Irish Ships and Shipping

A History of Roll on - Roll off in Dublin port


It is commonly believed that ships equipped with opening bow doors and ramps were first developed during the Second World War to land vast amounts of men, equipment and supplies on invasion beaches without the use of piers and port equipment. In fact, the first dedicated Roll on Roll off ramps in the British Isles were built at Lame and  Stranraer in 1938 to serve the  first purpose built Ro Ro car  ferry in Britain, The Princess  Victoria which entered service  in the summer of 1939.  

Slow start 

Dublin was quite slow in  establishing a Ro Ro service,  with the first Ro Ro vessel to  operate out of the port, the  B+I Line's MV Munster, starting operations between Dublin and Liverpool in May 1968. A year later, a Ro Ro service was started by British Railways between Holyhead and Dun Laoghaire.

    M.V.MUNSTER 1968      

The main reason for the delay in introducing Ro Ro in Ireland was trade union opposition. In fact, a Ro Ro ramp was installed in Dublin in 1956,  but opposition from dockers  prevented it from going into  service. It wasn't until March  1973 that the ramp at Ocean  Pier was first used when the  Morland Navigation Company  established a short-lived Ro-Ro  service between Dublin and  Barry in Wales.

There was relatively little opposition to the new B+I service in 1968 for two reasons. The new ferry terminal, built on reclaimed land east of then eastern breakwater, was set apart from the main docks area. And there was a growing acceptance  among the dock's labour force that the introduction of Ro Ro  was inevitable. 

 The impact of Ro Ro and  containerisation on the  fortunes of Dublin Port and the  general Irish economy cannot  be overstated. Ro Ro made  travel and trade cheaper and  faster. It could take over a day  to unload a conventional ship  with non-containerised cargo  using a team of 40 stevedores  working at each hatch, but a  Ro Ro vessel can be unloaded  and re-loaded in less than two  hours and needs only a small  team of men to operate  equipment, as customers  driving their vehicles out of  the ship's bow or stern doors   do most of the loading and   unloading themselves.

As increased trade due to Ro- Ro and Lo Lo services helped fuel the Celtic Tiger, the booming economy in turn lead to a subsequent increase in  trade. In 1969, 4.42 million  tonnes of freight passed through Dublin Port; in 2003, the port had a throughput of 23 million tonnes, over 75% of which was unitised.  

The introduction of the new MV   Munster in 1968 had an immediate effect on tourism generally and on B+I specifically with the number of cars carried more than doubling from 18,500 in 1967 to 42,400 in 1969.


 Not only could the new  Munster be loaded and  unloaded more quickly than its conventional predecessor, it  also made its passage across  the Irish Sea to Liverpool in  eight hours - nearly three  hours faster than its  predecessor. However, as a  multi-purpose car ferry, the  new Munster had certain  restrictions. While the vessel  could take 220 cars, the ship had only one 'high lane' so it  was limited to carrying only  seven lorries or buses. In  addition a 12ft height  restriction applied.  

 B+I added a second Ro Ro  vessel, the MV Leinster, to the   Dublin-Liverpool route in 1969.  As well as having bow doors  that were 12ft lOins high, the  new Leinster was equipped with swing decks, which meant  the vessel could carry a greater  number of trucks and buses. 


An indicator of the economic  upturn at that time is that on  its maiden voyage into Dublin,  the Leinster was packed with  Jaguars for sale on the Irish  market. The arrival of purpose-built car  ferries marked another  important social change in   Irish Sea travel - the end of  the distinction between first and second-class. This was partly because the new ferries were aimed at the mass market, but it was also because air travel was becoming popular. Following the introduction of the first two car ferries in 1968 and 1969, it was quickly found that the two new vessels couldn't cope with the demand from freight customers, so the MV Nanomark was chartered by B+I in 1972 to run a freight-only service to Liverpool.

Spiralling ahead

The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company started its first car ferry service between Dublin and Douglas in 1974. Because the company didn't have access to the existing car ferry ramps at Dublin Port, it had to come up with a novel solution for its Ro Ro service, with ships being fitted with internal spiral ramps so that cars could be driven on or off at the appropriate level irrespective of the tide level.

In 1975, an additional freight-only service from Dublin - Fleetwood was established as a joint venture between B+I and P&O's subsidiary Pandoro, who first operated the MV Buffalo on the route. 


In 1979, the freight-only service to Fleetwood was intensified following the closure of B+I's Lo Lo service between Dublin and  Liverpool and, as a result, two larger ships the MV Ibex and the MV Tipperary were put on the route. The fact that Ro Ro had well and truly arrived by 1979 was  further underlined that year when the MV Tipperary carried an aeroplane to  Fleetwood! A Lockheed Constellation aircraft, the only one remaining in Britain and  Ireland, had lain derelict at Dublin Airport until the British Science Museum decided  to buy it. The plane was broken into sections, with the 26-metre long fuselage, the  two wings and the engines, propellers, tail and other parts being carried in a total  of six sailings.

