South Dublin’s Rocky Shore – 9

9. Coliemore Harbour to Sorrento Point

Coliemore, the big harbour in Gaelic, made Dalkey the main port for Dublin in the middle ages, providing a deepwater harbour in contrast to the shallow and silt prone Liffey estuary. From the seventeenth century onwards it went into decline and the town of Dalkey quietened, and along with the hinterland withdrew into the wings. It is interesting now, stepping into the embrace of the harbour, how the trappings of the modern world slip out of view, and the harbour forms a window back to wilder times. Dalkey Island lying just beyond the harbour mouth remains ragged with the ruined profile of its fortifications and places of worship. There’s plenty of history written beneath its cloak of melting green. And what is not written in stone is embossed with myth and legend. 

Approaching Coliemore Harbour we passed Elsinore, a grand nineteenth century residence.  It is said that the nearby harbour bore some similarity with the Danish castle as described by Shakespeare in Hamlet. Such comparisons are lost in the mists of time. The connection with Shakespeare comes from friend and contemporary John Dowland. Dowland’s place of birth is unknown, but it was probably Ireland. He dedicates his work From Silent Night to “My loving countryman Mr John Forster the younger, merchant of Dublin, Ireland.” Dalkey has been claimed, by Irish composer and musicologist, W.H. Grattan Flood, though there’s no actual proof.

Dowland, a Catholic, failed to receive favour at Elizabeth’s court but in 1598 gained a position as lutenist to the Danish Court of King Christian IV for a fabulous salary. The eccentric plight of musicians at Christian’s court is well drawn in Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence, set some decades after Dowland’s departure. When Dowland returned to London he, with Shakespeare, gained favour at the court of King James I (James VI of Scotland). Around then, Shakespeare was putting the finishing touches to his epic, Hamlet, and it would seem likely that he plugged his friend Dowland for details of the Danish Court.

Dowland would have described the original, methinks, with Shakespeare more interested in the carry-on of the court than the architecture. The Bard derived the name Elsinore from the Danish town, Helsingor, in the shadow of the mighty Kronborg Castle. I once sailed from Copenhagen past Kronborg, and even on a crowded deck, the view evoked the mythology and romance I had anticipated. So close, and so far out of reach, there is something bittersweet in observing  a famed vista from the viewpoint of the seafarer, poised between port and storm.

Mind, Elizabethan Dalkey, famed for its seven towers, would have cut something of a dash as a fortified landmark on the storm battered rocky shore of south Dublin. The vista must surely have lodged in the musician’s soul, if this is indeed from whence he hailed. His final view from the sea was likely the only one, forever receding until fading into mist or horizon. Dowland’s lute playing and compositions have been revived by such as Julian Bream and Sting. Sting’s Songs from the Labyrinth captures the ancient sounds in amber. So, tinted as it is, we can still discern a facsimile of how it must have been, plucked from the air by the world’s first Rock star.

Dalkey’s Elsinore was home to architect John McCurdy, who designed the Royal Marine Hotel for Dargan. McCurdy was also responsible for the 1867 development of the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin. He died at Elsinore in 1885, aged sixty. A century later U2 recorded tracks for their album Achtung Baby in the house. Coming home from their initial recording session in Berlin, Elsinore provided a more relaxed surrounding for local residents, Bono and the Edge. The opening track  Zoo Station, along with The Fly and Ultraviolet sprang from this session. With Achtung Baby, U2 traded their more earnest, traditional Rock sound for something more edgy and modern. As Dowland once sang:  My music, hellish jarring sounds, to banish friendly sleep. The album has become their second most successful after Joshua Tree, shifting eighteen million units. Nothing ironic about that.   

From Coliemore, we meander out towards Sorrento Point. Teetering on the edge of the map, the road makes a right angle at an elegant terrace of eight grand white houses. Sorrento Terrace was built in Famine times by William Masterson, who is also responsible for the Royal St George Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire.

Looking over the terrace is a small park. It wears a neglected air, but shouldn’t be ignored. The rising path coils upward to a ruined bandstand and further on a casual sprinkling of benches allows pause to take in a stunning vista trough all points of the compass. On an elevated rock face to the east there’s a plaque commemorating Dowland. Designed by artist Sarah Purser, the plaque was installed in 1937. The portrait has been deliberately defaced, adding another layer of mystery to the tale.

This place does seem appropriate for Dowland’s memorial, remote enough to hear the sighs of sea and gulls mingle with the singing of ghosts, while all around the modern city throbs, cars go by, trains tunnel beneath and the boiling javelins of aircraft streak across the sky.

So, we rejoin the Vico Road, rising into the blue along the shoulder of Killiney Hill. Against that most majestic view of the bay, framed by the Sugarloaf Mountains and Bray Head to the south, it is perhaps the perfect time to let the credits roll. Or, you can just keep on walking, and let the songs rise up in your heart.

And I will stroll the merry way and jump the hedges first

And I will drink the clear clean water for to quench my thirst

And I shall watch the ferry-boats and they’ll get high

On a blue ocean, against tomorrow’s sky

And I will walk and talk in gardens all wet with rain

And never ever ever ever ever get so old again

Sweet Thing by Van Morrison is a song anticipating the joys of love, written during an enforced separation from his lover, Janet Planet. It is on the otherwise more reflective album Astral Weeks from 1968. Mike Scott gave the song an interesting twist on the Waterboys’ album Fisherman’s Blues, with an impromptu segue into the Beatles’ Blackbird, reaffirming the positive vibes of the Paul McCartney composition.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take this broken wing and learn to fly

All your life you were just waiting for this moment to arrive

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take your sunken eyes, learn to see

All your life you were only waiting for this moment to be free.