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Notes on Dalkey, County Dublin

Illustration: Derry Dillon.

 

I attended Castle Park School in Dalkey from 1980 until 1985. Here are some short accounts of the Dalkey hawks and the Atmospheric Railway, of Matt Damon, Tom Hanks, and Harry Styles, of the Kingdom of Dalkey, a gold rush and a woman who tried to kill Mussolini, of Flann O’Brien, Maeve Binchy and the evolution of Sorrento Terrace, Vico Road and Monte Alverno, amongst other tales.

NB: If you’re planning on a trip to Dalkey, its recommended that you arrive by DART and either amble around the town or walk from the station along Coliemore Road and Vico Road to the DART station in nearby Killiney.

 

 

The Woman Who Shot Mussolini

 

Illustration: Derry Dillon.

Born at Beulah House, Dalkey, Violet Gibson shocked Europe in 1926 when she attempted to assassinate the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini.[1] Edward Gibson, her father, was once principal advisor on Irish affairs to the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli and became Baron Ashbourne. A passionate anti-Fascist, Violet moved to Rome in 1924 where she shot Mussolini two years later. Her bullet scraped the bridge of his nose, but Il Duce was otherwise unharmed. The fifty-year-old Irishwoman was immediately arrested and later transferred to a psychiatric asylum in England where she died in 1956. For the full account of Violet Gibson’s life and death, see here.

 

Gold Fever

 

In 1834, Etty Scott of Dalkey Hill had a powerful dream in which she saw Viking warriors burying gold under the Long Rock by Coliemore Harbour. The following day, a large group of quarrymen and miners followed the ‘beautiful, kind-hearted’ girl to the rock of her dreams. For months on end, they toiled with hammer, drill and blasting powder while Etty looked on, clasping a rooster. When the gold was found, the bird was to be knifed to ward off evil spirits. Luckily for the chicken, there was no sign of the treasure. Etty may have taken comfort when Ireland’s first passenger railway reached Dalkey in 1837. Many miners promptly sold their land to villa developers – for gold.

 

The Dalkey Atmospheric

 

The Dalkey Atmospheric. Illustration: Derry Dillon.

The line of the present-day Atmospheric Road was formerly a horse tramway built to bring rock from Dalkey Quarry to Dún Laoghaire during the construction of the harbour in Bligh’s day. In 1844, the tramway was converted into the Dalkey Atmospheric Railway line. This remarkable project was conceived by Quaker businessman James Pim after he saw a trial run at Wormwood Scrubs in London in 1840.[2] He persuaded the sponsors of the line to abandon their plan to replace the tramway with a light railway in favour of this pioneering concept. The technology was patented by Samuel Clegg of Clegg and Samuda who offered to not only charge no royalties but also to pay the Dublin and Kingstown railway portion of the receipts from other railways to which the invention would, as was hoped, be applied. The line was funded primarily by a loan of £25,000 from the Board of Public Works.

Built by William Dargan, ‘The Atmospheric’ was the first railway of its type in the world. A pumping station by the Barnhill Road bridge was linked to a vacuum pipe sunk between the rails that basically sucked the steam-engine and its carriages upwards. The uphill journey was started by a push to initiate momentum although there were apparently occasions when the more muscular passengers were requested to help give it a push start.  The return journey ‘downhill’ to Dún Laoghaire (Kingstown) was powered by simple gravity.[3]

Brunel was among those involved in the debate on the Atmospheric Railway. He visited the line in August 1844, along with a number of directors from the GWR who wished to build a railway from Kingstown to Wicklow, Waterford and Wicklow. There was also a plan for a cross-channel service to connect to a railway to a new port being constructed called Fishguard. Brunel was the engineer for the Dublin and Wicklow Railway, which extended the line around Bray Head and down to Wicklow. He was also responsible for converting the atmospheric railway into a conventional railway.

 

The Dublin & Kingstown Railway

 

The Dublin & Kingstown Railway line was completed in 1834, a decade before the Atmospheric. Its costs were elevated because the line was ‘forced’ underground at various points by local landowners who did not wish for their marine views to be interrupted by this ghastly contraption. When the railway cut off direct access to the foreshore from Maretimo, his Blackrock home, Lord Cloncurry insisted that he be provided with a footbridge. (Despite the bridge, he sold up soon afterwards.) Along the cliffs at Shangannah, the line had to be relocated due to coastal erosion. At least one Martello tower fell into the sea there.

