Dublin to Belfast Coast


Dublin to Belfast

From Dublin to Belfast, a look at how the sea has shaped the island of Ireland. Neil Oliver investigates the history of the area.


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Sprawling out from the River Liffey,

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Dublin is home to more than a million people.

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That's over a quarter of the Republic's total population.

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It was the Liffey and its link to the open sea that brought Dublin its prosperity.

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This is Dublin's Great South Wall,

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built nearly 300 years ago

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to protect ships sailing into the River Liffey.

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On the far side of the estuary is the Bull Wall, added a century later

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and designed to stop the sands of Dublin Bay choking the river.

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Almost two-thirds of the Republic of Ireland's sea trade moves through Dublin.

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These two massive walls are still vital in keeping the seaway open.

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Between them, the deep shipping channel remains open at all tides,

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while the beaches on either side are dried out twice a day.

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The sands stretch the full sweep of Dublin Bay.

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I'd never been here before,

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but Dublin writer Fionn Davenport revels in his city's secret riviera.

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I never pictured Dublin like this, with a great huge beach.

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15 miles of beaches stretching from the north, down to the very south.

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It's great, isn't it?

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I'm ashamed to say that when I hear the word "Dublin", I just think, you know, pubs and pints and Guinness.

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This is exactly how we sell ourselves. This is the great secret of Dublin - our beaches.

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We don't talk about them, don't tell anybody about them,

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and we keep them exactly the way we want them - empty.

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The Irish are known for their hospitality, whether their visitors are invited or not.

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Nowhere more so than Dublin.

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In fact, historically, this city has scarcely been Irish at all.

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The history of Dublin is the history of invaders.

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Right from the very, very start, it was created by invaders,

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populated by invaders, so in a sense, Dublin is an invader city.

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Who were the first people to settle here?

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Oh, the Vikings, in the 9th century.

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They came here on their raping, pillaging, warring ways,

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and they settled, and built this trading port.

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The name Dublin comes from the Irish "Dubh Linn",

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and the original Viking settlement was built around this black pool.

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-That's where the word comes from - "dubh" meaning black, "linn", the pool.

-Blackpool?

-Yes.

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-I was hoping for something Gaelic and lyrical like "shining city by the sea."

-I know.

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A Viking Blackpool - that's a scary thought.

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Then, in the 1100s,

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another wave of invaders flooded up the Liffey - the Normans.

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They and their English successors would stick around for 800 years,

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long enough to make a mark.

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Dublin's best-known brewery, Guinness,

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was founded by an Anglo-Norman family,

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and Dublin architecture still reflects the longstanding link across the water.

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In Ireland's capital city, what is Britannia doing on top of that building?

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Ah, Neil, because secretly, Dublin is still a little bit British. It's a very English city.

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800-odd years of English rule -

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Dublin was created, conceived of, developed and built by the English,

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and this building behind us is the Custom House,

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which was built when this was the second city of the British Empire.

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I would have to dispute that as a Scot. We were always told Glasgow was the second city of the Empire.

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But the tragedy of the Scots is they were lied to for so long,

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because Dublin was the second city of the Empire.

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Today, Dublin takes second place to no-one.

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Glass and steel has transformed the old waterfront.

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It's Dubliners who are flooding to the Liffey now.

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The quickest way out of Dublin isn't by boat

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but by DART, the fast rail corridor that hugs the shoreline of Dublin Bay.

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The DART has made these once sleepy coastal suburbs

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much more accessible to commuters, but ironically,

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locals will tell you that today owning a seafront property

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is beyond the reach of most Dubliners.

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Unlike Britain, Ireland gives artists and entertainers generous tax breaks.

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For these glitterati, Howth Head has become an exclusive address,

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with properties changing hands for over £5m.

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I'm Dave Kelly, and I sell spectacular seaside homes to the rich and famous.

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Welcome to one of Ireland's most exclusive residential addresses - Sutton Castle.

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This house was commissioned in the 1890s by the grandson of John Jameson of the famous Irish whiskey brand,

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and it's recently been converted into luxury apartments.

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It's as close to the sea as you can get without getting your feet wet.

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A sea view can easily add tens of thousands of Euros to the value of a property.

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And for an apartment in this particular complex,

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it can set you back anything up to 3 million euros, or 2 million sterling.

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We've reached the River Boyne -

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not just a waterway, more an artery leading to the ancient heart of Ireland.

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It's so peaceful here today.

