Dalkey Island – A Short History and Some Memories

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.

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(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.

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(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.

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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.

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(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.

Details of Dalkey Island Ferry.

And Kayaking.ie here

Grab a sandwich at Thyme Out in Dalkey before you go!




32 responses to “Dalkey Island – A Short History and Some Memories

  1. A lovely piece with great photos Ben. It should bring back happy memories for my own family, growing up there too.

  2. A lovely piece with great photos Ben. It should evoke many happy memories for my own family growing up there too.

  3. Very nicely written piece for lazy locals like me, often needing a ‘Dalkey Island in a nutshell’ -Thank you

    • Thanks for reading Clodagh! I was looking around for a potted history of the Island myself, when I couldn’t find one I felt it deserved a place on the internet 🙂

  4. baumann@eircom.net

    Really enjoyed reading this Ben. I only spent 4 short years in Dalkey when I first moved over from UK but I was so appreciative of my time there and really felt its special magic even in that short time. 😄

  5. Sorry should have signed off! Justine. 😄

  6. Love it Ben, beautifully written and so evocative 🙂

  7. I too grew up in Dalkey and I have been planning a trip to the island all summer. Your post has reminded me just how much I want to return and bring my young children. Looking back it was quite magical the way it was normal to go to the island at all times of the day and evening. I grew up with water at the end of my garden so I can totally relate to your post. Nice work

  8. marvellous piece, ben. i have fond memories of standing in in your back garden in early hours, smoking something illicit and watching the sun rise over the island.

  9. Making me homesick, all the way from Brisbane. I went to the island once, when I was in the Dalkey Cub Scouts in the ’70s, but not since. I remember we were all a bit scared the goats might have at us, but they were only interested in the grass!

  10. Grainne Cunningham

    beautiful piece Ben, in every way, from the amazing photographs to the lovely combination of history and personal memories. You have inspired me to make a trip to Dalkey Island part of the last days of summer for our family. Well done!

  11. It takes me back.

    It will take me back!

    Thanks Ben!

  12. i feel like i was with you on your ramble around an island i love so well thanks for writing it and posting,,,,,

  13. Thanks Ben for the wonderful blog. Great memories, you’ve managed to bring me right back there. I don’t think I was ever allowed to go on my own but I remember trotting around behind one or other of my brothers. I always remember being interested in the little spring/well facing the mainland where as for my siblings it was all about exploring the parts of the fort that (under mainland type situations) would normally have been out of bounds. People in Australia often ask me would I ever move back to Ireland and my answer is always that if I am ever fortunate enough to be able to buy a nice house which over looks Dalkey Island then I shall move back. (who knows maybe in my retirement). Thanks again for the memories. Sarah-Jane 🙂

  14. Ben what a wonderful piece of writing and display of photos…..it would make a great documentary on T.V. Go for it. I see the Moore talent for writing is flourishing. Ann

  15. Dorothy Poleykett

    My Parents came from Ireland my Mum from Dalkey and my Dad from Sallynoggin .
    Went over to the island when I was a child ,
    we come back every year perhaps this year we will pluck up courage to visit the island again.
    Thank you Ben – lovely memories.
    Dorothy Poleykett ( nee Christie).

    • Hi Dorothy!

      Thanks for your message and for reading my blog. It is such a lovely island and well worth a return visit. I’m looking forward to my first trip of 2016.


  16. Jennifer O'Dea

    Evocative stuff Ben. Beautifully written – malodorous tetanus memories! Well done. X Jen

  17. Wonderfully put Ben, I can see us all as vibrant your sea scouts on an epic adventure exploring the island like it was a new found land!! Fab memories indeed! Beautifully encapsulated and articulated alike mate. 😉

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