It was a Friday, three days before Christmas and day two of my return to Dublin, This also was the day I’d planned a long walk in the mountains – weather permitting. It was overcast but fine and 11 degrees so weather did permit and I took up my Dublin mate’s suggestion for a day trip to Howth. That required a visit to Tara St railway station in the centre of town and as we walked along the Quays across the river was another of Dublin’s great buildings: the Custom House.
James Gandon, who was also the architect of the Four Courts, designed this building. A masterpiece of European neo-classicism it is considered his greatest work. It took 10 years to build, completed in 1791. Initially the headquarters of the Commissioners of Custom and Excise, by the 20th century it was the home of council staff. It was burnt to the ground on 25 May, 1921 in the Irish War of Independence and restored by 1928, with further restoration in the 1980s.
We didn’t have long to wait at Tara St station for the DART to take us to Howth. The Dublin Area Rapid Transit system has been a splendid rail service for the city since 1984. Initially criticised for only servicing the mainly wealthier seaside areas, it also serves Kilbarrack the working class suburb mythologised by Roddy Doyle in the Barrytown Trilogy. Our destination was the end of the line at Howth, Co Dublin.
Howth remains a fishing village but it is now mainly a wealthy suburb of the city. Howth is on the peninsula of Howth Head and the name dates back to the Vikings, derived from Old Norse Hǫfuð (“head” in English, so it’s Head Head). As seen on the train the Irish for Howth is Binn Éadair, (Éadar’s peak) possibly named for Edar, a Tuatha Dé Danann chieftain buried there, while others say that it was from Edar the wife of Gann, one of five Firbolg brothers who divided Ireland between them.
The mythology reminds us there is evidence of humans here long before the Vikings. As we walk away from the station we quickly climbed into the grounds of Howth Castle. Our first destination was a huge megalithic monument, a collapsed dolmen known locally as Aideen’s Grave. It would likely date to neolithic times 4000-2500BC. The slipped quartzite capstone weights 75 tonnes – the second biggest in Ireland – the portal stones are 2.5m high. Folklore says this tomb is the burial place of Aideen, wife of Oscar, son of Oisin. Oscar died at the battle of Gabhra and Aideen is said to have died in grief at her loss, so Oisin buried her at Howth and set a cairn over her, a burial usually reserved for great warriors or kings.
Moving through rough country away from the dolmen, we climbed on to the highest point at the Ben Howth and looked back west towards the narrowest point, or tombolo, of the peninsula at Sutton. A tombolo, derived from Latin tumulus, meaning ‘mound’, is a landform in which an island is attached to the mainland by a narrow piece of land.
Our walkway was away from the tombola through the middle of the golf course where signs warned walkers to “keep quiet”. But there were right of ways where posh golfers grudgingly had to admit the hoi-polloi walkers in.
If it looked fresh and misty up on top of the hills it still looked glorious out on Dublin Bay. The sun shone through a small gap in the clouds and the now-closed Poolbeg power station and Wicklow Mountains shimmered in the distance. This was indeed a lovely walk.
Looking back north and beyond the Castle and Howth Harbour is the island of Ireland’s Eye. Originally named for a woman named Eria, it became confused with Erin, the Irish for Ireland. The island is uninhabited though cruises go out from Howth in the summer. In the distance north behind is Lambay, the largest island on the east coast of Ireland. It was known to Ptolemy in the 2nd century and is privately owned by the Baring family trust.
The sunny spot was getting stronger as a ship pulled out of Dublin port. This was not weather I was expecting in Ireland in December but it was glorious.
We went back down to sea level for the next part of the walk. Behind us towards Sutton is a Martello Tower. Fearful of the French in the 19th century, the British built small defensive coastal forts across the Empire. Fort Denison, Sydney is the only one in Australia, but there’s dozens on the Irish east coast including this one in Howth. Joyce set the opening scene of Ulysses at Sandymount tower on the other end of Dublin Bay.
We set back north to complete the loop back to Howth and amazingly it didn’t rain. But there had been rain in recent days and the path was muddy and dangerous in parts, sometimes with a serious drop to the cliffs below. A fishing boat accompanies us as the path meandered along the coast towards Baily Lighthouse on the southern end of Howth Head. A lighthouse has been here for 350 years with the current building dating to 1814. Sadly it and the point are out of bounds for the public.
It was a good 15km walk around the peninsula back to the village of Howth. After some lunch at the Bloody Stream (named for the stream under the pub) next to to the railway station it was swiftly back into town via the DART. I needed to do some Christmas shopping so ventured into the huge throng at Henry Street, the principal shopping street on the north side of the Liffey. There are over 200 shops on the street and with just three days to go to Christmas there must have well over 20,000 people on the street.
Having survived my shopping, I celebrated by popping in quickly to the Brazen Head on the other side of the river. Traditionally the pub is the oldest in Dublin. Supposedly they’ve been boozing here since 1198, though the first licence to sell ale was not granted until 1661. After a quick Guinness, it was home for a night in ahead of the journey to Waterford on the Saturday.