Irish Piers (Birmingham, 1911)

1.700, 2.30-41. George A. Birmingham, The Lighter Side of Irish Life, with Sixteen Illustrations in Colour by Henry W. Kerr, R.S.A., (London and Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1911), pp. 48-49, 130-32. BL

Two extracts from George Birmingham, The Lighter Side of Irish Life (1911), on piers.

These extracts show the particular significance of piers in Ireland, that even where the pier itself may have been entirely unnecessary, it at least acted as a visible demonstration of some sort of investment in the local area on the part of government. In this first passage, Birmingham is illustrating his characterisation of the ‘new Irishman’, by way of George Bernard Shaw, in his “freedom from illusion, the power of facing facts”:

¶¶Some years ago a well-disposed English Chief Secretary paid a visit to an out-of-the-way part of the west coast of Ireland. A rumour went out among the inhabitants of the district that he had come among them with a cheque-book in his pocket and a readiness to spend large sums of money on works of public utility. The rumour was not wholly foolish. Amiable Chief Secretaries have often done this kind of thing. A leading man in the neighbourhood proposed to make this Chief Secretary’s way easy to him by pointing out exactly what ought to be done. He went round his friends and asked them to join him in meeting the distinguished visitor with a view to persuading him to build a pier. One gentleman who was asked to join the deputation demurred.
¶¶“Where,” he asked, “do you propose to put the pier?”
¶¶The leading man, the head of the deputation, named a spot.
¶¶“But,” said the objector, “a pier will be no kind of use there. No boats ever go near that place. They couldn’t if they wanted to.”
¶¶“Nobody,” said the other, “supposes for a moment that the pier will be any use, there or anywhere else. But if it’s put where I want it, it will be well out of the way and do no harm to anyone. That’s as much as can be expected of any Government pier. What we want isn’t really a pier, but a few hundred pounds spent in the locality”

In this second passage, excerpted from Birmingham’s chapter on ‘The Government’, he expands on the “struggle with the well-meant efforts of benevolent Governments”:

¶¶It is no longer possible to discover the name of the first official Englishman who hit upon the idea of building piers as a remedy for the ills of Ireland. There ought to be a statue erected to him, whoever he was. No idea in modern politics has been so fruitful in results. Some parts of the coast of Ireland are actually jagged with small stone piers, built at various times by various Boards, which stick out from the land like the teeth of a comb. There are some which cannot be reached from the shore, many which even daring mariners shrink from approaching from the sea, and a few which cannot be reached either from sea or from shore, but which may turn out in the end to be useful as alighting places for aeroplanes. There is a considerable demand for these piers, and the inhabitants of the locality will sometimes take a great deal of trouble to secure one.
¶¶A petition was forwarded some time ago to one of our pier-building Boards, representing the urgent need of a structure of the kind in a certain bay. An inspector was sent down to investigate the case. He drove twenty miles from the nearest railway station on a brilliant summer day, and arrived at last on the top of the hill from which he could look down on the bay he was to inspect. Nothing could have been more beautiful than the scene before him. A broad stretch of water lay glistening in the sunshine, a picturesque village clustered under the shelter of a grey cliff. The sand, on which the waves broke gently, was absolutely golden. A boat, manned by four men, lay, her oars poised above the water, a few yards from the shore. The inspector gazed, fascinated, as his car descended the hill. Suddenly, with a wild cry, the four men in the boat sprang to their feet, flung their oars from them, plunged waist deep into the water and, with some difficulty, upset their boat. At the same moment women rushed, dishevelled from the cottages, and fell, shrieking, on their knees on the shore. The boatmen waded in, dragging their boat with them. The chief man of the village met the amazed inspector as he got off his car.
¶¶“You see for yourself now, your honour,” he said, “the need of a pier in this place, when them kind of disasters occurs before your own eyes.”