Michael Branagan says he always tells people that, when they’re driving down the main Clontarf Road from Howth and get to Annesley Bridge, they should look out the window.
The bridge is a roadmap to the past.
When you arrive at Annesley Bridge, you’re on a particular level, he says. “And the next thing, you cross the bridge and you drop eight feet because that was the sea and the river was banked up.”
There’s so much physical evidence of history, Branagan says. “Before you go near a piece of paper, just walk around. Literally just walk around, because it’s all there.”
“You become a geographer and a historian … look to the left, and immediately you notice, ‘My god, this used to be a delta!’”
Now it’s one channel, one canal. It’s where rafts of rocks floated up from Dalkey to build the East Wall, he says. “Anyway, I’m getting away with myself.”
Branagan has spent a lot of time rooting around in libraries and archives all over Dublin, Ireland, and Europe, researching a book about how the land mass of Dublin expanded during the years 1708 to 1844. During that time, the city nearly doubled in size.
The resulting book, Dublin Moving East: How the City Took Over the Sea, which he gave a talk about last Saturday at Dublin Port, is set to be published by Wordwell Books in the new year.
The original city consisted of an area from Dame Street to Trinity College on the south side, Branagan says, and a ribbon of land near the Italian Quarter on the north side.
During the same time frame, as the city expanded, its population grew more than fourfold.
Around 40,000 people lived in Dublin in 1700, Branagan says, and by the turn of the next century there were around 180,000. (He stresses these are very general numbers.)
When Branagan talks about this stuff – the landmass of the city and how it’s changed over the centuries – his eyes light up. A sailor for most of his life, he also talks like someone who understands the water and the wind.
“Dublin was completely changed, all because it was a crap place to trade, just the most dangerous place in the world,” he says.
The shape was like a horseshoe that’s been bent a bit, the arms curving out instead of in. That meant the winds could come in from north and south.
“It’s a graveyard of ships,” he says, and that made trade with London – its colonial “mothership” – difficult.
To improve trade, things had to be safer for ships to come and go. “The first trick was to get rid of the [sand] bar in Dublin, but that took 300 years,” he says.
He found details about how the port was improved and how the sand bar was dredged via two journals from the National Archives, found in the basement of the Four Courts.
Branagan has a faraway look in his eye when he describes the 200-year-old journals. The cracking sound when he opened them. The perfect, clear ink, perhaps never read before.
He gets this way whenever he talks about the research he did, all six years of it, for the book. He found things in basements and beautiful, little-known libraries.
At a library in Armagh, he had to wait for coffee to be served, as it was every morning when the rector from the cathedral came over.
“We’d join in the coffee and lovely chocolate biscuits, and you couldn’t touch a thing until coffee was done. It was a whole new way of research. It was magic,” he says.
His research led him to the Netherlands, Madrid, Lisbon, London, Liverpool, Galway, Belfast, Armagh, Cork, and elsewhere.
“I went everywhere and anywhere, and some days would be a great adventure. It would lead you off into all sorts of areas you knew nothing about,” he says.
He spent three months researching anchors and when they started being made with metal instead of wood.
Branagan, now 72, says he thinks his age helped him get access to things he might not have if he’d been younger.
“It’s amazing how often people would open glass cases and let you in when you’re elderly. You know, you don’t look like you could run away too quick,” Branagan says, with a conspiratorial glint.
Digging for Answers
When Branagan retired from his job at National Toll Roads about 10 years ago, he went straight to college. He did a B.A. in English and History at DCU’s St Patrick’s Campus, as a mature student.
He was looking forward to the English part, but in the end, it was history that got him hooked.
Branagan continued on with an M.A. in history straight after. His thesis was about the incorporation of the Ringsend spit into Dublin and how that came about.
“I had no idea, as a Northsider, anything about the history of Dublin, really, other than the nonsense of the dates, which really meant nothing. Because they don’t tell you how life was and how it was lived and so on,” says Branagan.
He says he got so interested in the subject matter because it was about his own city. “I grew up as a child playing in the grounds of Clontarf Castle.”
A friend read his thesis and had questions about other areas of Dublin. Branagan started digging for the answers. Then he couldn’t stop.
The Good Stuff
Branagan isn’t big on computers. He wrote out the book longhand, twice, he says, before finally transferring it to machine.
He’s also not too impressed with online research, he says, as a lot can be lost in the process of digitisation.
“[T]here’s a huge amount of stuff that’s in the periphery of pages that you don’t always get,” he says.
At Farmleigh House, tucked away in the Phoenix Park, there are masses of crisp, ironed old newspapers, bound in volumes.
He found them while researching the “huge problem” of venereal disease during Dublin’s expansion.
“I walk in and open up the first page of the very first thing, and there’s an ad in the border on the front page about, ‘Get your pills here, and your wife won’t know, and you’ll be a new man, and nudge-nudge, wink-wink.’ It was extraordinary.”
Branagan is interested in the details of history, and he thinks other people are, too. “Not everything is the big picture … People are interested in little things. Where did they go to the loo”?
After all the rifling through primary documents, Branagan had to figure out a way to present the material – an angle that would help him rein it in and not end up with a 1,000-page tome.
He decided to tell the story of Dublin’s expansion by examining three types of buildings: churches, schools and hospitals. Those three things provided an entrée into the social, as well as geographical, history of the city.
“What represents people and the occupation of space better than schools, hospitals, and churches?” he says.
A huge amount of money was spent on building churches during this time, he says, and in that way “the Catholic Church reclaimed ownership of people’s minds”. At the same time, “the Church of Ireland was doing equally madcap stuff”.
He says to go look at the altar at St Francis Xavier Church on Gardiner Street, which cost around €15 million in today’s money.
“In the early 1800s, Dublin was a vast building society for churches alone,” Branagan says. “If you build churches, people are going to come, and those kids had to be educated.”
At the same time, the death rates for “plague” – during that time a catch-all term for infectious diseases including cholera and typhoid – were huge, he says. Medicine became more formalised.
At the time, Clontarf Island, the remnants of which is under the Port Tunnel today, used to be three miles out into Dublin Bay, he says.
It was used as a place of quarantine, much like Ellis Island functioned to house sick immigrants entering the United States.
“If you had a respiratory bug, you were sent to the infirmary, and when you cleaned up your tubes and everything was fine, you were let out. Well, that was the same with shipping in those days,” he says. “They were quarantined.”
Other Fish to Fry
As for Branagan’s next project, he’s got a few ideas. “I’m not sure, but I think I’ll do something in terms of writing,” he says.
Before he gets to that, though, he has “other fish to fry” – namely, a boat that needs an engine.
And, in the more short-term future, he has a couple of references to re-check, the last thing he has to do before the book is published. “The bibliography was murder,” he says.