Howth Head Trip

North Dublin’s Sandy Shore – 11

Howth Head frames the Northern extremes of Dublin Bay, rising to 170 metres. Howth is from the Danish, Hoved, meaning headland. So, Howth Head is something of a tautology. In Finnegans Wake, James Joyce imagined it as the head of the giant Finnegan, with his feet in Chapelizod, and the Wellington monument in Phoenix Park indicating some happiness in between.

Howth has a population of over eight thousand, though is still colloquially referred to as a village. The commercial centre nestles on the north facing hillside near the end of the peninsula, fronting a large harbour with a fishing fleet, small cruise boats, and a marina. There’s a startling view across the harbour and the narrow, choppy sound to the deserted island of Ireland’s Eye.

At the eastern end of the waterfront, the road rises towards the town centre by way of Abbey Street. St Mary’s Abbey and its graveyard commands the height above the Harbour. It was first established by Sitric Silkenbreard, King of Dublin, in 1042. In 1235 the parish church moved to St. Mary’s from the island, saving the locals from yet more boat trips on their day of rest. The present church dates back to late fourteenth century. 

The Abbey Tavern is adjacent. This was a popular haunt of mine in the seventies. We translated that to the Happy Tavern, which with the drink flowing, the smoke blowing, and smiling friends all around, it certainly was. A decade earlier, it was one of the cradles of the Irish Folk boom of the sixties. As a singing pub, it required singers, and so Abbey Tavern Singers were formed in 1962 by publican Minnie Scott-Lennon. The group expanded to include a host of musicians playing fiddle, guitar, uileann oipes and spoons and an album was released on Pye records in 1965.

We’re off to Dublin in the Green, was their best known song. It was a renowned rebel-rouser, particularly at the time of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the 1916 Rising. But it was as a theme song for an advertising campaign by Canadian brewers Carling that brought it to wider notice. The song became a huge hit in Canada and also a US top 100 hit.

As for the Rising, Howth contributed to that event in the famous arms smuggling enterprise. On the 26th July 1914 Erskine and Molly Childers sailed their private yacht the Asgard, loaded with German rifles for the Irish Volunteers, into Howth Harbour. The Harbour Master reported the landing to the authorities and the Volunteers ran into a detachment of police and British soldiers, the Scottish Borderers, at Clontarf. The forces of law and order managed to seize twenty rifles, but had to return them after a court case established that police and army were acting illegally. And, after all, the Volunteers were supporting the writ of Parliament, unlike the British army, whose loyalties were ambiguous, to put it mildly. In total 1,500 rifles for the Irish volunteers were put ashore, 900 at Howth and the rest at Kilcoole in County Wicklow. Later a confrontation between a crowd of civilians and the Scottish Borderers on Bachelor’s Walk in Dublin, resulted in the death of four people when the soldiers opened fire. Three people were shot, one Sylvester Pidgeon, died of bayonet wounds.

The restored Asgard is on display in Collins Barracks, Dublin. The name lingered on here in Howth for a while. It was the name of a bar and hotel overlooking the tip of the peninsula on nearby Balscadden Bay. The Asgard was for a time run by Philomena Lynott, mother of Philo himself, main man of Thin Lizzy. There were regular gigs here in the summers of the seventies, though none, that I saw, with Lizzy. To one of these, sometime in the mid seventies, I brought M for our first date. It’s not the music I remember, but I’m sure it must have been heavenly. While the fire there kindled is still burning, the Asgard Hotel itself burned down in 1982 and was replaced by apartments. Lynott died in London in 1986, and there was a funeral mass in Howth. He is buried nearby at St Fintan’s Cemetery, Sutton.

