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.)


The high cost of living.

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Do you remember ‘your man’, Wordsworth? ‘I wandered, lonely as a cloud.’ ‘Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.’  His life overlapped with that of Charles Darwin. Two ways of looking at things. Natural Selection versus Mother Nature. What mother would subject her offspring to a ruthless contest for survival?  Springtime is the time for weeding out the weak. It is the time when the non-viable fall to the ground, seeds, insects, animals in countless millions. They fall victim to the strong. It is a random world; survival of the lucky. Wordsworth had his head in the clouds. Where is his poem about the plague bacillus or the anopheles mosquito? They are part of nature too. Darwin came closer to the truth. Yet ‘The Nature Poets’ dominate school curricula all over the English-speaking world. Darwin struggles to get a hearing.

In  Disney’s world, the lion lay down with the lamb. Bambi had no genitalia. In his splendid nature documentaries of the Fifties and Sixties, no kills took place on the African plains. By the way, Dumbo did learn to fly. The dancing black grouse were not angling for a mate and procreation. They were auditioning for a part in a movie. Nowadays, nature documentaries are all about killing and rutting…Nature red in tooth and claw. We thrill to the sight of the osprey taking the fish ‘by sovereignty of nature.’  So that’s all right then. Did anyone bother to ask the fish’s opinion? What do the krill tell their children about the vast, cruising, whale, with his constantly open mouth, devouring millions for dinner? Ironically, the biggest trawler on the west coast of Africa in recent years, was an Irish vessel. It hoovered up the shoals of fish in the ocean currents and devastated the fishing economies of the coastal communities. Ironically, because the Irish are the Most Oppressed People…Ever, the MOPES. It’s nature’s way, apparently. Darwin could explain it.

Wordsworthian profusion covered our pear tree. The insects turned up on cue. They queued up in fact, to do their business. ‘for summer hath o’erbrimmed their clammy cells.’ That comes a bit later.  When writing nature poetry, it ith obligathory to thay ‘hath‘.  It’s like prayer. You must use the language of the King James Bible. ‘And birds do sing, hey ding a ding a ding. Sweet lovers love the spring…’ ( King James’s contemporary, the other William).  We thrill  also to the song of the blackbirds, as they go about their murderous trade. ‘Forget the worm’s opinion too, of hooves and pointed harrow pins. For you are driving your horses through the mist where Genesis begins.’ It’s a jungle out there. The Monaghan poet accepts the cost of survival at the expense of others. He mentions dung in his poetry. Wordsworth would never sully his hands with dung.

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These are the losers and winners. Those not touched by the magic, fall to the ground, their potential cancelled out.  Countless others have ‘struck.’ (Verily, I should say ‘stricken’?) I look forward to devouring them.  It’s a parable. It was a Parable. Look around at the world and think of  the teeming millions whose potential never got off the ground; never even got to the starting line. You are the apex of an evolutionary process that has taken, so far, about four billion years. You have been selected. Now lace up your boots and get out there. Gird up thy loins and do your stuff. (Here endeth the lesson.)

Somewhat sombre thoughts on a morning when the birds are singing. There are ten new cygnets in the Kybe Pond. We must go and visit them today after The Rás. Hundreds of cyclists but only one winner.  He gets a kiss and a bunch of flowers. Well worth the effort. I hope he girds his loins, or they might catch in the derailleur and there would be weeping and gnashing etc. etc.


These little people are intrigued by the spring fall of seeds. These helicopters won’t get off the ground. They will have to wait for autumn and the real Sikorskys, from the sycamores.

I have to admit that I like old Wordsworth.

Oh evil day, if I were sullen.

While the Earth herself is adorning

This sweet May morning

And the Children are pulling on every side

In a thousand valleys far and wide,

Fresh flowers while the Sun shines warm

And the babe leaps up in his mother’s arm………..