19 March 2012

A visit to ‘Howth Castle and Environs’

Howth Castle gas been modified, renovated and restored over the generations, incorporating work by Francis Johnston, James Pain, Francis Bindon, Richard Morrison and Sir Edwin Lutyens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

The bank holiday weekend continued today, with the Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations dragging on for a third day, and a bonus Bank Holiday Monday for 19 March.

I was supposed to be in Christ Church Cathedral this morning, for a meeting with Patriarch Gregory III Laham, Patriarch of the Church of Antioch and spiritual leader of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. However, the meeting was postponed due to unexpected illness, and after dropping into the cathedral briefly this afternoon, two of us headed out to Howth, which is about 15 km north east of Dublin.

Bank holiday traffic made the journey a little longer than expected. The locale of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) novel is “Howth Castle and Environs,” and our first stop was at Howth Castle, the private residence of the Gaisford-St Lawrence family since the Middle Ages.

The name Howth is thought to be of Norse origin, perhaps being derived from the Danish word Hoved (head). The Vikings first invaded Howth in 819 and Howth remained in hands of local Irish and Norse families until the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in 1169.

Howth Castle, been home to the St Lawrence family and their descendants since the late 12th century, has sweeping views across to the isthmus at Sutton and over to Portmarnock (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Howth Castle dates back to 1177 when Almeric, the first Lord of Howth, came to Ireland with John de Courcy. Legend says that on the feast day of St Lawrence, 10 August 1177, he won a battle at Evora Bridge, close to Saint Mary’s Church of Ireland parish church. This victory secured him possession of the Howth peninsula, and in gratitude he is took the saint’s name, St Lawrence, as his family name.

His descendants still own Howth Castle and live there, although the house has been extensively altered by succeeding generations.

The best-known story associated with the house is that of the abduction of the heir of Howth by Gráinne Uaile, Grace O’Malley. Tradition says that around 1575, Grace O’Malley, who was returning from a visit to Queen Elizabeth in London, landed at Howth and marched up to Howth Castle, hoping to be invited to the table to dine with Lord Howth and expecting to secure food and other provisions for her voyage back to Mayo.

But she found the gates of the castle closed against her, and took offence at what she regarded as a breach of the ancient Irish customs surrounding hospitality. When she noticed Lord Howth’s heir on the shoreline gazing at her ship, she abducted him and took him back to Clew Bay. He was returned only on securing the promise that the gates of Howth Castle would never again be closed at dinner hour and a place would be laid at table for the unexpected guest.

To this day the extra place is laid at the dinner table in Howth Castle. But it seems their little truth behind the custom or the legend. Grace O’Malley did not visit Queen Elizabeth until 1593, and in that year there was no heir of the right age to match the story.

The house took on its current appearance in 1738. In 1810, Richard Morrison designed a Gothic gateway, for William St Lawrence, 2nd Earl of Howth. Francis Johnston proposed alterations in 1825, as did James Pain, and Francis Bindon proposed alterations in 1838. Richard Morrison partly executed his planned alterations of around 1840 including the gothicisation of the stables.

In 1909 when the last Earl of Howth died, the house was inherited by his nephew, Julian Gaisford. Soon after, Sir Edwin Lutyens renovated and added to the house in 1910-1911. Lutyens restyled a 14th century castle, incorporating parts of the original bawn and towers survive, including the large gateway tower. He added or renovated the tower, loggia, corridors, library, and a chapel, a three-bay two-storey library block, built in the form of a tower house, with basement and dormer attic, and square-plan corner turrets to the south-west and north-east facades, incorporating the fabric of earlier renovations in 1738 and the 1840s.

The contents of the house include what is said to be the Great Sword of Howth, allegedly wielded by Almeric in 1177 but more convincingly dated to the early 15th century. There are paintings, furniture, fine china, photographs and books, and the Kitchen in the Castle Cookery School operates from the original Georgian kitchen in the house.

Behind the castle, on the way up to the Deer Park Hotel, there were sweeping views across to the isthmus at Sutton and Bull Island to the west, and the sands at Portmarnock to the north. On clear, sunny days, these views must be stunning.

Sitting outside Il Panorama on the Harbour Rpad in Howth this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

From Howth Castle, we drove back down the hill, through the open and welcoming castle gates, passing Saint Mary’s Church of Ireland parish church, and parked at the harbour for a late lunch in Il Panorama.

Howth was a trading port from at least the 14th century, with both health and duty collection officials supervising from Dublin, although the harbour was not built until the early 19th century.

The rays of the late afternoon sun shine across the harbour at Howth (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2012)

From Il Panorama, instead of searching for an opportuniyy for a beach walk, we went for a stroll by the Yacht Club and out on the East Pier, with clear views of Ireland’s Eye, the first home of Christianity in Howth. The tiny island of Ireland’s Eye there is a ruin of a small chapel originally built in 530 AD and Saint Nessan and his three sons are said to have lived and worshipped there. The island is also associated with the Garland of Howth, a Latin manuscript of the New Testament now in the library of Trinity College Dublin.

Climbing the steps to Howth Abbey (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Returning along the East Pier, we walked on into Abbey Street, and climbed up steps to the ruins of Howth Abbey, the site of the first church in Howth.

The church was founded by King Sigtrygg (Sitric) of Dublin ca 1042. Around 1235, the old church was amalgamated with the church on Ireland’s Eye and a new church was built by Archbishop Luke of Dublin on land granted by Sir Almeric St. Lawrence.

Little remains of either of these churches and most of the present abbey building dates back from the late 14th century. The church was a collegiate church, served by a college of priests, who lived in a house to the south-east of the church.

The parishioners of Howth worshipped in the abbey until about 1630. After that, worship was conducted in Lord Howth’s private chapel near Howth Castle.

The church ruins at Howth Abbey look down on the harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The present church ruins at Howth Abbey date from the second half of the 14th century. The building was modified in the 15th and 16th centuries, when the gables were raised, a bell-cote was built and a new porch and south door were added.

The St. Lawrence family of Howth Castle also modified the east end of the church as their private chapel. The abbey church was closed this evening, but through the grilles we could catch a glimpse inside of the tomb of Christopher St Lawrence, 2nd Baron Howth, who died 550 years ago in 1462, and his wife, Anna Plunkett of Ratoath.

Behind the ruined church, there was a panoramic view across Howth Harbour and Ireland’s Eye. Perhaps this is the view that gives Il Panorama below its name. It was an eyeful indeed on an unexpected and extra holiday.


Unknown said...

Great informative commentary, filling me in on where I am privileged to be currently residing.

Interesting to read that the story of Grainne and the kidnapping does not hold up to historical fact!

Thanks for all the compact and fascinating detail of this most beautiful area,

Rachel Brew

Unknown said...

Great informative commentary, filling me in on where I am privileged to be currently residing.

Interesting to read that the story of Grainne and the kidnapping does not hold up to historical fact!

Thanks for all the compact and fascinating detail of this most beautiful area,

Rachel Brew