Lambay Island (part 1)

Lambay Island. In this view, looking north-east from Malahide, the harbour with white buildings is to the left. The castle is hidden from view among the trees in the nearby dark green area.

Islands have a mystique of their own, and Lambay is no exception, as a trip around its rugged coast will prove. A sailing circumnavigation invariably offers a wide variety of wind, wave and tidal conditions.  It's surrounding waters are a very popular destination for anglers and for sailors who like to anchor in one of the many sheltered bays or observe the wildlife. The island is host to a very large and internationally important breeding population of seabirds and seals as well as deer and wallabies and rabbits.

Sea anglers find good fishing around the rocky shores and the various wrecks in the vicinity. A commercial charter boat operates out of Malahide marina offering fishing and sightseeing trips around the island.

The island is privately owned and landing is not permitted without the permission of the owners. Special interest groups are occasionally accommodated with a guided tour of the castle and gardens. The small permanent island community and those who visit (strictly by invitation) are served by  motor vessels  which ply between Malahide marina and Lambay harbour several times a week. The boat used for transporting animals and heavy goods is called "Shamrock". The boat used by the Talbots in the 19th century was named "SHAMROCK" and the Barings had a "SHAMROCK" in 1905 and so a long tradition is continued to this day.    

A Circumnavigation

We start at Tayleur Bay, just south west of The Nose on the east side and so called after the wreck of the Tayleur. In the 1850's gold was discovered in Australia and on the 19th January 1854, the largest sailing merchantman ever built in England left the Mersey on her maiden voyage from Liverpool to Melbourne. An iron vessel,  the Tayleur ran into storm and fog and struck Lambay on Saturday, 21st January. Of the 579 emigrants aboard, 80% of whom were Irish, only 250 women and children, only 3 survived. When the ship struck, the first man to jump ashore was the ships cook, a black man. He received little help from the islanders, who, never having seen a black man before, refused to open their cabin doors to him. However, Lord Talbot's steward did provide straw, oatmeal and potatoes for the survivors. The three main reasons for the Tayleur tragedy were the malfunctioning of the ship's compass which had not been asked to react to iron before, the unskilled crew,  who didn't understand the Captain's orders and thirdly, the ships compass not been swung, cargo laden, before it left the Mersey.

The captain, Captain Noble, was exonerated and his certificate renewed. The three day inquest on the tragedy was held in the newly opened Grand Hotel in Malahide and two bodies brought to the inquest lie buried today under the arc way of St. Andrews Church. Full burial rights were refused by both religions because of the lack of religious identification of both victims. A child survivor who stayed alive in the water, tied to a plank for 24 hours, became known as the Ocean Wonder. It was eventually adopted by a woman who had lost her whole family in Tayleur Bay.

The ship was rediscovered in 1959 by sub-aqua divers, who salvaged huge quantities of china vessels of willow pattern design as well as brass collars, shoes, bottles of wine, counterfeit money, fool's gold and uninscribed headstones. Obviously some of the emigrants were carrying their "trades" with them to Australia. Tayleur's binnacle and bell are to be seen to-day in the Civic Museum and Maritime Museum, Dun Laoghaire.

Today, other than the salvaged material, there is no memorial, no monument, and no reminder of what was one of the greatest sea-tragedies of its day.

Circa 1919 a second shipwreck occurred around here. The Shamrock, a Dublin-Glasgow passenger steamer cattle boat returning from a horse show in Glasgow ran aground. The horses escaped onto the island but when the tide went out the Shamrock slipped underwater. Thankfully, there were no casualties.

Moving around the island, past the Lord of Karry, we reach Seal Hole. Lambay has the largest concentration of grey seals on the East coast of Ireland and there are several caves in the cliffs much frequented for giving birth to their pups.. When the Malahide Talbots owned Lambay they developed it's hunting potential and seal shooting became a popular recreation there. There is a tradition on Lambay that if a boat could follow the seals, one could sail the under the island. Through the years smugglers certainly benefited by following the seals to find the best underground caves. Some years ago, Lord Revelstoke received an offer for seal meat from a Japanese importer, who intended making aphrodisiacs from the meat. The offer was turned down.

