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.

Walkinstown’s Musical Roads – 4

Walkinstown Lib

Walkinstown Library

Go far enough east along Cromwellsfort Road and you reach Crumlin. At the junction, the Submarine Bar was seen as Walkinstown’s last outpost, though Crumlin and Kimmage might have said the same. Now defunct, I’ve slurped from silver cups there, the Sam Maguire and the League of Ireland trophy, courtesy of schoolfriends Kevin Moran and Gerry Ryan, of Dubs and Bohemians fame. The road name derives from Oliver Cromwell, who stalked the area between here and Drimnagh Castle back in the mid seventeenth century. Before gaining the art deco joys of the crossroads, one last turn at Moeran Road leads back to the Melodies.

First thing you see is Walkinstown Library, giving its name to this subsection of the area. Lured in by the music, you stay for the words. Situated on a green island on Percy French Road, the library opened in 1961. A third of the stock and premises was devoted to children. My first attempt to borrow was a giant atlas, which I horsed to the desk like a surfer hitting the wave. The librarian kindly, but firmly, pointed out the tag For Reference Only, explaining I could not take it home. Well, feck that for a game of cowboys, I thought. I would, in time, borrow many books, mostly a diet of Blyton, Biggles and Bunter, the very British fare available to children then. Richer veins of storytelling followed, according to the prompts of siblings and peers, teachers, parents or simply whims. From Emily Bronte to Kurt Vonnegut, and a fair few manifestations of Brian O’Nolan, I’d keep on keeping on. One group of stories, set in song, was already well established in my soul, the writer’s name graces the road on which the library stands.


Percy French in Ballyjamesduff, Co. Cavan.

If Moore was seen as the Bard of Ireland, Percy French was more for the plain people. Born in Roscommon in1854, he studied at Trinity College and it was there that he wrote his first major song: Abdulla Bulbul Amir, for a men only event called a smoking concert. Ah, those were the days! As many an artist has found, a work sold cheaply is as good as stolen and French was long denied credit for the song. 

RTE were fond of spinning Brendan O’Dowda’s album of Percy French favourites and Abdulla was a standout for me. For some reason I sided with the Russian, Ivan Stravinsky Stravar. It is he who strode arrogantly into town to tread on the toe of his foe and ignite a colourful duel; although the tale ends tragically for both. A cautionary tale on the excesses of male pride.

They fought all that night neath the pale yellow moon,

The din it was heard from afar,

And great multitudes came, so great was the fame

Of Abdul and Ivan Skivar.

French was in his thirties before going full time as writer and entertainer. His songs, often comic and with a twist of satire were easily taken to heart by the public, but there is a solid and genuine core to his work also. He captures universal human qualities, all the fun and foibles, giving us more than just a picture of a bygone age. He is at his best in the Mountains of Mourne, where there is something of a sadness, and certainly a beauty, in the simplicity of the emigrant’s view of an alien world, and the deep longing for the simpler land, and fairer lass, he’s left behind.

Oh Mary, this London’s a wonderful sight

With the people here working by day and by night,

They don’t sow potatoes, nor barley, nor wheat

But there’s gangs of them digging for gold in the street.

The narrator keeps a promise to his girl back home, informing her of the latest fashions in London. Perhaps he notices the beauty of the girls a bit much, to begin with. The beautiful shapes nature never designed, their lovely complexions “all roses and cream”. But then:

If of those roses you ventured to sip,

The colour might all come away on your lip.

So I’ll wait for the wild rose that’s waiting for me,

Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea. 


Errigal Road, Drimnagh

Drimnagh, with its roads named for mountains, pays tribute to the Mournes. Moeran Road, meanwhile, is named for Ernest Moeran who was London born, though his father was Irish. This connection led him to Ireland in the 1930s. He settled in Kenmare, County Kerry, finding the landscape there a profound influence on his music until his untimely death in 1950, as building continued on the Musical Estate. The Moeran Hall, on the Crumlin Walkinstown border, became the main venue for dances and gigs as the youth population boomed in the sixties. Amongst the talents that burned brightly, if briefly there, were local band The Black Eagles, fronted by a certain Philip Lynott. More of that anon.

Where Balfe Road ends, a meandering road takes up the journey east. Viewed from the air it vaguely resembles a lute, and is named for John Dowland, top lutenist in Shakespearean days. 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, though it’s disputed.


Colliemore Harbour, Dalkey

He studied in Paris from 1580 where he converted to Roman Catholicism, which may have been a factor in him being passed over at Elizabeth’s court. He took his talent elsewhere, travelling in Germany and Italy to great acclaim. He was dubbed the English Orpheus. In 1598 he gained a position as lutenist to the Danish Court of King Christian IV for a fabulous salary. Dowland may have dabbled in espionage. He was tapped up by English Catholics plotting to overthrow the Protestant Elizabeth. Accusations of his spying for the papacy were denied. He wrote to Sir Robert Cecil, the Secretary of State, pledging loyalty to Queen Bess. 

He was a friend and contemporary of Shakespeare, and it is inferred that his knowledge of the Danish Court was used by the Bard in Hamlet. Christian was notoriously fond of the sauce, and at Shakespeare’s Elsinore, the gloom laden prince opines of the courtier’s tendency to “keep wassail”. Some have even found an eerie similarity between Colliemore and Elsinore as described in the play. I’m taken with the giddy scenario of Will setting sail for Colliemore Harbour, there to team up with his good mate John to trade gossip and sink some Carlsberg down at the Queens. In truth, it’s more likely they met in London, where Dowland lived from 1606 having been dismissed by Christian. Then, as with Shakespeare, he gained favour at the court of King James I (James VI of Scotland).

As a formative influence on the guitar, Dowland’s lute playing and compositions have been revived by such as Julian Bream and Sting. Sting’s Songs from the Labyrinth gives a good account of the music of the man, exquisitely lachrymose for the most part, but also of great energy and wit. Sting cites him as the first example of the archetype of the alienated singer songwriter. You might also say Dowland was the first guitar hero, a rock star who left Dalkey to seek fame and fortune, the reverse of the current procedure. There’s a plaque by Sarah Purser at Sorrento Park, at the very edge of my map of Dublin. It has been defaced, further deepening the mystery. But in Dalkey and Walkinstown, this great musician’s name lives on.


John Dowland, by Sarah Purser

Flow My Tears was his most famous piece, evoking the bittersweet gloom of the exile. There is perhaps a pre echo of the Beatles, Blackbird, in mood and lyric. 

Flow my tears, fall from your springs,

Exiled forever let me mourn,

Where nights blackbird her sad infamy sings,

There let me live forlorn.

He died in 1626 and is buried in London.