Peter McNiff's Stories from a Small Town







Robert French in later live, wearing shamrock in his lapel.

c 1880

This a reverse angle of the previous photo. The slip had yet to be built as part of a gneral purpose harbour for fishermen and trading ships. By now Greystones is developing rapidly, thanks to the railroad, extended from the Dublin Bray lines to the rest of Wicklow in 1853, and turning it into one of Ireland's popular Victorian holiday resorts, as well as a bastion for Protestants.

c 1880

Greystones post office and savings bank had a room in Rockport House. Watson's was a grocer's shop.

c 1870

Greystones was a described as a natural harbour in the first survey of the county, back in 1853. Plans for a harbour were first laid in the 1830s and scratched for want of funds. The first ship was built by John Doyle, a former customs officer who, with other businessmen in the area saw the potential for expansion. But 40 years passed before the first small jetty was built. By then Greystones was already with trading with Wales for coal and slate, rather than meet high prices charged by Dublin merchants.


Company Name

c 1880


Rockport with a post office and Watson's, a grocery shop.

c 1880

A detail from the previous picture, showing coal carts being loaded.

c 1900

The Harbour completed in 1888, was a disaster. The 'natural harbour' which  was steep enough to launch fishing boats easily, silted up. The new arm of the harbour caught debris from erosion to the north and after one severe storm that took three lives and wrecked the trading ships, trade ceased.

C 1940

Top of frame, the post office has gone to new accommodation, closer to the railway station and the space it occupied is absorbed by the house, Rockport. The boats on the slip are 'pleasure boats' operated by fishermen who adapted to change as it came, taking extending their skills to the building trade to meet the demands of town's influx of summer visitors.


Robert French had another reason to visit Greystones, his uncle lived in his Greystones with his family. In the Sixties, his niece, Daphne French and nephew Sam French, a lawyer who had all the village business pretty well to himself were still living.


Sam was in his seventies when I first met him. We played chess and though he had Parkinson’s disease, I never did the better of him in our matches. Mind you, his disability could be distracting. He used to shake and whistle while his opponent thought about his next move.


Courtesy of the National Photographic Archive, I take a closer look here at French’s early pictures of Greystones Harbour taken a few years after it was completed, in 1888,



I LOVE old photographs. They hold the seasons, and the years. They tell us how people lived and made a living, how poor they were, their age. Their shadows tell the time of day. Thanks to technology we can take a closer a look at the details in the work of great photographers.


ROBERT FRENCH was Ireland’s first great documentary maker, showing how life was at the turn of the the Twentieth century. Events in Greystones were among his early inspirations for landscapes.


He learned his trade as a police photographer before going to work for William Lawrence, a one-armed British army quartermaster who had used his pension to start and emporium in Dublin with a studio, big enough to make family portraits.