Moving on to Kiln Point, one can sit underneath a huge rock, sheltered from wind and rain. Here was where the wreckers plied their trade in olden times. Men walked the rocks with bobbing lanterns to lure unsuspecting ships onto the rocks. In bad weather the moving lantern resembled the moving lights on the masts of another ship. Once on the rocks, the wreckers went into action and slaughtered all hands on board to obtain their plunder.

Passing Sunk Island, which was once adjoined to Lambay and has some stone walls on top, we reach Bishops Bay. This is one of the better swimming areas in Lambay. Approx 100 years ago a body washed up here had in its possession a crucifix and other articles, which indicated that it was a bishop. Since then it is known as Bishops Bay or Dead Man's Bay.

Beyond this we pass Black Point. Next come Carnoon Bay and Talbot's Bay, both favoured anchoring spots for visiting yachts. Beyond Talbot's Bay the dangerous Burren Rocks jut out a considerable distance to the southwest with the extremity marked by a steel perch to warn sailors of the hidden danger lying just below the surface.

Soon we reach Lambay Pier, construction of which started in 1822. In 1927 when improvements were being made to the harbour, a buried graveyard was discovered. Though the graves were found in dirty shore sand, each individual hollow was filled with clear silver sand. All the bodies were in a crouched position. Unfortunately, before a full archaeological dig took place, the harbour builders removed the bodies, so the plan of the cemetery was lost. Over forty objects were found, indicating that Lambay had witnessed a very early settlement period and later, an internment period. Archaeologist, R. A. McAllister discovered artefacts dating back to the La Tene Period circa 500 B.C. These ornaments contained swirling patterns, curves and spirals, which at times turned into faces. This dreamlike art form, where nothing is as it seems originated in Lake Neufchatel, Switzerland. The finds strongly suggest trading with Roman Britain. Some articles found were copies of originals and one such Roman brooch was a perfect image of the genuine article except for the fact that the local who made it did not understand how the clasp worked. So the brooch was not capable of being worn, thus losing its main function. Other artefacts found in the 1927 dig include stone hatchet heads, lance heads, rims of cooking pots, ornamented ware, iron swords, shields, fragments of leather, grain-grinding docks, mortars and pestles and a ring still on a bone of the first joint of the middle finger.

An exceptionally rare Opah or King Fish was taken off this western shore in June1906. It was of bright red colour, 3 feet 7 inches in length and 2 feet in height. It is preserved in the Natural History Museum in Dublin. There was only one other Opah taken from the Atlantic and that was in 1851.

Moving on from the harbour we now reach Scotch Point with Tailors Rock lying some distance off. Here, a lighted buoy is maintained by Irish Lights to warn that the rocks are covered at high tide. It replaces a tripod perch which collapsed during Hurricane Charlie .

Broad Bay is where old red sandstone was quarried in times past This stone was used in the construction of the Lantern in Lambay Castle.

Moving around the top of Lambay, Gouge Point, a sheer precipice of rock, overlooks very deep water. Here is to be seen the remains of a very large promontory fort or garden fort dating back to the Bronze or Neolithic ages. The mounds and the valleys of this double ditch fort are still in a good state of preservation and command a spectacular view of the surrounding sea.

We now move in to the extensive Saltpan Bay with its high sheer cliffs which are home to thousands of nesting birds in season. One can anchor right up against the cliff face in deep water and listen to the raucous calls of the seabirds and observe them at close quarters both on the cliffs and on the surrounding water.

Passing Harp Ear and Kelly's Rock, Freshwater Bay comes into view. This latter bay may have got it's name from the availability of fresh water from the stream that flows down here, one of the very few streams on the island. The bay is a noted fishing area and also a great place to observe seals hauled out on the rocks, particularly Carrickdorrish. Crabs and Lobsters are set here and care is required to avoid fouling the floats marking the fishermen's pots.

Rounding the Nose with its invariably turbulent sea conditions we have completed our circumnavigation.