The effect of the Dublin & Kingstown Railway was to introduce day-trippers from Dublin to Dún Laoghaire, which became Ireland’s first seaside resort, while Sandycove, Dalkey and Killiney likewise developed into seaside resorts as the rail network expanded.

The line was closed to allow for conversion to 1,600 mm (5 ft 3 in) (Irish gauge), thus bringing it in line with the Dublin and South Eastern Railway.

 

Famous Dippers in Dalkey

 

One of the more positive global stories of the Covid-19 pandemic concerned Hollywood star Matt Damon. He was in Ireland filming scenes for “The Last Duel,” Ridley Scott’s medieval epic, when the lockdown came into force. The actor and his family spent 3 months isolating in Dalkey, renting Formula 1 driver Eddie Irvine’s house.

Fans were somewhat stunned to see Matt walking through the seaside village carrying a SuperValu shopping bag stuffed with swimming trunks and beach towels, and heading down the steps leading to the Vico Baths.  As the international press began zeroing in, the people of Dalkey responded with a campaign to ‘Leave him be![4] The actor subsequently declared Dalkey ‘one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been.’

In June 2022, Harry Styles replicated Mr Damon’s move when, on the eve of a sold-out show at the Aviva Stadium, he and his girlfriend, actress and director Olivia Wilde, also took a dip by the Vico Baths. Instead of a swimsuit in a SuperValu bag, Mr Styles appeared to be carrying a Tower Records bag full of Guinness. The couple were accompanied by actress Eve Hewson, daughter of U2’s Bono.

Bono was also spotted having a pint with Tom Hanks in the locality after the Hollywood legend appeared at the 2023 Dalkey Literary Festival. Mr Hanks discussed his bestselling book “The Making of Another Motion Picture Masterpiece” with BBC presenter Andrea Catherwood.

Lindsay Lohan disclosed that she had stayed in the town while filming the 2024 rom-com Irish Wish.

When Michelle Obama visited Finnegan’s (aka the Sorrento Lounge), the pub was closed while she enjoyed a drink in private.

 

Of Romans and Normans

 

Humans have been knocking about Dalkey since the Bronze Age. The presence of Romans in Dalkey is indicated by late- Roman and post-Roman shards, while Dalkey Island was reputedly used as a slave trading centre / prison during the same period.

Having been a hub for some early Christians, Dalkey developed into Dublin’s main port during the medieval period, which explains why the seaside resort has seven castles.

In the wake of the Cambro-Norman invasion, Dalkey was granted by the English Crown to Hugh de Lacy, Constable of Dublin and Justiciar of Ireland. In 1176, he gave the land to the Archbishop of Dublin, who established the Manor of Shankill from where he controlled the lands of Dalkey, Killiney and Shankill. The Talbot family also arrived at this time. (See ‘The Dalkey Hawks’ below.)

 

The Dalkey Hawks

 

In the late 12th century, the land on which the southern end of the Vico Road is now located was granted to the Talbot family, forming part of their estate between Rochestown and Dalkey. They were granted the ‘Vico’ lands in return for an annual rent of one goshawk, as in a bird. In 1369, Reginald Talbot was fined when his goshawk was found to be “unsound, unfit, and of no value, and inasmuch as the same was a fraud on the Court, and a grievous damage to the King”.

Dalkey was famous for hawks – hence, Hawk Cliff on Dalkey Commons – and today peregrine falcons still nest in the area. The peregrine falcon, which is protected under European and national legislation, is the fastest creature on the planet, and can dive at speeds of up to 200mph to strike its prey.

 

A Piratical Eyesore

 

On 1 March 1766, four pirates were tried in Dublin’s Admiralty Court for the murder of Captain Cochrane, Captain Glass and others on the high seas, as well as plundering and scuttling their ship, Lord Sandwich. The four men were found guilty and executed in St Stephen’s Green two days later. The court decreed that after the sentence was executed their bodies should be ‘hanged in chains,’ two of the corpses were gibbeted on ‘the Piles below the Blockhouse in Poolbeg,’ and the other two on ‘the New (South) Wall, below McCarrell’s Wharf.’ The latter two, however, proved a disagreeable sight to the Dublin citizens who called for the removal of ‘this eyesore.’

