By Dún Laoghaire no more

In February 2015, just short of the 200th anniversary of the passing of the Act of Parliament allowing the appointment of five Commissioners to oversee “the erection of an asylum harbour and a place of refuge at Dunleary,” Stena Line announced the withdrawal of the Dún Laoghaire link with Holyhead. For the first time in nearly 190 years the attractive Irish harbour was without a ferry service and its historic link with the Welsh port.


The closure of Stena Line’s Irish Sea service between Holyhead and Dún Laoghaire brought the curtain down not only on almost twenty years of the company’s revolutionary HSS operations but also on this most historic of European passenger crossings.

As a schoolboy growing up on the south coast of Dublin Bay, the Holyhead ferries of British Rail’s Sealink were a constant source of interest.  The crack ship was the St Columba joined by a second “summer ship” during high season. These summer sailings and overhaul periods brought an interesting collection of steamers; in the late 1970’s the Duke of Lancaster, the Lord Warden and the Avalon.  The variety impressed a young mind and a mental picture of a vast fleet was confirmed by a poster in the window of the booking office at Dún Laoghaire’s Carlisle Pier illustrating “Some of the 58 Ships of Sealink.” Impressive indeed!

During my school years Dún Laoghaire Harbour was my playground.  Friendly Harbour Constables and Sealink staff nurtured within me a deep interest in the port’s link with Holyhead, served by countless British Rail, Sealink and later Stena Line ferries. I was first introduced to my favourite vantage point, the end of the Carlisle Pier, in 1980 at the age of ten.  From here I was permitted to view the departure of the route’s penultimate steam turbine ferry, the Avalon.

From that moment, I went on to capture on camera every ferry to have served on the route.  And through the years and the various ships I made lasting friendships with the many masters, officers and crew members who maintained the crossing day in day out on a year round basis.

How I loved to stand on the end of the Carlisle Pier during the late 1980s and early 1990s, now with a basic understanding of the art form that is ship handling, and watch as the master brought his command gently into the berth.  Of course, during the winter months it could be very different!  With an easterly gale and low water the master’s every skill was tested as he brought the St Columba alongside, fighting the wind and keeping in mind propeller cavitation with reduced water under his keel. When the St David came along in 1981 the benefit of an additional bow thrust unit was quickly realised and subsequently those in the St Columba often wished she had a bit more power on those windy nights at Dún Laoghaire.

The departure of the ship was always an exciting time.  The pier was a hive of activity, especially in the last 20 minutes or so before sailing. The last passengers hurrying for the gangway, as tugmaster tractors swiftly placed the last pieces of unaccompanied freight on the vehicle deck.  The Piermaster rushing across the causeway from the car ferry compound with the “papers” signifying all is on board and accounted for.  Outside the pier gates wellwishers waiting as their loved ones waved from the ship’s exterior decks and the gangways and car ramp were taken away.

A cry of “single-up” from the bridge wing and the first wires and ropes released as a plume of black smoke erupted from the ship’s funnel.  Held by one rope fore and aft, the ship straining to get to sea, the master and chief officer appeared on the bridge wing, radar scanner swishing above their heads.  “Let Go – Right Time” and before the rope hits the ship’s side the bow thrust and twin screws are already lifting the huge ship away from the granite pier.  Moving astern off the berth the ship turned her bow for the harbour mouth and disappeared out into Dublin Bay, a course of 100 degrees taking her down to the South Burford Buoy once again.


Steeped in history

The crossing from Holyhead to Ireland can be traced back to the days of Elizabeth I, but the story of Dún Laoghaire’s place in the link between London and Dublin begins in 1826 when some of the new mail steamers began to use a berth in the part-built harbour due to access problems at Howth harbour in north Dublin during easterly gales. By this time the town had been renamed Kingstown following a visit by King George IV, a name it would carry for 100 years when it reverted to its ancient Irish name by resolution of the town council in 1921, one year before Irish independence.

A key factor in the development of the Dún Laoghaire route was the prestigious, not to mention lucrative, mail contract. Fiercely contested, the contract was arguably the sole reason many of the route’s steamers really were considered the best of their kind in the world. The ‘Irish Mail’ service from London to Dublin via Holyhead was a classic example of rivalry and bitterness between operators and for over seven decades the Railway chased a contract they had initially expected to win having invested heavily in ships and infrastructure. In 1883 they actually won the contract for the sea section of the London – Dublin route, placing the mail in railway care for the entire journey, only to have it taken away again and returned to the City of Dublin Steam Packet Co following disruption in the House of Commons led by Irish MP’s.