Balscadden Road hugs the rocky coast as it winds up towards the Summit. WB Yeats lived at Balscadden House for three years from 1880. He would later write of local ghost stories and a poem, Beautiful Lofty Things, mentions his own paramour: Maud Gonne at Howth Station waiting a train. The blue plaque on the house quotes from He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, 

I have spread my dreams under your feet, tread softly because you tread on my dreams

Today, I meander through the town and on uphill to gain the summit. The town itself is much faded from how I remember it. The central hotel, once called the Royal and later the Baily Court, is long closed and gives Main Street a distinct feeling of desertion. However, the pretty Carnegie Library next door endures. The Church of the Assumption dominates the top of Main Street. This is the Roman Catholic parish church. It was designed by William H Byrne and built in 1899. It’s high square tower,  topped by pinnacles and gothic gargoyles give it a sense of drama.

I fork right at the church; though left up Thormamby Road is more direct. Zigzagging upward through the steep and prosperous suburbia I am glad of the occasional bench to catch my breath, and absorb the wonderful vista that opens below. I manage to get lost halfway up, but am soon set right by a young man smoking an aromatic cigarette. He directs me towards the summit, which emerges from the fog in glorious sunshine.

And if you go chasing rabbits

And you know you’re going to fall

Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar

Has given you the call

Call Alice

When she was just small

The Summit Inn is a good oasis for food and refreshment. Dating back to the nineteenth century. It boasts a traditional bar and turf fire, and there’s a good menu with main plates under twenty euro, and a pleasant outdoor terrace. The summit itself is accessible by bus and car, and offers one of those to-die-for views. Dublin city and the Wicklow Mountains are arranged across the blue waters of the bay, stilled with height and distance, too gorgeous to merely describe in word or pixel. 

Amongst the many walks on the headland, the most well trodden heads down a steep and rugged path towards the Bailey Lighthouse below. The Bailey was first built in 1665, back in the days of the Restoration, by Sir Robert Reading. It had a square tower supporting a coal fired beacon. In 1810 this was replaced with a new structure on lower ground designed by George Halpin. He was Inspector of Lighthouses and considered the father of irish lighthouses; the Bull Wall, the Skelligs and Wicklow Head being amongst his work. In fact he increased the number of lighthouses fivefold to seventy two by the end of his career. He died in 1854 while inspecting a lighthouse. The Bailey tower is forty metres above sea level and the lightkeepers house is adjacent. It was the last Irish lighthouse to go automatic in 1997, though an attendant still lives there. The optic is on display in the National Maritime Museum of Ireland in Dun Laoghaire.

As I said, there are plenty of walks on the headland where you can free up your head with the unique balm of the great outdoors. A walk along the cliffs will take you back by Balscadden Road to the Harbour though I am taking a more direct path back to the station. First of all, a stop at the Summit Inn is in order. Food is available, but I am more inclined to feed my head, in honour of ancient days, and take my frothy pint into the sunshine.

One pill makes you larger

And one pill makes you small

And the ones that mother gives you

Don’t do anything at all

Go ask Alice

When she’s ten feet tall

White Rabbit was written by Grace Slick and features on Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 second album Surrealistic Pillow. It predates Lennon’s Lucy in the Sky with diamonds but is similarly of its time. Like that song it is heavily influenced by Lewis Caroll’s Alice, though Slick specifically uses Alice in Wonderland references as a metaphor for mind expanding drugs. It also, most potently, extols the formative value of reading, most especially when young. What a mind altering experience that is. Feed your head!

The walkway back down to sea level follows the old tramway, which ceased in 1959, to the head of Main Street. This is an easy, slow descent, well maintained. Occasionally, it gives elevated views of Ireland’s Eye, but by and large, the view is restricted by the hedging to each side. At a lower level, you can connect with the town, or continue on the marked path which skirts a housing estate before becoming a short forest trail along a rugged descent to the Station and the Bloody Stream.

