In Dublin and Howth

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 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 there across the river was another of Dublin’s great buildings: the Custom House.

dublin20James Gandon, who was also the architect of the Four Courts architect 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.

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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.

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Howth’s heart is still 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 Viking, derived from the 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 who was buried there, while others say that it was from Edar the wife of Gann, one of five Firbolg brothers who divided Ireland between them.

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The Irish 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 tons – the second biggest in Ireland – and the portal stones 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 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.

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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 the Latin tumulus, meaning ‘mound’, is a landform in which an island is attached to the mainland by a narrow piece of land.

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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 the posh golfers grudgingly had to admit the hoi-polloi walkers in.

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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 Poolberg power station and Wicklow Mountains shimmered in the distance. This was indeed a lovely walk.

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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.

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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.

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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 in another one on the other end of Dublin Bay (Sandymount).

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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 a bit 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.

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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.

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Having survived my shopping, I celebrated by popping in quickly to the Brazen Head back on the other side of the river. Traditionally the pub is supposed to be the oldest in Dublin.  Some say 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.

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From Dubai to Dublin

After a couple of days in Dubai, it was time for a couple of days in Dublin. That was one of the reasons I was flying Emirates in the first place. I could fly DXB to DUB direct without descending into the seven levels of Heathrow hell.

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As we arrived I saw the comforting sign of Baile Atha Cliath at the old Dublin airport terminal but we were whisked to the impressive new Terminal 2 where local radio were interviewing people home for Christmas. I was not required so bought an Irish SIM, got some Euros and boarded the appropriately numbered 747 bus to the city (though to be true to the Emirates plane it should have been 777). After taking a long tunnel, the bus suddenly appeared by the side of the Liffey in Dublin’s Docks.

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When I lived in Dublin in the 1980s there was no Terminal 2, no airport tunnel and no development like this on the Docks. In those days this was a rough industrial area.

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Now it’s been opened up by bridges and riverside walkways and gentrified into Ireland’s hi-tech financial centre. Companies like Google have their headquarters here. The docks, like Ireland in general, was hit hard in 2008 but is making a good comeback with signs of another boom afoot.

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My 747 abruptly turned away from the river towards Connolly Station and Talbot St. I thought that was central enough for me, and I disembarked to wade through the busy Christmas shopping traffic.

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From Talbot St I veered left into Dublin’s main street – O’Connell St. Crossing the wide road brought me to the GPO, the general post office and iconic headquarters of the 1916 rebellion that eventually led to the 1921 Irish War of Independence (and the Civil War that followed). The building was badly bombed by the British and was largely rebuilt though bullet holes at eye level still remind shoppers of its history. There is now a 1916 museum inside.

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I continued down O’Connell St as busy as always it has been, now with the light rail Luas adding public transport options to the ever-present buses. Looking back north I see the statue of unionist Jim Larkin (unlike those two gentlemen in the front of the photo who are more interested in the statue just out of shot). Larkin is almost bisected by a Luas pole and the 120m Spire of Dublin behind him, aka the Monument of Light, is totally obscured. The Spire is built in the spot where Nelson’s Column was blown up in 1966 – the 50th anniversary of 1916. History takes very direct actions on O’Connell St.

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Near the traffic lights at the Liffey is the monument those two gents in the last photo were staring at – the Daniel O’Connell statue. It may have been because of the seagull atop or may have been in acknowledgement of the Liberator, and the man who got Sackville St renamed for him. O’Connell is the third name for the street. It was built as a narrow street in the 17th century named Drogheda Street (for Henry Moore, Earl of Drogheda – Henry and Moore Sts are also named for him). In the late 1700s it was widened, and renamed Sackville Street (for Lionel Sackville, 1st Duke of Dorset). One of the first acts of the new Irish government in 1924 was to rename it for the 19th century nationalist who campaigned for Catholics to be elected to Westminster (hence the Emancipist or Liberator).

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Looking the other way is a view almost unchanged from my time in the 1980s. The bridge from O’Connell St across the Liffey leads to the junctions of D’Olier and Westmoreland Sts. Westmoreland (right) like Talbot St is named for the British leader of the pre-independent era – the Lord Lieutenant – in this case John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmorland, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1789 to 1794. D’Olier St (left, under the hideous Stalinist high-rise) named for Jeremiah D’Olier (1745–1817) has a more interesting story. Isaac Olier was a Huguenot martyr who escaped to Holland during the Edict of Nantes. Wishing to have his French descent recognised, he assumed the d’ prefix. In 1688, he followed the Prince of Orange to England and went to Ireland where he became a merchant and married Martha Pilkington from Westmeath. Their son, Isaac, was a goldsmith and a member of Dublin City Council. Isaac’s third son, Jeremiah, became one of the first governors of the Bank of Ireland in 1801. One thing has changed from the 1980s – The Old Lady of D’Olier Street has gone. That was the nickname of the Irish Times which moved to Tara St in 2006.

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I did not cross O’Connell St Bridge whose name celebrated O’Connell before the street did – when it was built in 1880. The new bridge had “sandstone balustrades, the pretty garlands embellishing the piers, the charming Parisian lamp standards and the stone steps to the river quaintly tucked away on the westerly quay walls.”  I preferred the simpler but more iconic Ha’Penny Bridge immediately upstream. I stayed on the northern bank, turning west along Bachelor’s Walk towards the Ha’Penny Bridge. This cast-iron pedestrian bridge is exactly 100 years older than the 1916 rising that brought British war ships down the Liffey. Because it was built to replace the ferry shortcut to Crow Street Theatre on the southside, it was a toll bridge, fare one ha’penny.  Over 30,000 people still use the shortcut to the Temple Bar every day, though the toll and the Crow St theatre have long gone.

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It was the only pedestrian bridge in Dublin until 1999 and this photo was taken from the second one, the Millennium Bridge. This pedestrian bridge is easier to cross wheeling a case because it is flat. This view looks back at O’Connell St and the Ha’Penny Bridges and also Liberty Hall the crumbling third largest building in Dublin. Long the home of the union movement the current building dates to the mid sixties and was the tallest until superseded by two dockside buildings in the 2000s.

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Continuing down Merchant’s Quay I pass the Dublin City Council Buildings (just out of picture up the stairs). I remember the controversy over the building in the 1980s due to the destruction of the Viking artifacts at Wood Quay and it took away the view of Christ Church Cathedral, the oldest and only one of Dublin’s three cathedrals visible from the Liffey. There has been a cathedral on this site since the 11th century but the current building mostly dates from the 1870s. Christ Church is claimed by Catholic and Protestant but has acted as a Protestant Church of Ireland cathedral since the Reformation. dublin12

The next building of interest was the Four Courts, home of the Irish legal system, north of the river. Its impressive dome is hidden under the scaffolds in a four year restoration project. I joked with my friends, “I see the Rebels have bombed the Four Courts again”. Dublin’s most famous architect James Gandon built the stately courts between 1786 and 1802 but when the Republicans decided to make a stand there in the Civil War the building was almost completely destroyed by fire and the original timber dome collapsed. The dome was rebuilt in the late 1920s. In 2011 they found a steel ring encircling the concrete dome had rusted and eaten into the capital.

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My bed for the night was near the Four Courts so after freshening up and some food, it was time for Irish nectar. It was cold and wet outside that night, but I was nice and warm and drinking Guinness at the cosy Lord Edward pub – barely a mile from the brewery. Cheers.