North Dublin’s Sandy Shore – 9
From Raheny, Watermill Road leads to the Bull Island causeway and on via Bayside and Sutton, to Howth on the peninsula that brackets the north of Dublin Bay. Alternatively, you can take the Dart. The Dartline branches at Howth junction; the western branch following the Belfast line as far as Malahide, while the eastern terminates in Howth.
The Northside Dartline is not so scenic as the Southside, passing through unremarkable suburbs between Clontarf and Bayside, but there are stories there too. The stop after Raheny is Kilbarrack, immortalised as Barrytown in Roddy Doyle’s trilogy: The Commitments, the Snapper and The Van. The Commitments was written largely in dialogue heavily spiced with f-words. The cinema version, written by Ian Le Fresnais, also responsible for the Likely Lads, kept faithfully to the book. This made it difficult to hear as Irish audiences collapse into helpless laughter at the dropping of f bombs, so drowning out subsequent dialogue. Doyle went on to win the Booker Prize for his fourth book, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha; also set hereabouts, in a standalone coming of age story.
Howth was remote enough for us to take a family holiday there in the early sixties. We didn’t have a car then, few families did, and public transport was nowhere near as frequent as now. A bus into town and a train to Howth was something of an odyssey. These days the Dart whistles around the bay every fifteen minutes or so, and the journey from Bray to Howth takes under an hour and a half. The first tram service to Howth was in 1873. From Clontarf it connected to Howth Rail station and the Summit. Irish coach builder, John Stephenson, is credited with inventing the tram in New York in the 1830s. A horse drawn vehicle then, but running on rails made it easier for the horse and increased passenger capacity. Dublin’s first trams were double deckers, with the upper deck open to the sky.
Early electric tramways used street level current collection which was dangerous. The overhead trolley made city electric trams feasible. Haddington Road to Dalkey was the first in Dublin in 1896 followed by Dollymount to Fairview, in 1897. Dublin Corporation objected to electric trams going through the city; as they still object to such diverse things as high buildings, late night opening and Garth Brooks. Boss of the Dublin United Tramways company, William Martin Murphy, pushed objections aside, and by the end of the century, electric trams traversed the city powered by a huge power station in Ringsend. The first electric tram to Howth was in 1900. On May 31st, 1959, the tram took its final bow. This was the last tram to run in Ireland until LUAS reintroduced the concept in the early twenty first century.
I visited Howth by Dart on the hottest day of all time. Temperatures in Phoenix Park were measured at thirty three degrees. I reckon they were a few degrees cooler in Bray and Howth, mid twenties, say, which is very pleasant. In truth, for now, it remains the second hottest day of all time. On 26th June, 1887, a hundred and thirty five years ago, a temperature of 33.3C was recorded at Kilkenny Castle. However, climate activists are determined this abberation, as they see it, must be written off, Apparently, if observations don’t support the theory, change the observation. Either way, temperatures in the thirties are very unusual in Ireland.
The Dart was filling up with daytrippers at Connolly, and by Howth Junction was sardine packed. It emptied at Sutton, the strand there being the destination of youngsters eager to experience the scarce joys of summer in the temperate zone. So eager, they dropped everything they were carrying before leaving the carriege. I was practically alone coming in to Howth where I managed to wade through the debris to the door and alight.
Picture yourself on a train in a station
With plasticine porters with looking glass ties
Suddenly someone is there at the turnstile
The girl with the kaleidoscope eyes
Blinking into the sunlight at the station, some tumbleweed blowing past the entrance, it was two short flights of steps down to the Bloody Stream. This is a traditional Irish Bar with a restaurant serving seafood and other popular mains. There’s a mediterranean style covered terrace to the side, a sun terrace in front and the cosy interior has open fires and live music in the evenings. The sunken terrace is a pleasant place to bask and sip a cool beer. A father and son nearby discuss the weather, an age old Irish topic. Do you think you can stand this heat, da? the son asks with some irony. The elderly gent is of the opinion that media coverage is more science fiction than science. All agree that the ill effects of global warming are best kept at bay by frequent stops for cool beer.