Howth by Boat

North Dublin’s Sandy Shore – 10

My usual mode of transport to Howth is the excellent Dart service, which travels all around the Bay from my home in Bray, via Dublin to the two northern outposts of Howth and Malahide. You can have also take a trip to Howth from Dun Laoghaire by boat. The journey can be booked in advance, costing twenty five euro, and leaves from Dun Laoghaire’s East Pier. Myself and M picked a pet day with sunshine and serene sea.

The St Bridget holds about a hundred passengers. Dublin Bay Cruises operate the service and other cruises around the bay. It is run by the Garrihy family, who also operate the Doolin to Aran ferry off the west coast of Clare. The open deck was well taken when we boarded with the passengers in high spirits. A friendly crewman directed us to a handy seat near the prow. A group of ladies on a day out toasted me as I took photos on the open deck. It’s an hour long cruise with an occasional commentary on the sights of interest.

Dun Laoghaire harbour was opened in 1820 by King George IV. The growing town became Kingstown, changed from Dun Leary, Leary’s Fort. When completed in 1842, it was the largest manmade harbour in Europe. In 1824 it acquired the Mail Boat service which had previously used Howth. The ferry to Liverpool continued to operate until 2014. Large cruise ships do visit, often mooring in deeper water outside the harbour. Though it once had an extensive fishing fleet, this was overtaken by Howth as the designated fishing port. 

We head out through the portal of its twin lighthouses into the open sea. The Great South Wall stretches four kilometres into the bay, connecting with the city quays, Dublin city rising from the waters beyond. The land is marked by the giant twin chimneys of the Poolbeg Generating Station, or the Pigeon House as it’s known. This refers to the old generating station, from 1900, which itself was named for the caretaker’s lodge from 1761. The caretaker was John Pigeon, who later opened a restauant and hotel. Across the Liffey estuary, the North Bull Wall, hanging down from Clontarf, frames the harbour. The Bull Island, formed by the Wall, is fronted by the spectacular five kilometre long Dollymount strand, with a nature reserve, bird sanctuary and two golf courses.

Through three hundred and sixty degrees, the panorama on deck is rich in spectacle and story. How fine it is to take a trip around the bay by that most traditional of transport modes, with my heart’s desire and a song in my head.

Timothy Leary’s dead

no n,n, no he’s outside, looking in

he’ll fly his astral plane

take you trips around the bay

bring you back the same day, Timothy Leary.

Legend of a Mind was written by Ray Thomas of the Moody Blues. It appeared on their third album, In Search of the Lost Chord in 1968. This was, incidentally,  the first studio album I owned, a Christmas present from my folks when I was thirteen. The perfect age to fill your head with rock, and all forms of strange new things.

Leary’s trips around the. Bay referred to the bay area of San Francisco where he lived in the late sixties. His trips didn’t involve boats, nor indeed any form of transport. Leary, the most dangerous man in America, according to Richard Nixon, promoted the use of LSD and psilosybin, to discover a higher level of consciousness.

Along the coast you’ll hear them boast

about a light they say that shines so clear

so raise your glass we’ll drink a toast

to the little man who sells you thrills along the pier

About seven miles out to sea is the distinctive Kish Lighthouse, a concrete tower with a helicopeter landing pad on top. It is sunk into the Kish Bank, a sand bank long a notorious trap for shipping. It was signalled by a lightship from 1811 to 1965 when the modern lighthouse was installed. We’re lost for a moment in the unique embrace of Dublin Bay. Bray Head, the Sugarloaf Mountians, and Dublin Range form the backdrop to Dublin’s Southside. North of the city we look into the mouth of the low lying central Plain, only Howth Head to the north as an outstanding feature. A fuller profile of the  east coast waxes into view. There’s the beginnings of that lonely feeling of setting sail from Ireland, while simultaneously, the consolation of the embrace awaiting the wanderer’s return.

