Who knew the beaches of Dublin could be so interesting and so lovely?
After moving home from abroad, our family is rediscovering their beauty, rain or shine
My youngest daughter holds up a handful of colours, and she’s right - they’re beautiful. We wonder if they’re glass or stone, washed smooth by the sea. I do the tooth-test, telling her not to do the same. She picks out the choicest colours and drops them into my jacket pocket, their lustre already fading as they dry out.
By the time we get home they’ll be thrown into the old ice-cream tub with their fellow treasures we’ve found from all around Dublin: shells from Portmarnock and Killiney, something unidentifiable from our North Wall walk, and one particular pebble from Bray that someone had painted with a beautiful portrait of a girl.
Who knew the beaches of Dublin could be so interesting and so lovely? I certainly didn’t, even though I grew up here. My children have only lived abroad and we’ve been out in all weather since moving home last year, exploring these jewels tucked into the dips and hidden spaces of Dublin’s bay, finding our own connections with them, picking up something every time.
We started with the main ones, then the names started to get a bit mixed up - “let’s go to Seacove” or “the one with more graffiti”. I’d never heard of White Rock before (it’s off the Vico Road in Killiney) but it’s now top of our list for places to bring visitors.
Like a decent pub, an Irish beach is full of chat: people talk to each other from their picnic blankets
With the warm weather in recent weeks, the beaches have been crowded even in the evenings. Like a decent pub, an Irish beach is full of chat: people talk to each other from their picnic blankets, teenagers make a show of not having fun, parents yell at (or shout for) the children they’ve lost track of. Skin tones can vary wildly but with prolonged sunshine such an obviously rare commodity here, you can feel the genuine joy-which is even better with a 99 in your hand.
But it was at the tail end of last summer that my girls and I fell in love with the beaches of Dublin. We had just moved here from Italy and the last beach we’d been to, a few weeks earlier in Tuscany, was about as different as you could get to the east-coast of Ireland: soft, warm water, the precious feeling of never-ending summer days which ended with fruity gelato and prosecco.
There are many parts to a Dublin beach: the varying tides that leave rock pools full on one visit and gone the next, the Martello towers, the long walks, those noisy birds that dive straight out of the sky, the happy dogs with their muddy underbellies, and - if we’re lucky - the seals.
I tell the girls that the sea here can be treacherous: a man at Coliemore Harbour told us you wouldn’t think of swimming the few metres across to Dalkey Island. Only a boat would do (preferably his) if we wanted to explore the wildflowers and imagine the monks and pirates who once knew these waters better than we ever would.
I don’t remember spending much time on the beach when I was a child. Now everyone seems to be a sea-swimmer
These Dublin beaches are still a bit scruffy and smelly, and we avoid the times when the beer drinkers come out. But the beaches and the sea seem cleaner than I remember, and lots more is being done, like the brilliant efforts of young Flossie Donnelly to rid the sea of plastic with her seabins. It’s amazing to see some of the old baths, like Clontarf, be finally resurrected.
I don’t remember spending much time on the beach when I was a child. We’d climb on the rocks and walk many hours along the piers and the proms, barely paddling our toes from time to time in that surely-freezing water, and marvelling at the people who actually swam in the sea. Now everyone seems to be a sea-swimmer, though I can’t imagine the water has warmed up much. But I’d better give it a go, now that I’m a local again.
During all our years living abroad, we were lucky to often live near the sea (or in the case of Toronto, a great big lake). But still I would dream of settling on the Irish coast and I’d often hear, “What is it with you and the sea Mummy?” whenever I pushed for a holiday near water, and not the mountains.
It had nothing to do with sunbathing and, so far, I’ve only been a warm-water swimmer. It’s more about being near it, knowing I could watch the movements of the sea, and feel how it anchored my sense of myself in the world.
Wherever you are on this land, you know where the sea is
When you grow up on an island - even one the size of Ireland - you feel encircled and closed in by the sea, it’s a tie that goes deep. I grew up in a Dublin suburb which was within easy reach of plenty of coastline. But still, Famous-Five-like notions of fishing villages and island outposts were the stuff of my dream holidays; the cold, jellyfish-infested waters off Connemara were the reality.
But wherever you are on this land, you know where the sea is. And when you pick up and leave it, in any direction, you watch it pass underneath as you fly away and when you come home to visit.
Now we’re living here as a family and I watch my foreign-born girls make their own connection to this land and the water surrounding it. I ask them what they like about their new Irish beaches. “There aren’t many people around” they would say on our cold-weather visits, “and no-one’s sunbathing so there are more birds flying around, making noise.”
And how do I feel? It’s a treasure to be able to sit and simply watch the sea, and watch them. And feel how time - and childhood - can slow down, even for one hour.
Emma Prunty is writing a series on her experiences of settling back into Dublin after many years abroad and seeing it with fresh eyes, along with her family of foreigners: a Canadian husband and Canadian/Norwegian kids. After living in the UK, US, Canada, Norway and Italy she knows there are pros and cons to every place you move to. She blogs at washyourlanguage.com