As the Dublin Courier observed on Monday 24 March 1766.

‘The two Pirates Peter McKinley and George Gidley, who now hang in Chains on the new South Wall, (for the Murder of Capt. Cochran. &c.) being disagreeable to the Citizens who walk there for their Amusement and Health, are immediately to be taken from thence and put up on Dalkey Island; for which Purpose (as much Fault has been found with the Irons they hang in) new ones are making. Richard St Quintin and Andres Zekerman, the other two concerned in this cruel Affair, are to remain on the Piles where they were first put up.

On All Fool’s Day, McKinley and Gidley bodies were duly removed to Dalkey Island and fixed in “new irons.” [5]

 

The King of Dalkey

 

The Kingdom of Dalkey was created in the 1780s and peaked in 1796 when over 20,000 people attended the coronation of Stephen Armitage, a pawnbroker and printer renowned for his singing excellence. [6] The crowning ceremony was a huge event and appears to have been an excuse for a monumental piss-up. King Stephen’s other titles included Emperor of the Muglins, Prince of the Holy Island of Magee, Baron of Bulloch and Sovereign of the Most Illustrious Order of the Lobster and Periwinkle. In the wake of the 1798 Rebellion, there was a clamp down on such public gatherings.

The monarchy was revived in 1850 for King Henry I (aka Henry Hughes, a turner and block-maker) [7] and again in 1966 for King Norman (aka Noman Judd).

 

Strawberry Hill House

 

The Judd family lived in Strawberry Hill House on Vico Road, built circa 1829. Michael Judd, J.P. was in the house in 1916 when he claimed for damage done to properties in Dublin City Centre during the Easter Rising. His son Noman Judd, a water polo player who twice represented Ireland at the Olympics, became King of Dalkey. Norman married a Malteser and he was an Honorary Consul for Malta. [8] The house was later home to Def Leppard rockers Joe Elliot and Rick Savage.

 

Little Italy

 

There’s a hint of the Azzurri in Dalkey with house names such as Ravenna, La Scala, Milano and Monte Alverno. All the places named Sorrento recall a town in the Bay of Naples, including Finnegan’s pub, also known as the Sorrento Lounge. Vico Road, where Bono lives, derives its name from the Neapolitan word ‘vicolo’, meaning a narrow alleyway. Nerano Road shares its named with a fishing village on the Amalfi Coast. [9]

 

The Evolution of Sorrento

 

The land running out to Sorrento Point was known as Dalkey Commons into the late 1800s. The name ‘Sorrento’ would appear to have been supplied by the Rev. Richard MacDonnell (sometimes McDonnell), provost of Trinity College Dublin from 1851 until 1867. (His wife Jane was a daughter of the  Very  Rev.  Richard  Graves,  Dean of Armagh.)

In 1833, Sorrento Cottage was given as the address of the Rev. MacDonnell’s son Robert, when he had died aged 21 having lately earned high honours at Trinity College Dublin. The cottage remained a home for the MacDonnells until sold to the playwright Lennox Robinson, who hosted plays in the garden. In about 2000, it was bought by Harry Crosbie, who sold it to U2’s The Edge. The cottage stands directly below Monte Alverno.

The Rev. Richard MacDonnell was the developer behind Sorrento Terrace, working in conjunction with the architects Frederick Darley and Nathaniel Montgomery. The original plans proposed a terrace of 22 houses but, amid the turmoil of the Great Hunger, only eight were built over a 30 year period between 1845 and 1874. The first to be complete was No.1, known as Sorrento House, which became the MacDonnell’s principal house. The eight houses were very high spec and cost about £1,000 each, a considerable sum at the time. They were built by a local man, Masterson, who was simultaneously building the clubhouse for the Royal St George Yacht Club. I found records of a Sorrento Terrace plasterer (Geraghty) and constructor (Patterson) in 1847.[10] There were also covenants in place about painting the houses different colours and building extensions.

