Dalkey Sixty Years Ago

From The Illustrated Dublin Journal, Volume 1, Number 30, March 29, 1862

THE little rocky island of Dalkey forms the southeastern extremity of the Bay of Dublin, as the bold and nearly insulated promontory of Howth forms its north-eastern termination. It is separated from the mainland of the parish from which it takes, or to which, perhaps, it gives its name, by a channel called Dalkey Sound, which is about nine hundred yards long, three hundred and eight yards wide at its south entrance, and two hundred and nine yards wide at its north entrance; the soundings in mid-channel varying from ten to five fathoms. This channel was anciently considered a tolerably safe and convenient harbour, and was the principal anchorage for ships frequenting the little castellated seaport town of Dalkey from which merchandise was transferred to Dublin, as well by boats as by cars. Hence also, the harbour of Dalkey was frequently used in former times on state occasions for the embarkation or landing of the Irish Viceroys and other state officers. The Lord Deputy, Philip de Courtney, landed here in 1386, and Sir John Stanley, the deputy of the Marquis of Dublin in the following year. In 1414, Sir John Talbot, then Lord Furnival, and afterwards the renowned Earl of Shrewsbury, landed here as Viceroy of Ireland; and in 1488, Sir Richard Edgecombe embarked at this harbour for England, after having taken the homage and oaths of fidelity of the nobility who had espoused the cause of Lambert Simnel. Here also landed Sir Edward Bellingham, Lord Lieutenant, in 1548, and Sir Anthony St. Leger, in 1553; and it was from this harbour that the Earl of Sussex, in 1558, embarked a large body of forces to oppose the Scottish invaders at the isle of Rathlin; and lastly, again, it was here that the unfortunate Sir John Perrot landed as Viceroy, in 1584. The conversion of this sound into an asylum harbour was at one time contemplated by government, and a plan for the purpose was proposed by the Committee of Inland Navigation; but from certain objections which were made to it, the project was abandoned. The situation would certainly have been a more imposing and magnificent one than that ultimately chosen.

The Island of Dalkey is of a nearly oval form, having a very irregular surface, in part rocky, and in part consisting of a fertile salt marsh, very valuable for the cure of sick cattle, who by feeding on it quickly recover and fatten. It is five hundred and twenty-eight yards long from north to south, and three hundred and eight yards wide from east to west, and comprises about twenty-nine acres of pasture. Its shore is rocky, and in some parts precipitous, and it commands the most beautiful views of the bays of Dublin and Killiney. Among several springs of fresh water on it, one on its south-west side has long been considered to possess sanative properties. On the same side there are the roofless walls of an ancient church dedicated to St. Benet, or Benedict, the patron of the parish; and at its south-eastern extremity there is a battery, and a Martello tower which differs from all the other structures of this class erected on the Irish coast, in having its entrance not at the side, but on its top. It is traditionally stated that during the remarkable plague which visited Dublin in 1575, many of the citizens fled to this island for safety.

Dalkey island has several smaller ones contiguous to it, one of which, Lamb Island, is covered with grass, while the others present a surface of bare granite. Of the latter islets one is called Clare Rock, and another the Maiden Rock, an appellation derived from a tradition said to be of twelve hundred years' antiquity, that twelve young maidens from Bullock and Dalkey having gone over to this rock to gather duilisk, they were overtaken by a sudden storm so violent as to prohibit assistance from the larger island, and all miserably perished. To the north of these islands is situated the group of rocks called the Muglins, extending one hundred and thirty-two yards in length, and seventy-one in width. On those rocks, in 1765, the pirates MacKinley and Gidley were banged in chains for the murder of Captain Glass.

