Clontarf, Breadfruit and The Bull. The Sands of Time.

Bull Wall


How Captain Bligh, the consummate navigator, would have loved Google earth! He spent some years dividing Dublin Bay into squares on a grid and charting the depths.  Invaluable work but not as interesting or exciting as a voyage to Tahiti. Nobody has filmed his patient measuring and sounding of the river estuary. No doubt his crew grumbled and muttered under their breath, but they never seized the vessel to sail away beyond the horizon with a boatload of beautiful Polynesian women. Leave that to Marlon Brando. No doubt there were days in February, when frost was blowing in the east wind,that they imagined how it would be to put their captain into a small craft and let him make his way to shore in Ringsend or the nose of Howth.  Nevertheless, every vessel that comes or goes in Dublin Bay, owes its survival, to some extent, to Captain Bligh and his patient crew, with their knotted strings and leaden weights.

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If I were a poet, I would stroll along Clontarf Boulevard, winding a string of vaguely related images and themes, with few verbs and sparse punctuation. I might even throw in the odd rhyme…Bligh…sky… Not bad….sea….free…viaduct…rhymes with?…rhymes with?…Forget it.  My efforts would be published in slim volumes, bound in tooled Morocco leather. I would be laden with laurels, replete with plaudits. Careful with that alliteration.  Poolbeg… toolbag.  A bit leaden.  I’ll stick to the prose. I’m irredeemably pedestrian. It’s a nice walk all the same, on a fine October afternoon, when Dublin enjoys the last unexpected day of summer. I’d soon cure that with some obligatory gloom and despair, disgust and mortality. Do you remember Soundings,  the anthology we grappled with in school? Should have carried a health warning…youth is fleeting…time is fleeting..we are all doomed…we are all sinners.  Go for a walk down The Bull. On yer bike.

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Bligh went to Tahiti, to an earthly paradise, in the wake of Captain Cook, to get breadfruit plants to provide cheap food for the slaves in the West Indies. It made good commercial sense. Slave owners had their problems too, y’know. They had expensive life-styles to support. Palladian mansions  in Bristol or Bath don’t come cheap, y’know.  Gin and jesuits’ bark cost money. Bligh was the man. He had skill and a sense of discipline. He lost his ship, The Bounty, to mutiny. The breadfruit went overboard. He made his astounding voyage to the East Indies, fuelled by rage and a desire for revenge. It kept him alive.  It warmed his heart to think of Fletcher Christian ( a distant relative of Wordsworth, the poet,) swinging in the wind at Tilbury, like a black scarecrow. He was acquitted at his court martial, but lived under a cloud. His Britannic Majesty doesn’t like to lose a ship, y’know. He was sent to do invaluable, repetitive, boring work in Dublin Bay.

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Clontarf means The Meadow of the Bull. What encounter gave that meadow its name?  King Brian of the Cattle Raids, came here at Easter, a thousand years ago, to face down the Norsemen of Dublin. He prevailed but lost his life in the aftermath of battle. His son, Murchadh, drowned in the marshy mudflats of the Tolka. Captain Bligh read the waters of the bay and the burden of sand that flowed back to clog the river.  He designed a gigantic mud-guard, The Bull Wall. The sand began, grain by grain, to pile up against the wall.  He allowed the tide to flow under the viaduct and over the wall at its furthest extremity. Bull Island was born. Over time, it grew to become a cherished bird sanctuary and a playground for the people of Dublin. He accelerated the river, with a North and South Wall, to keep the channel clear. It worked.

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At around the time that the Norse longships explored the Atlantic, the Polynesian outriggers wandered over the vast Pacific, like spindrift on the great ocean waves. They traced these waves and currents, in legend and myth and on maps woven from plant fibres. They found small specks of islands on the tips of fiery submarine mountains. The Royal Navy could not find the Bounty mutineers, because Pitcairn had been incorrectly shown as East Longitude instead of West. Bligh would never have been guilty of such carelessness. This Easter Island moai, carved from a fiery rock,  was presented to Dublin by the government of Chile. Flanked by New Zealand flax and South American grass, from the two extremities of the Pacific, he stares out at the bay, as if waiting for the outrigger canoes to flicker on the horizon and waft to shore on the sands of Bull Island. Easter Island is in the region of Valparaiso.

