Sandymount in Dublin Ireland is where I grew up and lived for the first 30 years of my life.
It is a seaside district on the south side of Dublin Bay, with the greatest expanse of open sand imaginable at low tide.
It’s been a while but I thought that I’d go down recently to visit my childhood.
I drove down and I parked by the tower, walked down the long gone horse ramp, and stood there on that huge stretch of wet rippled sand, with the south pier in Blackrock on my right and the Great South Wall on my left, both dimmed by distance.
There were ships in the bay that seemed to sit on the strand rather than on the water.
The home of many crabs and the odd tidally compromised flatfish, still stoically faces The Tower. The Victorian bathing place, now crumbling and covered in graffiti, was already fifty or sixty years into ruination, by the time we played there, catching crabs.
A Martello tower, ‘The Tower,’ with its castellated canon positions facing seaward, was one of the defensive forts ringing the coast of Ireland, bristling with over lapping firepower, waiting for the Napoleonic invasion fleet that never showed up.
It was obsolete and probably Canon-less, when Victorian ladies bathed their ankles in its shadow. It was the tower café fifty-five years ago when I was a child.
The pleasant Promenade with the absurd ‘contemporary’ sculpture wasn’t there in my reverie.
Once upon a time the tide had deposited lovely soft yellow sand, like at Brittas Bay in the same area as the prom occupies today.
I wonder is the sombre ‘Encircling Tide Warning’ sign still there?
Even without the promenade, there was always the chance of meeting the profoundly benign, and intellectual Father Kelly, a priest from the star, walking along the Strand Road path, dressed in his long black robe with a Biretta (not a gun) on his head.
He walked around Sandymount for years, cogitating and talking to himself.
If we met he would stop and look down at me, in a kindly way, saying something like
“Ah James, me thinks it is one quarter moon since last we met and converseth on things intellectual.
How ist thou, and how progressith thy pursuits in academia?”
Of course I had no idea what he was talking about, but I loved to hear those exotic words, sounding like a foreign language almost.
The memory of that long dead priest is as intrinsic to my recollections of Sandymount as the tower.
Ignoring the warnings on the sign, I’ll walk across the rippled sand to the nature walk to continue my ramble.
The Strand can be deceptive as we were warned by our Ma’s “don’t let the tide come in behind you”
We lived in fear of that evil tide encircling us while we splashed and played, even though the water was mostly never more than 2 feet deep.
I use the nature trail rather than swim the Cockle Lake, the tidal phenomena of the strand.
As the tide comes in, it chiselled out a channel of deeper water between Sandymount and the Great South Wall.
Probably the evil tide our Ma’s and the sign warned us of.
The channel which was the Cockle Lake, used to be in the middle of the Strand and was, perhaps 8 feet deep.
Since then, the old dump was reclaimed, and it became possible to walk from Sandymount to the Shelly Banks via the nature walk.
Whatever freak current causing the Cockle Lake was diverted, and now runs along the edge of the reclaimed land.
As I walked across the sand, I see backwards in time the half sunken porter bottle of Ulysses.
The sun was hot as I scrambled up the boulders, the rock armour that marks the edge of the old dump.
Standing at the top with the strand behind me, in front is the reclaimed land on top of what had been ‘The Municipal Waste Disposal Facility, and is now Sandymount nature reserve.
Our parents never tired of warning us to stay away from the former, full of dangers full of disease full of rats and full of adventure.
.There was once a lake of rainwater in the dump, where we sailed the upturned roofs of cars, don’t ask me who cut the roofs off or where they came from? They were just there.
It was like a magnet for us, but practically every time I went there, it caught me out.
One time, we were playing football on the newly grassed ‘green’ in front of the dumps fence, when a man asked us to help him lift a car engine out to his car.
There were four of us, but I was wearing a newly (I could still smell the camphor mothballs) arrived from America, Baseball jacket from my auntie in California.
The jacket was red, and it had all of the major league baseball club crests sewn down the front, it had been sent to me for my birthday.
First of all, I had hardly crossed the threshold when my feet got tangled up in wire from a burnt out tyre, and I fell into a pool. So I was wet before I did anything.
