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