On the grounds that no trip to Ireland is complete without a plate of oysters, and that oysters always take best at the seaside, we made the twenty-five minute trip from Dublin's Connolly Station to the picturesque seaside suburb (and peninsula) of Howth (rhymes with "both"). We weren't the only ones; the train was packed with a mixture of tourists and Dubliners and we realised we'd have plenty of company on a trip we'd hoped would enable us to escape the city.
Fortunately we were wearing our walking shoes and we managed to escape the hordes who didn't venture far from the harbour. First stop, though, was the Sunday morning food market where producers from the region come to sell their produce. There were plenty of free samples which was just as well for us as, for practical reasons, there wasn't a great deal we could have taken home. We tried some tasty cheese, spicy chutneys and some wonderfully crusty bread.
Not far away at the harbour a group of seals happily entertain happily entertain the trippers. It's no accident; they know that looking cute and posing for photographs will earn them a few fish. Children and adults alike were enchanted by these wonderful creatures and I must admit I was loathe to move away myself. At the bottom of the harbour, some stone steps are built into the sea wall and climbing them results in a brilliant view of Dublin Bay and just across the water to a tiny island known as "Ireland's Eye". There were plenty of Sunday morning yachtsmen out and the white sails made an impressive sight as they appeared from behind the island. In summer you can take a boat out to the island which is a popular excursion for ornithologists.
A tiny tourist information office can be found in a former fishing company building on the harbour. There were some leaflets available on things to do and see in Howth but really the place was too crowded to be able to really have a good look. If you arrive in Howth without accommodation, the office can fix you up with a room.
We decided to walk away from the harbour and towards Howth village. A few hardy souls were swimming off the small secluded beach past the marina; the sun had come out and had I brought my swimming gear I might have been inclined to join them, partly swayed by the appeal of swimming at such a picturesque spot. We stayed on the road, climbing the hill on which stands one of Martello towers. Nine in total are dotted along the coastline in the region. This one houses "Ye Olde Hurdy Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio" where curator Pat Herbert displays the old radios, music boxes, gramophones that he has collected over the last forty years. The museum is not open on Sunday mornings which was disappointing to me, not because I was particularly interested in the contents of his collection, but because I have long harboured a desire to step inside a Martello tower.
As the road curved round we entered a residential area in which were some of most lovely houses I have ever seen. Clearly the great and good of Ireland (the wealthy too) think the same as U2's Larry Mullen, Booker-prize wining author John "The Waves" Banville and Dolores O'Riordan of the Cranberries all have homes in Howth, while previous residents include Conor Cruise O'Brien, Phil Lynott and none other than twice Eurovision winner Johnny Logan. As we walked further we picked out our favourite houses in between greeting other walkers. With its crags and cliffs and seaside paths, Howth is a popular destination for ramblers and hikers, understandably so as it combines stunning scenery with moderately challenging terrain; once you get up to the highest part of Howth you are rewarded with some great views of the Wicklow Hills. HG Wells described what he saw as "'The finest view west of Naples" - and I'm inclined to agree.
In the village of Howth there are lots of examples of the traditional painted stone cottages so typical of Ireland but there are also as many imposing Georgian residences of the kind so popular for Irish picture postcards subjects. You don't need to be an expert to be able to chart Howth's history; the clues are all around you as you can see how the fishing village expanded, partly when Howth was chosen as the port for the postal packet in the early eighteenth century. Unfortunately, the harbour at Howth was particularly prone to silting up so the base for the mail service ship was transferred to Dun Laoghaire.
It's the earlier history of Howth that interests me most however. Norwegian invaders first came to Howth in 819 and it is thought that they developed the city of Dublin as a base between Scandinavia and the Mediterranean (in Dublin you can visit the Viking history centre to learn more about this subject). Howth then came under the power of the Irish who weren't really that interested in it and then, in the twelfth century, it fell to the Normans.
Almeric Tristam, a victorious Norman, was granted much of the land on the peninsula and he adopted the name of the saint on whose day the battle had been won - St Lawrence. In 1181, Henry II gave him the title Earl of Howth. The ancestral home of the Earls of Howth was Howth Castle, unfortunately not open to the public, though the highly regarded rhododendron gardens are open in summer.
All that walking in the sea air certainly gives you an appetite and we made out way back to the harbour for lunch. There are plenty of places to choose from, all offering seafood and various special offers to entice diners. We decided on Ivan's Oyster Bar and Grill which was just starting to fill up when we arrived at 12.30. We kept things simple, each of us ordering half a dozen Carlingford Lough oysters, mine with a glass of Sauvignon blanc, my partner's with a pint of Guinness. With them came a basket of homemade breads and a tiny pat of Irish butter. The oysters were delicious but didn't do much to stave off our hunger so after leaving Ivan's we made our way to Beschoff's where we shared a portion of haddock and chips which we ate hurriedly while the seagulls circled.
Howth's restaurants don't open until around 12 noon but they stay open until very late. I'd suggest that if you only want to come to Howth to eat then wait until late afternoon when the "early bird" menus start. If you are a keen walker than come first thing in the morning which will give you a chance to explore while the place is still fairly quiet. A midweek visit will also find Howth much quieter.
Most visitors don't stray far from the harbour which is a shame as there is such a lot to see on the island and it is so picturesque. However, if your time is limited to a weekend in Dublin, I would strongly suggest at least a couple of hours here on a Sunday morning to blow away the cobwebs.