South Dublin’s Rocky Shore – 5

Back to Old Dun Laoghaire

I was singing a song I heard somewhere

called Rock and Roll never forgets

when my humming was smothered by the 46a

and the scream of a low flying jet

The railway rumbles on beneath our feet. Ghost ships sail into the harbour. The 46a is due. Dun Laoghaire  grew out of this nexus of travel and communication. The Harbour was born from a suggestion of William Bligh, who picked Dunleary as the site for a harbour of refuge. Bligh had been brought in to address the problem of silting in Dublin Bay. His year long survey of the bay led to the building of the North Bull Wall, though the eventual project differed from his original suggestions. He recommended the need for a second great wall from the north shore of the bay to complement the South Bull. Work began in 1818 and was completed in 1824 to a length of 3,000 metres, a third longer than originally planned. 

Bligh served under Captain James Cook in the Pacific, and saw war service against Dutch and French. He commanded the Bounty on its voyage to Tahiti in 1787. On the return, his crew, led by Bligh’s young friend and protege Fletcher Christian, mutinied. Bligh and some loyal crew were set adrift in the Pacific with a few days supply of food and water. Under Bligh’s astonishing leadership, they survived the 47 day, 3,618 mile journey.  

Scottish engineer John Rennie masterminded the building of Dunleary’s huge harbour, the largest constructed harbour in Europe when completed in 1842. Rennie was also responsible for Howth Harbour and the Custom House Docks and Tobacco Store (now the CHQ Building) in Dublin. He insisted on the addition of the West Pier. The two piers embrace two hundred and fifty acres of water. The East Pier, slightly the shorter, is the most popular promenade. Two paved walkways, upper and lower, convey a constant flow of people along its kilometre length. There’s a Victorian bandstand a quarter way along and the pier culminates in an impressive granite lighthouse. The West pier, slightly longer at almost a mile, has a wilder, less urbane air. From this you have a closer vantage point of the Liffey estuary, with ships passing against the backdrop of the city, while, paradoxically, its relative isolation gives more space for reflection.

In recent years, the harbour has fallen on hard times as a passenger port. All major passenger services were gone by 2015. The harbour remains busy with its marina and a plethora of pleasure craft. It also hosts the occasional cruise ship.

Forty Foot is a name that crops up a lot in these parts. The original bathing spot is just south of here in Sandycove. From this local poet, Anne Fitzgerald, derived the name for the publishing house, Forty Foot Press. If bathing and bardic pursuits should raise a thirst, and what doesn’t, then repair to the Forty Foot, Wetherspoon’s franchise housed atop the Pavilion Centre. I was there for the launch a couple of years back. It was invitation only, but, determined on a pint, I remembered the beanie I was wearing. Given me by Anne Fitzgerald and emblazoned with the publisher’s name, the bouncer could hardly refuse admission. Is there anything more pleasant than a pint blagged, to be savoured in the sunshine with a view of the sea? Indeed, a pint at the Forty Foot costs less than elsewhere, and there’s an extensive menu of craft brews and good bar food besides.

The original pavilion was a timber and glass structure one hundred and fifty feet long. Opened in 1903, it was designed to resemble a ship. The top deck, thirty foot above ground level, consisted of a promenade giving three hundred and sixty degree views of mountain, sea and town, crowned by a landmark Belvedere. On the ground floor, there were reading rooms, tea rooms, a smoking room and a concert hall.

Four acres of gardens were landscaped by William Shepherd, whose cv included Dublin Zoo and St. Stephen’s Green, with bandstand, tennis courts, ornamental pond and a waterfall. In 1915 the Pavilion burnt down. Refurbished in the twenties it then featured a cinema and dance hall. It burned down again in 1940. Rebuilt for the third time, and taking a lesson from the three little pigs, rebuilt in concrete, the Pavilion’s Art Deco facade was a true picture palace of its day. Cinema’s popularity waned in the seventies and the venue returned to a more traditional ethos, with music, theatre and ballet. The building became derelict in the eighties 

This century a new incarnation of the Pavilion emerged. Shops and restaurants line the lower level facing Queen’s Street and the Harbour, while the upper deck houses a new Pavilion Theatre and the Forty Foot Bar.

The Town Hall, across the road, is an attractive building in the style of an Italian palace with high slender clocktower and coloured brickwork. Designed by John Loftus Robinson in 1879, it incorporated the courthouse, municipal offices and a public hall. Perfectly preserved, it now forms part of the County Hall for Dun Laoghaire Rathdown.

