Sands of Eternity


When the tide is out, strolling Dubliners take to James Joyce’s favourite beach.

Ferries and sailing boats glide through mirages way out on the sand. Couples walk through pools of reflected dimming golden light. It is the end of the day and the evening promenade is in progress.

Sandymount Strand merges with the sky’s horizon when the tide is out and seems to stretch to infinity and back. I am not the only one with a special affection for this place and its mudflats, as Dubliners flock here even during winter squalls to stroll along the eastern edge of Ireland.

Sandymount Strand, jus a few miles from the city centre, is the most famous beach in Irish fiction. Our greatest writer, James Joyce, based two episodes of his epic novel Ulysses here.

At 11am on Bloomsday, upon which the novel is set, Stephen Dedalus wanders “into eternity” on the strand (“crush, crack, crick, crick”) and muses on being an artist, death, and the meaning of life. Dedalus is Joyce’s alter ego and his meanderings mirror those of an author who walked these self-same sands in his youth.

In Joyce’s day, the vista was much different from that we see today. There was a wooden latticed pier and the baths were in their heyday.  The graffiti-adorned square of stone was once a Victorian swimming pool into which salt water was pumped from beyond the tide line for well-to-do bathers. At tuppence a swim, this was a gathering place for Dublin’s aristocracy. Now it sits in ruins, submerged in silting sand.

The  pier, filled with brass from the bandstands and peddlers selling cockles and mussels, didn’t survive the lashing of the elements for long. It was removed within three decades.

Recently a plan was mooted to restore the baths and build another pier, but this idea has apparently been shelved. An international design competition was announced and then quietly quashed.

In the Proteus episode of Ulysses, Stephen closes his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. The mudflats are still filled with intertidal bivalves. Razor clams, cockles and mussels are all exposed when the tide is out and were eaten in former times. Perhaps the demise of the whole O’Connor family through mussel poisoning, as detailed in the novel, was the reason Irish found smaller shellfish unpalatable for much of the 20th century. The bay has been cleaned up since then, however. Irish dining tastes have changed.

Kitesurfers catch the wind here all year long. In summer, young children frolic in the tidal pools. Dogwalkers unleash canine companions who spray themselves with cooling splashes as they dash about. Venturing far out on the sands is not without peril, particularly when the moon is on this side of the earth. The tide floods rapidly and unfortunate strollers have been trapped and isolated by swirling saltwater lakes. The sea has claimed its victims at Sandymount the past, so be wary of a waxing moon.

Read more On Protean Sands..

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Brent geese overwinter here and feed on the eelgrass that colonises the mudflats. It is a birdwatchers’ paradise with all kinds of exotica on view, especially during the colder months of the year. Early morning is best for birding – if you’re lucky you might spot a red breasted merganser, turnstone, knot, snow bunting or bar-tailed godwit. They feed on the tiny razorshell clams and cockles exposed by the tide.

Early in the morning as commuters Dart by, there is often a silhouetted fisherman out looking for telltale sand casts just before the turning tideline. He will dig up a trench and hopefully get his treasure in the form of lugworms to stick on the end of a line as bait. Lugs are allegedly great for baiting flounders and bottom feeder fish such as cod, pollock and haddock.

The Martello tower on the edge of the promenade is one of nine fortifications built on the Dublin coastline stretching from Howth to Bray. Erected to thwart an alleged impending invasion by Napoleon, the all conquering little emperor never made it to Irish shores and the towers were used to temporarily imprison smugglers. Some were rented out and Joyce spent an infamous night in the one at Sandycove.

In the distance, tiny sailing boats race from Howth and Dun Laoghaire on summer evenings. They fill the sweeping panorama of sea and sky with multicoloured spinnakers, jostling in the wind with each other. Sailors distracted from racing look towards the setting sun or the southwest, the Sugar Loaf mountain and the distant Wicklow Hills. They cannot but be affected by the majesty of the surrounds – even if it distracts from a competitive edge. The views from Dublin Bay are one of the undiscovered treasures of the region.

Towards the end of the day another episode of Ulysses takes place on Sandymount Strand. The book’s hero Bloom, the greatest of ordinary Dubliners, watches fireworks and pleasuredshimself in a blue dusk on Sandymount Strand. He was permitted an intentional glimpse of Gerty McDowell’s underwear in the light of a pyrotechnic Roman candle explosion.

Joyce was the most European of Irish writers and Bloom, the Magyar-Celt, was a European Dubliner. It seems fitting that the welcome of his fictional ancestors, the Hungarians, into the fold of the European Union during the Irish Presidency was marked here on Sandymount Strand.

The “Stars of the Sea” pyrotechnic explosions on May 1 2004 however, were probably located there more by accident than design. This would have appealed to Joyce as he was rather fond of a spontaneous party, not to mention serendipitous coincidences.

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