From the Sheds, we blink into the dazzling sun on water which vista extends past Clontarf to Dollymount. Clontarf pier is a little north of the village and it’s suburban housing along the shore from here on. A horse tram service was initiated in 1873 from the city to Clontarf, attracting more and more day trippers. Later catered to by the Howth Tram, this electrified service connected to Sutton and Howth stations via the Summit. On May 31st, 1959, the last tram took its final bow. The colourful, and most useful, tram era was gone, obliterated by conservative forces. Almost fifty years later, the powers that be were persuaded of the error of their ways, and the modern tram service, Luas, went on line in 2004. It doesn’t operate at this end of the city, but there is a frequent bus service all along the coast road.
In the distance, the straight line of the Bull Wall, and its wooden bridge, is apparent between our standpoint and the peninsula of Howth. The wide embrace of Dublin Bay looks the most natural and beautiful of havens for the ships of the ocean. More than a millennium of navigators have been welcomed. But there’s a darker side. The commodious bay is prone to silting and many’s the ship has been wrecked in these waters, or run aground on treacherous sandbars that form across the mouth of the Liffey, and the confluence of other tributaries of the bay such as the Dodder and the Tolka. In medieval and early modern times, the Liffey port was so treacherous that Dalkey to the South, and Howth to the North acted as port for the city. This couldn’t continue.
In 1715 work began on the Piles, a wooden construction built to provide a channel past the southern sand bank. Later this would be cast in stone to form the South Bull Wall. In 1760 Sir John Rogerson funded the extension of this westward to meet the Ballast Office and the South Quays. But the problem persisted and in 1801 the Admiralty commissioned William Bligh to survey Dublin bay. Just a dozen years earlier, Bligh had featured in that mother of all adventures at sea: the Mutiny on the Bounty. His four and a half thousand mile voyage with his eighteen loyalists in an open boat is truly the stuff of legend. The waters of Dublin Bay were rather calmer, though treacherous enough, and the Captian of the Bounty, and future Governor of New South Wales, brought his talents to bear on them. The result of Bligh’s survey was the recommendation to built the North Bull Wall, from the Clontarf Coast pointing southeastwards into the bay. This, he calculated, would build up the silt on the Northern side of the wall, which is now evident in the creation of the Bull Island.
Ultimately the design for the wall was made by George Halpin, Ballast Board engineer and designer of bridges and lighthouses. He was the uncle of Robert Halpin, the famed Wicklow mariner who captain Brunel’s SS Great Western in laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866. George is known as the father of the Irish lighthouse service. He was appointed inspector of lighthouses in 1810, responsible for over fifty lighthouses, including the Skelligs, and the Baily Lighthouse in Howth. He died in 1854 and was succeeded as Inspector of Lighthouses by his son, George.
Work commenced on the North Bull in 1819 with the construction of the timber bridge. The crossing of this seems almost a rite of passage for a true blue Dub. Car traffic is one lane at a time, controlled by traffic lights. On one childhood trip, I recall our packed Morris Minor, stopped halfway out by a car coming in the opposite direction. An amber gambler, no doubt. My father got out to reason with the errant driver, who, on seeing him, reversed furiously back to the island. My father was a diminutive man, but imposing. He was a military man, Irish Army, but with something of a British accent. We had a good laugh at his quick resolution of the short impasse.
Over the bridge, there’s parking adjacent to a service area which includes pay toilets and picnic benches. There’s a windswept coffee and snack place called Happy Out. I throw out an anchor and lean into the gale, feeling the defrosting balm of americano seep through my veins. All the better to fortify myself on my walk out to the end of the wall.
The wall itself was completed six years after the bridge and extended for more than three kilometres into the bay. The walkway is paved as far as Our Lady Star of the Sea, and the last stage is a rough breakwater, covered at high tide, with a green lighthouse at the end. As far as the statue, there are a number of public bathing shelters, designated male and female and designed by George Simms, Dublin Corporation housing architect. Star of the Sea was first mooted in the fifties and funded by subscription from Dublin dockers, sailors and port companies. The structure comprises three tall concrete pillars which merge to support a globe on which stands the statue sculpted by Cecil King. It was unveiled in 1972.
Dollymount strand is a good five kilometres long and is both a splendid public amenity for the huge city on its doorstep, and also an invaluable wildlife reserve. The Bull island on the landward side is occupied by two golf clubs, the Royal Dublin and St. Anne’s. The Royal Dublin was founded in 1855 and is Ireland’s second oldest golf club. It is a regular venue for the Irish Open Championship. A causeway links with the mainland further on at Raheny
And so to stroll the sands of the neverending beach that is Dollymount Strand. It can be all things at all times, a capsule of infinity, a panorama of the memory. Life is a beach. I recall another childhood trip to Dollymount. Taking the car without incident onto the beach, my father gave each of us three kids a turn at driving on the hard packed sand. This is also something of a Dublin tradition. Many’s the driver who cut their motoring teeth here. And returned for other pursuits. It was also a popular nighttime hangout. Motoring, music and romance; what more could a body ask for? There were cars, their drivers, and passengers, otherwise occupied, marooned by the incoming tide.
I want to take you to the island
And trace your footprints in the sand …
And in the evening when the sun goes down
We’ll make love to the sound of the ocean
The Island is a 1985 song by Paul Brady taken from his album Back to the Centre. Brady hails from the town of Strabane, not far from Dungannon, in County Tyrone. My father lived in Dungannon from when he was six, or maybe seven. He died in the late eighties. Near the end of his life he spent some time at a Convalescent Home near Sandymount Strand, across the bay. It was me that drove him home for the last time. We walked out along the corridor together, very slowly, and I recall the song playing was The Island. It refers to the greater island of Ireland, and caustically to the Troubles, but like any great song it applies across a range of human experience. Here, memory, belonging and isolation are evoked in the permanence, and transience of the tide across an expanse of beach. It seems apt now, on this sandy island, to let it flow, and ebb through the soul.
But hey don’t listen to me
This wasn’t meant to be no sad song
We’ve had too much of that before
Right now I only want to be here with you
Till the morning dew comes falling