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.)