Donaghadee Harbour Bicentenary Celebrations

Donaghadee Harbour 200 typography

The bicentenary of the laying of the foundation stone for the iconic Donaghadee harbour will take place on 1st August 2021. Ards and North Down Borough Council plan to host a number of activities to mark the occasion.

Programme to follow.

About Donaghadee Harbour

Donaghadee Harbour is made up of two piers constructed between 1821 and c.1834, replacing an earlier harbour which had served the port since 1626. 
The south pier is connected to a 'promontory' and extends from the line of The Parade.  It is roughly 277 metres in length and built up on its outer face from local stone (blasted out from the seabed), with V-jointed Anglesea limestone to its 'smoother' inner face.  It is sheltered by a (partly stepped) high rampart on the seaward side and has several sets of steps cut into the inner face, to allow access to boats.  On the seaward side of the rampart, roughly halfway along the pier, is a fairly recent looking look out post.  The pier culminates at its end in a circular 'bastion' on which stands the light house.  There are limestone capstans to tie the boats and a small  crane roughly half way along the pier to the inner side. 
The north pier is readily accessed from the rocky shore line at low tide, but cut off from land at high tide.  It is roughly 250m in length as the south pier and its mirror image in terms of plan, however, because of its position and current lack of use its limestone path is now largely covered in grass, moss and weeds.  Like the south pier there are two pairs of stone steps cut into the inner face but there are no posts for tying boats nor any of the other add ons. 

Historical Information

Donaghadee has been a haven for shipping for centuries and an important point for communications between Ireland and Scotland.  In the early 1600s, Donaghadee’s founder, Hugh Montgomery received a Royal Warrant to create and build a seaport and harbour at Donaghadee and set up a Mail Packet Service. Montgomery’s Pier was built in 1618 and was repaired over the years, most notably in 1759 by John Smeaton. 

By 1775, the old pier was in a dreadful state and Daniel Delacherois (whose estate included the harbour) received a grant of £2,705 from Parliament to rebuilt it. The new pier was completed in 1785 and the Custom House built.   

In 1808, the Government appointed Engineer Thomas Telford to investigate the viability of a new packet station route between Ireland and Scotland. Telford favoured a new route between Port Nessock and Bangor rather than the existing stations, however it was eventually decided not to proceed with Telford’s findings. 

Following detailed surveys of both coasts in 1814, John Rennie was commissioned by the Government in 1818 to draw up plans for a new harbour at Donaghadee.  The Act permitting the building of the harbour was passed in 1820 by Parliament.  Unfortunately, Rennie died two months after works commenced and his son, John (later Sir John Rennie) took over the works with David Logan as resident engineer. 

In early 1821, preparatory work began on the site for the south pier. A huge cofferdam was constructed enclosing an area of about one acre, within which the pier foundations were to be laid and thousands of cubic feet of rock removed from the seabed.   

The interior walls of the piers were dressed in limestone masonry sourced from Wales. The core and outer slopes were formed of greywacke stone, quarried locally at the Quarry Hole at Meeting House Bay.  A railway line was laid between the quarry and the harbour cofferdam to transport the stone. 

Between 1820 and 1821 a gunpowder magazine was constructed on top of the Anglo-Norman motte to house the gunpowder.  Traces of gunpowder were found at the site in December 2020 during the preparation for the building’s restoration. 

Donaghadee Harbour: South Pier Dedication 

On 1 August 1821, the 3rd Marquess of Downshire laid the foundation stone of the new harbour using a special silver trowel.  A glass bottle containing various items was placed in a cavity in the foundation stone, then covered with a metal plate with the following inscription,  

“This the foundation stone of the new harbour of Donaghadee was laid on the first of August 1821, by the Most Honourable Arthur Blundell Sandys Trumbull Hill …” 

The atmosphere in the town was one of excitement.  Houses were decorated with flags and evergreens.  It is estimated there were 10,000 people present.  The procession to the foundation stone ceremony was made up of Royal North Down Militia Band, the workers carrying banners with slogans of ‘Labor Ipse Voluptus’ (Labour itself is a pleasure) and ‘Labor Omina Vincit’ (Labours overcome all difficulties), and the great and the good of the area.  The day ended with a grand ball in the Market House. 

Donaghadee Harbour: The North Pier 

On 24 April 1824 work began on the north pier.  A temporary bridge was built from the Parade to the north pier and the railway line from the Quarry Hole crossed to the bridge to transport the prepared limestone blocks and other materials. 

On 21 May 1825, the sea was readmitted to what was identified as the outer basin. The previous evening a celebration was held on the floor of the harbour ‘which never after was trodden by the foot of man’.  The old crescent pier and temporary bridge remained until the new harbour was completed. 

Rennie’s harbour was originally built solely for the use of the Mail Packet vessels but became so popular with merchant vessels that the mail packets were often unable to berth.   

Donaghadee Harbour: The Lighthouse 

In 1834 the lighthouse was built on the south pier and lit for the first time in November 1836. The tower is built of cut limestone, fluted, and in its early days was unpainted in natural grey colour. Today the tower, including the lantern and dome, is painted white with a black plinth, a decision which was taken some time between 1869 and 1875. 

A serious fire damaged the optic and lantern on 12 May 1900 and a temporary light had to be shown whilst a new optic was obtained, and the damaged lantern repaired. Conversion to unwatched electric occurred on 2 October 1934; Donaghadee thus having the distinction of being the first Irish lighthouse to be converted to electric.