It does not, indeed, require a very great age for many Dublinians to remember when the country along the southern shore of our beautiful bay, from Dunleary to the land's-end on Dalkey Common, presented a nearly uniform character of wildness and solitude--heathy grounds, broken only by masses of granite rocks, and tufts of blossomy furze, without culture, and, except in the little walled villages of Bullock and Dalkey, almost uninhabited. The district known as the Commons of Dalkey, which extended from the village to the eastern extremity of the bay; the "Sound," or channel lying on its north-east, and the rocky hill of Dalkey on its south--this in particular was a locality of singularly romantic beauty, a creation of nature in her most sportive mood, and wholly untouched, as it would appear, by the hand of man. Giant masses of granite rocks, sometimes forming detached groups, and at others arranged into semicircular and even circular ledges, gave the greatest variety and inequalities of surface, and formed numerous dells of the greenest sward, so singularly wild and secluded that the elves themselves might justly claim them as their own. To these natural features should be added those of the rocky iron-bound coast, with its little coves, commanding from its cliffs the most delightful views of Killiney Bay, the Sound, the Island of Dalkey, and the Bay of Dublin These latter features still remain, and can never change; but of all the others which we have noticed, what is there left? Scarcely a vestige that would remind the spectator of what the locality had been. The rocks have been nearly all removed, or converted into building materials for an assemblage of houses of all kinds of fantastic construction, surrounded for the most part by high and unsightly stone walls; and, except in the views obtained from some spots in it, the picturesque beauty of Dalkey Common is gone for ever.

We must not forget that our subject requires of us a notice of festivities of a very different character, of which Dalkey was in former times the scene--when Dublin and its suburbs poured forth their crowds to enjoy the fun and drolleries of the crowning of Dalkey's insular king--when Dalkey, its Common, its Sound, and its Island, on a June day, annually for several years, presented a spectacle of life, gaiety, good-humour, and enjoyment, such perhaps as was rarely ever exhibited elsewhere. What a glorious day was this for the Dunleary, Bullock, and Dalkey boatmen! Generous fellows! they would take over his majesty's lieges to his empire for almost nothing--frequently for nothing; but, being determined enemies to absenteeism, they would not allow them to depart on the same terms, but would mulct those with taxes ad libitum who desired to abandon their country. And, again, what a glorious day was this for the jingle-drivers of the Blackrock, the noddy-drivers, and the drivers of all other sorts of hired carriages in Dublin. Has it never occurred to the Railroad people to revive these forgotten frolics? What a harvest they might reap! But what do we say? The thing is impossible. The mirthful temperament, the thoughtless gaiety, the wit and humour that characterised the citizens in those days, are gone for ever. The Dublinians have become a grave, thoughtful, and serious people--we had almost said, a dull one. Their faces no longer wear a cheerful and happy look; the very youths of our metropolis seem to be ignorant of what merriment is, or at best to suppose that it consists in puffing tobacco smoke!

Ah! very different were the notions of their predecessors, the nobility and gentry of his Majesty the King of Dalkey! Smoking would not at all have suited their mercurial temperament: it would have been the last thing that they would have thought of to have had their tongues tied and their mouths contorted into ugliness in the ridiculously serious effort to hold a cigar between the lips, and look absurdly important! These fellows thought that mouths were given for a very different purpose--to sing the manly song, to throw forth, not clouds of tobacco smoke, but flashes of wit and humour; and we are inclined to think they were right.

The day selected for the festivities was a Sunday in the end of August or beginning of September; the landing of his Majesty and nobles from the royal barge under a salute of twenty-one guns, the band playing "God save the King," and the assembled multitude rending the air with their acclamations! Then the ceremony of his coronation, and afterwards his journey through his dominions, attended by his nobles! At an early hour the monarch and his court proceeded in ludicrously solemn procession from the palace to the church--at the present day a roofless ruin--in which the ceremony was performed with a mock gravity which was, however thoughtlessly profane, still irresistibly humorous. The nobles, with painted faces and a profuse display of stars and ribbons, had their titles and appropriate badges of office. There was the grand chamberlain, with his bunch of old rusty keys--the archbishop with his paper mitre and his natural beard of a month's growth! The very titles of these great personages were conferred in a spirit of drollery, and made characteristic of the peculiarities of the individuals who bore them. Thus there was a Lord of Ireland's Ey'--a grave-looking gentleman who had lost one of his visual organs; a Lord Posey--a gentleman who was remarkable for his habit of carrying a bunch of flowers at his breast; and so on. All the nobility were wits, orators, and generally first-rate vocalists, and the royal visitors were similarly gifted. Charles Incledon, the prince of ballad-singers of his tune, here sang his "Black-eyed Susan" and other charming ditties, and John Philpot Curran, the greatest wit of the world, set the table in a roar with his meteor flashes. But the prime spirits of the court were his Majesty himself, Stephen Armitage, his Lord High Admiral Luke Cassidy, and his archbishop----Gillespy. The long coronation sermon of the latter was one of the richest treats of the day, and produced effects such as sermon never produced before.

