The history of the Port of Larne stretches from the mists of time in the Middle Stone Ages, through the pre-Christian centuries and the Viking raids, to the more modern history of the 19th and 20th centuries and the development of the most modern facilities and technologies which have made Larne a major channel of commercial and passenger traffic in these islands.
It is a story of vision, ingenuity and hard work which turned a small harbour into a thriving Port. Larne developed significantly from the mid-19th century. There were years of immense difficulty, including two World Wars, periods of economic depression and times of tragic loss as in the Princess Victoria disaster. However, throughout all these challenges, changes and setbacks, the people of Larne showed remarkable resilience, a determination to learn from the past and to look to the future and a resolve to make Larne the outstanding Port which it is today.
The story of the Port of Larne is also a history of great characters like James Chaine who did most to establish the port in the 19th century, also of Colonel Frank Bustard who in the mid-20th century, had the vision of a new system of moving goods in bulk and who helped to make Larne a most significant part of the container revolution.
Today, Larne is renowned as a premier Port in Ireland. It handles over 300,000 freight units a year, as well as 220,000 tourist vehicles and 845,000 passengers. It is operative 24 hours per day, seven days a week, with up to 20 arrivals and departures daily to and from the ports of Troon and Cairnryan.
Larne is believed to have derived its name from Lathar, son of Hugony the Great, High King of Ireland in pre-Christian times who reputedly gave him an area along the Antrim coast roughly from Glenarm to the River Inver which became known in the Gaelic as Latharna. It is recorded that the Roman Emperor Serverus described how, in 204AD a Roman galley bound for Scotland was blown off course to a place called Portus Saxa which was thought to be Larne Lough. The ancient Greeks also had knowledge of the Antrim Coast and Ptolemy, the astronomer and geographer of the 2nd century AD, referred to Islandmagee on one of his maps.
The Viking raiders left their mark and the Lough at one stage was named after a Norse King called Ulfrich. This became anglicised to Wulfrichfjord and eventually Olderfleet which is an integral part of modern Larne. However, while Larne had an undisputed reputation as a good port, the harbour was not being used to its full potential. In the 18th century, there were a number of quays, including the Town Quay which facilitated a lively emigration trade to the United States.
By 1840, the harbour remained underused with only two Larne ships engaged in foreign trade. There was great rivalry between Larne and Donaghadee which had operated a regular service to Portpatrick since 1662. However, this Mail Route was withdrawn by the mid-19th century and the creation of a railway line from Carrickfergus to Larne led to the development of a daily service to Stranraer with a paddlesteamer, the Briton. However, the route did not make profit and the service was withdrawn from 31st December 1863.
In 1866 James Chaine, the son of a prosperous Co Antrim linen merchant bought the harbour with a down payment of £9,000 and changed its fortunes completely. By 1882, Chaine had not only paid off the balance of £10,500 but had also set the Port of Larne on the way to success. He repaired the existing pier and quays and had them extended and developed a rail link to the Port. In 1871 the Larne and Stranraer Steamboat Company was formed and a new paddle steamer the Princess Louise commenced a regular service between the two ports on 1st July 1872.
A mail route was established in 1875 and a trans-Atlantic service between Glasgow, Larne and New York began in 1873. Using the renowned State Line vessels, this service continued until December 1889 and many hundreds of emigrants left Larne to start a new life in America.
Sadly James Chaine died from pneumonia in 1885 at the age of 44 and the town and port lost a remarkable visionary. As a mark of respect the people of Larne and district raised funds by public subscription to build the Chaine Memorial Tower which dominates the entrance to the harbour.
The Port of Larne continued to prosper in the 20th century. In 1912 the old Larne Harbour Company was replaced by a new company, Larne Harbour Limited, with its new Chairman, Charles MacKean, who remained in office until his death in 1942. In 1914 Larne made the headlines when the largest consignment of arms was landed at the Port during the Ulster Unionists’ opposition to Home Rule for Ireland. The crisis was subsumed by the outbreak of the First World War when Larne became a Naval Port where its location rendered it a particularly good anti-submarine base.
The political upheavals after the end of the War and the partition of Ireland had an adverse effect on the Port. This created uncertainty and unrest which led to a sharp decrease in traffic between Scotland and Ireland. There was an attempt to establish a fish-processing business at Larne which ended in failure. By the end of the Thirties, however, the Company was in a better position to expand and the creation of the first proper loading ramps for motorised vehicles gave a hint of what was to come.
