Mum stood beside me in the garden on a summer’s day and shouted at my brother, “Your cousin is on the phone.” We could just about make him out passing the church on Dalkey Island. He shouted back, “Tell him where we are.”
We were lucky enough to grow up in a house that backed onto to the sea. Our childhoods moved to the rhythm of the current of Dalkey Sound and standing 300 metres away was Dalkey Island which became an extension of our back garden.
I was in my early teens when I really began to appreciate that where I lived in Ireland was special and that appreciation kept growing until even after I had left the house and past the date when my parents retired and sold our family home.
Last week I counted all of my fingers and five of my toes only to realise that it had been fifteen years since had set foot on the island. A renewed Dalkey Island ferry had recently begun operating again after a three year absence so I decided to do my bit for local tourism. I made the call, bought water and a roll from Thyme Out in Dalkey and headed down to Coliemore Harbour.
We crossed the sound like the mesolithic and neolithic people who first made the trip with the stark difference that Ken Cunningham’s Dalkey Island ferry was not a carved out log nor was it a skin boat. It is sturdy, equipped with fenders and life preservers.
I have made this trip many times, rowing, canoeing, or under the power of an old and tiny seagull engine. I wrote an essay for my final school exams based around the Sound, whose currents are deceptively treacherous.
Before Dalkey was christened the sea levels were not as high as they are today and its early inhabitants would have been able to walk between Dalkey Island and Lamb Island (directly to its North) without fear of getting wet feet.
I spend my childhood summers in soggy sea-salted sneakers slipping with (and sometimes without) skill from rockpool to seaweed covered rock.
We landed on the new concrete jetty. I tried to start arranging my return journey but Ken either vaguely remembered my face or just trusted me.
“I’ll see you”.
I’m back on the Island, I have no claim to it besides the one that is in my heart, my Island. I passed the site of the promontory fort which overlooks the landing pier where Ancient Roman relics were found. But no evidence of the breakfast our family ate sometime in the 1970s remains apart from a few faded photos and crisp memories.
We have the Vikings to thank for the name of the town as it sounds today. The old Irish name for the Island was Deilg Inis meaning Thorn Island, due to its shape. While the meaning remained the same the name was changed to Dalk-Ei by the Vikings but before they arrived Christianity had already taken root evidenced by St. Begnat’s Church (11th century) which now stands stubbornly roofless. There is archaeological evidence that a wooden church may have been erected on the site as far back at the 7th century.
I can see my old house from here. No joke.
(click images to enlarge)
Once the Viking raiders had taken control they gave the Irish a severe beating.
One of the earliest mentions of the area refers to an incident they were involved in at Dalkey Sound.
“Coibhdeanach, Abbot of Cill-achaidh, was drowned in the sea of
Delginis-cualann while fleeing from the foreigners.”
Throughout most of its history the island remain uninhabited but for a few occasions. It was home to slaves in the Viking era and (twice recorded) used as a refuge, once in 942 when the Vikings fled there after losing a battle in Dublin and again in 1575 when there was an outbreak of The Plague.
My younger self took refuge here on more than one occasion. Slipping over on a Summer’s night armed with the warmth of friendship for our hearts, campfires for our bodies, and alcohol for our veins. We always left the place as clean as nature had intended.
The deep waters of the Dalkey Sound meant that ships could navigate its waters safely and Dalkey became a point for the unloading of goods. The town prospered in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The Martello Tower crowns the Island in a reminder that the British Army were stood up by Napoleon in the 1800s. I was expecting it to be barred but the spirit of my childhood was working in my favour and the rusty gate lay wide open.
By the time I had heaved myself up to the entrance, on a second attempt, the shadows of my teenage years taunted me and I could almost hear their echoes coming back down the winding stone stairwell.
Two real teenagers followed behind interested in what was currently living in its festering bowels.
I remember that interest. Rat infested, ankle-breaking, and rusty-malodourous-tetanus-territory. I declined to tell them I had explored it in detail when I was their age.
They shuddered and continued up the stairs.
I showed them the design of the tower’s ‘windows’.
One that views the harbour.
The other that looks out on the church.
We continued the short climb.
The best view. Bray, Killiney Bay, Dalkey Sound and the coastline beyond. Here I brought family, friends and girlfriends (real and a few unsuccessful potentials).
Around a dozen or so British soldiers would have lived here preparing for Napoleon’s no show. By day during the summer what a wonderful station but it is a different story even standing for a few minutes in the middle of a cold and wet winter’s night.
The crumbling Gun Battery (built at the same time as the tower) stands low at the south end of the island. It is an ancient and perilous playground, a perfect gift to my young self who had skirted the exterior trying to get to the highest points with a speed I dared not match today. Interior walls still stand framing its history. There was no fear of the easy eventuality of losing limb or life back then.
(click images to enlarge)
Sadly I saw nothing of the Goats who have been the Island’s longest non avian inhabitants so I carefully picked my way down to the shoreline at the southern end.
Then I crept up toward where the seagulls hang out. They eyed me suspiciously but I managed not to scare them into the air. I climbed back up to a ridge and found better place to get a shot of the rock that lies to the East the Island, the Muglins, which has had a beacon or a lighthouse on it since 1879 after a recorded thirteen ships had foundered on this stretch of Islands and rocks.
(click images to enlarge)
I returned to the northern end of the Island. The exercise of trying to recapture my youth on a warm and close day had produced an astonishing effect. It was as if the Island itself had breathed life into my clothes. They seemed to want to to make an intimate inspection of the sand.
I found myself walking into the inviting water of the shallow beach armed only with my boxer shorts to defended my modesty from a bunch of kayakers who had just arrived from the mainland.
It was one of the nicest swims I have ever taken. I left the water refreshed and with only an ill-equipped fleece to dry myself. The garment lived up to those expectations. I dressed damply and found a rock just beneath the church where I sat and ate my roll. The seat of my jeans soaked up the salty sea water. All the while Ken the Ferryman went about his business.
As it turned out the kayakers were from Kayaking.ie and headed by the more than capable Jenny Kilbride (another way to get to the island if you feel like a paddle).
After lunch I took a few more photos from the end of the pier and as I was looking up Ken’s number I was interrupted by a voice.
“Did you call me?”
Ken motored quietly beside me. He had seen me as promised.
My appreciation of where I grew up will continue to grow past the end of this blog and will only end when the tide makes its last retreat from my life. I will be forever grateful to my parents for choosing such an idyllic place for us to grow up.
I left the Island with a rejuvenated spirit and somewhere deep inside me my younger self smiled.
There is more to learn and about the rich History of Dalkey Island here. I have only included the highlights.
Grab a sandwich at Thyme Out in Dalkey before you go!