The Islands of Ireland: All along the watchtower

The Dublin suburb of Dalkey is immortalised in the surrealist work of one of Ireland’s greatest writers, Flann O’Brien.

Myles na Gopaleen, or Brian O’Nolan as he was also known, wrote The Dalkey Archive, which had the unforgettable character of the policeman whose atoms blended with his bicycle. O’Brien’s earlier novel, The Third Policeman, had the same character.

He described the little town as it was in 1964 as a “vestibule of heavenly conspection”. With its Italianate mansions and street names and its elegant water-front villas, it resembles nothing as much as a Mediterranean town resting on the coast by the dazzling sea.

Offsetting the picture is the 22-acre Dalkey Island and its smaller neighbours Lamb, Maiden Rock, and Muglins. The latter has its own lighthouse dating from 1879 after 13 shipwrecks were recorded at Dalkey Island and the authorities urgently embarked on the construction of the lighthouse to fend off further disaster.

The island isn’t specifically mentioned in The Dalkey Archive but as it has the same name as the suburb then surely can be counted as part of the writer’s genius locus — the spirit of the place.

The novel’s main character, De Selby, meets Saint Augustine in an underwater cave at the “rocky swimming hole at Vico Road” — within spitting distance of the island.

Dalkey Island is only 400m off Coliemore pier and as such has been the location of many an escapade over the years for any who owned or commandeered a small boat. Yet again, we find an Irish island named after Viking influence — ‘ey’ or ‘ay ‘meaning island in old Norse.

So, Dalkey Island’s neighbours are Lambay; Ireland’s Eye; Anglesey in Wales; and Saltey down the coast at Co Wexford. Dalkey translates as ‘thorn island’.

However, the island’s history or prehistory goes much further back than the Scandinavian marauders. There is evidence of human activity from the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Ages on the site indicating possible continuous settlement.

In common with Dursey Island, Co Cork, archaeologists have speculated that Dalkey Island was used as a Viking slave base. The island’s 7th century St Begnet’s Church, outpost of Christianity, probably fell into disuse for hundreds of years after the occupation.

In The Islands of Ireland, Kenneth McNally records that, with Dublin “in the grip of bubonic plague in 1574”, some residents sought refuge on Dalkey Island until the ravages of the plague subsided.

The plague had been rampant in the 14th century only to return as the port of Dublin expanded via the vector of the rat. McNally also references the grisly end of two pirates in 1766, who were executed on the Muglins for their part in the murder of passengers aboard the Sandwich ship in 1765.

Dalkey Island was previously known as Benedict’s Island, (a corruption of Begnet). Its current name was adopted about the time of the construction of the Martello Tower and gun battery by the British in the early years of the 19th century.

With the possibility of a Napoleonic invasion of Ireland, the country was fortified with 50 or so such structures. The name Martello is a corruption of Mortella in Corsica where British forces along with Royalist French forces besieged the port in 1794.

The original ‘Mortella’ tower was the base for republican forces to repel the British attack and so impressed them that they adopted it as a defensive principle in Ireland and Britain. Nowadays, Dalkey’s Martello tower is in good condition.

Its magnificent circular brickwork has withstood centuries of storms.

Dalkey Island is a major bird-nesting site. Visitors are advised to avoid nesting boxes placed there by Birdwatch Ireland.

Two species of tern habituate there, the common and the Arctic. The roseate is the rarest breeding tern in Ireland and the preservation group is developing a colony on Dalkey Island. EU funding has been secured to help fund the project, not least to combat the rat population — still a problem!

  • How to get there: kentheferryman.com from Coliemore Harbour. Also trips from Bulloch Harbour.
  • Other: The Dalkey Archive; Flann O’Brien, Dalkey Archive Press The Islands of Ireland, Kenneth McNally, Batsford


Related Articles

Islands of Ireland: Tower of strength on Devenish

The Islands of Ireland: Currents Skeam against island life

The Islands of Ireland: Pining for the island in the river

Islands Of Ireland: Hit the Bull’s eye


Lifestyle

New father’s life ‘changed forever’ after he was run over by surgeon

More From The Irish Examiner