The filmmaker  Neil Jordan owns two (adjoining) properties on the terraces. Author Katherine Tynan supposedly lived on the terrace for a while.

After the completion of No. 1, the rest of the project was overseen by the Rev. MacDonnell’s son, the Rev. Dr Hercules Henry Graves MacDonnell.  He was the founder of the Trinity College Choral Society and, when the first [?] Wagnerian Festival was held in Bayreuth in 1876, he organised a delegation to represent Ireland.

The mews / stables for Sorrento Terrace are some distance away on Sorrento Road, all now converted or rebuilt as private houses.

Sorrento Heights is a modern cliff top development on the site of an old house once known as the Khyber Pass Hotel. (A cottage at its base was exotically named Fort Jamrud until renamed something more ‘ordinary’ a few years ago). Close to Sorrento Heights is Mount Salus, a pair of houses. One of these was occupied by Cardinal Newman during the time when he was establishing what is now UCD in the 1850s.  He wrote to his sister “…the place is as beautiful as it is healthy. The house is on the rocks which rise above Dublin Bay – and commands a view of the whole coast and headlands. The Wicklow Mountains are seen out one window, Howth and Kingstown out the other. I never saw a place out of Italy and Sicily like it for beauty of rock and sea…”

 

The Dalkey Quarry

 

The Dalkey quarry supplied the blue-grey granite used to build the harbour at Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire), as well as the Gothic cathedral of St Colman’s in Cobh, designed by Pugin, and Kylemore Abbey. The Kylemore architect JF Fuller had wanted to use local stone but Mitchell Henry insisted on Dalkey granite and had it shipped by boat to Letterfrack and then carted to the site.

 

The Residents of Monte Alverno

 

There is an asserted De Selby link with Monte Alverno, a Gothic mansion on Sorrento Road, overlooking Killiney Bay. It was built by a successful tailor named Conan who rented out gowns to TCD. They also owned the ‘De Selby Works’ (‘Quarries’?) in Tallaght, for which the De Selby Road is named. One of the Conans, a cousin of Arthur Conan Doyle, was an inventor and a daughter married a scientist, Prof. Conway of UCD. The Vico Bath was created by the Conans of Monte Alverno. (For more on the Conan family, see here.)

There are four houses on the grounds of Monte Alverno, the main house having once been home to Sir Edward Carson, who first came to prominence as the barrister who cross-examined Oscar Wilde in a libel trial.

A second house belongs to Eddie Irvine. A third was built by Van Morrison and his wife Michelle Rocca but they broke up during its construction and Van never lived there. The fourth house is owned by Conor and Eileen Kavanagh of DC Kavanagh, publishers, who were embroiled in several High Court cases with Ms Rocca, since settled. Renata Coleman and her late husband owned Monte Alverno for several years. After his death, she sold it to Fonsie O’Mara and bought Humewood Castle in Wicklow.

 

The Dalkey Archive

 

Published in 1964, The Dalkey Archive is the fifth and final novel by ‘Flann O’Brien’, aka Brian O’Nolan, one of the funniest writers in Irish history.  It follows the exploits of De Selby, a crazy scientist who plans to destroy the world by extracting all the oxygen from the air, a process that also allows him to produce fine mature whiskey in a week. One of de Selby’s theories is that night is simply caused by the accumulation of ‘black air’. James Joyce appears in the novel, pulling pints in a Dalkey pub and musing about joining the Jesuits. As Bob Frewen observed:

 

Flann O’Brien and Deco’s Cave

 

Flann O’Brien wrote The Dalkey Archive for money. Thus, as Bob Frewen observed, he ‘lifted’ bits out of his book, The Third Policeman. ‘The conversation with St. Augustine in the underwater ‘cave’ relates to an old lead mine the opening of which is located on White Rock Beach, known by old-timers as ‘Deco’s Cave’. Who Deco was we don’t know, but he lived in it for a while and is supposed to have been a discharged WW1 soldier. There is another small cave half way up the cliff (under the railway) next to the Vico bathing place and this possibly dates to the ‘Dalkey Gold Rush’ created by Etty Scott in the 1830’s. Quarrymen from Dalkey and other squatters who occupied Dalkey Common were subsequently bought out by developers who built villas, mainly between what are now Coliemore and Sorrento Roads.’

