South of Irishtown we enter Sandymount, with a famed and rather amazing beach. Sandymount Strand is formed in the lee of the Poolbeg Peninsula. It is something of a mirror of the Bull Island north of the Liffey, but unlike that it directly abuts the shoreline. With the tide out, Sandymount Strand is a vast, flat expanse of golden sand nestled into the curve of Dublin Bay. Away to the north and east the panorama is framed by the spiky contrast of the docklands, with the twin chimneys of the Pigeon House and the gleaming Poolbeg Incinerator dominating. The sea is reduced to a blue score along the horizon. It has the feel of a Surrealist painting when dotted with people on a blue sky day. Walking out there is to be at one with the world. You might well ask yourself: Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand? Just as Stephen Dedalus mused of a morning here in James Joyce’s Ulysses. And you might well be. Then the tide will come in and cover it all.

Within all this nothingness there’s the odd intrusion of a low, stone structure. These are the ruins of Sandymount Baths. They were built in 1883 by the Merrion Promenade Pier and Baths Company. The baths measured forty metres square with segregated bathing for men and women. Stretching out from the shoreline was a 75 metre lattice work pier with wooden decking. There was a bandstand half way along with Summer concerts twice a week. The adjoining Strand Road promenade was lined with kiosks selling, amongst other things, cockles and mussels alive alive oh! The good times of the Belle Epoque were not to last, and the pier fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1920.

A modern promenade with a linear park spans much of the seafront. It is immensely popular with walkers, joggers and all shades of flaneurs. There are benches if you want to simply sit and watch the world go by. Situated at the northern end, opposite Gilford Avenue, stands a twenty foot high metal sculpture, by Mexican Sculptor Sebastian unveiled by the Mexican President in 2002. Originally named an Cailin Ban, before becoming Awaiting the Mariner, it evokes those times when women would wait on the shore for their seafaring sons and husbands.

About midway along the Promenade, there’s a Martello Tower. A string of twenty eight of these towers were built along the Dublin coastline from Balbriggan to Bray beach during the Napoleonic Wars. This one was built in 1804. A century later it became, for a while, office of the Dublin United Tramways Company. There’s a disused modern building attached, once functioning as tearooms and a restaurant. The tower itself forms a chicane where it butts onto the main road.

Despite the local associations with Ulysses, this is not Joyce’s Tower. That’s in Sandycove, south past Dun Laoghaire . I once did a painting of Sandymount tower festooned in Billboards above the tacky shop and cafe as then was. My college tutor was outraged by the fact that Joyce’s tower, as I may have implied it was, should have been so degraded. I thought the association, given Bloom’s job as an ad-man, was quite apt. All those Mad Men on the strand, Napoleon and Bloom, Joyce and I, my choleric tutor.

Two episodes of Ulysses were set along the strand. In the third episode Proteus, Stephen Dedalus walks the morning strand. In Nausicaa Leopold Bloom isn’t walking, though the word is similar, as he watches a group of young ones. Gerty McDowell gives him the eye, but while the flesh is willing, the spirit is weak, and Bloom makes do with strangling his pet snake. It finishes with fireworks and caused a furore, being banned in the States for this very episode.

Joyces Ulysses sprang from Homer’s Odyssey. Nausicaa was the young lady whose love of the hero was unrequited. She first saw Odysseus leaping amongst the rocks on the shore in the nip and developed an instant attraction. Our hero, though, was more focussed on getting a ship to sail him home. She was young and pretty, but the fact that her name Nausicaa means Burner of Ships, might have been a passion killer.

Bring snowy lady with the laughing, spread your sailing angels over me
Tell a tale of old sinfuls, look for you to change their face
Bleed your soul for my silvered fate, take the ageing cross to bury days gone by
Receive my own into your Heaven Heath towards my waiting bed to lie

Heaven Heath which opens Mellow Candle’s Swaddling Songs emits, like much of their work, an ethereal nautical mood, making for a suitable theme. Group founders, Clodagh Simonds and Alison Williams were themselves born of this very coast, in Killiney a little further south. Clodagh plays the harpsichord on this, while Alison composed. She was born Alison Bools and married Dave Williams while both were with Mellow Candle. She now uses her mother’s name, O’Donnell.

4k from Dublin City centre, Sandymount is part of Dublin 4, just south of Ringsend and Irishtown. The River Dodder borders on the north west with Landsdowne Road (the Aviva Stadium) on the far bank. It is bounded by the bay to the east and the railway line to the west, on down to where they intersect at Merrion Gates. Sandymount was originally named Scald Hill, though the meaning is obscure. There is nothing resembling a hill on this flat stretch of coastline. It would be nice if it derived from the Old Norse term for a writer of poems honouring heroes and their deeds, since Sandymount is credited as the birthplace of WB Yeats, and has also been home to such poets as Brendan Kennelly and Seamus Heany. More prosaically, it was later known as Brickfield Town after Lord Merrion’s brickworks which in the 18th century provided the materials for Dublin’s Georgian building boom.