The vista up Marine Road is crowned by the spire of St Michael’s Church. This is all that remains of the original Gothic church which was destroyed by fire in 1965. The church dated back to the 1820s. The present structure is a plain modernist cube. Heading back downhill, a pleasant Victorian block is shaded by trees. Passing Nando’s, the dappled light whispers: Momma told me there’d be days like these, nothing shaking but the leaves on the trees. There was once a hotel there, the Mellifont, if my memory serves me well. Here, the legendary Nothin’ Shakin’ had their first gig back in the eighties. The man who stepped up to the microphone was Brian Hogan, Crocodile Dunleary himself. Brian was last seen, standing astern on a departing P&O liner bound for Australia. 

Ireland’s Age of Steam was born in Dun Laoghaire..The passenger rail connection between Kingstown and Dublin was one of the first commuter rails in the world when established in 1834. The railway further stimulated population growth and Kingstown became a fashionable Victorian resort and well to do suburb, separate from the seething city of Dublin, but only a half hour away by train. The railway obliterated much of the Old Harbour and the fishing village of previous centuries. The original stop was in Old Dun Laoghaire, by the West Pier, but was extended to the present station nearer the East Pier three years later to be closer to the Mail Boat.

The railway station is built on a bridge over the cutting. It was designed by John Skipton Mulvaney in 1853 in a neo-classical style. The grand old station is now a restaurant. Mulvaney was a follower of Gandon, and designed several stations for the rail network of the nineteenth century, most notably the Egyptian inspired neo-classical Broadstone Station in Dublin. He’s also responsible for the Royal Irish Yacht Club to the west and the Royal St George Yacht Club visible nearby.

The northern leg of our loop of South Dublin’s Rocky Shore, follows the Dartline to the West Pier. That promenade is popular with the boys and girls of the Forty Foot publishing house, and is ideal on a brisk sunny day. Back on dry land, a short walk uphill brings us to the Purty Kitchen, an atmospheric spot for food and drink and good music. It was founded almost three hundred years ago, the nucleus of the now vanished fishing village from which modern Dun Laoghaire sprang.

So, I jumped on a bus to Dun Laoghaire

stopping off to pick up my guitar

and a drunk on the bus told me how to get rich

I was glad we weren’t going too far

Summer in Dublin was a big hit for Bagatelle in 1980. The band formed in Bray in 1978, with Liam Reilly as singer/songwriter. The song mixes rose-tinted nostalgia with the clash of modern reality. Catchy too. Though specifically a Dublin theme song, Dun Laoghaire features strongly. The 46a is the local bus.

South Dublin’s Rocky Shore – 4

Dun Laoghaire

Dun Laoghaire is part of Dublin’s sprawling conurbation, but is a large town in its own right. Capital of the county, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, it has been Dublin’s main passenger port for two hundred years. Originally named for Laoghaire Mac Neil, sixth century high king, or pirate if you prefer, Laoghaire’s status is somewhat mythological, and his connections with this region rather nebulous. Some reports say he feared the sea, a prophesy foretelling that he would drown in it should he invade Leinster. But, whether ironic or not, the name stuck. Later Anglicised to Dunleary it remained an insignificant fishing village until the early nineteenth century when plans were put in train to establish a safe haven for shipping along what had become a treacherous stretch of coast. 

Construction began in 1817, stimulating the urban development of Dunleary’s hinterland.  The growing modern town’s name was changed to Kingstown when the British King, George IV visited in 1821. George IV was the first British monarch to visit without an army in tow, the first in four centuries or so. An extravagant spendthrift, a serial accumulator of monstrous dept, a drunk, a glutton and a womaniser, there wasn’t always a queue to honour him. His appalling treatment of his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick excited public distaste with his attempts to divorce and humiliate her. She was refused entry to his coronation and died, suspiciously, days later. George celebrated with his Irish trip, and taking up with a new mistress, Elisabeth, Lady Conyngham of Slane Castle. For the next decade till his death, Lady Conyngham would suffer the waning charms of the last monarch of the Georgian era. 

His legacy adheres mostly to his Regency, those first two decades when his father had succumbed to madness. Regency style tilted our world towards the recognisably modern. George for all his faults, was a renowned patron of arts and architecture, and an early populariser of the notion of the formal seaside resort, with its pavilions and promenades, its designated bathing, grand hotels and elegant terraces. From Brighton to Dun Laoghaire, and on to Bray, the seaside resort town was the coming thing.

George’s Street is the main drag, while the name Kingstown stuck for a century until Independence, when it reverted to the Gaelic, Dun Laoghaire, pronounced Doon Lair-eh. But everyone uses the anglicised pronunciation that applied in its village days: Dunleary.

