North Dublin’s Sandy Shore – 6

Stepping off the Yacht, I turn left and northwards along the coast. At least I will ultimately head North, way up north. Right now Clontarf Road is curving away east, south east. But there’s no way of getting lost. It hugs the coast, so eminently huggable, all the way onwards from its starting point in Fairview, through Clontarf and on to the timber bridge connecting to the Bull Island at Dollymount. There’s a long grassy promenade as far as the bridge, after which the coast road will continue alone past Saint Anne’s Park in Raheny until Sutton Strand at the isthmus of Howth. 

Dublins docklands form a spiky tableau along the horizon, the twin chimneys above all. The road curves away past salubrious suburbia. A few hundred yards on at Castle Avenue there’s time for a detour to Clontarf Castle. Castle Avenue is a sylvan boulevard, lined with attractive nineteenth century terraces and some more modern flats and houses. It takes a sharp right at the top where there’s a stone gateway inscribed for longtime owners of the Castle, the Vernons: Vernon Semper Virit, and dated 1885. This entrance is now dislocated from the Castle grounds, whose modern entrance is a hundred yards or so further on.

The original castle was built by Hugh De Lacy, Lord of Meath, following Strongbow’s conquest in 1172. His tenant, Adam de Pheypo, took up residence. Ownership passed to the Knights Templar and subsequently the Knights Hospitaller until Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. 

By the mid seventeenth century, times were becoming ever more interesting. The War of the Three Kingdoms kicked off, with the Irish Confederacy of Gaelic and Old English (the Anglo Norman Lords) adding fuel to the fire with the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Avid Cromwellian, Sir Charles Coote, Governor of Dublin, burned the castle as part of a campaign to exterminate the Catholic rebels holed up there. The lands were subsequently granted to John Vernon, Quartermaster general of Cromwell’s army, and he set about rebuilding it and adding a parish church whose ruins endure.

George Handel is a noted visitor. In April 1742, the first performance of Handel’s Messiah took place in the Concert Hall in Fishamble St. The choirs of St Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedrals were used, though the Dean of St Patrick’s, Jonathan Swift, was initially reluctant until informed it was to be a charity event. And hugely successful too. Such were the crowds clamouring to go, that gentlemen were required to leave their swords at the door, to facilitate more people. Handel stayed for a time at Clontarf Castle, where he formed a close relationship with the lady of the house Dorothy Vernon, whom he honoured in his music. She is also honoured by the Dolly in Dollymount further along the coast.

The Vernon’s owned the castle for three hundred years but the line extinguished in the 1930s and the castle and grounds fell into decay. In the late sixties the castle was reborn as a popular cabaret venue. It was completely renovated as an upmarket hotel in the 1990s. The current structure was designed by Irish Architect William Vitruvius Morrison in 1837, in a Gothic Tudor style. The Tower House being a replica of the original Templar structure.

Another probable visitor, in its derelict days, was Phil Lynott who left his home in Crumlin and moved into a flat at 28 Castle Avenue in the late sixties. The three storey Victorian house where Lynott lived was recently renovated as a private dwelling and worth an approximate four million. But it was the castle that caught the young musician’s imagination.

The friendly ranger paused

And scooping a bowl of beans

Spreading them like stars

Falling like justice on different scenes

Around that time, Lynott joined Skid Row, moving on to front Orphanage and forming Thin Lizzy at the end of 1969 with old pal, Brian Downey, and Belfast duo Eric Bell and Eric Wrixon of Them. Thin Lizzy’s eponymous first album opens with the song The Friendly Ranger at Clontarf Castle. The lyrics suggest the castle and grounds are deserted, a place where wild and ragged people go, which Lynott and friends may have used for a hangout. The friendly ranger is part tramp, part guru, and evening brings a rush of hope and wonder.

To feel the goodness glowing inside

To walk down a street with my arms about your hips, side by side

To play with a sad eyed child till he smiles

To look at a starry sky at night, realize the miles

Like Dublin’s other great musical bard, Thomas Moore, Lynott sings of love and landscape, of lost and living friendships.

Back down at the seafront, there’s a water outlet in the wall, which it is said, derives from the spring where Brian refreshed himself at the Battle of Clontarf. It is known as Brian Boru’s Well; although he wasn’t looking so good last time he left the place, dead.

Turning back onto the coast, we pass Clontarf baths, The bracing shoreline with its spectacular panorama of the bay saw Clontarf become a fashionable resort in the nineteenth century. Catering for the influx, the baths were constructed by a Mr Brierly with hot and cold seaweed baths. These closed in 1996, but are currently refurbished with bar and lounge, although access to bathing remains nebulous.

A little further on we reach the junction of Vernon Avenue where an urban village juts onto the coast road. The ancient manorial village of Clontarf grew originally in the vicinity of the Castle, but the population in the late seventeenth century was less than a hundred. An important fisheries industry developed on the coast further east. Processing the catch, including fish curing and oysters, was carried on in a group of buildings called the Sheds and the modern village grew around this. The fisheries are long gone, but the name, The Sheds, lives on at Connolly’s Pub on the seafront. The small village is an interesting enclave with cafes, eateries, shops and the pub.

From here the road begins to curve northwards, towards Dollymount and the Bull Island. Guarding the route is an imposing head which resonates of a very distant culture. This is the Easter Island Maoi replica statue presented by the Chilean government to the city of Dublin in 2004. It was carved from the volcanic rock of Easter Island in the Pacific, and forms an eerie, though appropriate, connection between island cultures on different sides of the globe. Rock and roll! 

To see the sun set behind the steeple

Clontarf castle, no king, queen or knightly people

A coal fire and it’s pouring rain

To wave goodbye to a very good friend, never meet again

Little thoughts bring little memories of you to me

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.