Cowbooter Lane, Howth

From the earliest times and for thousands of years, our prehistoric ancestors marked their sacred spaces with megalithic and wooden monuments. The Celts too had their sacred spaces, were deeply reverential toward the trees, rivers, mountains and the landscape as a whole.  What wonder, then, that one of our defining national characteristics is our connection with the natural landscape which has surrounded us, our ‘sense of place’. Even 800 years of colonial wars, which saw the violent separation of the Irish people from the land of their ancestors, served not to break but to strengthen the spiritual bond between the people and their environment. Similarly, in more recent times, while emigrant ships brought many of Ireland’s youth to Kilburn, to Sydney and to Boston, the sense of place did not dilute but in many instances became deeper ingrained. No matter where we find ourselves, or how many generations removed from Ireland, we all carry within ourselves a piece of our homeplace.


The above plaque, erected on Cowbooter Lane, Howth, in 2010, celebrates one man’s “sense of place”. Cowbooter Lane sixty years ago was a pleasant little laneway with a small stream beside.  John O’Donovan, the great Celtic scholar, visited Howth in 1845 and referred to the stream as “Cul Cuar”. He commented that the name derived from the Gaelic, describing a crooked corner, or angle, of the stream.  PW Joyce, an authority on the origin and history of Irish place names, wrote that the words ‘booter’, ‘boater’ and ‘batter’ in place names are corruptions of the Irish word ‘bothar’. It is probable therefore that the lane also took its name from this crooked corner or angle and would therefore have been known as ‘Cuar Bothar’. A law passed in 1655 during the reign of Charles II required that uncouth Gaelic place names be replaced by names more suitable to the English tongue, so it seems likely that at this stage the name of the lane was converted from Cuar Bothar to Cowbooter.

"Carraig an aon fhir", Kilrock
“Carraig an aon fhir”, Kilrock

The antiquity of the lane harks back to the ancient days of the Fianna. The Fianna were a large body of warriors who served as a sort of volunteer army to the High King of Ireland.  They were charged with protecting the kingdom from invasion and there is an entire cycle of tales relating their many battles with foreign armies and otherworld foes. Fiacha, their first leader, was the grandson of Crimthann, king of Ireland, whose royal fort was on nearby Tower Hill (see the separate entry on “Crimthann and Howth”).The royal fort overlooked Balscadden Bay, where the Fianna had a ship which was required to be ready to sail at any time. Not too far away, Duain Mac Dairine was stationed as a look out above Kilrock quarry on ‘Carraig an aon fhir’ (“the lone man’s rock”). In many of the tales of the Fianna, reference is made to their hunting on the Hill of Howth, and it is believed that there was a camp of some sort near the summit. The direct path that would have been used by the Fianna in travelling between Balscadden and the summit would be along Cowbooter Lane.

Tower Hill, overlooking Balscadden beach
Tower Hill, overlooking Balscadden beach

At the top end of the lane is Cannon Rock – so called because Silken Thomas Fitzgerald positioned cannon there during his rebellion of 1534. It overlooked Balscadden bay, where any Crown reinforcements would be expected to come ashore. Again, it is easy to imagine that Cowbooter Lane would be the natural path to use in the rebels’ travels up and down to the shore at Balscadden. The rebellion failed and Fitzgerald surrendered to the Crown after receiving guarantees of safety for himself and his family (despite the guarantees, he and his five uncles were executed for treason at Tyburn in 1537).

Cowbooter Lane today
Cowbooter Lane today

An Cuar Bothar and Cowbooter Lane were not the only names by which the road has been known. At different times it was called ‘Blackberry Lane’, ‘Rocky Road’, and ‘Molly Mons Lane’. In 1832 a cholera epidemic broke out in Dublin and temporary hospitals were built around the city and county, including one at the corner of Cowbooter Lane. The laneway then became Hospital Lane, and as such it features in WB Yeats’ tale ‘Village Ghosts’. Yeats lived in Howth in the 1880s and in Village Ghosts repeats some of the tales he heard

There is a farmer… a man of great strength, and a teetotaller. His wife and sister-in-law, musing on his great strength, often wonder what he would do if he drank. One night, when passing through the Hospital Lane, he saw what he supposed at first to be a tame rabbit; after a little, he found that it was a white cat. When he came near, the creature slowly began to swell larger and larger, and as it grew he felt his own strength ebbing away, as though it were sucked out of him. He turned and ran….”