Our journey, following the route of South Dublin’s Rocky Shore, takes us from the People’s Park along the seafront. We will follow the railway past the Harbour to the West Pier, and back again. Queens Road is a busy thoroughfare on the seaward side, Marine Terrace and Haddington Terrace are slightly elevated on the inland side. The railway line itself passes through a cutting below our sightline. The two terraces comprise fine old Victorian houses and hotels. One particular hotel, the Hotel Pierre, is the place where myself and M had our wedding feast in the ringing cold of a December day in 1983. The name Pierre, I believe, is something of an affectation, the place previously known as the Pier Hotel, catering particularly for those who used the Mail Boat, in leaving, or even visiting, Ireland. 

The terrace vista terminates with a startling intrusion. Like a giant ocean liner cast in stone, Dun Laoghaire’s new library, The Lexicon, seems set to sail. The Lexicon excited outrage outrage amongst the guardians of our skyline. Who needs all them books, they cried. Why build a library so large when there’s a perfectly good Carnegie from 1900. A fine thing, the Carnegie Library, but Dun Laoghaire is a lot bigger now than it was then. DLR’s population is over two hundred thousand, about ten times its population at Independence. The expansion of the library service demands a lot of space for a lot of disparate activities. Reading and study areas, public computer access, meeting rooms and children’s library, Space too to retain its core function of book stock for browsing and borrowing. Yes, we do need large modern libraries and we build them because we can. Have a coffee on the lower deck or climb to the top deck to admire the view across the harbour to Howth Head.

Next door is the Maritime Museum, housed in the old C of I Mariner’s Church built in 1837. Exhibits feature Ireland’s lighthouses and Dun Laoghaire’s Mail Boat fleet from the era when the four ships were named for the provinces. Most famed and sorrowful is the fate of the Leinster, sunk by a German UBoat in 1918; Dun Laoghaire harbour and indeed the end of the war in sight, with the loss of 500 souls. A prime exhibit focusses on the Great Eastern, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s massive folly. The giant steamship was the largest ever built when launched in 1854. Accident prone and a failure as a passenger liner, it left a more telling legacy in the laying of telegraph cables, becoming very much the origin of the information age. Robert Halpin, born in Wicklow, in that most nautical of pubs the Bridge Tavern, was chief engineer when the cable was laid from Valentia Island to Newfoundland. Rising to captain, Halpin would earn his nickname the Cable Man, laying enough cable to girdle the globe. 

Towards the town centre, holding the high ground, the Royal Marine Hotel embodies what Kingstown was originally about. It was designed in 1860 by John McCurdy for William Dargan, the great railway entrepreneur. McCurdy’s original concept envisioned a stately chateau in the French manner. With its mansard roof and french pavilions surmounted by a tower and dome, this was to be the epitome of the nineteenth century Grand Hotel. Running over budget, the west wing was not completed, with a more modest construction in its place. This asymmetry persists. The building struggled to survive and was forced to shed many of its period features, but its most recent version has restored the mansard roofs and central tower, the traditional east wing forming a curious hybrid with the modern and ultra modern west wing. 

Despite the arbitrary depredations of time, I think you can still gauge the original effect. Squint and you will see The Royal Marine set out its stall in Victorian splendour. Here was the bastion of the civilising project of empire; it still radiates a haughty Britishness. Breeze jauntily into the lobby and make for the bar. Duty bound to look like you own the place, and growl the words to The Captains and the Kings, Brendan Behan’s meditation on the essence of being English.

I stumbled in a nightmare all around the People’s Park

And what do you think I found there as I wandered in the dark?

‘Twas an apple half-bitten, and sweetest of all things

Five baby teeth had written of the Captains and the Kings

Five baby teeth had written of the Captains and the Kings

The Dubliners, with Ronny Drew’s gravelly vocal, provide the classic version of the song. The correct words are ‘all around Great Windsor Park’.

South Dublin’s Rocky Shore – 3

To Dun Laoghaire via the Metals.

Keeping the railway as our guide, we are walking towards Dalkey. We’ll return later to explore, but our path dictates we must leave it for now and cross the tracks to Ardeevin Road which reaches a point just above the rail station’s northbound platform. Dalkey Station was built in 1854 when, after twenty years, Ireland’s first railway the Dublin to Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) line was extended through to Bray. For ten years prior to that the Atmospheric Railway provided a connection to the Dublin Kingstown line.