The Port of Larne played a major role in the Allied Forces efforts during the second World War. More than 5 million people passed through the Port, including 4.3 million service personnel. Among these were American troops preparing for the Normandy D-Day landings in 1944. As the War drew to a close and the number of troops and volume of transport decreased, the Port began to return to its pre-war level of activity. However, there was no going back to the past and the challenges, party arising out of the War, were to develop Larne as a major Port in the British Isles.
A major figure in the post-war development was Colonel Frank Bustard who was a latter day version of the modern entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson. Bustard’s earlier attempt to develop a cheap trans-Atlantic service in opposition to the Cunard Line failed to attract enough backers due to the negative attitude of the government. His ideas were overtaken by the Second World War in which he served with distinction but after the War he developed a brilliant new idea which led to the formation for the profitable freight trade business. This rapidly became the foundation for Larne’s rapidly growing success.
Frank Bustard turned his attention to the possibilities offered by converted Naval tank landing ships (LSTs) which had made such a significant contribution to the Allied invasion of Europe. He discovered that these could be adapted to carry cargo driven onboard and in simple form, the RO/RO revolution began. Bustard chartered three LST vehicles and formed the Transport Ferry Service which established a service between Preston and Larne in 1948.
This service began paying its way in 1952 but navigational difficulties at the Preston end and a prolonged strike at the English Port in 1969 spelt the beginning of the end of the Larne-Preston service which ceased in 1973. However a remarkable opportunity had arisen in south-west Scotland where the Atlantic Steam Navigation Company which now owned the Transport Ferry Service purchased the then virtually unknown port of Cairnryan.
This port had been built during the Second World War to load ammunition ships for overseas service. It was sold in the Sixties to ASN for the then princely sum of £25,000. However, it was not until 10th July 1973 that the new ASN Larne-Cairnryan service was inaugurated, thus giving Larne access to the shortest crossing on the Irish Sea which it remains to this day. This was to have significant effect on the success of the Port of Larne. Colonel Frank Bustard deservedly was made a Freeman of Larne for his efforts.
The decades from the Fifties to the Seventies witnessed key developments at Larne.
Throughout these decades, with the rapid growth of containerised traffic, the Port became a major link across the Irish Sea. There was a proliferation of loading facilities and new quays, including the extension of the Olderfleet Quay, the construction of the Phoenix and Curran Quays, with the inclusion of Mulberry Harbours from the Second World War and the completion of Castle Quay. Increased facilities meant more sailings and passengers and in 1967 the Mail Quay Passenger Terminal was officially opened.
From the sixties onwards, the Port of Larne developed the Redlands estate at the harbour. Alongside this area, the infrastructure to carry out a new dual carriageway to the Port was developed thus bypassing the town and also to cater for the vastly increased volume of freight and passenger traffic using the harbour.
Following the establishment of the new route between Larne and Cairnryan, the holding company Transport Ferry Services was bought by European Ferries which owned Townsend-Thoresen. The take-over by the European Ferries Group intensified the modernisation of the Port and the expansion of facilities continued apace.
The Chaine Quay, named after James Chaine who had put Larne on the map as a port in the 19th century was re-developed and formally opened on 27th June 1978 in the presence of the then Chairman, Major George B MacKean, the son of the first Chairman of Larne Harbour Ltd, Charles MacKean. Almost a year later, the Continental Quay was officially re-opened. Both these quays provided a double-deck ramp, the first in Ireland, and were installed to cater for the simultaneous working of both decks of the new vessels which were coming into operation on the Irish Sea at that time.
While the passenger and freight service between Larne and Cairnryan grew in popularity, a similar service between Larne and Stranraer which had operated for many years as a Mail Route, also continued to prosper. Tragically, however, the Princess Victoria foundered in heavy seas off the Irish coast on 31st January 1953 with the loss of 133 lives including 27 inhabitants of Larne.
Over the years a series of modern vessels maintained the service on the Larne-Stranraer route including the Caledonian Princess, the Antrim Princess and the Galloway Princess, all of which were seafaring showpieces in their time and which operated under various flags. The closure of the Belfast-Heysham service in 1975 generated even more business for the Larne routes to Cairnryan and Stranraer. The freight services continued to be profitable and in addition to the existing routes, new services were established. These included the Larne to Ardrossan route under different operators from 1956 to 1976 and more recently under P&O from 1992 until its relocation to Troon in 2001.
