Purpose - The purpose of this paper is to examine performance change in the Irish state-owned port sector over the 2000-2016 period using a case study approach.Design/methodology/approach - For analysis, qualitative sources are used to construct an explanatory account for the quantitative measures of productivity, profitability and traffic shift-share change across the major ports within the system.Findings - The results show that overall change in performance largely follows that of the macro-economic performance of the region, characterised by pre-recession growth, decline during the recession and post-recession recovery. Across the ports. however, there was a notable divergence in performance post-recession. Identified factors affecting performance change across the period include demand-side structural change, labour rationalisation and degree of private sector participation.Originality/value - This study addresses a gap in the formal evaluation of port performance in Ireland. The study further demonstrates the potential of in-depth case study analysis for uncovering insights into the drivers of performance across a number of dimensions, thus allowing for the contextualisation of results. The study of a small number of cases enables the use of rich qualitative sources to create strong narratives, which combined with quantitative measures of performance, can lead to new insights.