The peninsula of Howth features in many of the mythological tales of ancient days, particularly those relating to the Fianna. The Fianna, under the leadership of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, protected the kingdom of Ireland from invasion and fought many battles with foreign armies as well as with otherworld foes. They counted in their midst many of our greatest warriors including Fionn himself, his son Oisin, and his captain but sometime enemy Goll Mac Morna. Others included Caoilte Mac Ronan, who was renowned for the speed at which he ran. On one occasion, the king, Cormac Mac Art, asked to have a fistful of sand brought to him every morning from each of the four shores of Ireland, as he would know by smelling them whether the feet of a foe had landed on them during the night. Three of his men offered to perform this daily function. The first said he would have the sands collected as quickly as a leaf falls from a tree, but the king was not satisfied. The second man said he would have the sands collected as quickly as a cat sneaks between two houses, but again the king was not satisfied. Caoilte Mac Ronan, for he was the third man, said he would have the sands collected as quickly as a woman changes her mind. “Good”, said the king, “will you go now and collect the sands for me?” “I have already returned with them” replied Caoilte.
Perhaps the strongest and bravest of the warriors was Oscar, a son of Oisin and grandson of Fionn. He was always to the fore in battle and was the Fianna’s choice whenever single combat was called. When Oisin returned to Ireland from Tir na nOg centuries after departing with the Otherworld nymph Niamh of the Golden Hair, he met St Patrick and spoke thus of his son: “If I saw Oscar and God fighting hand to hand on yonder hill, and if I saw Oscar laid low, then would I admit that God was a strong man.” Oscar, along with many other heroes of the Fianna, died at the battle of Gabhra, near Skreen in Co Meath. On hearing the news of his death, his wife Aideen, the daughter of Aengus of Howth, herself died of sorrow. She was buried in Howth and her resting place was marked by a giant dolmen still called “Aideens Grave.”
The dolmen lies among the rhododendrons in the grounds of Howth castle. The capstone is estimated to weigh about 75 tons, the second-heaviest one in the country, and over the millennia it has slipped backward to the ground, splaying the portal stones and breaking the supporting stone. The tomb has never been excavated , but portal dolmens are known to date from the Neolithic period, from c4000BC to c2500BC, thousands of years before the arrival of the Celts (and, of course, the Fianna!). They were usually covered with a mound of earth or small stones, although some such as Poulnabron in Clare are so spectacular that it has been suggested that they may never have been covered.
On arriving at Howth Castle, the visitor goes through a set of large gates. The gates (and a lodge which was knocked down some years ago) were built with the winnings of Peep o’Day Boy, a champion racehorse owned by Thomas St Lawrence, the 30th lord of Howth (1803-1874). Thomas was passionate about horse racing: in 1853 he opened Baldoyle race course and won the first race himself on a horse called ‘Lambay’. ‘St Lawrence’ was another of his successful stable, but the star was surely ‘Peep o’Day Boy’. Thomas bought him in 1848 and just days later the horse won £170 in a single race. Later that year he won the prestigious Chester Gold Cup and then finished second in the Great Metropolitan Stakes in Epsom. A few years later, the horse was sold to the Tsar of Russia for 1600 guineas and exported. (If the name seems vaguely familiar, it may be because of the “Peep o’ Day Boys”, a violent anti-Catholic agrarian association in Ulster in the eighteenth century. Lord Gosford at the time observed of the Peep o’ Day Boys that they were a “low set of fellows who with guns and bayonets, and other weapons break open the houses of the Roman Catholicks, and as I am informed treat many of them with cruelty”. The gates of the Castle are of course a testament to the horse, not the 18th century Ulster gang!)
Going on up by the castle itself, it is worth looking at the old gate tower. Dating from the fifteenth century, it is most likely the gate at which the pirate queen Granuaile was denied access in 1576, as a result of which she kidnapped the young heir. The tower, along with the sunken gardens, feature in a 1963 B-movie made by a young Francis Ford Coppola, a horror movie called “Dementia 13” – you can check it out on Youtube