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Notes on Howth and the Howth Head Peninsula, County Dublin

Howth and the Bailey Lighthouse


When the ancient Egyptian cartographer Ptolemy sketched his map of the known world some 1900 years ago, he sketched the Howth Head peninsula on the north side of Dublin Bay as an island. Some hold that Howth was also known to the Phoenicians.

In the ensuing centuries, sands deposited by the present village of Sutton created a land bridge which connected Howth to the mainland. The terrain embraces gentle heather-clad hills and dramatic cliffs, as well as 570 acres of conserved land, much if it bog and yellow gorse. This is where Leopold Bloom proposed to Molly in James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’.

The charming village of Howth, with its enclosed harbour and lighthouse, is located on the north side of the peninsula with two islands, Ireland ’s Eye (a bird sanctuary) and Lambay Island just off shore. Aideen’s Grave, a huge, semi-collapsed dolmen, or ancient burial site, can be found in the grounds of Howth Castle, which was home to the St. Lawrence family for an astonishing 835 years.


Illustration: Derry Dillon

The Giant Irish Deer


Now part of Howth Golf Course, the Hill of Howth was once home to a herd of Giant Irish Deer. This luckless species arrived in Ireland with the melting of the ice about 15,000 years ago. However, the return of cold weather in about 9000BC killed the grasslands that provided its staple diet and the deer died out. The emergence of woodlands also reduced their ability to move as their massive antlers spanned up to 3.5 metres (11.5 ft). One theory suggests their antlers became so big that they could no longer outrun their predators.[1]


Viking Origins


The word ‘Howth’ derives from the Norse ‘hoved’, meaning headland. The town was developed by Norse Vikings in the 9th century and some of the peninsula’s older families were of Norse origin, namely Hartford, Thunder, Rickard and Waldron. After their defeat in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, the Norse Vikings are said to have regathered their surviving forces beneath the present-day Bailey Lighthouse. They are also reputed to have departed from Howth in their longboats following the Anglo-Norman conquest of Dublin in the 1170s.


Almeric’s Legacy


2019 marked the end of an astonishing 835-year occupancy of Howth Castle by the Gaisford St Lawrence family. They descend from Sir Almeric Tristram, a warrior from Brittany in France, who defeated the local tribes in a battle that was reputedly fought at Evora Bridge, near Howth railway station, on St Lawrence’s Day in 1177. He was granted the Lordship of Howth as a reward and took the name St Lawrence in honour of the day the battle was fought.  The family became Earls of Howth in 1767 but the titles died out with the death of the 4th earl, a bachelor, in 1909.


The Bailey Lighthouse


Built in 1814, the Bailey Lighthouse stands on the rocky southeast tip of the Howth peninsula, guiding ships through these foggy waters. Designed by George Halpin Snr, this replaced a lighthouse that had been built on the summit of Howth Hill in 1790. It is said that a light had been kept burning on that site since the early ninth century. In 1667, an official light signal was placed here to warn ships of the danger at night. Despite the Bailey Lighthouse, the Dublin packet steamer ran into the nearby cliffs in 1846, while over 80 lives were lost in the Queen Victoria shipwreck in 1853. In 1996, the lighthouse became the last Irish lighthouse to go automatic. The last Keeper exited the premises in 1997.




The first steam-packet left Howth for Ireland in 1816 but by the late 1820s the harbour entrance was too narrow for most of the new steamboats. The mail steamers transferred to Dún Laoghaire in 1834. The harbour remained popular with fishermen, its fishery supplying the Dublin market.

Howth was linked to the Dublin and Drogheda railway line in 1846.


The King’s Feet


The design of the east pier and lighthouse at Howth Harbour is attributed to Captain George Taylor, who resigned in 1807, having built himself a fine house with the same granite used for the harbour. Howth House was later home to Sir Walter Boyd, designer of the Howth 17 yacht. It narrowly avoided demolition in 1990 and is now the HQ of the Olympic Federation of Ireland. Supervised by John Rennie, Howth Harbour was complete by the time King George IV’s yacht arrived on 12 August 1821, his 59th birthday. With a belly full of goose pie and Irish whiskey, he came ashore on the West Pier; an imprint of the precise spot where his royal feet first stood was cut out by a stonemason and can be viewed to this day.[2]


A Day At The Races


The back gate and lodge leading to Howth Castle were built on the proceeds of a racehorse named Peep O’Day Boy who won the Chester Gold Cup in 1848. The chestnut stallion was owned by the 3rd Earl of Howth, a dominant figure on the 19th century horse-racing scene and co-founder of the Dublin Horse Show. From 1829 until 1842, Lord Howth hosted his own races at Howth Park. The course began at the back-gate on Carrickbrack Road and circled Corr Castle before returning along the Howth Road. Corr Castle, a 15th century tower house, was converted into a grandstand for the well-to-do spectators. [3]


An American Architect


Illustration: Derry Dillon

Howth marks the final resting place of Daniel Robertson, an eccentric and prolific architect who left his mark on such well-known Irish mansions as Kilruddery, Powerscourt and Lisnavagh. An American of Scots origin, he grew up between South Carolina and Georgia before training as an architect in London.

