Lambay Island’s avenue of mysteries

Many Irish islands have unique attributes: Clare Island in Co Mayo has rare medieval frescoes; Dursey Island in Co Cork has Ireland’s only cable car; and Tory Island in Co Donegal has a king. However, not many islands have several unique attributes that make them stand apart like a beacon in the night, write Dan McCarthy. 

Welcome to Lambay, 3km off the coast in Dublin Bay, where a colony of wallabies roam, where part of the seabed is covered with tombstones, and where a resident baron oversees his realm.

Lambay is derived from the Norse Lambey — Lamb Island. It is the easternmost territory of the Republic of Ireland, with a view of five mountain ranges, including the Mournes, on a clear day.

It has had a fascinating prehistory prior to its history. Its summit of Knockban is
the remnant of a volcano. Roman artifacts, including a cylinder of pink wax, were
discovered in the 1920s. It had Neolithic settlements, monastic settlements of which
nothing remains, having been wiped clean probably by Viking invaders who arrived in 795 and used the island as a base for the first Viking raid on Ireland.

In the Middle Ages, the island was commanded by pirates and later used to imprison Jacobite prisoners from the Battle of Aughrim in 1691.

The tombstones came from the tragic ship, the Tayleur which was wrecked on the island 1854 with 350 souls perishing. The ‘Victorian Titanic’ was bound for Australia with its macabre cargo but sailed in the wrong direction owing to distorted compass readings caused by the iron hull.

The island was bought in 1904 by Cecil Baring, who was a partner at the famous merchant bank of the same name. The wallabies were introduced in the 1950s by Rupert Baring, son of Cecil, and the population was supplemented in the 1980s.

Like his father, Rupert Baring had a passion for wildlife and restricted public access so that the bird population might thrive. The foresight is laudable as today the island is an important sanctuary with an estimated 50,000 common guillemots, 5,000 kittiwakes, and 3,500 razorbills as well as puffins, manx shearwaters and fulmars. Of course, the restricted access did not go down well with the locals on shore and the island became shrouded in intrigue.

Cecil even introduced rheas (flightless birds), moufflon (rare sheep), tortoises, snakes, and lizards, which created an impression of the island as somewhere between the HG Wells novel The Island of Doctor Moreau and the Christoper Lee film The Wicker Man. The famous botanist Robert Lloyd Praeger visited in 1905 and found 90 animals and plants new to science.

That’s three unique attributes. Here’s a fourth. Edwin Lutyens, who designed the Irish National War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge in Dublin and the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, was architect in residence for the duration of his tenure on the island. In 1905, at the invitation of Cecil Baring he visited and two years later set about redesigning the 15th century castle into a family home.The original had been built by John Tiptoft, earl of
Worcester. Lutyens, using granite quarried from Skerries, built battlements around the tower and installed dormer window using the indigenous porphyry.

He reinvented the coastguard cottages which had been in disrepair and rendered them like Swiss mountain lodges. His imprint is seen almost anywhere on the island where there is a physical structure, including the spartan church.

The island is now owned by the great grandson of Cecil. Alex Baring is the seventh baron Revelstoke and lives there with his wife and young children. One final unique attribute: Lambay is the only Irish island with a court for the game of real tennis. There are plans afoot to restore it.

Visits to the island are arranged through Skerries Sea Tours and the superb father and son team of Eoin and Gerry Grimes. Eoin pilots the boat and Gerry paints a rich canvas of the island’s history.

How to get there:

  • I Remember, I Remember by Daphne Pollen [sister of Rupert Baring]; privately published
  • The Sinking of the RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic by Gill Hoffs; Pen & Sword


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