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.


4 thoughts on “Howth by Boat

    • Thanks Marion. Believe me, that seal wasn’t going to move until someone threw him a snack. Meanwhile, I enjoyed my fish and chips. Howth makes for a good jaunt, with many different ways to see it.

  1. Cruises allow you to join the centuries-old paths of nautical history and get to know the sea. Gaze up at the stars and watch the sunrise over the horizon, you’ll feel like you have the ocean to yourself. Interesting and very nice description of the trip. I was and will remain, the biggest romantic. Have a nice day.

    • Thank you. A most evocative description of travel by boat. There’s nothing quite like coming into port up on deck. Venice at dawn is my favourite, but more humble ports offer romance and spectacle too. Glad you enjoyed this.

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