By the Hospital Lane goes the ‘Faeries’ Path’. Every evening they travel from the hill to the sea, from the sea to the hill. At the sea end of their path stands a cottage. One night, Mrs. Arbunathy, who lived there, left her door open, as she was expecting her son. Her husband was asleep by the fire; a tall man came in and sat beside him. After he had been sitting there for a while, the woman said, ‘In the name of God, who are you?’ He got up and went out, saying, ‘Never leave the door open at this hour, or evil may come to you’. She woke her husband and told him. ‘One of the Good People has been with us’, said he.”

The above information was gathered by Leslie Ó Laoi, who thought that perhaps the walkers who use the lane might appreciate some knowledge of its history. He took it upon himself to put up a laminated sign, replacing it regularly over the years as the elements took their toll. As a tribute to Leslie’s lifelong dedication to heritage and culture and to his tireless work on behalf of the community of Howth, the Howth Peninsula Heritage Society erected a permanent plaque on the first anniversary of his death on 17 April 2009.

Ni bheidh a leithead aris ann

With Leslie at the Hill of Tara
With Leslie at the Hill of Tara

Footnote:   The lane also featured in the RTE documentary series “Thou Shalt Not Kill” as the site where Kay Boyne was beaten and strangled to death in 1948 by her lover John Fanning. A brief account of the case is given at

Oughtmama, the Burren, Co Clare

 The east church, situated outside the inner enclosure and possibly a lady chapel?

The east church, situated outside the inner enclosure and possibly a lady chapel?

An ancient monastic settlement, originally founded by St Colman Mac Duagh. The largely 12th century ruins are situated in a fertile valley among the spectacular limestone hills of the Burren


Trabeate doorway, western church
Trabeate doorway, western church
Round headed doorway in small oratory
Round headed doorway in small oratory
Western church, with oratory to the rear
Western church, with oratory to the rear

Kilmacduagh, nr Gort, Co Galway


IMG_2644The site of a seventh-century monastery founded by St Colman Mac Duagh, there is a great collection of ancient churches here, along with a fine round tower. The cathedral has a blocked-up trabeate doorway (possibly eleventh-century) in the west wall, and in the adjoining field are the ruins of the twelfth century St John’s Church. Further north again is the thirteenth century ‘Glebe House’, possibly the abbott’s house





Monastic Ireland

A common image of the medieval Irish monk is that of a venerable old scribe bent over a lectern with quill in hand, as he carefully copies the text of the gospels onto a vellum parchment.   Biographies of saintly academics from Finnian of Clonard and Brendan of Birr to later clerics like Fr Luke Wadding (founder of the Irish college in Rome) and Florence Conry (founder of the Irish College of Louvain) add to the general perception of the enlightenment of our monastic brethren.


Yet there is no shortage of evidence to suggest that monks sometimes succumbed to the temptations of their earthly surroundings, and particularly so in the 8th and 9th centuries.

Before the first towns were ever founded in Ireland, a monastic settlement would have provided a focus for a community. The  monks  may initially have grown their own food, but the constant influx of novices ensured that  lay workers such as stonemasons, carpenters, and blacksmiths were always required, and as more craftsmen and tradesmen (metalworkers, millers, brewers, for example) settled in the vicinity, a small monastery could grow to considerable size, becoming in effect a small town.  With the patronage of the local kings, the wealth of the monasteries could swiftly accumulate.  Valuable manuscripts, ornaments and vessels of precious metals, relics, hides, textiles, cattle, all would increase significantly in number and value. The monasteries, from being centres of piety and learning, became centres of wealth and power.  For this reason they were often subjected to attacks, either by looters such as the Vikings or by politically-motivated raiders from opposing kingdoms.  The monks, though, were not always cast in the role of victims.