Having gone bankrupt in 1830, he moved to Ireland where he lived until his death in Howth in 1849. His designs include Lisnavagh House, my family home in County Carlow.

Lord Powerscourt recalled how Robertson  ‘suffered from gout and had to be wheeled out … in a wheelbarrow with a bottle of sherry, and as long as that lasted he was able to design and direct his workmen.’


The Last Tram


The Hill of Howth tramway was not only the highest but also the last of the world’s open top trams when it made its final journey in 1959. [4]  Constructed in 1901, and run by the Great Northern Railway (Ireland), the Howth Tram followed a circuitous route from Sutton around the southern side of the peninsula before climbing over the Hill of Howth and terminating at Howth station. In its early years, it ran every 15 minutes and each tram connected with a train. The electric line was demolished after its closure, but four trams survive to the present day, including the No. 9 tram, which is now exhibited at the National Transport Museum of Ireland at Howth Castle. One of the trams was used to carry all the cables, poles, overhead wires and rails back down from Howth Hill.


Derry Dillon’s illustration of Mary Spring-Rice and Molly Childers unloading guns after the Howth gun run. From the Past Tracks panel at Howth railway station.


The Asgard Gun-Run

On 26 July 1914, the Asgard sailed back into Howth after one of the most daring gun-runs in history. Skippered by Erskine Childers, a well-known spy novelist (and future revolutionary), the yacht was secretly carrying 900 German rifles and 19,000 rounds of ammunition. Standing on Howth pier, waiting to collect the arms, were around 800 members of the Irish Volunteers, an organisation pledged to defend Irish Home Rule. Among Childers’ five companions for the trip were his American wife Molly, the daughter of the physician credited with introducing the first rabies antibodies to the US, and Mary Spring Rice, a cousin of the British ambassador to the US. It was Mary’s ingenious idea to use private yachts to collect the guns.

For a fuller account, see my report on the Asgard run here and on Mary Spring Rice here.


The Russian Mutineer


In 1905, a young sailor named Ivan Beshoff joined the crew of the ‘Potemkin,’ a battleship of the Imperial Russian Navy. Shortly afterwards, the crew launched a bloody mutiny in protest against their maggot-infested food, an event seen as a harbinger of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and, in turn, the Cold War. After the mutineers surrendered, Beshoff fled through Turkey to London, where he met Lenin, before moving to Ireland and settling in Howth in 1913. He initially worked for a Soviet oil distribution company and was twice arrested as a Soviet spy. After World War II, he opened a fish and chips shop on Howth’s Harbour Road, which evolved into the five celebrated ‘Beshoff Bros’ stores run by Ivan’s grandsons today.  When Ivan died in 1987, aged 102, he was the last survivor of the mutiny. [5]


The Medical Officer


Earlscliffe, Howth, where Pauline McClintock Bunbury lived from 1866 until her death in 1876.

From 1901 to 1919, Earlscliffe House on Howth was the summer residence of John Pentland Mahaffy, mentor to Oscar Wilde. It then passed to the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral whose daughter Ella Webb was medical officer with the St John’s Ambulance Brigade (SJAI) during the Easter Rising. [6] She set up an improvised emergency hospital at 14 Merrion Square, borrowing linen, bandages and other necessities from neighbouring houses. She also cycled daily through the firing line to visit the hospital, where both sides were treated. Awarded an MBE in 1918, Dr Webb was the first woman appointed to the Adelaide Hospital’s medical staff.  A renowned paediatrician, she famously prescribed a teaspoon of Guinness for infants recovering from gastroenteritis. In 1930 she sold Earlscliffe to Dr Sir John Lumsden, founder of the SJAI and a great hero of the Guinness brewery, about whom I have written for my Guinness podcast, here.[7] For more, see the excellent website of Earlscliffe House here.


The Young Ones


Scott Young, father of rock legend Neil Young, lived in Howth from 1990 to 1993. The soft-spoken Canadian, who died in 2005 aged 87, was a well-known sportswriters and author of over 35 books. Scott, who described Howth as ‘his second favourite place to live’ after his homeland, fell in love with the country when, as he put it, ‘Ireland beat England 1-1’ during the Italia ’90 World Cup campaign. Neil visited his father in Howth and walked the cliffs with his band Crazy Horse. He also dropped into The Pier House in Howth, unannounced, to see a local traditional music band in action.