Christy Moore sings about a voyage: ‘With no maps to guide us we steered our own course/ Rode out the storms when the winds were gale force…’   Margaret and I are fifty years married today. We have had some wonderful time with our family and some quiet time together, looking back at our voyage. We appreciate the bounty that we have received during that half century.

Tháinig long ó Valparaiso/ There came a ship from Valparaiso…

Now there was a poem. He writes about the kingdom of the sun,  a land of opportunity, a white city below the mountains, a voyage not yet finished, new vistas to be explored, new ventures,the persistence of optimism.  Our daughter rang, early in the morning: ‘Go and see the beautiful ship in the harbour.’ It is beautiful, Stavros S Niarchos, bound for Liverpool.

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It could have been The Bounty on her way home at last. I met an old sailor on my way. ‘I sailed on two of his ships,’ he told me. ‘His brother in law, Onassis, ran ships to South America.’  Ah! Perhaps our ancestors flitted away on a ship like this. We hope to see a film of their story in the not too distant future.  The old sailor was, for many years, a pilot in Dublin port, a man well versed in the lore of the sea and the language of maps. A good omen for the next fifty years. We sail on. (We could have used a few breadfruit trees over the years nonetheless, to feed our crew.)


Some corner of a foreign field. Irony. Rapture of the Deep.


For want of a nail…This is where Captain Cook came to grief. It seems that he refused to give any more nails to the native people. They took umbrage and killed him. There was a swordsman by his side, Molesworth Phillips, from Swords in County Dublin, a Royal Marine. Even Molesworth couldn’t save the great navigator. This small piece of Hawaii is British territory in perpetuity, in honour of the captain. Her Majesty could surely spare the man a flagpole and a flag. Maybe, of course,  the captain was trying to bring alien species into the island. They are very strict: ‘Are you carrying any snails or reptiles, Sir?’  Americans can use ‘Sir’ like a searchlight. ‘Step away from the car, Sir’ You know that you are nailed when you hear ‘Sir’. My brother in law was nabbed trying to bring Clonakilty black pudding to Florida. ‘Step away from the sausages, Sir.’  He’s not strictly my brother in law. There are no smugglers on my side of the family.

 Nails are precious things. I asked my neighbour, Milo if he had a couple of nails to spare. ‘Come into my nailery,’ he said expansively ‘and I’ll see what I can do.’ He had a drawer filled with dust and rusty nails. There were oval wire and round ones of many different sizes, straight and bent.  He had a little boat with a put-put outboard motor. It was held together by rusty nails. ‘Should you not use copper?’ I asked out of my ignorance. He looked at me pityingly, a landlubber, steeped in ignorance. ‘Nothing holds like a rusty nail.’  The nails made attractive, blue/grey patches on the wood. We went out to Saint Patrick’s Island , one summer evening. There was a big swell running. Put-put-put went the motor. Clang-clang-clang went my heartbeat. We lost sight of the horizon in every trough. We teetered on the crest of every wave. I looked longingly towards the distant land, the white flicker of surf and home, measuring the distance. I was the better swimmer.  Milo whistled, at ease in his natural element.

On another occasion we came around The Baily in a Fastnet 34. Fastnet! Get it? Hurricane? Major yachting disaster?  Simon le Bon’s keel snapping off?  The bolts sheered off under the force of the waves. Should have used rusty nails.  We were in a lumpy sea, with an easterly wind. I drew Milo’s attention to these coincidences, as the yacht dropped from a dizzying height, into a swirling abyss. ‘Huh,’ he muttered, intrigued and went below to put on the kettle. We were heading for a mark, with several other towering yachts converging on our course. I drew his attention to the situation. ‘Luffing rights,’ he remarked. Of course. Why didn’t I think of luffing rights?  ‘Luffing rights,’ he called to the rival skippers. They turned away.  It’s a phrase I keep in reserve for real emergencies.