 

Maeve Binchy (1940-2012)

 

A garden behind Dalkey Library is dedicated to the novelist Maeve Binchy, who was born in Dalkey in 1940 and raised in what she recalled as a ‘big shabby happy house with very loving parents who sadly died young’. Her siblings included Joan (who has written for children) and her brother William (who was one of my law lecturers at Trinity College Dublin in the early 1990s). [11] Maeve, who was educated at the Holy Child Convent, Killiney, published her first novel, Light A Penny Candle,  in 1982. She went on to write over 20 books, all of them bestsellers, selling sold over 40 million novels. In later life, she lived next to Finnegan’s, aka the Sorrento Lounge. She was married to the writer and broadcaster Gordon Snell, and died on 30 July 2012. She was cremated and buried in Dalkey.

 

De Courtenay’s Army

 

On 6 May 1385 a large army landed at Dalkey under the command of Philip de Courtenay, an Englishman who served 10 years as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland under his cousin, King Richard II. Courtenay was the fifth (or third) of eight sons born to the 10th Earl of Devon. He excelled as a naval commander, confronting pirates and provisioning convoy expeditions to fight against the French, Spanish and Irish. From Dalkey, he led his men into the Irish midlands and the Wicklow mountains, and to put manners on the warring FitzGerald and Butler clans. He later inherited Powderham Castle in Devon.

 

General Facts

 

Dalkey Castle & Heritage Centre occupies the original Castle of Dalkey. In the 17th century, it became known as Goat Castle after its new owners, the Chevers family, whose name derived from the French word chevre, meaning goat.

 

Dalkey Harbour was designed by Captain William Bligh, best known for his dramatic escape during the Mutiny on the Bounty in 1789.

 

Castle Park School was built pre-1845 for the Right Hon. Baron John Richards, a protégé of Daniel O’Connell. It became a school under Wilfred Parker Toone circa 1903. When I was at the school in the early 1980s, I was in Toone House.

 

In 1866, while George Bernard Shaw’s family were living at Torca Cottage, Dalkey Hill, the future scribe attended the Halpin’s school on Sandycove Road. He returned there again for a stint in the winter of 1868/1869.[12]

 

Dalkey was home to Col. Percy Collingwood Burton and his wife Christabel Rose Harmsworth – a younger sister to press barons Rothermere and Northcliffe. His father William George Burton also lived in Dalkey.

 

In 1902, the newsagent and bookseller Charles Eason of Harvieston, Dalkey, was President of the Presbyterian Association. His nephew F.T. Eason was honorary auditor of the same association. This was presumably the Dublin printer, stationer and bookseller Frederick Tucker Eason, who was born in 1865. While he and his mother were Baptists in 1901, his older sister Caroline Vause Eason was Presbyterian. There is also record of William Waugh Eason of Yeovil, Bushy Park Road, bookseller.

 

During the battle for Mount Street Bridge in Easter 1916, Rev. Hall of Dalkey, a Protestant clergyman, and two Catholic clerics called Fr McNevin and Fr McCann, helped tend to the wounded.

 

There is a restored ‘Eire 7’ sign on Hawk Cliff, just after the tunnel.

 

Cyril Cusack and his fellow actor Denis O’Dea once shared a flat on Vico Road, along with Harry Webster and Liam Redmond. [13]

 

The Buddhist Zen master Do Chong Poep Sa was born Paul W. Lynch, the first son of an American Indian/ Irishman from Roby, Texas and an Irish mother born in Dalkey. See here.

 

Malcolm Macarthur, a wealthy socialite who shocked Ireland with a brutal double murder in 1982, sought refuge in Dalkey before his capture. He was found at Pilot View, the home of his old acquaintance, the then-Attorney General, Paddy Connolly, who was subsequently compelled to resign.

 

In 2020, Coliemore Harbour was closed after part of the granite bedrock in its wall fell into the harbour. The Coliemore Harbour Remedial Repair project was completed in December 2023 and the harbour is open once more. Ove Arup was the lead consultant, and PJ Edwards was the main contractor.

