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Clontarf - A History

By Brendán Mac Raois.

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Clontarf is familiar to Irishmen everywhere from its association with the defeat of the Vikings by Brian Boroimhe in 1014. The name - the Plain of the Bull- derives from the rumbling noise which was made by the sea as it rolled over the sandbanks in the Inbhear Dubh-linne, the bay of Dublin. The bellowing sound however is heard no longer, as the construction of the North and South Walls completely changed the environment.

Two hundred years ago, Clontarf was a rather isolated coastal village and access to it from the city,other than by sea, would have been along what is now Summerhill and the Malahide Road with a south turn at Artane through the present Killester and Castle Avenues. It was part of the district of Cianachta and later of Fingal. Arelic of the old Cianachta remains in the name of the River Naniken (Abha na gCian), which flows through St.Anne's Park.

The First church in Clontarf was founded by the great abbot of Bangor, St. Comgall, around 550, and it would have been a part of the evangelical efforts from the monastery and school of  St.Mobhi at Glasnevin to the area from Fingal to Swords and Sutton.   St. Comgall was the patron of Clontarf until, with the advent of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, he was supplanted by St. John the Baptist.

The Cemetery at Castle Avenue in Clontarf. Click to Enlarge


The Battle of Clontarf of Good Friday, 1014  was fought along the banks of the River Tolca from Glasnevin to Ballybough, but as the Vikings summoned by Sitric to his aid had beached their boats on the strand of Clontarf, it was here that their final rout was accomplished. Holy Week in 1014 would have witnessed much activity in Clontarf as the Vikings set about their bivouacs, furbished their battle axes around the camp fires and made ready for the coming battle. No doubt it would have been a week of ordeal for the inhabitants though it is likely that they got some compensation from the impedimenta left behind.

The progress towards the establishment of a stable order of government in Ireland after Clontarf was finally frustrated by the arrival of new invaders. The Normans, greedy for the land and power, immediately set about enforcing their foothold and one of them Adam de Pheope, erected the Castle of Clontarf . He had however to yield to royal pressure, and here Henry II, as part of his penance for the murder of St.Thomas a Beckett, established a priory of the Knights Templar. On their suppression in 1307, the property passed to the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, whose headquarters in Ireland was  in Kilmainham .

The Tudor desire for absolute power and the unbridled lust of Henry VIII shattered the quiet medieval tenor of the people's lives. in 1529, John Allen a friend of the king and of his chancellor Cardinal Wolsey, was appointed Archbishop of Dublin and it is likely that he was one of those who provoked the young and imprudent Lord Fitzgerald (Silken Thomas) to take up arms against the King in 1534. The early success of the rebellion made it imperative for the archbishop to leave Dublin and he fled by boat. By contrary winds or more probably by treachery , the boat was driven ashore at Clontarf and the archbishop journeyed up what is now Castle Avenue to seek refuge with his friends, the Holywoods at Artane Castle. Here on 28th July 1534, he was murdered by the Geraldine followers . His death lost Silken Thomas much of his support and the defeat of the rebellion gave the king   the opportunity to break the independent spirit of the great Anglo-Irish nobles and to implement in this country his seizure of Church property.

Clontarf Cemetery

On 22nd November 1540 the priory of Kilmainham was surprised and its property surrendered to the king. This would have included the estate at Clontarf, but it would seem that the last prior, John Rawson, had anticipated the move because, in 1538, he had leased Clontarf Castle, and here he died in 1547.

To Meet the disruption to Church organisations which had been caused by the Reformation, Archbishop Eugene M'Mahon (Matthews) called a synod in Kilkenny in 1618, and he amalgamated into a single unit the former parishes of Clontarf, Raheny, Coolock, Killester, Artane, Santry, Glasnevin and Clonturk (Drumcondra). The First parish Priest of this extensive district was Rev. James Drake, and he resided at Artane under the protection of the Holywoods. In the Protestant organisation , Killester was merged with Clontarf, and in 1609 the old parish church beside the castle, which had fallen into disuse and disrepair, was restored for Protestant worship.