A left turn at the end of Ardeevin Road leads uphill, and the second turn right along Cunningham Road emerges at the foot of Dalkey Hill with its disused quarry. This supplied the granite for the construction of Dun Laoghaire Harbour in the early nineteenth century. A metal tramway connected the two sites, some of which was converted into the Atmospheric Railway of the 1840s, developing into the modern railway line and since 1984 the electrified Dartline.

The Metals is a marked walk along the route of the old tramway. We start at the quarry and pick up the route of the Dartline heading north to Sandycove and Glasthule station. The Metals walk runs for a distance of three kilometres. It’s an easy, flat walk, very well marked, through tree lined lanes for the most part. It took us about thirty minutes; the estimated times on the signposting being a tad more pessimistic.

We pass above Glenageary Dart station, crossing the neat park bordered by Victorian terraces that I’ve only previously admired, and partially glimpsed, from the train. Glenageary means the valley of the sheep in Gaelic, but that was then, this is now. The sheep are long gone.

Winding up a hillside where the shepherds roam

Counting their flocks in the gloaming

Shining the sea, winking its light to the froth and the foam

Sheep Season/Mellow Candle 

Sandycove and Glasthule station is a modern structure straddling the tracks. It holds a certain mystique for me, my own creation entirely. It becomes, in that half sleep induced by the rhythms of the railway, the imagined setting for some beautiful liaison that’s yet to happen, or that has happened without marking the memory. The scene is populated with wide shoulders and fedoras, a silvered monochrome wreathed in pulsing smoke. Blinking into the sunblasted reality, we emerge onto the prosaic rush hour of the main road. To the west, the arrow straight thoroughfare is the spine of Dun Laoghaire, to the east Glasthule asserts its own urban village identity. The sylvan tunnel we’ve left behind fades as if it too were an unlikely memory, and I cross the heavy traffic of the main drag to be drawn inexorably towards the sea, 

A lane leads down to Scotsman’s Bay. The bay is enthusiastically rendered in vivid blue, small craft daubed across its surface, the giant harbour and Dublin Bay are laid out beyond. The Metals veers west towards its conclusion.

To our right there is a magnetic pull that can’t be ignored.  An Ice Cream at Teddy’s is more than just a treat, it is practically a custom when I visit with M. A Ninety Nine, gorgeous as it may be, is not something for the solo wanderer. Unless you’re in love with yourself. In which case: go for it! Still, I persist in the higher pleasure of sharing ice cream cones in briny summer air.

Stepping out onto the seafront, the eras collide, and two centuries of power and glory jostle for attention across this wonderful tableau. It can be hard to grasp how quickly all this sprang up. While Dublin is an ancient city, Dun Laoghaire in the late eighteenth century was a small coastal village north of here, clustered in the vicinity of the Purty Kitchen. 

Then came the construction of the harbour. Dunleary, as then known, was proposed as a refuge harbour for Dublin Bay following a litany of shipwrecks. The harbour was completed in the eighteen twenties and managed to nick the franchise for the mail packet service to Britain from Howth in north Dublin. The Mail Boat became established as an Irish icon, synonymous with the sadness of high emigration.

Thousands are sailing

Again across the ocean

Where the hand of opportunity

Draws tickets in a lottery

But we dance to the music

And we dance

The song, Thousands are Sailing by the Pogues, was written by Phil Chevron (Philip Ryan) who had previously played with Irish punk rockers The Radiators From Space. The song was Chevron’s first for the Pogues and included on their album If I Should Fall From Grace with God. This album showed a thematic shift for the group, with a more serious focus on the heritage of Irish emigration. Fairytale of New York was their top selling single, a mini opera of dreams and delirium for a struggling Irish couple in New York.The immigrant position is always shifting, of course. When Chevron writes, thousands are sailing again, he knows that they are flying, often in hope more than necessity; but there is a continuum. In that respect, the Mail Boat is a persistent icon, and if the now diminished service is more by way of transport and tourism, bitterwsweet memories abide.

The modern rail connection passes through the cutting below, that will travel the full length of Modern Dun Laoghaire’s seafront. For us, the Metals ends nearby, for now. The People’s Park stretches between the seafront and George’s Street, Dun Laoghaire’s main thoroughfare. On the site of a disused quarry, it was opened in 1890 along a formal design by J.L. Robinson. There’s a gate lodge, an ornate bandstand and an impressive central fountain. Along the western flank, near George’s street, the lovely restored pavilion houses an elegant cafe; Fallon and Byrne’s. At the end of our walk, it is time for, another, reward. Really, at any time, one must seize the pleasure of a leisurely half hour or so, in sunshine on the veranda with an aromatic cup of coffee, and more besides, looking out over the park, as children play and people pass, as seabirds swirl and time stands still.