Dangerfeld’s Home


The scurrilous Sebastian Dangerfield lived at Balscaddon in the opening chapters of J.P. Dunleavy’s Dublin epic ‘The Ginger Man’.


Jack Higgins – An Appreciation


Jack Higgins – Lola’s Dad –




With sincere thanks to David Foley, Dermot Quinn, Roger Stalley, Patsey Murphy, Jamie Cahalane and Vincent McBrierty.


Further Reading


[1] The skeleton of a female was found in 1886, followed by the head and antlers of a male two decades later. See Irish Times, 3 November 1906, p. 7, or Henry Stokes, “On Irish Elk and Other Animal Remains Found at Howth and Ballybetagh, Co. Dublin.” The Irish Naturalist, vol. 23, no. 5, 1914, pp. 113–118. According to Stokes, the female remains were found 1886-7. The place where the elk was found was called the Bog of the Loughs in 1906 but Roger Stalley advised me by email in 2019: ‘The reference to the Bog of Loughs was a real puzzle. It was obviously well known a century ago but nobody seems to have a clue about it now – I asked a keen member of Howth golf club who had never heard of it. It may be what is now known as the bog of frogs, which leads straight onto the golf course, though there is a patch lower down that might well have been boggy. Guess the golf groundsmen would know – must ask them.  The danger is that innocent visitors will be wandering the hill looking for the unknown bog !’

As to theory of elks demise, Roger adds: ‘A geological colleague suggests that the demise of the deer may have been due to its inability to consume enough calcium and phosphorus in order to grow a fresh set of huge antlers each year !  I prefer your over weighty antlers theory !’

[2] King George wore a plain blue coat, buttoned close, and a foraging cap with a gold band. The weather was fine.

[3] The Lord of Howth’s racing colours were black and white. There is a picture of the castle from 1820 here and of Corr Castle here.

[4] Roger: ‘I thought there must be cities over 1000 feet above sea level with trams. Even if there were, I guess it’s the elevation from starting position that counts !’ Its depot was close to this station, with a steam-powered generating station behind it. A battery house on the summit was charged from Sutton until 1930 when buying electricity current from the ESB proved cheaper. Following the closure of the tramway, the line was demolished.

[5] For further information, see Beshoff Bros history here and image of Ptomekin ship here.

[6] Dr Ella Webb was a daughter of the Dean of St. Patrick’s who became a renowned paediatrician. She studied mortality among children in Dublin under one year old, which was abnormally high in 1915 and did pioneering work in preventative medicine with children. She became famous for prescribing a teaspoonful of Guinness for infants recovering from gastroenteritis! On the outbreak of the Easter Rising Dr Webb, a senior member of the St. John Ambulance Brigade (set up by Lumsden above), swiftly turned the Irish War Hospital Supply Depot in Merrion Square into a temporary emergency hospital. In a few hours, she had recruited many doctors and members of the St John Ambulance Brigade, enabling the hospital to carry out its first operations soon after. Dr Webb cycled daily through the firing line to visit the hospital and to arrange for more supplies, often stopping on her way to help those injured. After the Rising, Webb continued her work with the St. John Ambulance arranging accommodation for those families left homeless after the rebellion. In her later life, Webb was renowned for her work in paediatric medicine in Ireland and is also reputed to have appointed the first Medical Social Worker (or Almoner as they were then known) in Ireland. With the help of the Overend family in Dundrum, Dr Webb later founded the Children’s Sunshine Home in Stillorgan which was originally a convalescent home for children suffering from rickets in the early 1920s. With thanks to David Foley.

[7] Sir John Lumsden was Chief Medical Officer for Guinness and did much philanthropic work for them. At the brewery, he guessed that the high rate of tuberculosis amongst Guinness employees was probably connected to overcrowding in their homes. In 1900, he got the approval of the Guinness board to spend two months inspecting the homes of each employee in order to ensure that they lived in proper housing and to look for ways to prevent or treat the disease. He also studied the diets of the employees and established cookery classes for the wives of Guinness employees. He helped to set up the first Guinness sports club. He was most famous, though, for setting up first aid training for Guinness staff, who he later used to found the St John Ambulance Brigade in Ireland.  This brigade was active in the Dublin Strikes of 1913 and in the Easter rising in 1916, where Lumsden risked his own life to tend to the wounded from both sides. In his later years he also organised the first blood transfusion service in Ireland and founded what would become the Irish Blood Transfusion service. Finally, there are rumours that, as Chief medical Officer at Guinness’s, it was Lumsden who encouraged the use of the slogan “Guinness is good for you” … With thanks to David Foley.