Of course, even though the man gave each of us half crown, a fortune to us in those days, I got oil smeared on the front and the back of my jacket, and while it wasn’t a lot, it was noticeable and necessitated specialist cleaning by my ma.
We went to Robinson’s newsagent shop with our half crowns, and I bought my ma ten Players No 6 cigarettes, a bag of Milky Mints, the RTV television guide and luxury of luxuries, for me, a large bar of Cadbury’s milk chocolate.
Mrs Robinson regarded us quizzically, as we bought never before even imagined extravagances.
Even after all that, I still had money left.
I got a good hiding for nearly ruining my new jacket, and coming home soaked after being in the dump. But the chocolate was delicious.
The dump itself was hidden from the public behind a long corrugated iron fence, which ran west from the pigeon House Road to the newly grassed, reclaimed ‘green,’ fronting the Strand Road from Ringsend Park to past the Star of the Sea infants school, ‘The Star’. The colloquial name for the corrugated iron fence was the ‘tins’.
While they were reclaiming the land in front of the ‘tins’ it became a very dangerous place.
Me and my pal from the later longline adventure, went over to see just how dangerous.
Huge earth moving trucks and bulldozers had deposited thousands of tonnes I would guess, of topsoil, creating mountains and valleys of black wet muck, the perfect place to play.
We were even warned about in school.
In one of the valleys we encountered a lake of liquid mud, which would not have been out of place on the Somme or Ypres.
Luckily we encountered it only up to our knees, we managed to back scramble up the slope to safety, but our shoes and socks were mud caked, and I knew I was in for another hiding, if my transgression was found out.
To the front of our Georgian house on Tritonville Road, there was a sunken area, which was known as the ‘area’.
In this ‘area’ the long water pipe from the roof ended in a 45° angle, delivering whatever water came from the roof to a large shore.
I concocted a plan to sneak in to our house, knowing that my ma was busy in the kitchen at the back, preparing meals for our lodgers and the family.
I would steal two pairs of school socks from the dresser drawer in my parent’s bed room, and on the way back down; I would pick up some of the old newspapers, collected for me to light the fires in the evening, to clean our shoes.
Good plan, except what to do with the socks and the dirty newspaper? Collectively we decided to stuff them up the drainpipe, which we did.
If it had never rained again, I would have gotten away with it, but it did and I had simply put off the hiding.
Water poured from the gutter down into the area, it still drained down the shore, so we were not in imminent danger of flooding.
But da was a pipe fitter, and it would never do for water to be cascading out of the gutter above like Niagara Falls.
When he pulled the socks and newspaper out of the drainpipe, he half turned and shouted, “Jimmy”.
The smell from the dump could not be fenced in, an unpleasantly pungent stink of fetidness particularly, powerful throughout the summer.
Living near there in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s meant that habituation to bad smells was mandatory.
The stench is gone now, buried deep under the nature reserve.
This reclaimed green, not to be confused with the actual Green in Sandymount village, ran parallel with the Strand wall as far as the old Shelbourne stadium, beside ‘the drain’
Between Irishtown and the Pigeon House road, and had once been Sandymount Strand.
When Mrs Byrne exhorted us to go to the green and play, I for one felt confused
as to where we should go.
Me and a pal set a nightline near the edge of the dump to catch all those huge fish that came in on the flooding tide. We painstakingly attached twenty hooks to a long piece of fishing line. We anchored each end with heavy iron bars, and then baited each hook with rag worm, dug from the Liffey bank on the Pigeon House road at low tide.
The whole exploit was at least a week in the preparation, and our entire investment
was lost in a night time twelve hours.
We could hardly sleep with excitement, and we met on a sun filled and hushed summers morning, at the ridiculous hour of 6:30 AM to retrieve our catch.
And as we walked towards the Strand we discussed what we would do with all the huge fish, soon to be ours.
Even my dog, Tara seemed caught up in the excitement as she danced along beside us, tongue lolling.
At the junction of Cranfield Place with Strand Road, a police light blue Avenger car, passed us as we waited to cross.
He stopped, reversed back, rolled down his window and enquired as to what we were doing at that hour of the morning.
“We set a Nightline and were going to collect the fish”
“drop a big one into the barracks later” said the Garda.