The Larne to Fleetwood Roll On/Roll Off service, operated by Pandoro began in 1975 replacing an earlier LO/LO service operated by P&O Ferrymasters since 1973. This service was particularly popular with hauliers who wanted direct access to North-West England and especially to the motorways near Fleetwood and Liverpool. In the early days, Pandoro operated one ship daily to Fleetwood and another to Liverpool until 2002 when a daily Larne-Liverpool freight service commenced. As part of the service, the vessels provided good cabin accommodation and a free hot and cold buffet.
In 1999 a third vessel was provided for the Fleetwood route to meet the demand from hauliers and also an increasing number of motorists who wanted direct access to the Lancashire coast and the M6 motorway. Early in the year 2000, this RO/RO service celebrated its 25th anniversary which was a testimony to its stability and progress through decades of change in the ferry business.
In 1986, European Ferries was taken over by P&O and as the new Millennium approached, the last years of the 20th century brought accelerated progress at Larne. Significant improvements were made at the Port. The Mail Quay was totally redeveloped and later renamed the MacKean Quay in honour of the family’s long and distinguished association with Larne Harbour Ltd. Construction on the £3.5m scheme which included a two-tier ramp, was partly assisted by the European Regional Fund (ERDF) and the Government Port Modernisation Grants. Over the years ERDF made a major contribution to the development of modern facilities at the Port.
The Quay was formally opened in 1987 by Mrs Patricia MacKean, widow of the former Chairman Major George MacKean. The modernisation of the Port continued and in 1993 the refurbished Curran Quay was formally opened by Gavin Hastings, the Scottish Rugby international and captain of the British Lions.
In 1996 a 2m high-technology Distribution Centre for the storage of fresh and chilled produce was opened on Redlands Estate which had been developed over the years by Larne Harbour Ltd. The opening of a Freight Centre in 1998 enabled drivers to have their vehicles weighed, checked-in and marshalled in a single, smooth and fast operation a good example of the Port identifying customers’ needs ahead of demand.
As a further enhancement of the Port’s facilities, the Board of Larne Harbour Ltd had been aware for many years of the need to improve the road links on both sides of the channel. This had some effect but much remained to be done. In May 1998 the Government announced a new £10m scheme to improve the approach road to Larne. The construction by Phoenix Gas of a £7m gas pipeline across the Lough and through the Company’s land gave local customers a wider choice of energy sources.
By the beginning of the new Millennium, the Port of Larne was among the busiest on the Irish Sea. The RO/RO facilities dealt with a wide variety of shipping including the most modern high-speed ferries and the port also had the capacity to handle a large range of bulk and general cargo.
At the Port of Cairnryan, splendid new terminal facilities costing £4.5m was opened in April 1999. These included separate reception areas for tourist and freight traffic, new booking and information offices, a baggage-handling area and facilities for children and the disabled.
Though there was steady progress throughout the late Eighties and early Nineties, the shipping company Stena Sealink announced in 1995, its intention to leave Larne and to establish a new route from Belfast to Stranraer. Inevitably there was a downturn in business at Larne but the people and the Port rose to the challenge and by the early years of the new millennium, the number of tourists and commercial vehicles had increased steadily.
The continued commercial confidence at Larne was underlined by significant additions to the shipping fleet. In February 1999, P&O announced an order for European Causeway, a new 21,000 tonne passenger and freight ferry from Mitsubishi of Japan, which came into service in August 2000. The luxurious new vessel with a top speed of 23 knots was designed to reduce the travelling time on the conventional ferry to Cairnryan to just 105 minutes a reduction of 25% on the time taken by the older vessels. A sister ship European Highlander with similarly luxurious facilities and high technology features went into service in July 2002.
The competitive edge to modern ferry travel from Larne had been sharpened some three years earlier with the introduction of the powerful P&O Jetliner, a high-speed ferry with an operating speed of 32 knots. This reduced the Larne-Cairnryan crossing to just one hour, the fastest on the Irish Sea. In Spring 2000, the Jetliner was superseded by the larger and more luxurious Superstar Express.
The Port of Larne has developed dramatically since it’s origin in the mists of time. It had risen to the commercial challenges of succeeding centuries, survived the trauma of two World Wars and positioned itself to take advantage of the latest technological developments in the world of shipping and freight to gain a deserved reputation as the premier Port in Ireland.
This history is provided by Alf McCreary.
The definitive history of the Port of Larne is contained in the hard-back book by Alf McCreary title, A Vintage Port Larne and it’s people. Published by Greystone, it is priced at £14.95 and is available from all good bookshops and also on Larne ferries.