During this august and imposing ceremony, the church was not only crowded to excess, and its ruined walls covered with human beings, but it was also surrounded with a dense mass of anxious listeners. As to his Majesty himself, he was at times the gravest, and at times the merriest of monarchs, much of his humour consisting in the whimsical uncertainty of his movements, for there never was a crowned head more capricious or changeable in disposition than the King of Dalkey. He would set out attended by his court on a journey to some distant region of his dominions, change his mind in a minute, and alter his route elsewhere, and again change it in a few minutes; and all these mutations of purpose were most loyally approved of and sympathised in by his majesty's nobles and subjects. Another trait in King Stephen's character was his love for song; and when the word ran through his empire that at the royal banquet his majesty had commenced or was about to commence his favourite "Love is my passion and glory!" there was scarcely one of his subjects, male or female, who did not make a rush to get within ear-shot of him. Peace be with thee, Stephen I thou wert a king "of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy;" and although thy reign was short and thy dominions small, thou mad'st more of thy subjects truly happy than many monarchs whose reigns were as much longer as their possessions were more extensive! The general outline of the proceedings, as given in that admirable little work, "Ireland Sixty Years Ago," was as follows:

The king landed in state, and was saluted by ordnance on the island. He assembled the most convivial members of the society under the names of his principal officers, and the other guests as his subjects, and in a mock heroic speech resigned his crown into their hands, and desired them to elect a successor. A re-election always followed, and his majesty, in a second speech, expressed his gratitude, was anointed with a bottle of whiskey, and crowned among the plaudits of the people. He then received their petitions and complaints, which were tendered and spoken upon with comic gravity. The members were all of the popular side in politics, and the entire proceeding was made the groundwork for squibs on the political topics of the day. Then followed a sermon from the chief of the Druids and primate of Dalkey, preached in the ruined church, which was called the Cathedral of Dalkey. This latter proceeding was often not a little objectionable, in treating with levity sacred subjects. An ode, composed for the occasion, was then sung by all the people, and the whole ceremony concluded by a feast on the rocks, after which his majesty and his officers of stat again embarked in pomp, and were followed by his people.

The last president of this curious society was a convivial Dublin bookseller, named Armitage, who reigned under the title of "King Stephen the First." There is a cluster of rocks near Dalkey, called the Muglins, and another called the Maiden; there are also some small islands--one called Magee, in the bay, and the others, Ireland's Ey and Lambay, on the north of Howth. The king's title united dignities derived from all these localities, in the following form:--His facetious Majesty, Stephen the First, King of Dalkey, Emperor of the Muglins, Prince of the Holy Island of Magee, and Elector of Lambay and Ireland's Ey, Defender of his own Faith, and respecter of all others, Sovereign of the illustrious order of the Lobster and Periwinkle." Another illustrious member was "My Lord Tokay," a wine merchant. The office of primate was filled by a Mr. Gillespie. Besides filling the columns of the "Dalkey Gazette," the proceedings of the society attracted so much attention and were considered to be conducted with so much humour and cleverness, that their annual meetings were recorded in most of the Dublin papers, among the remarkable news of the day.

The politics of "Cooney's Morning Post" were very democratic, and the "Dalkey Gazette," of course, were of the same tone. Its merit consisted in being a serio-comic record of the proceedings of the society, and in satirizing the political events of the day, by means of this mimic kingdom--much in the style of a Christmas pantomime. It must have been indebted for its popularity greatly to the feelings of its readers. The paper is now difficult to be met with.

