North Dublin’s Sandy Shore – 5

The station at Clontarf Road was an addition to the Dartline in 1997. The old Clontarf Station was at the start of the Howth Road, a bit further inland, which operated for a century from the eighteen forties to its closure in the 1950s. Dart dates back to 1984, and provides fast, frequent and affordable transport along the Dublin and North Wicklow coast. Clontarf Road is the last coastal stop between the city and Howth Junction, as the line plunges inland to serve the suburbs of Killester, Harmonstown, Raheny and Kibarrack. Aesthetically, the stop’s a dump on stilts, but function and convenience save the day. Numerous bus connections can be made along Clontarf Road itself, and I found the station ideally sited for visiting the Casino and the start of a few good walks north along the coast as far as Dollymount. 

Escaping the station, one is rewarded with a nexus of parkland and seafront promenade. To our left lies Fairview Park and Marino which we’ve recently explored. To our right, the road curves along the coast with the well-to-do suburb of Clontarf inland, and a pleasant linear park laid out on the seaward side. It’s similar to the coastal stretch on the southside at Sandymount. Across the water we see industrial East Wall and Dublin Port and Docks, and a bit further, the dominant striped towers of the Pigeon House and the Incinerator on the South Bull. An urban streetfront of red brick two and three storey premises continues as far as St Lawrence Road and the Yacht bar and restaurant. Cafe society clings to the pavement, an uneasy but distinctive mix of environments; city street and seafront.

Clontarf means Meadow of the Bull, and is deeply resonant in Irish History and identity. This goes back a thousand years to the Battle of Clontarf, where, it is said, the Irish under Brian Boru, drove the invading Danes into the sea. There is an information sign for the Battle of Clontarf at the start of the esplanade.The battle took place in 1014 and was not the Ireland v Denmark match of our schoolbooks. Brian Boru, King of Munster and High King of Ireland, led a coalition of forces, mostly Gaelic, but including Munster Vikings whom he had subjugated. Ranged against him was the alliance of Danish Dublin and Gaelic Leinster, with a number of Danes from the Isle of Man and the Orkneys. Leader of this alliance was Sitric Silkenbeard. Sitric was born in Ireland around 970 and became King of Dublin in the late eighties. 

At the end of the century he was obliged to submit to Brian Boru, becoming Brian’s ally in helpng him assert his rule over Ireland as High King. As part of the deal, Sitric married Brian’s daughter, Slaine, while Brian married Sitric’s mother Gormlaith. In marrying Brian, Gormlaith was on husband number three. She is cast as the femme fatale of her age, exercising a magnetic attraction at the apex of sex and power; a Celtic Cleopatra. But, hey, that’s the way the gals are in Dublin. 

She was the daughter of Murchada King of Leinster and brother of his successor, Mael Morda. She first married Olaf Cuaran, King of Dublin and York, with whom she had Sitric. Olaf abdicated following defeat at Tara in 980, and died in exile. The victor Mael Seachnall, High King of Ireland, aka Malachy II became husband number two. 

Gormlaith’s ardour waned with the arrival of a new force of nature. Brian Boru had by century’s end established himself as Ireland’s ruler and then captain of Gormlaith’s heart. Well, maybe. Things turned sour in a war between the sheets and Gormlaith left the ageing King. She also coaxed her brother and son away from their allegiance. The Gang of Three were now in open revolt. Sitric enlisted help from offshore Viking adventurers. Brodir and Ospak were Danish Manx brothers whom he hoped to persuade to join him at his day at the races. As it turned out they fought on different sides in the battle, Ospak finding Brian too good a king to oppose. Sigurd of Orkney supported Sitric. 

The battle took place on Good Friday, 1014. A day, you will be aware, the pubs were all shut. It could have ranged all along the coast from the Tolka River as far as where the North Bull now stands. Slaughter was huge on both sides. As many as ten thousand died. Brian’s son, Murtagh, and grandson Turlough were slain. Mael Morda also fell.

By the end of the day, the numerical superiority of the Irish forces began to tell. Many Vikings were marooned by the high tide and were drowned or slain. Sitric led what few remained of his forces back to Dublin. Brian, seventy years old was in his tent where Brodir found him and killed him, before himself being killed by Brian’s bodyguard. Legend has it that Brian was on his knees in prayer, giving thanks to God for his victory. Although he could have been trying to get the cork out of a bottle. Either way he was dead, as was his son and heir, Murtagh. This was a pyrrhic victory for Brian’s kin. 

Malachy resumed his High Kingship. He had brought his forces to Dublin, but they hung around the back smoking and playing cards, having forged a secret non aggression pact with the Dubs. He reigned until his death in 1022. Sitric, meanwhile, remained to rule the Fair City for a further two decades. Skilled in the not altogether disparate arts of piracy, pillage and politics, he is best known as patron of the church, establishing Christchurch Cathedral in a fit of piety after a pilgrimage to Rome in 1028. After almost fifty years in power, he was usurped in a palace coup in 1036, and exiled to York where he died in 1042. Gormlaith, the beautiful schemer, had died in 1030, in her seventieth year.

It’s thirsty work contemplating the legendary battles of yore. The wanderer, Dub or Dane, Gael or Gall, is welcome at the Yacht, a rare oasis in this seafront suburbia. They serve a good lunch, with battered fish and chunky chips the appropriate choice, either in the lounge of gleaming wood and glass flooded with seafront light or the windswept patio to the side. There, the cool wind blows, the seagulls call, and sometimes you’ll hear the echo of an ancient battle cry.

We come from the land of the ice and snow

From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow

How soft your fields so green

Can whisper tales of gore

Of how we calmed the tides of war

We are your overlords

Immigrant Song, was written on a visit to Reykjavik by Led Zeppelin, and opens their 1970 album Led Zeppelin III. Sitric would have loved it.

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