From great kings laid low to the earliest high flyers
GREAT DRIVES: DUBLIN’S SHORELINE:I’VE ALWAYS contended that some of the best drives are the ones we take for granted because we have become so used to them. Today’s drive is, for me, one such drive but hopefully to many readers based in Dublin and further afield, it will be something of a surprise.
The route chosen starts in historic Clontarf and drives along the coastline to Malahide via the Hill of Howth – a route full of interest and magnificent views. Clontarf is such an interesting place, so laden with history that it’s hard to know just where to begin.
On the basis that nearly everyone knows something about the Battle of Clontarf, I chose to start from Brian Boru’s Well on Castle Avenue, a couple of hundred yards up from the seafront. The famous battle took place on Good Friday 1014, when the forces of Brian Boru defeated the Vikings so comprehensively as to bring to an end their direct and deep-rooted influence on Ireland’s affairs. However, victory came at a price for, as Brian knelt in his tent giving thanks for a great victory, the fleeing Viking mercenary Brodir killed him. Brian Boru’s Well is said to mark the spot where this took place.
From the well, it’s a short run down to the coast road. Turning left, we soon pass Vernon Avenue where the Sheds pub marks the spot where there used to be a thriving fish-curing industry.
Close by, just off the shoreline, was an island called Clontarf Island. This island had a single dwelling on it and was used as a refuge from plague in 1650. In 1844, a great storm swept the island and its handful of inhabitants away. By then the construction of the Great South Wall and Bull Wall in Dublin Port had changed the flow of water in the bay, causing sand to build up to the east of Bull Wall, eventually forming the Bull Island we know today.
Near the eastern extremity of St Anne’s Park is the Bull Island Causeway, at the end of which is the Bull Island Interpretative Centre – well worth a visit to explain the significance of the Bird Sanctuary and Nature Reserve now designated a biosphere reserve by Unesco.
Continuing along the coast road to Sutton Cross, at the narrowest point of the isthmus of Howth, take the right hand road leading up and over Howth Head to finally descend into Howth village.Howth has many attractions to dally over, including the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey Church, built in the late 1300s, overlooking Howth harbour.
There is also the Baily Lighthouse, where Robert Loraine came down in the sea after making the first crossing of the Irish Sea by aeroplane in 1910, an incident duly recorded in the record book of the lighthouse.
As ever, the village of Howth is a bustling place, but I wonder how many visitors there notice the milestone opposite the harbour? In the early 18th century, Howth was chosen to be the mail packet port for Dublin, and the great Scottish engineer Thomas Telford built the road from London to Holyhead from whence the mail packet ship sailed to Howth. From there the road continued to Dublin’s General Post Office. All along the route, from London to Dublin via Howth, the road is marked by these milestones.
Leaving Howth behind, we bear right at Sutton Cross and continue along the coast road to Portmarnock, from where two of the great pioneer flights of the 1930s set off.
Portmarnock’s Velvet Strand provided a suitable take-off point for the great Australian aviator Charles Kingsford Smith and his crew in the famous Southern Cross on what was the second successful west-east Atlantic crossing.
Just two years later, in August 1932, Jim Mollison made the first solo westbound Atlantic flight, also starting from the Velvet Strand.
The twisty coast road from Portmarnock to Malahide hides a motoring curiosity: Ireland’s only prohibited road. Between the modern coast road and the sea is a ribbon of tarmac which was once the coast road. Today, it is a pedestrian walkway, but in the early years of motoring it was forbidden to drive a car on this road.
The walkway continues to Malahide and ends just short of the well-known landmark that is Hicks Tower.
This prominent Martello tower was purchased in 1910 by the architect Frederick Hicks who carried out the marvellous conversion that survives to this day. Incidently, Hicks was also the architect of the clubhouse of the Royal Irish Automobile Club at Dawson Street in 1904.
So much of interest, I’m sure you will agree, packed into a short drive along Dublin’s shoreline.