In imitation of the order of knighthood founded by the government, the king of Dalkey founded the order of Druids. The president was furnished with a large medallion, representing the bust of one of those mysterious persons, which he wore on state occasions suspended from his neck.

Among the persons who took part in the convivialities of the kingdom of Dalkey, was the celebrated T. O'Meara. As the times became menacing, and Ireland infected with French principles, the Lord Chancellor Clare was vigilant in watching every society which was formed, and, among the rest, the kingdom of Dalkey and its Druids attracted his notice. O'Meara was personally known to him, and supposing he could enlighten him, Lord Clare sent for him.

"You, sir," said the chancellor, "are, I understand, connected with the kingdom of Dalkey." " I am, my lord," said O'Meara,
"Pray, may I ask what title are you recognised by?"
"I am Duke of Muglins."
"And what post do you hold under the government?"
"Chief Commissioner of the Revenue."
"What are your emoluments in right of your office?"
"I am allowed to import ten thousand hogsheads, duty free,"
"Hogsheads of what, Mr. Commissioner?"
"Of salt water, my lord."

The chancellor was satisfied without further question.

O'Meara was an attorney well known at that time, as many of the same profession were, for his conviviality, spirit, wit, singularity, and good nature. Among other anecdotes told of him was one very characteristic. An Englishman of rank and fortune visited Ireland, and accidentally met him at dinner at a friend's house. It was then the hospitable custom for every person who met a stranger at a friend's house, to ask him to dinner, and show him every attention. This was done with more than usual attention by O'Meara, who attached himself to the Englishman, invited him to his house in the country, and, in the display of his good nature and sense of hospitality, gave up his time and business to make the visit agreeable and instructive to his acquaintance, who left Ireland with many expressions of obligation, for the kindness and attention he had received. Soon after, O'Meara for the first time visited London, and being a total stranger there was well pleased to see one day his English acquaintance walking on the other side of Bond-street; so he immediately crossed over, and with outstretched hand declared how delighted ho was to see him again. The gentleman was walking with a group of others of a high aristocratic cast, and dressed in the utmost propriety of costume; and when he saw a wild-looking man, with soiled leather breeches, dirty top-boots, not over clean linen, nor very close shaven beard, striding up to him, with a whip in his hand and the lash twisted under his arm, he started back, and with a look of cold surprise, said--

"Sir, you have the advantage of me."
"I have, sir," said O'Meara, looking at him coolly for a moment--
"I have, sir, and by ---- I'll keep it;" and turned from him casting such a look of contempt and superiority, as the other did not think it prudent to notice.

The last anniversary of the kingdom of Dalkey was, as we have mentioned, held in August, 1797, if we except a miserable attempt to revive it made a few years since.

The concourse of spectators on the shore and island on that occasion was estimated at not less than twenty thousand. The popular interest excited by the proceedings of the society, and its free political sentiments, were considered dangerous in the then excited state of the public mind; and to avoid being suppressed by the strong arm of the government, its meetings were, during the disturbed and alarming crisis of 1798, discontinued.

The odes composed for these commemorations had various degrees of merit. The following are two verses of the ode of 1793:--

"Lord of all Dalkey lands,
Chief of our jovial bands,
Are you not man?
With you though peace doth reign,
Nor blood your isle doth stain,
Nor famine here complain,
Are you not man?

What though the realms rejoice
In your melodious voice:
Kings are but men!
And while each subject sings:
'God made us men, not kings!'
With echo Dalkey rings:
'Kings are but men!' "

As we have already remarked, the last meeting of the convivial society of which the King of Dalkey was the president, and which formerly attracted so large a portion of public attention, was held on the 20th of August, 1797. The ode of that year is believed to be from the pen of Thomas Moore, who was a faithful and most convivial subject of his facetious Majesty, and we regret, from the interest attached to it as one of Moore's earliest poetic efforts, that the space at our disposal prevents us reproducing it here.