Tara did her usual run and jump over the wall on Strand Road onto the green, as soon as I released her, it was a game. She waited patiently for us to run across and jump onto the top of the wall, and then down after her.
Once on the grass it seemed perfectly normal for us to run, with Tara bounding happily along between us.
It was when we got to the rock armour and the angle of the corrugated iron ‘Dump’ fence that we suddenly realised that the Strand was very big, and we hadn’t really taken any notice of where we put our Nightline.
The tide was sort of out, there were two or three inches of water covering the sun dappled, rippled sand. Nowhere could we see twenty big fat hooked fish flapping in the shallows.
We didn’t actually know if the tide was coming in or going out, so we paddled around for a while, and then got bored and called off the search.
We were worried that we would have no fish for the policeman.
No one was up yet and we were feeling tired, so we went home and went back to bed. Tara seemed confused.
I walk now through the nature reserve and towards the base of those huge chimneys.
They just stand there, looming benignly over everything, like red and white striped Pillars of Hercules, or perhaps more appropriately, the ‘Pillars of Ulysses’.
I think that Mr Joyce would approve.
On the countless flights home from work into Dublin, they could be seen from way over the North side on approach to the airport, sticking up through the murk of low cloud if necessary.
I remember when they didn’t “just stand there”. During my childhood I watched them climb resolutely towards the sky.
The steeplejacks who built them came from Bristol in England, and they stayed in our houses. Terry Hayward stayed in Mrs Byrnes, our next door neighbour.
We were full of lodgers at the time, so the steeplejacks stayed in Mrs Byrnes and Mrs Crowley’s.
Mrs Crowley had a double house, so most of them stayed there.
Terry was a giant of a man. He he came back from a weekend at home on
his BSA Bantam and others in his Morgan Roadster. We called the Morgan a sports car, because it didn’t have a roof, and it was magnificent to our childish eyes.
Terry was kind and brought us all on joy rides on his Bantam and in his Morgan,
‘hare arsing’ around the quiet leafy streets of Sandymount.
Poolbeg lighthouse, we called it just ‘he ‘Red Lighthouse’, sits at the end of the Great South Wall, which in my childhood we called the Pigeon House and the Shelly Banks.
The light house is redder now than it ever was when we were kids.
That wall, a breakwater, was designed by Capt Bligh of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ fame. He did a good job as it does too. The channel doesn’t silt up any more and the wall is still standing, the south side of the rivers mouth.
We hunted mackerel & cod on the deep side, all through our long ago summers, it was like a game, and we once caught a conger eel, which we carried back on a brush handle, like porters carrying the trophies of African big game hunters.
We would swim in the Shelly Banks or the Costello’s, then fish near the lighthouse until dusk, when the nocturnal rats scurried from their nests among the gaps in the great granite slabs.
There is no smell anymore.
Long ago, anywhere near the Pigeonhouse Road or the Shelly Banks, there was a distinctive Odour which tussled with the evil fumes of the dump, eventually overpowering them as one came closer to its source. Again it was an odious stench requiring habituation.
It was the smell of sewage!
The old settlement tanks, there really is no way of telling you about this sewerage system without putting a very fine point upon it.
Just before the Pigeonhouse Fort and Hotel, on the left is where the local raw sewage was collected and treated, by what means I have no idea.
Those tanks were clearly visible from upstairs on the number 1 bus from Ringsend to the Shelly Banks.
Before I was old enough to make the journey across the strand, swimming the Cockle Lake, I must have been brought to the beach by one of my older sisters, which meant a walk to Ringsend, to catch the elusive number 1 which might come sometimes, or not.
I have a vivid flash bulb and olfactory linked memory from one of those trips, where
a young fella, hardly able to contain his excitement at going to the seaside, exclaimed loudly in his best Ringsend accent, as we passed (almost passed out from the effluvium) the settlement tanks, shimmering enticingly in the sunshine.
“Are dey deh swimmin pules?”
There was a Dublin corporation boat known locally as the ‘Lord Mayor’s yacht’ which, waited patiently, moored in the river alongside the treatment plant.
After settlement, the boat was loaded with the solid waste, and it then steamed out to the Kish bank, almost totally obscured by its squadrons of screaming seagulls, where the bottom opened to discharge their cargo.