The daunting name of the premises is historically based. In 1177, a Norman force under John De Courcey and led by Amory Tristram took Howth from the Danes at the Battle of Evora Bridge. Beneath the bridge the stream ran red with blood and was so named, passing it on to the pub under which it now flows. The heyday of the Danes in Ireland peaked in the tenth century, but even after the defeat at Clontarf, they ruled Dublin for a further century and a half until the arrival of their cousins, the Normans. The Normans defeated the Vikings at Waterford, Wexford and Dublin, but a force held out in Howth for a while. After the battle Tristram took the name De St Lawrence, the battle taking place on the saint’s feast day, and was granted the land and lordship of Howth. His original castle, a wooden structure, was on higher ground further east, but he later established his stronghold west of the station.
It’s a short walk along the main road from the Bloody Stream to the entrance to Howth Castle. First, some yards east of the entrance, St Mary’s church stands on its small promintory. This is the parish church for the Church of Ireland community of Howth. It was designed by JE Rogers in 1860 and is distinguished by an unusual spire which itself seems to grow from an older tower. The interior boasts a rich veriety of stained glass, including work by Evie Hone.
The stone built castle dates from the fifteenth century, with its keep and Gate tower. There’s a Restoration era tower from the 1660s and the complex was significally made over in 1738. Finally, a number of features were added by. Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1911 with a new tower housing the library, a loggia and a sunken garden.
Grace O’Malley stars in a well known incident. In 1576, putting in to Howth, she was confident of receiving the hospitality of the lord, but he, being at supper with his wife, barred the gates against her. Grace was furious, as in her own lands out west, the lord it was honourbound to offer hospitality to the traveller. The next day, the Earl’s grandson and heir, tricked into visiting Grace’s ship, was kidnapped and whisked off to Connaught. One can only imagine the teenager’s response to finding himself in the wilds of the west as prisoner of the notorious pirate queen. “It was sick, Dude!” or words to that effect. In response, the lord guaranteed to set an extra place at dinner table for the unexpected guest, a tradition upheld for four hundred and fifty years. Also, the gates to his Deer Park estate were to remain open to the public. As they are.
Adjacent to Howth Castle is the National Transport Museum. Run by volunteers, it features an interesting collection of various means of transport including a restored Hill of Howth Tram. Closed when I visited, its future is nebulous. Tetrarch Capital and Michael J Wright (The Bloody Stream) recently acquired the estate from the Gaisford St Lawrence family with plans to develop the property for tourism and retail with a luxury hotel and some resedential development.
The walk uphill past the castle takes me through mature woodland which opens onto startling greenery. Within the park, rhododendron gardens make for a spectacular summer walk. Planted in 1835, there are over two hundred species of rhododendron. Through April and May they provide an overwhelming kaleidoscope of colour and fragrance. Popular with us cosmic heads in the 70s, forming a shimmering background to many a pointless and swaying walk in the eternal summers of psychedelia.
In contrast, Deer Park golf course also adorns the flanks of the headland, with a modern bar in the clubhouse buildings. Having lost a lot of liquid on my walk, it being the hottest day of all time, I thought a few moments rest with cold liquid refreshment was in order. The Cafe Bar boasts a large and, surprisingly, deserted terrace. There are spectacular views over the golf course to the isthmus and North Dublin coast beyond. Behind, the serene blue sky is framed by the craggy summit of Howth Head. Heaven.
Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain
Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies
Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers
That grow so incredibly high
Lucy in the sky with diamonds
Lucy in the sky with diamonds
Lucy in the sky with diamonds
The Beatles, from their 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Although it has long been seen as LSD induced, even the title, Lennon was inspired by his young son’s drawing of a schoolfriend, Lucy O’Donnell. Lennon also drew on the imagery of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.