  • Changing of the guard - the new Stena Explorer with the Stena Sea Lynx and the Stena Adventurer (ex Stena Hibernia, ex St Columba), 1996. Photo: Justin Merrigan


To the Victorian passenger the London-Dublin link must have been a most impressive operation. Arriving at Holyhead by train, the passenger simply walked across the platform and boarded the awaiting steamer for a three hours and forty-five minutes crossing to Kingstown. There awaiting the steamer at the end of the gangway was the Dublin train. And efficient it was too for a fine of 34/- was imposed for each minute the mail was delayed!

The loss of the City of Dublin’s Leinster just north east of the Kish lightship on 10th October 1918 rocked the communities on both sides of the Irish Sea. Sailing from Kingstown that morning the ship had a crew of 77 drawn from both the Irish town and Holyhead. Also on board were 22 postal sorters from Dublin Post Office working in the onboard sorting room. There were 180 civilian passengers; men women and children. But the majority of the ship’s complement were troops, bringing the total number on board to 771. All but one of postal sorters were killed after the ship was torpedoed. The master, Captain Birch, and 36 of his crew were also lost. Of the passengers 115 were killed. In total 529 lost their lives. My own great grandfather, Seaman John Merrigan, was a survivor.

It was not until 28th November 1920 that the Irish Mail was carried from Holyhead on a Railway steamer, a development marked by the introduction of four new ships for their service, two in operation, one on standby and one for relief duties. On 27 November 1920 the City of Dublin Steam Packet’s Ulster sailed from Kingstown with the mail for the last time, and the Munster from Holyhead. For seventy years the Irish company had the honour of holding the mail contract but now, having suffered badly through losses sustained during the war, the contract passed to the London & North Western Railway and on the following day the first of their four new mail steamers, the Anglia, sailed from Holyhead with the mail.

On 1 January 1923 the LNWR was absorbed by the London Midland & Scottish Railway.  With traffic down, due in no small part to the political situation in Ireland, cutbacks were quickly made. The Day Express ceased and with no justification for four front line ships the Anglia was withdrawn and later sold for scrap. The three remaining steamers received major refits during the 1930’s. Most notably the forward end of their Promenade decks were enclosed and the cowls were removed from their funnels.

Just after the outbreak of the second world war the Scotia was requisitioned by the Admiralty and she left Holyhead in 1939. Under the command of Captain W.H. Hughes the ship was at Dúnkirk with over 2,700 French troops onboard when she was attacked by 12 German aircraft. She was hit by three bombs before a fourth found its mark, plunging down the after funnel before exploding in the engine room. As a result, 34 crew members died along with up to 300 of the French troops. Captain Hughes was later awarded the DSC for gallantry displayed as his ship was lost.

After the war, nationalisation brought investment to the route. The Cambria and Hibernia lasted until replaced by new motor vessels of the same names in 1949. The marine workshops at Holyhead were not forgotten and investment prepared the dock for new and larger ships. Most routine overhaul and repair work on the ships were undertaken by in-house staff with the skill and expertise demanded to ensure the wellbeing of a fleet.  Nearly all Irish Sea, North Channel and St George’s Channel ships were dry docked in Holyhead as were some visitors from the English Channel as demand dictated.

The Holyhead – Dún Laoghaire route entered the car ferry age with the order for a new ship from Hawthorn Leslie (Shipbuilders) Ltd. Built in 1965 at a cost of £1.6mn the Holyhead Ferry I was the first of two ships which were to be the last turbine steamers for the railway company.

On 14th April 1969 a new drive-on/drive-off car ferry terminal, capable of handling 650 cars a day, was officially opened at Dún Laoghaire’s St Michael’s Wharf. Built in three years at a cost of IR£850,000 it replaced a temporary terminal at the East Pier, which had been in use since.  The principal feature of the terminal, the first major engineering works at the harbour since the Carlisle Pier was completed in 1857, was a pier 575ft long and 70ft wide. A 300ft long three-level passenger building on the pier was capable of accommodating 600 passengers, and its roof was open to the public as a viewing platform, with a snack bar. The other main building was a vehicle customs hall, which also housed the various administrative offices. A second snack bar was provided there, principally for passengers in outgoing cars. Car loading ramps were sited on each side of the pier and while that enabled two vessels to berth simultaneously, the main purpose was to permit a vessel to lie on the more sheltered side of the pier.

The new terminal was to suffer from numerous drawbacks, not least of all the fact that it was designed and built around the Holyhead Ferry I with the result that eight years later St Michael’s Pier was virtually redundant following the arrival of the St Columba. Only the occasional freight ship and summer sailing with a smaller relief vessel now used the pier.

