with the difficulties shipping encountered in attempts to get into and out of Dublin bay. Nature did not make it a good port. The estuary was shallow, heavily tidal and subject to frequent storms which shifted the channels and deposited great sandbanks below the surface. As commerce and shipping developed in Ireland, pressure mounted to do something to tame the unruly nature of the bay.
Records from the eighteenth century show at least 50 significant wrecks reported in the estuary at considerable loss of life and cargo. The answer was to build sea walls to contain the sand and allow a deeper channel to be dug in the bed of the estuary. The first attempts used wooden piles, which inevitably eroded over time, losing their effectiveness. Construction began in about 1760 of a more solid sea wall along the southern shore of the river. Work seems not to have been finally completed until the end of the century. The resulting sea wall – known as the Great South Wall – was then the longest of its kind in Europe. During construction work, a dwelling for stores and their caretaker was built on the site. The caretaker was John Pidgeon, and the house quickly took his name (eventually losing the ‘d’ for still obscure reasons). Pigeon’s House marked the beginning of development on the now reclaimed land. A hotel was added next to his house in the 1780s. But these were turbulent times, following the French Revolution, and the authorities feared a possible French invasion. Their nervousness intensified after the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen, threatening the crown’s authority. To protect the port, the government took over the hotel and turned it into a temporary fortification.
A more permanent fort was built shortly afterwards, and remained in operation until 1897, when the building was sold to the Dublin corporation who wanted the site for the construction of a power station to supply energy to the fast-growing city. The power station, initially coal-fired, began operation in 1903. It was finally decommissioned in 1976. Its massive chimneys became a famous Dublin landmark.
The TB sanatorium was opened on the site in 1907, and initially called the Alan A Ryan Home, after its American benefactor. The first official reference to any kind of medical facility occurs on the 1912 Ordnance Survey map of the city which refers to an ‘isolation hospital'. The 1936 edition of the OS city map refers to the same building as a ‘tuberculosis hospital.’ TB was by now rife in the city’s tenement districts. The maps also show the addition of a Catholic convent and a chapel. By this time, the sanatorium is colloquially known as ‘The Pigeon House’. Contemporary documents refer to it as the final destination for “terminal” sufferers.
At some stage – the date is unclear – it changed function again, presumably after the TB epidemic finally subsided in the late 1950s, and was known for a while as St Catherine’s Hospital. It ceased to be a medical facility in due course, and by the time of Larry’s first return visit to the site in 1997, it was a builder’s merchants, although all the original buildings remained. It still continues in this capacity.
A major proposal was brought forward by developers in 2002/3 to demolish the old power station buildings, the chimneys and the surrounding buildings, including what still remains of ‘the Pigeon House,’ to facilitate new commercial and residential development. The proposal met strong resistance, especially from those determined to protect the iconic chimneys and Dublin’s industrial archaeological heritage. So most of the buildings of the old sanatorium, apart from the wooden huts, remain to this day. They house a different history, which was not fought over during the planning dispute. It was not even mentioned.