History of the Island

Now lets turn our attention to those people who occupied Lambay from perhaps as early 7,000 B.C. to the present day, as well as the bird and animal life there.

The Island may have been known to the ancient Greek cartographer Ptolemy as it is arguable that Lambay is the island on his map of circa 150 A.D., though located south of Howth. Pliny, the Roman, also mentions it. The name given Lambay by the ancients was Limnus or Limni, meaning the snail, a name easily understood when one considers its shape. Its early Irish name, Reachra, was eventually replaced by the  Danish Lambay, meaning Lamb Island. This name may have originated with the practice of sending over ewes to the island in spring and allowing them to remain there until the Autumn.

Professor Gabriel Cooney of the School of Archaeology at UCD and his team have been surveying and excavating on the island for quite a few years and employing the most modern technology including magnetometry and geophysics. They have also had some luck in artefacts being exposed on beaches suffering erosion in the vicinity of the harbour and among material pushed to the surface by burrowing rabbits. Lambay is proving to be an even more fascinating site than first envisaged when modern archaeological exploration commenced in the early 1990's.

The eroding beach to the south of the harbour has revealed a selection of flakes, flints and flint cores that appear to date from the early Mesolithic period, perhaps as far back as B.C. 7,000 . On the high part of the island in the area known as the Eagle's Nest excavations have yielded quantities of worked porphyry axes, blades, scrapers, etc. and evidence that a 'factory' for fashioning these implements existed here in Neolithic times. Indeed it is the only Neolithic stone axe quarry in the British Isles with evidence for all stages production, from quarrying to final polishing. When the harbour was being improved in the 1920's some remains were discovered surrounded by silver sand and which were thought to date to the 1st century A.D.. The nature of artefacts found here also suggested Romano British trading. The raised beach to the north of the harbour has been suffering from erosion in recent times and in 1995 six male burials were revealed followed by a further seven skeletons in 2002. All are thought to date from around 1500 A.D. There is clear surface evidence of a substantial promontory or garden fort on Scotch Point and another nearby with a barrow cemetery outside. Sunk Island, which is pretty well inaccessible nowadays, appears to have walls on top on two sides and on The Nose there is evidence also of an ancient walled enclosure.

St. Colmcille is reputed to have established a settlement in 530 A.D. and when he went on his travels he left Colman as deacon in charge of the monastery. Ireland's viking  age began with a raid on this monastery in A.D. 795. Recent geophysical surveying points to remains of an large enclosure to the south of the present church. Nearby are remains of a moated site, perhaps from the 13th or 14th centuries and intriguingly evidence of a gravel track way running between. The present church dates from Lutyens time (around 1910) when it replaced an earlier structure dating from the 1830's. The geophysical survey work has revealed what is thought to be a mass grave in front of the church and one can surmise that this is where many of the victims of the Tayleur shipwreck were buried. Sitric, the Danish King of Dublin granted Lambay to Christ Church, their cathedral and it stayed in church hands down to recent times, despite the varied owners and proprietors listed who were renting from the Archbishop. The only link between the island and Christ Church surviving is a well named after the Blessed Trinity. There was a tradition of patterns being held at the well on Trinity Sunday. Another name for Christ Church was the Church of the Holy Trinity.

In 1181 Prince John also granted Lambay to the Archbishops of Dublin This was reconfirmed by King Edward in 1337 and by King Richard in 1394. A later Archbishop gave the rents of the island to the nuns at Grace Dieu near Blake's Cross for the upkeep of their monastery and school. He also gave the tithes of the Lambay rabbits to the nuns and at that time the rabbit taxes were worth 100 shillings a year.

In 1467, it was provided by statute that the Earl of Worcester, then Lord Deputy, be granted Lambay to build a fortress for England's protection against the Spaniards, French and Scots. Worcester paid the Archbishop of Dublin 40 shillings per annum and though he had a licence to build a castle on Lambay it is not certain that it was actually built.

