The River Shannon divides Ireland practically in two and dominates the midlands landscape, acting as a formidable barrier to movement from East to West while providing a marine highway from North to South. It is the longest river in both Ireland and Britain (measuring 344km from its source to Loop Head where it meets the Atlantic Ocean), and has influenced the military, social and economic history of Ireland for centuries.
In his 1st century map of North West Europe, the Roman cartographer Ptolemy described the Shannon as “Senus”. It is also believed by some authorities that “Regia” in Ptolemy’s map refers to the site of the present city of Limerick.
The region around the estuary of the river was already being called “Luimneach” in the 3rd century BC when the ancient annals tell of a battle in the area, and the “Book of Leinster” reports the epic hero Cuchullin pointing out the features of the country to this tutor, indicating “the river Luimneach is that bright river that thou seest”.
The Luimneach area was visited by St Patrick in the 5th century, but the name was not applied to the centre of population until the Vikings launched attacks on the county in the 9th century, sailing up the Shannon Estuary and finding suitable berthage for their long ships at an island in the estuary (“Inis Sibhinn”, later called “King’s Island”). They returned in numbers to establish a fortified settlement – which became the origins of Limerick City.
The Vikings used the river to both conquest and trade. The Luimneach settlement became an international trading centre, and there is evidence that the Vikings traded regularly with Iceland.
The Normans invaded Ireland in the 12th century and took possession of the city of Limerick in 1175, valuing the port as a source of revenue. A century later, King John visited Limerick and ordered the building of the fortress known as “King John’s Castle” (marked in red in map at right) which stood sentinel on the edge of the river as strategic defence commanding approaches along the river or across Thurmond Bridge (marked in green) – this was also built by order of King John, and having been rebuilt last in 1845, survives to the present day.
As the city of Limerick grew in importance, so did the port. In medieval times, Limerick conducted increased seaborne trade with England, France and Spain. Initially the port was located where the Abbey River joins the Shannon, at the south west end of King’s Island, and consisted of an open basin or dock with some quays adjacent to the site of the present-day Potato Market. During the refurbishment of the market in 1984, the walls of the medieval “Long Dock” were uncovered.
The introduction of regulations and restrictions on trade and navigation severely affected the City’s commerce during the 13th and 14th centuries. However, in 1400 when ports were going through a difficult time, Limerick figured among the more prosperous ports in Ireland, becoming known as “Luimneach na Luinge” (“Limerick of the Ships”).
Trade improved in the 17th century when constraints imposed during the Elizabethan wars were lifted. In the reign of James 1st, Limerick was granted a Royal Charter in 1609, giving the Mayor and Sheriff of Limerick authority over the Shannon estuary, extending into the counties of Limerick and Clare to the sea and including the island of “Inis Cattery” (now Scattery Island).
1750 to 1840 has been described as the “climax of the town’s position as a great centre of commerce” and rapid expansion occurred. The city began to extend from its traditional island location and to develop westward from the Abbey River. George’s Quay and Lock Quay were constructed, and the Custom House, City Court House and Sir Harry’s Mall were built. Streets and squares were developed as the showpiece of the new city, and the port spread downstream with the construction of Arthur’s, Honan’s and Mead’s quays. The port of Limerick also linked to the east coast through the inland Shannon Navigation on the completion of the Grand Canal in 1804.
The Limerick Chamber of Commerce was formally established under Royal Charter granted in 1815, and assumed control over pilotage in the River Shannon. The Chamber actively pursued the case for improved land and sea access, and regarded the City as a strategic location and major trading centre. A petition was made to King George IV for a floating dock and a new bridge for the City, and these were enacted in legislation in 1823, which established the Limerick Bridge Commissioners with powers to make by-laws for the regulation of the harbour, to license pilots within the port and harbour, to construct a “wet” dock, and to construct and regulate the operation of the new bridge. The “Wellesley Bridge” (now Sarsfield Bridge) was completed in 1835. The construction of the quays on the north and south sides of the river was completed in 1840. From the Limerick Bridge Commissioners’ renaming to the Limerick Harbour Commissioners in 1847 until the end of the 19th century, one of their main preoccupations was the construction of the Floating Dock.. The foundation stone for the new dock was laid in 1849 and the dock was completed in 1853, some 30 years after the project was first mooted. A new dock gate and entrance, to facilitate the increasing size of vessels, was completed in 1955.
Foynes Harbour was first surveyed in 1837 and was identified as a potential port development location. The initial substantial works were carried out in 1846, with the construction of a masonry wharf 83m long and 12m wide, in the location now known as the West Quay. This wall is still in place at berth 1.
The Shannon Act 1885, an Act of Parliament in the reign of Queen Victoria, was passed to transfer the operation, control and ownership of Foynes Harbour from the Commissioners of Public Works in Ireland. The Foynes Harbour Trustees were established in 1890. The Trustees proceeded immediately to construct a timber jetty extending Northwards from the Masonry Quay. In 1915 the Trustees constructed a concrete Eastern Spur parallel to the Masonry Quay.
In 1933, the Trustees acquired a Foreshore Lease from the State in order to construct a new jetty extending Northwards from the existing West and East Spurs, and completed this concrete piled structure in 1936. This was designed to cater for 8,000 ton vessels with maximum draft of 7.6m. In 1968 the Trustees constructed the East Jetty under Foreshore Licence; this was principally for the provision of a berth to service ore exports and included a conveyor and loading arm.
In 1984, the East Jetty was extended Westwards to cater for the growing number of ships calling at the Harbour. A dedicated Oil Dolphin facility was constructed in 1992 and provided a berth for oil and chemical tankers. The new West Quay was completed in 1999.
Other Estuary Terminals
There are three user-owned terminals on the Estuary. The jetty at Tarbert was commissioned in 1969 to serve the oil-fuelled power station constructed there. It is planned to convert the generating station to gas but fuel storage facilities are being maintained by the National Oil Reserves Agency (NORA). Across the Estuary from Tarbert, on the County Clare side, lies Money point terminal, a dedicated facility for coal used to fuel the ESB-owned generating station on site. The plant went into full production during 1987. Close to Foynes, at Aughinish Island, the jetty dedicated to bauxite and alumina cargoes was constructed to serve the alumina producing plant which went into production in 1983.
The SFPC terminal adjacent to Shannon airport was commissioned in 1973 to service aviation fuel imports