Howth, Ireland: History, Fish, Pubs, An Unexpected Pirate Story, And More

Howth, Ireland: just a shade north east of Dublin — about fifteen kilometers or around nine miles to be more exact — has Vikings, Normans, a pub with a strange name, a prehistoric grave, a part in the Easter Rising, a working fishing fleet and a good bit of seafaring history to go along, challenging walks, inspiring views, a deep connection to the sea, and a pirate story with an uplifting conclusion.
Howth harbour Ireland by Christine Matthews

That’s a lot to be going on with, especially for such a small place. It’s got two lighthouses, a castle, a cookery school, and a radio museum, too, along with fine places to eat seafood and a thriving farmer’s market.

balley lighthouse howth ireland by David Dixon

Howth (it rhymes with both) is on the peninsula of Howth Head, facing out to Dublin Bay. People have been living in the area for thousands of years, though most is known about those who arrived in the twelfth century and later. The first earl of Howth was one of those twelfth century arrivers. He built a castle on the location where the current one stands. The castle you see now dates back about 700 years and the first earl’s descendants still live there. The castle is open for tours on occasional weekend days in summer. There is the well respected Howth Castle Cookery School that runs year round in the kitchens.

You can also see the old gate to the castle — a gate that was closed when Granuaile, Grace O’Malley as she’s also known, came to visit late in the 1500s. She wasn’t come in her work as a pirate but rather paying a courtesy call, and the story goes that her courtesy was refused. Later, when the young son of the family came down to the harbour to see her ship, she welcomed him on board — and sailed away. The ransom she asked was that unexpected guests always be welcomed, and that the grounds never be closed. To this day the estate, Deer Park, is open for you to wander. Among other things you’ll find large gardens and a prehistoric dolmen known as Aideen’s Grave. There’s also, in a stone tower, a museum of radio related material. There’s a golf course too.

Cliff Walk coast Howth Ireland by JP

You may want to walk along at least part of the Cliff Walk as well. Much of the area is designated for conservation and thus remains wild. In ancient legend, the Hill of Howth was once the base for the great Fionn MacCumhaill and his company. On quieter days you might be moved to imagine them as well as later visits from Vikings and Anglo Normans.

Howth is a twenty first century community, however. For many years it was a bustling port for both transport and fishing. Royalty and celebrities visited, and so did people bringing in rifles in preparation for the 1916 Rising. These days you will see the boats of a busy working fishery fleet, and can taste the catch in several restaurants, pubs, and fish and chip shops.

fish and chips

The Abbey Tavern, for instance, is located in a 16th century building which was once associated with Saint Mary’s Abbey, whose ruins you’ll see in the town. In addition to well liked Howth harbour chowder, smoked salmon, and fisherman’s pie, there’s a long running traditional Irish music night. Wright’s Findlater is three story building offering a bar with seafood, meat, and vegetarian mains, a Thai restaurant, and on the top floor Sky Bar, with views out over the harbour. Remember those Wright’s of Howth stores and displays you have seen? Same family. They have been smoking salmon sine 1892.

About that pub with the spooky name… The Bloody Stream is what it’s called. It’s a welcoming place (although in summer perhaps a bit busy with visitors) with a full menu of pub food, laced through with many seafood choices as well. There is live music of varying sorts most weekends. The name, in case you were still wondering, comes from the stream over which it was built, which got its name during a battle between the Vikings and the Anglo Normans in 1177. I imagine you can think why.

farmers market with cat

Among the other places to enjoy the catch of Howth’s fishing fleet is the weekend farmers’ market, which is held on the harbourfront on weekend days. Plenty of ready to eat seafood is on offer, and usually international fare as well. There are artists offering jewelry and other creations. Though the stallholders vary now and then, you’ll also likely have the chance to purchase all sort of fruits and vegetables, as well as handmade chocolates and other sweets.

Howth harbour Ireland by Christine Matthews

The chance to connect with history, explore landscape and get close to the sea, taste your choice of fresh seafood: all that is for you to explore on a trip to Howth. What I’ve said here is just a taster, really, and though it can get crowded on fine summer days and holidays, there is enough space on the coast walks that you’ll find your own quiet place if that’s what you seek. Howth makes fine day trip from Dublin, as it is readily reached from Dublin by bus or DART rail.

If you’d like a bit of music to go along with your trip to Howth, Cathie Ryan wanted to sing about pirate queen Grace O’Malley but wasn’t finding a song from the tradition she felt worked well for her, so she and guitarist John Doyle wrote one. It is recorded on Ryan’s album Somewhere Along the Road.

If Howth Castle interests you, you may want to listen to an episode on Ireland’s elites from The Irish Passport podcast. The episode begins with a visit to Howth Castle and a conversation with the current lord. During that visit journalist Naomi O’Leary discovers that one of the legends from the visit of Granuaile she grew up with (I grew up with the same story) is played out in fact to this day. Other voices and perspectives on the past and present of Ireland’s big houses and its Anglo-Irish aristocracy are heard through the program, and toward the end the lord of Howth offers a rather unexpected view of history too.

Photographs by Christine Matthews, David Dixon, JP, and Azer Koçul. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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