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.


2 thoughts on “Howth Head Trip

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s