In contrast to the hilly southside, Dublin’s north shore is quite flat, other than the hill of Howth jutting into the bay. The coast makes an opening for the central plain, extending past Drogheda and on to Dundalk where the Cooley Mountains rise above Carlingford Lough at the Border.
It was an ancient power highway, connecting the Liffey to the Boyne and the centre of Irish power radiating from Tara. And it was a doorstep for invasion too. The Vikings established their first power bases along this coast in the ninth century, originally settling in Dundalk. The emergence of a strong high king, Niall Blacknee, forced them south to establish Dublin in around 845 AD. Originally the settlement was sporadic, but was secure by the end of the millennium, and remained so for two centuries until the Norman invasion.
Dublin was originally built on the higher ground south of the river. The north bank was farmland. The Ostmen were Danish speaking and their territory became known as Oxmantown. Further north the denizens were known as the Fingal, the fair foreigners. The fair foreigner is said to denote the Norwegian Vikings, while Baldoyle, further north, is the town of the dark foreigner, which is said to refer to the Danes. It seems unlikely that this signified distinct, contrasting complexion or even hair colour, the Vikings were generally fair in both. It may have been a note on character. In which case it was surely relative, Vikings were not usually renowned for peace, love and understanding. These days, beyond the city boundary, north county Dublin is called Fingal.
You’ll notice how the Liffey is already widening into its estuary east of O’Connell Bridge. The flow of water is tidal, with its inherent smell and rowdy host of seagulls. The land hereabouts has much been reclaimed from the shallow sea of Dublin Bay. Since the late eighteenth century, Dublin Port has developed along constructed quaysides with the silting estuary being cleared at last by the huge engineering feat of the North and South Bull Walls. While the South Bull is a direct extension of the south quays, the North Bull is farther away and out of sight, a finger extending into the bay from the distant suburb of Dollymount. The North Quays terminate at the Point and the East Link Bridge; Dublin’s modern port and docks extending further east for a bit.
As a starting point for our safari along North Dublin’s Sandy Shore, we can walk either bank down past Butt Bridge, under the Loop Line and on to the Talbot Memorial Bridge. The bridge was built in 1978 becoming then the easternmost crossing of the Liffey. It is named for Matt Talbot, poster boy of Irish temperance, with his statue standing on the southern end.
Matt Talbot was born in 1856 in North Strand and worked as an unskilled labourer. A fierce drinker from his early teens, he abandoned the demon drink at the age of twenty eight. His obsession with alcohol was replaced with an extreme, though benign, religious fervour. On his death in 1925, he was discovered to have practiced self mortification with several chains wrapped around his body beneath his clothing. He was renowned as an admirable worker and, while poor, was a dapper dresser. Some characterised him as a strike breaker in 1913, though there’s no evidence of this. Apparently he refused strike pay, donating it instead to comrades with families to support.
Also in 1978, George’s Quay became temporary home to the National College of Art and Design. I was one of the inbetweeners studying graphic design there as the college moved from its base in Kildare Street, between Leinster House National Library, to its current campus at Powers Distillery on Thomas Street. The surrounding area crumbled while awaiting the redemption of development. The theme song to the rubble and crumbling chimney stacks provided by U2 at Windmill Lane nearby. Today, the crystalline towers of the Ulster Bank form a significant landmark for the modern city. Begun in 1997 and completed five years later, the complex is distinguished by seven pyramid crowned glass towers and is now known as George’s Quay Plaza.
Across the Bridge, the Custom House floats serenely above the waters of the Liffey. Initiated by Ireland’s first Revenue Commissioner John Beresford in 1780, it was designed by James Gandon and after completion in 1791 would be regarded as his masterpiece. The project had been much derided at the start, being built on a swamp and seen as remote from the city centre. The Corporation, enraged traders and the High Sheriff himself, sharked up mobs to disrupt construction, but Beresford prevailed. Now it’s a definitive symbol of Dublin, and stands away to the west of the extensive docklands.
Not that it hasn’t suffered its fair share of depredations in the meantime. It was burned by rebels during the War of Independence with the aim of destroying tax records. Unfortunately, the interior, the dome and irreplaceable historical records were also destroyed. The new government of independent Ireland moved quickly to restore the building. The renovation is apparent with the darker stone used for the reconstruction of the central tower. Meanwhile, Memorial Road was named in honour of those from the Dublin Brigade who died in this, and other engagements in the war.
Downriver, the International Financial Services Centre, is an undistinguished grouping of medium rise glass blocks from the late twentieth century. Beyond, lies the modern, geometric heart of the new commercial capital. Upriver, the Loop Line Bridge occludes the Fair City. This wrought iron bridge and carriageway of 1890 has attracted the ire of the aesthetically sensitive ever since.
The Loop Line linked Ireland’s South Eastern railway system, affectionately known as the Slow and Easy, with the Great Northern Railway, linking the capital to Belfast. Pragmatic trumped aesthetic, with the project crashing through the facade of the South Eastern’s Westland Row HQ, before masking off the view of the Custom House and much else to each side.
However it was functionally a boon, completing the East Coast railway axis and crucially linking the Mailboat service from Kingstown. Even more so today, providing direct access for freight and commuters between Dublin and Belfast, and all around the bay and beyond to the towns and cities of the South and East. Besides, it is a visual delight to sit aboard a train twixt Tara and Connolly and finding yourself at the centre of the joyful panorama of Dublin and its sublime River Liffey. Better yet, it is a vista unmarked by the intrusion of the Loop Line itself.
I referred to the song What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding earlier on. Written in 1974 by Nick Lowe, it became a hit for Elvis Costello in 1978 and was tacked on to the American release of the album Armed Forces. It forms a neat counterpoint to the theme of conflict implicit, if vaguely, in the songs and album title. Oliver’s Army directly references British military campaigns in Ireland right back to Oliver Cromwell. Costello was born Declan McManus in London and is of Irish descent. His songs are rich in wordplay, snappy phrases, and catchy too. He didn’t write this, but he could have. It’s a song of other times, one that fits with our times, and one for all time.
As I walk through this wicked world
Searchin’ for light in the darkness of insanity
I ask myself, is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?
And each time I feel like this inside
There’s one thing I wanna know
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding? Oh
What’s so funny ’bout peace love and understanding?