During the reformation, Archbishop Brown granted the Island to John Challoner for a rent of £6.13.4. The conditions were that Challoner would, within 6 years, build a village, castle and harbour for the benefit of fishermen and as a protection against smugglers. He was to inhabit Lambay "with a colony of honest men". He was a very active man who worked four mines for silver and copper and bred falcons on the islands many cliffs. In 1496 the prior of Holmpartick, near Skerries,complained in a petition that Lambay had 'havens and creeks in which the pirates are accustomed to shelter'.

Challoner still owned Lambay in Elizabethan times but in 1611 the island was granted to Sir William Ussher and his heirs. James Ussher lived on Lambay in 1626 but by 1650 he was resident in London. He was highly respected by Cromwell and to-day lies buried in Westminster Abbey. The Ussher family held the Island for 200 years. In the early years of the 17th century, Dirrick Huiberts Verveer, a wealthy Dublin merchant and shipper with strong Skerries connections was granted a licence to keep taverns and to sell wine and spirits in the Skerries area and on Lambay. Following an attack on his home in the 1641 uprising he resolved to ‘go to Lambay for succour’. However, the unfortunate man was later apprehended near his Holmpatrick home by a party of rebels who put him to death. Petty’s census of 1659 recorded a population of just nine persons. During the Williamite war, the island was used as an internment camp for 780 Irish soldiers and 260 rapparees when they surrendered to De Ginkle at the fort of Ballymore in County Westmeath in 1691. They were transported to Lambay as prisoners, where they were confined until the Treaty of Limerick. No one was allowed land on the island while they were there. Class distinction existed in those days too as the officers were not sent to Lambay but were retained in Dublin Castle. A huge number of the soldiers died on the island from their wounds and from starvation. After the Treaty of Limerick, the Lords Justice, who feared that the rebels might join foreign armies, did not tell the prisoners the true reason for their release. They sent Mr. Francis Cuffe to Lambay to promise them their liberty if they took the Oath of Allegiance and went home. 

In 1805, Lambay passed to Sir William Wolseley, an Ussher descendent. In 1814, Margaret Talbot (d.1831), widow of Richard Talbot (1735-1788) and then living in Eccles Street, agreed to purchase the island and the fishing rights from Wolseley for £6,500, payable in installments of £1,500 up front followed by £1,250 plus interest on the outstanding balance on the 20th of August on each of the four following years up to 1818. About this time there were just eight families living on the island. The harbour walls were constructed in 1822.

 About the middle of the 19th century the island population was around 100. Lord Richard Wogan Talbot, at his own expense but at the instigation of a  Fr. Henry Young, built a two-roomed, mud-walled, 30 feet by 15 feet thatched school in 1834. It was later described as being “in middling repair, needing repairs to windows, a little plastering and whitewashing”.  In 1849 the Board of Education informed the teacher that “until the average (attendance) amount to 30 the salary cannot exceed that of Probationer”. Master James Vickers, late of Malahide national School, took up a teaching post in 1855. In 1859, the school manager, the parish priest of Rush, wrote to the National Board of Education hoping “that a salary will be granted to this school wherein children of different persuasions are educated and which if refused would be a great disappointment to that poor place”. The school was equipped with three desks and three forms “but expects to get more shortly”. The mixed school had an average attendance of 26 to 30 pupils who used the textbooks of the Board. Nothing, however, remains of the thatched school nowadays. 

An unusual turn of events took place on Lambay in 1860 when the crofters were removed and replaced with English and Scots tenants. Because of this action many local names and traditions have been lost. After about 30 years, the Talbots switched back to farming.

Throughout much of the second half of the 19th century the island was a popular destination for steamer excursions, departing from Customs House Quay on the Liffey at 11 am and returning by around 7 pm. The steamers called at Howth on the outward and return journeys and trippers were allowed up to three hours on the island, weather permitting. Fares ranged from 1/6d in the early 1860s to 3/- for a first class ticket in the 1890s.  

Count James Consedine purchased Lambay in 1888. Prior to this he owned Portrane House but he sold his house and lands to build Portrane Hospital. Count Considine set about developing the island as a hunting estate and was the first man to introduce deer onto the island. They came from the Portrane herd.

Continued on Lambay (part 2)