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.)


Rockabill Lighthouse. Abel Rock.

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A man at Speakers’ Corner told a sad story; “When I was a young lad goin’ to school in Dublin long ago.” he said, “I learned trigonometry. Do y’know what trigonometry is?”  I kept my head down. Of course I know what trigonometry is, but I have a mortal fear of street performers of any kind. Didn’t I give some of the best hours of my young life to Tan a over 2, Sines and Cosines, Logs and Antilogs? I even painted the Cosine page in my log tables red, to avoid a tendency to read the Cosine instead of the Sine. That could result in my space probe failing to rendezvous with the comet, Giotto, by several million miles and probing the Bog of Allen instead.  ‘It’s Tan a over 2. Stupid boy!’  I never quite cracked the language of mathematics. Napier filled a whole book with page after page of numbers and it became a best-seller. Pure genius.  ” It’s all about angles and triangles,” explained the man. “I learned how to measure the height of any tree or a lighthouse or a skyscraper. It was amazin’. I decided to get a job measurin’ lighthouses, but when I left school I found out that all the lighthouses in the world had already been measured. That cured me of ambition. I’ve never worked a day in me life since then”.

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As a child, I suspected that Rockabill was a ship. It has a chimney. It has a tender for the coal, just like a steam engine. It definitely moves, shunting up and down the horizon, depending on where you are standing. You need to keep your eye on it to see how it moves. Walk along the coastal path and it follows you, sometimes hiding behind the islands and then slipping out suddenly to surprise you with a new vista. I painted a picture of it and was roundly abused by a man who could see it when he was shaving every morning.  “Where’s the gap?” he challenged me. “There’s a gap between the two rocks.”  “Not where I was standing,” I replied lamely. “I was further to the south. Everything depends on your point of view.” He snorted derisively. “You’re wrong, you know,” he insisted. “There’s a gap.”  There is a gap.  A German U Boat sat up on that gap at low tide to effect repairs. It then went on to torpedo the mailboat Leinster  with great loss of life. My father missed that boat, because he went on the beer. Who says that beer is bad for your health?

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How could you do trigonometry anyway, with all those noisy neighbours? The rocks are covered by clouds of kittiwakes, terns and gulls, shags and cormorants. Look at your man showing off, the king of the castle. Little guillemots bobbed and dived on the calm surface of the water.  There is abundant guano, often deposited in elegant triangles, the apex pointing to the nest. The British War Office appointed the artillery branch of the army to begin the great Ordnance Survey of Ireland. Ordnance relies on mathematics for accuracy. They began at Poolbeg Lighthouse in Dublin Bay, fixing the Ordnance Datum (OD) at a low  spring tide and triangulated from that point, covering the whole island with a web of triangles. They then went on to anglicise all the place names, e.g.  Skeheenarinky. It sounds like gibberish. It was Sceachín an  Rinnce , the little thorn bush of the dancing—The Little People dancing  at midnight in the moonlight. Be wary of the Little People.  There are stories and myths in the old Irish place names, if you have the time and patience to tease them out. The Ordnance Survey nailed everything down. Now they use GPS and satellites to keep everyone in their sights. Even the OD has moved to Donegal. We have come up in the world.

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Alice took us around the rock in a gentle curve. The islands swam from one point to another. The birds screamed at our intrusion. Perhaps they knew that Mike was about to catch some of their fish. We spliced the main brace to christen Michael’s new boat. A porpoise rolled on the surface. He shrugged and went below. Porc pisces —sea pigs?  A gannet dived like white lightning. We noted a few brown jellyfish drifting languidly in the tide. Alison and Margaret took time out. Where else would you rather be?

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I looked out this morning to check on that gap. The Rockabill was gone. There was a sea mist. Maybe, of course, it had merely gone walkabout. There was a time when it warned us of fog. Waw wah, waw wah, like a sick cow. It was a comforting sound when you lay in bed at night. Someone was keeping watch. Then it changed to Woop woop, woop woop. It had become a destroyer, steaming out of harbour to hunt for U Boats. Now it is silent. There is no need for watchers on the tower or foghorns to talk to the ships. All is electronic and of course, infallible.Tara, Rockabill, Harbour  end 065

There is a groove on the garden wall where the lighthouse keepers rested their telescope.  They focussed on the white wall of Flower and MacDonald’s coal yard. I was talking to a lady about this one time, when suddenly, to my surprise, she went into a spasmodic dance, waving her arms about like a mantis. I thought it might be because of some hypnotic power that I might have over women—but no. “What was that all about?” I asked. “I was saying goodnight to my Daddy,” she said. “We used to talk by semaphore at the  the coal yard wall.”

How the image  in the lens, of his little girl with her flags, must have warmed his heart , during his lonely vigil on Rockabill.