Ibex Tipperary Leinster Connacht Blockade

In 1979, B+I started introducing a new generation of car ferries on its Irish Sea routes, with a new MV Leinster, capable of taking 1,500 passengers and 350 cars, coming into service on the Dublin - Liverpool route. The following year, B+I used the first of its new generation ferries, the MV Connacht to establish a new Dublin-Holyhead route, a move that led to a short-term 'ferry war' between B+I and Sealink, with staff from each company attempting to prevent their rival's vessels from docking.

In 1980 the B&I line opened a new daytime passenger service to Liverpool using a jetfoiL This new vessel, named Cu na Mara, was the first high speed to operate in these waters and was capable of making the journey to Liverpool in three hours. It was now possible to operate two services in each direction in summertime. However the jetfoil was not successful for a number of reasons and the service was suspended at the end of the 1981 season.

Cu na Mara          

When B+I and Pandoro switched their freight-only service from Fleetwood to Liverpool in 1988, the Ibex and the Tipperary proved to small for the job. Pandoro returned the MV Buffalo to Dublin, but only after it had been lengthened to provide additional sleeping accommodation for lorry drivers. At this time, B+I replaced the Tipperary with the MV Bison, a sister ship of the Buffalo, which was chartered from  Pandoro. In 1992, Pandoro decided to opt out of the joint venture and to go it  alone with its own Dublin terminal.


The last decade

There have been substantial developments in the last 10 years in Ro Ro and there is now greater competition among ferry companies than at any stage in the second half of the last century.

Stena Line, who bought the Sealink fleet in 1991, started a Dublin - Holyhead service in 1995. This twice daily service caters for tourism and freight and is now serviced by the Stena Adventurer, a new superferry launched in Dublin in July 2003.

In 1995, Merchant Ferries moved their Warrenpoint - Heysham Ro Ro freight service from Warrenpoint to Dublin putting three vessels, the Merchant Venture, the Merchant Brilliant and the Merchant Bravery, on the Dublin - Heysham Route.

Also in 1995 Irish Ferries brought the Isle of Inisfree to the Dublin - Holyhead route. At the time this was the biggest ferry operating out of Dublin. Two years later it was replaced by the Isle of Inishmore. Also in 1995 the SuperSeacat service commenced between Dublin and Liverpool. This high speed reduced the transit time from eight  hours for a conventional ferry to just over three and a half hours. In addition SuperSeacat docked at Pier head, close to the centre of Liverpool making the  service very attractive from a tourism point of view.  In 1999 Irish Ferries introduced the high speed Jonathan Swift to the Dublin -Holyhead route. This vessel, which caters for the tourism trade, can achieve four  round trips daily.

Innisfree Innishmore Seacat Jonathan Swift Brave Merchant Dawn Merchant

 Also in 1999 Merchant Ferries entered the tourism market with  two new vessels the Brave Merchant and the Dawn Merchant on the Dublin - Liverpool route, however in February 2003 the company left the tourism market to  concentrate on freight only business.

The year 2001 will be remembered for the arrival of three new ferries to Dublin. In  January P&O brought the European Ambassador to the Dublin - Liverpool route. In  March of that year The Ulysses, the worlds biggest car ferry, arrived for Irish Ferries.

MV Ulysses Stena Forwarder

July saw the arrival of the Stena Forwarder. All three vessels were launched in  Dublin making 2001 a special year for ferries in Dublin Port. In late 2001 P&O  opened a new route between Dublin and Mostyn with two round trips daily and in  2002 they commenced a weekly service to Cherbourg. Finally, in July 2003 the  Stena Adventurer was launched in Dublin and operates twice daily between Dublin and Holyhead.

 There are now five ferry companies operating services to the UK from Dublin. Irish Ferries offer five sailings a day to Holyhead, P&O Irish Sea offers two sailings to Liverpool and two sailings to Mostyn in Wales (plus seasonal sailings to Cherbourg  in France); Stena Line runs two sailings a day to Holyhead; the Isle of Man Steam  Packet Company, in partnership with its former parent company Sea Containers, runs  seasonal SuperSeacat fast-ferry services to Liverpool and to Douglas; and  NorseMerchant Ferries run two sailings a day to Liverpool and two to Heysham.

 Roll on Roll off is now the single most important mode in Dublin Port, accounting for 57% of total throughput. In 2003 this mode accounted for 565,000 freight vehicles, 1.45 million passengers and 335,000 tourist cars, in addition to a sizeable portion of the 100,000 trade cars imported through  Dublin Port.

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©Aiden 2005

 ©The Dublin Port Co.