A cold day in Howth

Over the past 7 or 8 years I’ve been over to Dublin several times on business. Whenever I travel for work I usually try to add a day or two on to the trip so that I can take a look around, so I’ve got to know Dublin fairly well. During a recent visit I decided to explore a little further afield so got the DART train from Connolly Station out to Howth (pronounced so that it rhymes with “both”), a small town on the coast about 9 miles north east of the city centre overlooking Dublin Bay.

The town nestles below Howth head, a large land mass dominating the north side of the bay – you can see it from the ferry sailing in from England – which is connected to the rest of Dublin via a narrow strip of land.

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Its a pleasant little town with good sea views and a harbour full of yachts. I’m told that there are good views to be had from Howth head, but, although it’s only a few miles walk around the headland, it was a cold day when there was a freezing wind blowing in from the Irish Sea, so I restricted my visit to having a walk around the harbour.

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There’s a large rocky island just off shore known as “Ireland’s Eye”.  From the beach I could see a Martello tower and another building – probably a church. There are boat trips out to the island during the summer, but not on a cold winter’s day.

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Martello towers are small defensive forts that were built around the coast of Britain and Ireland from the Napoleonic Wars onwards. Their design was  inspired by a round fortress, at Mortella (Myrtle) Point in Corsica. There are several around Dublin Bay including one at Sandcove, in the northern suburbs of Dublin, which featured in the opening chapter of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and which today is a museum dedicated to the writer.

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It’s still a working port, and standing on the harbour wall I watched a small fishing boat heading out into the bay, past Ireland’s Eye.

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There are a number of seafood restaurants lining one side of the harbour. It was too late for lunch and too early for an evening meal but I popped into one where I bought some native oysters – the first I’ve eaten. A little pricey, but worth it.

James Joyce Museum Sandycove

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

This is the first line of Ulysses by James Joyce – a great work of fiction that introduced the “stream of consciousness” to English literature – but also a book that many a person has started and never finished.  The opening chapter is set in a Martello tower on the coast at Sandycove, a small seaside resort just outside Dublin (well, its part of the Dublin sprawl these days). The tower is one of a series of small defensive structures that were constructed on the coast in Britain, Ireland and some other parts of the British Empire during the Napoleonic wars. They’re very strong with thick brick walls and would have had a cannon on the top.

Joyce spent six nights in the tower from 9 to 15 September 1904. His friend Oliver St John Gogarty, who the character, Buck Mulligan, is based on, had rented it from the War Office. Another occupant of the tower during Joyce’s stay was an Anglo-Irishman, Samuel Chenevix Trench, who appears as the character Haines in the book.  Joyce fled the tower after he was woken by Trench who was screaming, having had a nightmare involving a panther. Trench picked up a revolver and fired several shots into the fireplace, after which Gogarty grabbed a .22 rifle and fired at a collection of pans above Joyce’s bed.

Entrance to the James Joyce Museum at Sandycove

Today the tower has been converted into a museum celebrating the life of Joyce and his masterpiece. We called in on the morning of our last day in Ireland on the way back to Dublin to catch the mid-afternoon ferry.  On the ground floor there is a small collection of exhibits including a couple of death masks, some letters and portraits and photographs. There are a number of his personal possessions including his guitar , a waistcoat made by his grandmother and his cigar case. Taking pride of place is a first edition of Ulysses, published by Shakespeare & Co in 1922.

The recreated sleeping quarters on the first floor

The first floor the sleeping quarters have been recreated, just as they would have been when Joyce stayed there. From here you can climb up a very narrow staircase up onto the roof where you get a good view out to sea and along the coast as far as the Liffey estuary. You can also make out the nearby “Forty foot” – an open air swimming pool which also features in chapter 1 of Ulysees as its here where Buck Mulligan takes his morning dip. It’s really just a partially enclosed section of the sea and originally was for men only (in the buff!) although today mixed bathing is permitted and “Togs must be worn after 9am.” People swim here all year round – they must be crazy! The “forty foot” is nothing to do with the depth or width of the pool; rather it’s named after the Fortieth Foot Regiment of the British Army who used to be stationed near here.

Looking towards the "Forty Foot"

Rocky coast at Sandycove, looking south from the tower