Just outside of Dublin…
Last updated 7/17/2019 at 12:11pm
While visiting Ireland, my mother and I toured Dublin, lured by the bustle of the energetic city and by the beauty of its venerable, historic structures. But, just outside of Dublin is a world where the pace is slower, the wind is wilder, and the scents from the sea and shore mingle to refresh the soul. There are still venerable structures, and convoluted tales of history, but not a lot of bustle.
Our Irish abode, the Clontarf Castle Hotel, is a place where the past is present. The lobby walls are a tapestry of stone and brick. Stone blocks from 1172, and from later medieval periods, are clearly visible. However, most of the historic structure was built in 1837. The modern portion of the hotel was renovated in 2016, so the castle is a unique fusion of past and present.
From our room we enjoyed a view of one of the stone towers, and beyond that, the mushroom-shaped Cedar of Lebanon trees. Beyond the vibrant green trees was a sliver of sea where at night the lights twinkled across the water. In the mornings, a chorus of birdsong echoed from the trees, and in the evenings the foghorns would growl eerily. Occasionally, we would get a whiff of fresh sea air through our open windows.
In the mornings, as we crossed the threshold of the Fahrenheit Grill, aromatic scents told a delicious tale of an artisan meal. The elegant setting, with a wall of arched and scalloped leaded glass windows, further enhanced the experience. Enticing modern cuisine lent a brisk edge to the historic surroundings where mother and I relaxed to the lilt of an Irish Breakfast.
Delicacies included fresh, varying types of Irish bread, and oh, that creamy Irish butter! The combination of the two was a taste to remember. Another flavor explosion was the salmon – not just any salmon – but “Irish Smoked Salmon Caught in the River Larne.”
Upon recommendation of the hotel concierge, we asked our driver to take R807 – the seaside route to the charming fishing village of Howth. The road snakes along the waterside past the beaches of Bull Island. Along the way, at St. Anne’s Park, Raheny, we were impressed by Tommy Craggs’ chainsaw-sculpted cypress tree. Swans, sea stars, octopus, and other local creatures, wound around each other in a captivating tableau.
We arrived at the wild, lush, and somewhat windy peninsula of Howth, on Dublin Bay, and were dropped off near the stately stone ruins of the 14th century St. Mary’s Abbey.
As I walked up East Pier toward Howth Harbour Lighthouse, my mother was happy to sit on a bench overlooking the rocky shores of Balscadden Bay. She enjoyed her harbour perspective, which was much different than mine.
“It was so peaceful listening to the rhythmic waves on the shore,” she said.
From her bayside bench, mother could see beach caves formed of rock, and view manor houses perched on steep, bushy cliffs. People sauntered along, in no rush to do anything. They would stop and chat with her for a while, then continue on.
As a youth, William Butler Yeats lived in a thatched roof cottage on the Balscadden Bay cliffs. No wonder his poetry is so eloquent – with inspiration such as this. A plaque on the cottage is inscribed with his words: "I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
It rained a bit as I walked along the pier toward the lighthouse. Well, not really rain – more like a mist that was heavy enough to dampen my hair and glisten my face.
East Pier is a long stone and cement walkway with another solid walkway built beside it, but several feet down. I walked on the top pier which divided Howth Harbour from Balscadden Bay. Music from buskers on the pier below drifted on the wind. At the shore of the bay, small wavelets lapped at moss-covered rocks.
The harbour sentinel – Howth Harbour Lighthouse – looks fairly new, but construction began in 1807 from granite mined locally. Finally completed in 1818, it was lit by oil lamps until electricity made its way to the end of the pier in 1955. It stands unlit today.
King Sitric Restaurant at the village end of East Pier has wonderful seafood and friendly, accommodating servers. Our taxi for the trip back to Clontarf Castle was not only recommended by one of the servers, but she called to order it for us.
The driver, Brendan, a Howth native, took us on a delightful private tour around the village. He drove us to the end of West Pier where we passed towering piles of lobster pots (traps) made with black netting. A row of fish markets, restaurants, and other brightly-hued stone buildings, lined the pier.
Brendan said with a smile, “I will now take you to places that the tourists don’t know about.”
We followed winding and narrow lanes – forever shaded and almost swallowed by flowering bushes and green leafy trees. Lovely cottages – each with its own name – occasionally peeked from behind the walls of greenery. A path overlooking Balscadden Bay was called “Bog of Frogs,” – the name piqued our interest, but we didn’t walk it because we weren’t too anxious to visit any frogs – and certainly not an entire bog full of them.
Brendan pulled off the winding, narrow road to an overlook high above the harbour where we could see Dublin Bay and the Irish Sea…for miles and miles. Curious grey jagged rocks jutted out from the hill below us, and large black birds of some kind soared above.
Our last stop was the 15th century Howth Castle that James Joyce mentioned in the first sentence of his novel, “Finnegan’s Wake.” This staunch, imposing edifice has been the home of the Gaisford-St Lawrence family for 800 years. With veneer chipping from stone walls and a circular tower reminiscent of Rapunzel, the castle emits a rather foreboding aura. However, gardens teeming with blooming rhododendron and ancient beech hedges pull the castle back into the light.
Back at Clontarf Castle, we were welcomed by 21st century automatic doors, then greeted by 12th century stone walls. I thought to myself, “What an ideal blend of modern and ancient – a perfect metaphor for the area just outside of Dublin.”
This story was originally published on 9-16-2018.