A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past eve and adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of circulation back to Howth Castle and Environs

is the implied closing, and opening line of Finnegans Wake. James Joyce’s baffling third novel was published in Paris in 1939. It was seventeen years in the writing, following the 1922 publication of Ulysses. The last line completes the circular trajectory of the narrative, with Howth looming large. The dreamlike narration continues with an account of Amory Tristram’s seizure of Howth, and later mentions the visit of Grace O’Malley, or O’Malice as Joyce styles her.

Howth looms larger still and we can pick out the houses and other features. The impressive sentinel of the Bailey Lighthouse signals our arrival. We skirt the rocky extremes of the peninsula and sail into the calmer waters of the sound. Howth Harbour awaits, looking out at the startling offshore presence of Ireland’s Eye.

The Harbour was begun in 1807, but ran into difficulties. John Rennie, the Scottish engineer, later responsible for Kingstown Harbour, was called in, and completed the harbour in 1813. The lighthouse project, also by Rennie, was completed in 1818 allowing Howth to become the port for the mailboat service before the construction of Kingstown. There was a major redevelopment of the harbour from the 1980s, with marina and fishing areas delineated and the provision of a State Fisheries Centre and the RNLI lifeboat service.

Ireland’s Eye is an intriguing name. It implies an allusion to the human eye, as if it is the physical organ from which Ireland espies the world at large. Simply, it is from the Danish for island, being from the ninth century Viking perspective the only island off Ireland’s east coast. There are a few others, but very few, and this is the most physically spectacular. It forms a large green hump, barren and rugged, its most pronounced feature being a jagged rocky sea stack on its eastern extreme. 

Its inhabitants these days consist of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, cormorants, puffins, gannets and gulls, but humans have lived, and died, there too. Over time it has accrued a Martello Tower and the ruins of a church. The church was the parish church of Howth, founded in the seventh century. The Garland of Howth, an illustrated manuscript of the four gospels, was produced by scribes in the church between the 8th and10th century. It is now kept at Trinity College, Dublin. It is said that the custodian monk, beset by the determined devil, took the weighty tome and threw it at his tormentor. The Devil took off and the volume split the main island from the distinctive rocky stack to the east. My father, on a family holiday here in the early sixties, told me the feature was called the Devil’s Bit, being an actual bite out of the rock taken by Old Nick himself, on his flight from Ireland having been banished by all those saints and scholars. The only reference I’ve found to a Devil’s Bit is a prominent feature in County Tipperary, which, as you know, is a long way. But why dilute myth with fact?.

Tour boats depart hourly from the Harbour to the island. There are a half dozen or so operators off the West Pier, some going back generations. It has long been a popular jaunt for those seeking to get away from it all, nature lovers, or simply lovers seeking the tranquility of solitude. Murderers too, perhaps. William Burke Kirwan had one or the other on his mind when he planned a trip out there with his wife Sarah Maria Loisa in September 1852. He was an artist, born in 1814. Sarah was ten years younger. The couple lived on Merrion Street. There were no children of the marriage. Kirwan had long lived seperately in a house in Sandymount with his mistress, Maria Kenny and their eight children. An ominous background for a jaunt to so secluded a spot. Left alone on the island, Kirwan sketched, he insisted, while his wife went swimming. When the boatman returned, Kirwan claimed he was unable to find his wife. A search located her body, covered in blood, in a rocky cove. The courtcase was a sensation and Kirwan, defended by Isaac Butt, was sentenced to death. This was commuted after appeals by prominent society figures, and he was transported to a prison labour camp in Bermuda. Apparently he was treated leniently, being notoriously workshy, like any good artist. He was released in 1789 and, most likely, went to America.

Myself and M decide, however, we have had enough maritime adventures for the day and stroll around the harbour. The West Pier is the busiest promenade. Along with the crowds onshore, Grey Seals throng the waters. They often appear at lunchtime, waiting expectantly for treats from passersby. The harbour area has blossomed in recent years with several food joints to savour the fruits of the sea alfresco, and fight with the seagulls over them. We stop for fish and chips and then a coffee before taking the Dart home.