Strangely for the Hawaiians, who had no concept of metallurgy, (hence the craving for nails) they host the Ironman World Championships every year.We went there to cheer on our son, Alan. He is a non-stop athlete. He did spectacularly well and continues to do so. No sign of rust there. We did the tourist things, like reef snorkeling at Captain Cook’s monument. When you put your head under the water, you could hear parrot fish, crunching at the coral. Apparently this is their sole source of food. Crrrunnnch-crrrunnnch  all day and all night, nibbling the island away. Fortunately the island is constantly re-built by the volcano. The Hawaiians were having a day off, when they named this island. It is the biggest of all the Hawaiian Islands. They called it Big Island. Our daughter once lived on Avenue Road in Acton.  Adam called flies flies because they…. Must try harder. 


The parrot fish are down there somewhere, crunching away. The reef falls away into vertiginous depths. They talk of rapture of the deep, but that is brought on by gas. There is a rapture brought on by the strange colours, the sense of weightlessness, the myriads of fish, the story of the people and their relationship with the ocean. History. I decided to swim over and pay my respects to Captain Cook and the Swords man. I clambered out onto the reef. A voice, magnified by a loud-hailer called out:  ‘Sir. You are forbidden to stand on the reef.’  It was the skipper of our ‘rib’ an intimidating young  American woman. I slithered back into the water like a hunted cousteau and merged with the other flotsam. I imagined that I could hear the parrot fish tut-tutting, the hypocrites.


I should have shouted ‘luffing rights.’  I could have pointed to the activities of the parrot fish. It was pointed out to me afterwards that, as a citizen of the European Union and pursuant to the Treaty of Rome, The Schengen Agreement, the Maastricht Treaty, the Single European Act, ratified by all the member nations, guaranteeing freedom of movement  et cetera and cetera, I am entitled, as an Irish and E.U. citizen, to enter Britain or any other E.U. country, without let or hindrance. I could have, but I wasn’t carrying any copies of the relevant treaties at the time. I was wearing Speedos, flippers and a face mask. If I had been carrying weighty copies of the treaties in my Speedos, I would have incurred even more suspicion from our imperious skipper.

In the Polynesian myths, the world stands on a pillar which stands on the back of a great turtle. It’s an analogy for islands that perch on top of pillars of volcanic rock. The coral grows only in the daylight near the top. The turtle moves from time to time. It’s a precarious world. I watched much of the race while perched on top of a plastic wheelie bin, with three or four other spectators. It was an excellent vantage point, until the lid began to soften in the heat and sag under our weight. I expected to be plunged ignominiously into the depths of the bin. I decided to get down. My right leg was dead from cramp. I fell to earth and hobbled around, trying to get back some circulation. It’s not funny but it makes you laugh all the same. Pins and needles. Like rapture of the deep only drier. Alan was doing fine. It was all bloody fine for him. He had trained for it; pumping iron, iron enriched food supplements or whatever.


Captain  Cook was dispatched with a wooden club or spear, probably ironwood. Milo’s boat was shattered on the beach in a sudden storm. The nails gave up the ghost. My neighbour lost one of his good shoes in attempting to rescue it. It is probably still bobbing around the Hebrides or’ the still-vexed Bermoothes,’ the shoe, not the boat. John Kingston’s legendary hardware shop had the world’s greatest nailery. You could buy one or a bucket full.   The shop exploded one night, in a most astonishing conflagration of paint, timber, gas cylinders, bitumen, roofing felt, oil, insecticides, fertilisers, wall-paper, glue, (even one called No-More-Nails), tools, nuts, bolts and anything you could think of. John had it all. It laid a heavy swag of smoke across the strand and all the way across the sea to the horizon and Saint Patrick’s Island, where Milo sailed his little boat.  He was a great mariner who would never refuse a person a nail or a favour.

Even without Saint Patrick, there are no snakes in Hawaii. No Sir.  I drive to Swords nowadays to buy nails.

When I nibble shortbread biscuits, I hear the parrot fish.