 

Acknowledgments

 

My sincere thanks to Bob Frewen, Sarah Owens, the Dalkey Historical Group, the late John Rogers, Vanessa Butler (former curator of Dalkey Castle and Heritage Centre, who wrote the script for the museum with High Leonard), Margaret Dunne (manager of the Dalkey Castle & Heritage Centre), Dr Patricia McCarthy (Castle Park), Derek Jago (Ulverton Road),

 

Further Notes

 

[1] Beulah House was home to the Dunlop family for a few decades in the mid-1900’s.

[2] The technology was patented by Samuel Clegg of Clegg and Samuda.

[3] Bob Frewen adds: ‘I always understood that the pumping station, located near the bridge on Barnhill Road was operated on a vacuum principle – it created a vacuum in a tube between the rails and when a piston linked to the carriage was engaged the carriage was ‘sucked’ up the track. The tube was sealed with overlapping leather flaps covered with tallow. These were resealed (inefficiently, required human intervention usually) by a hot plate passing over them. There was a story common in Dalkey when I was growing up that the line closed due to the cost of maintenance, rats eating the leather/tallow.’

[4] Shane O’Brien, ‘Irish locals shoo New York Times reporter away from Matt Damon’ (Irish Central, Apr 19, 2020, here).

[5] The Irish Times, 31 January 1930

[6] Kendal Mercury, 17 October 1840, p. 4. See also Dalkey Island and the King of Dalkey.

[7] Freeman’s Journal, 1850, here.

[8] Norman Judd was a 1926 water Olympian. Apparently swimmers used to grow their toe nails long so they could scratch their rivals underwater!  Mike Judd is Norman’s son.

[9] Bob Frewen adds: ‘From memory our house (part of Strawberry Hill) was built 1829. Houses of a similar age have ‘ordinary’ names – e.g. Fernhill, Mount Eagle, etc. Other houses have Italian names – Ravenna, La Scala & its neighbour Milano(!), San Elmo, etc.’

[10] Freeman’s Journal, 5 February 1847, p. 3.

[11] Her cousin Dan Binchy and nephew Chris Binchy are novelists. The Cumann Merriman also established a €1,000 Merriman Short Story Competition in her memory. In 2014 the University of Dublin announced the first annual Maeve Binchy Travel Award to help student winners ‘pursue a novel travel trip to enhance their writing skills’.

[12] A Bernard Shaw Chronology, by Anthony Matthews Gibbs, p. 26/27). (Other sources suggest a school was run by run by William Halpin in Lawson’s Terrace, Sandycove, but presumably this is an error).

[13] After Denis O’Dea’s death in November 1978, Cyril Cusack applauded Denis for ‘the spirit of brightness, youth and comradeship’ he brought to the Abbey, a spirit which doomed ‘the pantomimic spectres of pessimism, cynicism and disillusionment … to diminish and topple back into obscurity where they belong’. Cusack and O’Dea had once shared a flat on Vico Road, Dalkey, along with Harry Webster and Liam Redmond. Denis had been working as a reporter in Sligo during the 1920s where he became, to quote Candida from The Irish Times, ‘one of Lady Gregory’s pets and she regaled him on barm brack baked in Gort’. He enjoyed acting and in 1930 won a gold medal for his role in a play at the Dublin Drama Festival. He then joined the Abbey whereupon Ernest Blythe sent him off to Dunquin to master Irish. On An Abbey tour to America, he befriended Jimmy Cagney, an ideal guide to speakeasys’ during the Prohibition period. His starred alongside the likes of Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, and was one of the leading members of the Abbey in the 1930s and 1940s. Denis’s other films include John Ford’s The Plough and the Stars (1936), where he played Young Covey, and The Fallen Idol (1948), Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn (1949), Disney’s Treasure Island (1950), Mogambo (1953), Niagara, (1953), The Rising of the Moon (1957), Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), and Esther and the King (1960). He was President of the Actor’s Union for eight years. The Irish Times described him as ‘a great sportsman, fisherman, racegoer and card player’, well liked for his ‘wry and gentle humour and his capacity for self-effacement, an endearing and unusual quality in his profession … an outstanding Irishman who did much to raise the dignity of the actor’s calling and the reputation of the Abbey at home and abroad’.