Times were uneasy, and the government's demand for complete submission in religious as well as civil matters forced the people to recognise that in conscience they must resist. The treachery of Eoin O Conghaile led to the failure of the Rising in 1641 in the city of Dublin. It received, however, widespread support in Clontarf as it did in most of Fingal, and a proclamation from Dublin Castle specifically mentions 'rebel activity' both on land and sea at Clontarf, Raheny, and Killbarrack. To strike terror into the people, Sir Charles Coote, the puritan general, marched from the city and burned the village of Clontarf and the boats and special attention was given to the destruction of the residence of George King.It was the end of King family's connection with Clontarf. The district was given by Oliver Cromwell to his friend John Blackwell but he assigned his interest to John Vernon, who was the quartermaster general of Cromwell's army in Ireland. The Cromwellian plantations ushered in a new era- an age in which the opinions and welfare of the majority were subjected to the privileged of the few. The ascendancy of this small elite was reinforced by the victory at the Boyne in 1690. The majority were obliged to eke out their existence in miserable hovels and to practice their religion in secret. In 1714, a number of  people were charged with attendance at Mass in a house in Kilmore, Artane and each one was fined £40, a considerable sum in those days. among those on whom this penalty was imposed was Christopher Saver of Clontarf.

A feature of the 18th century was the development in the facilities of the port of Dublin. A proposal in 1728 envisaged the construction of a canal through the sandbanks at the mouth of the harbour with an entry at Clontarf and a channel crossing to Ringsend, but it was not adopted. The recommendation, however, of Captain Bligh (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) was put into effect. This was the construction of the North Bull Wall from Clontarf, which was built between 1820 and 1823. By diverting the river and the tidal waters into the narrow channel between it and the South Wall a sufficient depth of water was provided for large ships.

Prospects for industrial development in Clontarf opened with the discovery of a lead mine in 1756 but it had to be abandoned owing to inroads from the sea. Fishing was a major activity , and the oyster beds of Clontarf were notable in the 18th century. The sheds which have been erected at the foot of Vernon Avenue for the curing of fish gave that name to the locality. They were noted as having a adequate supply of water, provision for which had been made by local resident, Christmas Weeks*, who had arranged for the laying down of a mile-long pipe for this purpose. Farming was also widely carried on and there were slipways to the sea to enable the farmers to drive their carts onto the shore to collect seaweed for use as a fertiliser. Life for most of the people was, however, hard. In evidence to a commission in 1831, John Barlow of Sybil Hill mentioned that Clontarf was the property of the Vernons, that the farmers who held land under them were nearly all Protestants and that the majority of people were labourers who lived in thatched mud cabins with little or no furniture. He said that their clothes were poor and that their normal diet was potatoes and milk.

The establishment of Howth as the terminus of traffic from Holyhead and the improved access following the construction of a new road to the port from the city was followed by the erection of a number of substantial residences in Clontarf, Killester and Raheny districts. Around 1820 Dollymount (named after Dorothy or Dolly Vernon) was built on Mount Prospect Avenue and by 1839, it had given its name to the area. At the time the avenue was known as Blackbush Lane and its present name derives from a house situated where the Immaculate Conception Home  under the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul now stand. The principal residence of the avenue at that time was that of Dr. Traill at Baymount Castle. He was the Protestant Bishop of Down and Connor and on his death it became a school. In 1837 Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness purchased the estate of Thornhill, which he renamed St. Annes and to it later added the lands of Bettyvill, Charleville, Maryville, Sybil Hill and Bedford Lodge. His son Arthur (Lord Ardaulin) rebuilt the house between 1873 and 1875; it was destroyed by fire in 1943.

The influx of people to the area  increased as a result of the construction of the Dublin and Drogheda Railway in 1844. The original plans had envisaged that the course of the railway would run along the shore of Clontarf and turn inland to cross the Howth Road at Raheny, But objections from the residents and in particular from Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness caused it to be diverted to its present route. The great inpetus which encouraged many to make their homes in Clontarf came in 1880 when the horse-tram service was initiated between the city centre and Dollymount; this service was electrified in 1898.