British Rail ownership of shipping services continued through the 1970s. On 1st January 1979 the Shipping and International Services Division ceased to exist and its function, assets and staff were transferred to a new company wholly owned by the Board named Sealink UK Ltd. The trade name of Sealink had been used for British Railways’ marine services, along with the shipping services of the continental railways organisations since January 1970.

In July 1984 the British government sold Sealink U.K. Ltd to the Bermuda-based Sea Containers Ltd led by its charismatic President Mr James B. Sherwood. Restyled as Sealink British Ferries, a plethora of new plans and schemes were announced by the new owners but very few of these actually came to pass. Another sale saw the bulk of Sealink British Ferries’ operations pass to Sweden’s Stena Line for £259 million on 31st May 1990. This company was no stranger to UK ferry operations having chartered many vessels to BR and Sealink over the years.

It was not until after Stena Line acquired the Sealink fleet in 1990 that an embarrassed Irish government invested in the moderisation of the entrance to the Carlisle Pier. It was however, too little – too late as by 1993 plans for the construction of a new ferry terminal at St Michael’s Pier were well under way. By the time the fast ferry Stena Sea Lynx arrived in 1993 a major new terminal was planned at Dún Laoghaire to accommodate the new Stena HSS. The Stena Explorer, entered service on 10th April 1996 when she sailed from the Irish port at 0653hrs under the command of Captain John Roberts. Her first day in service was greeted by perfect weather and some very busy crossings. Her second sailing from Dún Laoghaire saw 1,109 passengers and 223 cars loaded in little over 10 minutes.

With the arrival of the HSS a new freight service to Dublin was opened with the Stena Traveller. This gave hauliers their own dedicated freight ship, a move welcomed by some Dún Laoghaire residents who were concerned about the increase in ro-ro traffic through their town. The Holyhead service was now split between two Irish ports just seven miles apart and when the Stena Challenger arrived at Dublin in 1996 with her passenger certificate for 500 one wondered just how long it would be before Stena Line consolidated its services to the capital city.

The arrival of the giant Stena Adventurer into service on the Dublin crossing during July 2003 significantly improved Stena Line’s position on the Irish Sea. As built, the ship accommodated 1,500 passengers and offered a total of 364 passenger berths in 148 luxury cabins.


Heavy cost of fuel

After a decade of service Stena Line announced a revised timetable for the Stena Explorer. A decline in tourist volumes as a consequence of competition from low cost airlines and other ferry operators and, more importantly, very high fuel costs, which had doubled in just 18 months, combined to force Stena Line to take action. The new order was for two HSS round trips a day, year round with the flexibility to increase trips when needed – a far cry from the five round trips a day originally provided by the Stena Explorer. Coupled with this Stena Line started accepting foot passengers on the Dublin ship for the first time. To save costs the HSS was also slowed down, extending the crossing by 16 minutes.

In October 2008 it was announced that the Stena Nordica would transfer to the Irish Sea from her usual route between Sweden and Poland as a replacement for the Stena Adventurer‘s recently introduced running mate, the Stena Seatrader.

​As fuel costs soared to US$147 for a barrel of crude, and the global economy went into freefall, a further reduction in the Dún Laoghaire service was announced in October 2008.   The ship’s schedules fell to just one round trip per day, except for the Christmas and New Year holiday period when the vessel double tripped. The spiral continued however and by 2011 the off peak sailings were in the hands of the Incat 81 metre catamaran Stena Lynx III. The Stena Explorer returned on 1st April 2011 and operated the route until 13th September with one round trip per day.  The Dún Laoghaire service was now seasonal.

The Stena Explorer opened her 2014 season on 9th Wednesday and continued to operate throughout the summer until 9th September. It turned out to be her final season for before the end of the year Stena Line announced it would not, as planned, run to Dún Laoghaire over Christmas for “commercial and operational reasons”. It came as no surprise and it could be seen that one round trip per day was never really a viable solution. Sailing from Holyhead at 10.30 with a 13.30 return from Dún Laoghaire, the schedule wasn’t attractive to tourists or even an option for day excursion traffic.

The cancellation of the Christmas service was the nail in the coffin. Coping quite well with traffic via Dublin Stena Line announced in February 2015 that it was withdrawing from Dún Laoghaire.  From a peak of 1.7 million passengers through Dún Laoghaire Harbour in 1998 levels had sunk fewer than 200,000 travelling in 2014.

Without question Dún Laoghaire has always been a far more attractive passenger port to sail into than industrialised Dublin Port. Be that as it may, traffic has hugely expanded since the days of the Stena Hibernia and the Stena Cambria. Dún Laoghaire simply would not be able to cope with the freight volumes now carried by the Stena Line ships sailing into Dublin.

Written by Justin Merrigan

Find out more about the author here.

April 2017