When the sea wall was built at the start of the nineteenth century, the area became safe for development as a suburb for Dublin’s middle class. Development accelerated with the opening of the Dublin Kingstown Railway in 1834. This was a very early example of a commuter line, and there were two stops in Sandymount. The electrification of the rail and the DART service in the 1980s saw both stations reestablished. Sandymount is nearer the city, the stop for events in the RDS, Royal Dublin Society. Sydney Parade is near Merrion Gates.

The number 18 bus is one of the bus routes serving the area. This weird route zigzags through south Dublin along an orbit remote from the city centre beginning far to the west in Palmerston. At the bottom of my road, Bunting Road in Walkinstown, I could catch the 18 to take me to Rathmines where I took classes in art and design. It was also the route to leave us near the startlingly modernist Belfield UCD campus and their weekend gigs. If I dozed off and woke at the end of the route, I’d find myself in Sandymount, if not Donnybrook Garage.

Sandymount Green is a pleasant triangular park at the centre of the village. So close to the city centre, the aura of the village green still pervades. There’s a plinth and bust commemorating WB Yeats, born here on the 13th of June,1865. The houses to the south were part of Sandymount Castle, in truth a Victorian castellated villa. Local watering holes include Ryan’s Sandymount House, prominently placed at the northern apex of the Green, Mulligan’s, and O’Reilly’s around the corner on Seafort Avenue which has a beer garden at back. On the west of the Green is Browne’s, an attractive stop for food fare, with sidewalk cafe, quality coffee, cakes, wraps, sandwiches and burgers.

Food for the soul is available at Christ Church set back in its own lawns. This is a united Methodist and Presbyterian church occupying what was originally the Methodist Church, built in 1864. Following Guildford Road out of the village, it merges with Park Avenue, as impressively lined with trees and fine houses as the name implies. Standing on an island site is the Church of Saint John the Evangelist serving the Anglican communion. It was founded by Sydney Herbert, brother of the Earl of Pembroke in 1850. It was designed byBenjamin Ferrey, biographer of Pugin, in early Romanesque style and built in rubble stone with features in Bath Stone. The honey coloured and very weathered material give it a more ancient look than its age.

Park Avenue leads on to Parade Avenue, connecting Merrion Road and Strand Road. Sydney Parade station is nearby. At Merrion Gates all routes connect. The main road southwards is the surging thoroughfare of the Rock Road.

The International Bar Revisited

I have a soft spot for the International Bar in Wicklow Street. It was a regular haunt of mine in my Post and Telegraph days. Wicklow Street is a busy shopping street connecting Grafton Street and Sth Great George’s Street. It was developed as part of Exchequer Street in 1776 having previously been a lane. This eastern branch was renamed Wicklow Street in 1837.

The International Bar dates from 1838 and is housed in a fine, early Victorian, gothic redbrick four storey on the corner of Andrew’s Street, which continues as South William St south of the junction. This was the venue I chose for my twenty first birthday party. Friends and workmates gathered round, and, of course, the divine Ms M. Gifts, besides copious pints, checked shirts and scabrous greeting cards, included some music of the day: Horslips second Celtic symphony the Book of Invasions, AC/DC’s debut High Voltage and Thin Lizzy’s breakthrough album, Jailbreak.

I’d imagine these were played full volume and the final verse of The Boys Are Back in Town lingers strongly in the memory. 

That jukebox in the corner blasting out my favourite song

The nights are getting warmer, it won’t be long

Won’t be long till summer comes

Now that the boys are here again

Near enough seven years since they were formed in Dublin, Thin Lizzy had at last scaled the dizzy heights of international fame. Jailbreak was Lizzy’s first album to go gold in the USA. Phil Lynott had adapted his poetic muse to powerhouse rock with spectacular effect. The following summer, myself and M would be amongst the tens of thousands at Dalymount Park to give the heroes a memorable return to Dublin town. The Boys Are Back! 

Happy days. I remember a wall poster that night in the International advertising Billy Connolly, the comedian posed in front of a Scottish Flag. Suitable backdrop, as my birthday falls on Saint Andrew’s Day, and I’m half Scottish; probably three quarters Scotch that night. The International would go on to host nightly comedy shows since the 1990s with live music downstairs. Dara O Briain from Bray is one of a generation of comics to cut their teeth there. Outside of the music and laughter, life at the International goes on as always, a jewel of an oasis, the best of times suspended in amber. 

Walk in off the street to the high ceilinged narrow room. The bar is spectacularly set off by an ornate hand carved mahogany reredos. Brass fittings, mirrors and optics are set ablaze by light streaming in the large windows. When the canopies are out, high arched transom windows allow solid shafts of light to stream diagonally onto the bar.

This scene captures that snapshot of heaven, and perhaps some of the more subdued stories in the weave. There is a slight allusion to a painting by Degas, In a Cafe, in the couple seated to the right. But this painting is phrased to convey a sense of warmth, and our heroes may be enjoying a moment of easy silence. Remembering those golden days.