The increased population called for more adequate religious facilities. The large parish north of theTolca created at the Synod of Kilkenny in 1618 continued up to the middle of the 19th century. It had its centre around Coolock but chapels had been built in various places within its area. In 1805 a chapel was opened in Clontarf and this replaced in 1835 by present Church of St. John The Baptist. From this time the parish came to be designated as Clontarf. In 1879 the districts of Fairview, Donnycarney, Drumcondra and Glasnevin were severed from it to form the parish of Fairview and thirty years later in 1909, a further division was made by which Coolock, Killester, Artane and Raheny were formed into the parish of Coolock while Clontarf became again a distinct parish.

Other denominations were also making arrangements to cater for the growing population. The old Protestant Church which had served Clontarf from 1609 was replaced in 1866 by the new Church of St. John the Baptist on Seafield Road, and in 1890 Clontarf Presbyterian Church was opened at the corner of the Howth and Clontarf Roads. in 1906, Clontarf Methodist Church was built at the foot of St. Lawerence Road.

Early in the 19th century, the Dominican nuns has established a convent at the corner of Vernon and Mount Prospect Avenues but they remained only till 1819 when they moved to Cabra. It was in 1890 that the Sisters of the Holy Faith established their Convent and School of Our Lady Star of the Sea adjacent to St. John's Church.

Clontarf had its political excitement in the 19th century with Daniel O'Connell's proposed monster meeting for 8th October, 1843; its intended venue is now the site of Clontarf Golf Course, in the days of the Fenians, a house, Kingscourt Mansion, was used as a refuge where the government afforded protection to informers: it gained the sobriquet 'Informers House'.

TheYear 1900 saw the incorporation of Clontarf into the City of Dublin. Life was leisurely and tranquil. The houses were mainly along the sea front and in the adjoining roads and avenues, with some larger houses inland, while towards Killester dairy farming was extensively carried on. Verville had been established as a private hospital in 1875, and the Incorporated Orthopaedic Hospital of Ireland had been opened in 1876 in Blackheath, the former residence of the Gibson-Black family.On Seafield Road was situated the Hibernian Marine School, which had been carried on in premises on Sir John Rogerson Quay.  The Clontarf Yacht and Boat Club , founded in 1875, had its centre on Clontarf Road , while a coastguard station, later to be partly burned in the troubled times of 1916-1922 stood on the Bull Island near the bridge.

On the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, the Bull Island was taken over by the British army for arms training but they departed after the Rising of Easter, 1916. The establishment of the Irish Free State necessitated the employment in Dublin of a larger administrative staff and as a result there was a demand for additional houses in Clontarf as well as in other suburban areas. The increase in residents made necessary the provision of a new church and the old town hall of Clontarf was acquired and adapted as the Church of St. Anthony in 1927. In 1931, the Dublin Port and Docks Board began a reclaimation scheme which, when completed, provided an improved roadway and an attractive promenade. The Guinness' estate of St. Annes was compulsorily acquired by the Dublin Corporation in 1939, and besides provision of housing, it was utilised to established nurseries, to form a magnificent rose garden and to lay out extensive areas for recreational purposes.

The population continued to expand and this became more rapid after the second world war. Housing estates began to cover the open spaces and most of the grounds of Clontarf Castle was laid out in residential roads. Another church was needed and St. Gabriels Church was built in 1953. in 1966, Clontarf was divided into the three parishes of St. Johns, St. Anthonys and St. Gabriels, and shortly after, a new church of St. Anthony was erected at the rear of the existing church.

History does not end and the people of Clontarf today, who are creating the chronicles of the future, have a proud tradition and a worthy heritage on which to build. Go gcoimeadai Dia dilis iad d'an-oidhreacht uasal.

This article first appeared in the Festival '84 magazine and this page is dedicated to the memory of the author of the article- the late Brendán Mac Raois.

*We have been informed that 'Christmas Weeks' is the correct name of this resident. Thanks to Jill Thomas of Victoria, Australia,  who has sent us further information on the contribution of Christmas Weeks to the development of Clontarf. See here for details of correspondence from 1786.  

This article is reproduced with the kind permission of Mrs Mac Raois.

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