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There's just me and some day-trippers, and the only sounds are from the sea.

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It's hard to believe that so much of Ireland's history has happened around this one river.

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For 5,000 years, since the first Neolithic farmers,

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the mouth of the Boyne has been the gateway to Ireland's fertile heartland.

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It's been navigated by Celtic traders, Viking raiders and Norman invaders.

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Striding north, the flat coastal plains of the Irish midlands

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give way to the mountains of Northern Ireland.

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But in this border country,

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a landscape much older than any national frontier divides Ireland.

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60 million years ago, as the dinosaurs were dying out,

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the Earth's crust stretched and fractured here.

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Explosive volcanoes erupted, and mountains were thrown skywards.

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Its legacy is the rugged shoreline around Carlingford Lough.

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On the far side of the lough is Northern Ireland,

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but I'm still in the south, and it's a Euro zone.

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But this close to the border, the Euro and sterling co-exist,

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and for a few, that presents a lucrative opportunity

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to exploit the difference.

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Why's it so busy?

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-Well, I suppose because it's cheaper.

-How much cheaper?

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Er... Approximately 20% cheaper on both petrol and diesel.

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So if you were filling up a typical car, what's the saving?

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Approximately £12 sterling.

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-That's a brilliant saving.

-Yep.

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Where exactly is the border?

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-I challenge you to find it.

-You're on!

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And he was right - despite having different capitals, different laws and different currencies,

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the border between North and South has vanished altogether.

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The first sign that you're in the North is the one in miles per hour.

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Nature makes a better fist of a frontier.

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The massive granite buttress of the Mourne Mountains is a formidable obstacle.

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Last time, we came here to discover how Belfast built Titanic.

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This time, we're on a mission to uncover who built Belfast.

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Belfast is the most industrial city in Ireland.

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It defies nature that it's here at all.

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Like Dublin, Belfast grew up around a tidal river -

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the Lagan.

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The original site was a ford, just where the river is spanned by these bridges.

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Close by, they're building a 29-storey skyscraper.

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Drilling for the foundations reveals just how much of Belfast

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is built on mud and salt water.

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That's the stuff they call sleetch!

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I think you and I would call it filthy stinking muck.

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In a funny way, it smells a bit like the sea.

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It's got that pungent smell about it, like seaweed,

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but seaweed that's been trapped underground for a long, long time.

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But the point is, all of Belfast is built on top of that.

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Kerry Greeves, the project engineer, is tackling the same problems as Belfast's original builders.

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-The bedrock, which is sandstone, is about 50 metres down.

-50?

-Yes.

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We have to use piles, which are going down on this side

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approximately 28 metres, and that's what will hold up the building.

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So the piles don't reach the rock?

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-No.

-So the building is just floating on...mud?

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Well, you could say that.

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As an engineer, it's slightly more technical than that, but effectively yes.

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Belfast's founding fathers floated their dream here on the shoreline.

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Local author Glenn Patterson has summed up their achievement with these lines.

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"Belfast is a triumph over mud and water,

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"the dream of successive generations of merchants, engineers and entrepreneurs,

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"their names driven like screw piles into the city's sense of itself.

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"Dargan, Dunbar, Workman, Harland..."

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The thing is, they're all Scottish or English names,

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Protestant merchants attracted here from the beginning of the 17th century

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by the promise of land at the water's edge.

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I wanted to hear more from the man who celebrated these entrepreneurs.

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A lot of people came here with ideas about settling this place, developing this place.

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Some bloody-minded people, you would have to say.

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This isn't a promising place to make a city.

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Belfast has no business being here at all.

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So what was behind the stubbornness?

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Something must have attracted them and made them stay.

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Belfast, although it's very unpromising, it's got all that muck, that sleetch,

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you had to dig right down and sink your foundations if you wanted to build here,

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you could actually make bricks out of the clay of the city,

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so, in a sense, Belfast is a city that's made of itself.

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Every inch of Belfast's industrial heartland is man-made,

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dredged and reclaimed from the salt-water shore in the 19th century

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to underpin its expansion.

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But to build on that growth, Belfast had to look seawards again - to trade.

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When you look at this vast port, it's almost as though this water matters more than the land.

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Well, certainly without this, without the trade -

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I mean we're sailing past these container ships here -

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without that, Belfast wouldn't have developed in the way that it did,

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and without the port, there wouldn't have been any of those great industries of the 19th century.

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So this city really is defined by this water.

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Belfast, the floating city.

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