The liquid, left behind in the tanks was dispersed through diffusers in the tail race, of the cooling water from the ESB’s generators.
You may wonder how I am familiar with such details, so as a sidebar to this story, I can tell you that a mere thirty-five years ago, I worked as a professional diver in those very tail races, however that is a story for another time.
Mullet simply adored the combination of warm water and sewage, permanently emptying into the rivers mouth..
Back in the real old days before the new ESB generating station, at the base of those chimneys was built, the ‘hot waters’ as they were known, was on the Pigeon House Road, across the road from the old ESB generating station.
The mullet actually leapt out of the water to announce their presence or maybe to cool off momentarily because the water actually steamed.
If we wanted to simply catch fish, not for consumption, for conger bait or for no reason, the hot waters were the place to go.
However, when we were being serious anglers seeking mackerel, cod, sea trout and the occasional conger eel, which tastes exactly like cod by the way. We had to walk the length the great South Wall to the Red Lighthouse. Although in late summer, the mackerel sometimes chased the fry all the way in to the grand Canal Basin.
Mackerel follow herring fry, so whenever we saw the surface dimpled by the little
jumping fish, we knew that the mackerel were below them in vast shoals and we
deployed our feathers, catching two or three beautifully silvery and black fish with every cast.
There were not enough Dunnes Stores bags to hold all that we caught. I often brought them home strung through their gill covers on a piece of fishing line, like Tom Sawyer I’d imagine.
I liked cod or conger, but I brought home bushels of mackerel for consumption in our house, and my uncles and aunties up the road. Actually it was difficult, despite the seas bounty, to keep our four lodgers, my Ma my Da and my uncles and aunties fed.
Walking slowly from the strand to the great South Wall unleashed a flood of
childhood memories, so clear, so bright, so happy. I could almost smell that smell.
How everything has changed, the incinerator seems to work well, and is not
quite the eyesore that my father feared it would be.
The sewage treatment plant does its job, most of the time and it is so efficient indeed, that it takes
‘Production’ from Baldoyle, and there is no smell anymore.
The Lord Mayor’s yacht has no doubt been long since scrapped,
The absence of odour of a municipal dump, and a Victorian era raw sewage treatment plant means that Sandymount and the Pigeon House Road is now prime D4 real estate.
The eighteenth century hotel, built in response to the success of ‘Mr Pidgeons House’ an impromptu rest and feeding station, opened by the eponymous and commercially cute Mr Pidgeon, a way station almost, where the famished and fatigued Napoleonic and early Victorian era mail packet travellers, were rested fed and watered, when they disembarked from, or embarked to, one of the ‘packet’ ships plying the route between Dublin and Holyhead. A week’s journey in the eighteenth century. and not without its risks.
My ma’s granduncle, Capt John McGowan, unrepentant Fenian, master mariner and all of his crew, was lost when his ship the ‘Reaper’ went down off Anglesey on 4 October 1878.
He is remembered on the Mansfield ‘Sea Pole’ monument in the Catholic cemetery in Skerries.
Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa wrote of him in the Brooklyn daily Eagle.
“in connection with the rescue of James Stevens, a cooler or a braver Irishman is not on Irish ground”
The fort was built in Napoleonic times, contemporaneously with the Martello towers, in response to the threat of invasion from France at the end of the eighteenth century.
It was designed to protect the mouth of the river. The huge castellated granite slabs are there still. They fed our overactive childish imaginations half a century ago.
The hotel and the fort are currently being renovated.
Further down the pigeon house Road towards the city is the Poolbeg yacht club, anchorage now for some sleek and beautiful boats.
Noely and Leo’s idea has grown into a world-class Marina.
I even had a hand in the early days, sign writing the original Poolbeg yacht club sign,
and then diving, to position the first few moorings on the rivers bed.
These places were not just my childhood playground, their importance continued into my teens and adulthood.
One could not tire of the view from a seat on the promenade at the tower, or out through a wind and rain lashed, wiper cleared, car windscreen down at the ‘Shelly Banks’.
Growing up there was a privilege. Our fathers worked, our mothers kept house and looked after, their invariably large families. They took in lodgers or sewing to make ends meet, and us children came and went in our carefree world, a world centred on Sandymount Strand and its environs.