There are some notable old ruins in Howth (I count myself among them)

Hilary Fannin: I know this headland so well, yet I still feel like an outsider

Howth peninsula: I’ve been trailing through the gorse and wandering the cliff paths of this peninsula for decades. Photograph: iStock

Howth peninsula: I’ve been trailing through the gorse and wandering the cliff paths of this peninsula for decades. Photograph: iStock

 

The locals, to the best of my knowledge, tend to stay put on sunny weekends. They know not to try getting their cars back on to the peninsula on a Saturday morning, or off it on a Sunday evening, when long lines of glinting metal stutter through the crossroads that cuts the isthmus off from the rest of the world.

Cars and cars and more cars. Cars packed with frustrated parents and fractious, ice-cream-sticky children. Cars filled with sanguine aunts and gloomy uncles, with lovers indifferent to the long delays, with cousins and colleagues and walkers and swimmers and folk who may have thought that, as the travel restrictions have been eased, a day out by the seaside might make for a pleasant diversion.  

I should have known better than to join the transport throng last weekend. I’m long enough in the tooth to recognise a logjam when I see it. What’s more, I’ve been trailing through the gorse and wandering the cliff paths of this peninsula, in my ever-so-fetching Lycra, for decades now. I’ve been so long standing in damp sand looking out at the two islands that shadow the shoreline that I could draw them blindfolded on a beer mat in Timbuktu.

Adolescent heartbreak

My parents and I came to this neck of the woods in the 1970s on our peculiar charabanc of penury and loss, and discovered, like so many others, that the sea offers its own absolution. 

They found a place to rent, and we stayed, and now memory piles on memory with every step I take over this terrain. I walk the cliffs remembering adolescent heartbreak and pilfered cigarettes and hunkering down in the old boathouse trying to ignite damp matches. I walk the muddy lanes remembering my mother burying raw sausages in the thick snow in the courtyard of the final cliffside property she found to rent, during a prolonged electricity blackout. I can still see the home-made flags she made out of twigs to mark their burial plots under the argentine sky. 

Last weekend, when the traffic finally allowed, I parked and walked the east pier among the hordes of Sunday tourists

I remember my father, a whiskey in his hand, leaning against that cottage door and saluting the moonlight. I remember his coffin being carried out of the village church on a cold December morning, and the Christmas lights flaring and the wind whipping up, and the music of the clanking masts down on the marina. 

I remember other summers too, climbing down the long thin trails to the rocky shore, a child tethered to my back. 

I know this headland so well, and yet, after 40 years of coming and going and now living near enough to hear its heartbeat, I still feel like an outsider. In truth, I think I’m happier that way. 

Last weekend, when the traffic finally allowed, I parked and walked the east pier among the hordes of Sunday tourists. Solid elderly couples in sturdy shoes made their steady progress through knots of skittish girls in ripped-kneed jeans and posses of swaggering bare-chested young men shouldering their way along the sea wall. 

I strolled along the pier, watching seagulls gather like corner boys and swoop down, with winged impunity, on the visitors’ snack boxes and 99s. I looked on, with no small alarm, as the long line outside the chip shop kept extending. I noticed the skinny egrets on the roof of the processing plant, hungrily eyeing the battered cod being consumed with gusto on the promenade. 

The locals may sigh into their skinny lattes as the socially distanced Dart carriages disgorge day trippers on to the seafront, but, if the weather holds, the scampi vendors will nab pots of gold from under rainbow-skinned mackerels and the lines of cars will swell like satiated snakes all summer long.

Nostalgic

There are some notable old ruins in Howth (I count myself among them), and on Sunday I left the pier and climbed above the village to look at the sea framed between the crumbling abbey walls. Maybe it was simply the unaccustomed sight of crowds gadding about under the pale sun, but all that salt-and-vinegar Sunday sauntering made me feel oddly nostalgic and tender. 

It was as if we, the strollers and sea swimmers, the dog-walkers and ice-cream twirlers, the pushchair pushers and the lone musician playing his saxophone on the lip of the pier, were figures in a painting, just dabs of colour, shadow and light against a glittering bay. Blithely unaware of our own inescapable span, we could’ve been characters from some uncharted time, captured in the act of living by an artist’s brush.

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