The importance of the monasteries was reflected in the alliances forged between abbots and the local ruling dynasties. In some cases, the leading clerics were themselves kings.  Feidhlimidh mac Crimthainn was a Ceile De, a monk of strict observance, who became king of Munster from 820 to 846. During his reign he plundered and burned the abbeys of Fore, Clonmacnoise, Kildare, Durrow and Tallaght and took the abbacy of Cork and of Clonfert for himself. He died of dysentery, reportedly divine retribution from the sixth-century founder of Clonmacnoise.  According to the Annals “King Feidhlimidh was overtaken by a great disease of the flux of the belly. While he was resting in his bed, St Ciaran appeared to him with his habit and Bachall, or pastoral staff, and there gave him a push of his Bachall, in his belly, whereof he took his disease, and occasion of his death “.

Feidhlimidh’s warlike nature was not unusual among his peers. In 760, the monastery of Clonmacnoise waged war on that of Birr; and in 764 on that of Durrow, when over 200 were killed; In 807 Cork went to war with Clonfert, and “there was an innumerable slaughter of the ecclesiastical men and superiors of Cork”.  In 817 Taghmon engaged in a battle with the monastery of Ferns in which 400 were killed.  Kildare plundered the Ceile De monastery in Tallaght in 824. The monks of Taghmon in Wexford successfully held off a Viking attack in 828, while the monks of Armagh led the battle against the Vikings at Carlingford Lough in 831. The abbot of Terryglass, in Tipperary and the vice-abbot of Kildare died fighting the Vikings at Dunamase.

Nor was violence the only vice of the clerics.  It was common for monks and abbots to have concubines, and indeed, as late as 1473 the prior of Clontuskert abbey in Galway, Donatus O’Kelly, was charged with the keeping of such concubines and even accused of murder.


The story of St Colmcille, also known as St Columba (not to be confused with St Columbanus), shows both sides of the monk: the sword and the scripture.  Colmcille once borrowed a manuscript of the psalms from his former teacher, Finnian of Moville, and then proceeded to make a copy of it. When Finnian learned of this, he demanded the return of both the original and the copy. Colmcille sought a judgement from the High King, Diarmuid, who ruled in favour of Finnian, saying that “To every cow it’s calf and to every book it’s copy”. Colmcille was furious and this was, for him, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Some time previously, his kinsman Curnan had fatally injured an opponent in a hurling match and had sought holy sanctuary with Colmcille, but Diarmuid’s soldiers had breached that sanctuary and slain Curnan. Now Colmcille, who was a prince of the royal O’Neill clan, raised an army and led them into battle at Cul Dreimhne, at the foot of Ben Bulben in Sligo. Three thousand of the king’s men died in the battle, but Colmcille was so overcome with grief and guilt that he resolved to become an exile as penance.  He sailed to Iona, where he founded the famous monastery and became known for his wisdom, his humility and his piety.

For all of the mayhem in which the medieval monks occasionally got involved, it is worth remembering the treasures produced in the Irish monasteries of the time, works such as the incomparable Book of Kells and the earlier Book of Durrow, the magnificent chalices of Ardagh and Derrynaflan.  It is worth remembering the role of the monks as hospitallers, as alms-givers, as educators. It is worth remembering  too the role played by Irish monks in Europe during the Dark Ages, bringing with them on their travels their manuscripts and establishing centres of learning throughout the continent – St Columbanus in Bobbio, St Gall in Switzerland, St Fiachra, St Goban, St Fursey, and many more. After the collapse of the Roman Empire and the destruction caused by Huns, Goths, etc, it was these holy men who single-handedly saved civilisation in Europe.

Small wonder, though, that in the tumultuous world that was medieval Ireland, some monks chose to live in isolated locations such as Skellig Michael or Oughtmama!


Portumna Friary, Co Galway

Originally a thirteenth century Cistercian chapel, the site was taken over by the Dominicans c 200 years later when the friary was erected. It was here that Patrick Sarsfield, the Irish Jacobite leader, married Honora de Burgo on 9 January 1689.









Howth and Pirates

Ireland`s Eye & Harbour,1833

Conaire Mor, was the king of Ireland around the first century BC. He was considered a wise king, and the bardic poets tell us that while he ruled “there was such abundance of good-will that no one slew another in Erin. . . To everyone in Erin his fellow’s voice seemed as sweet as the strings of a lute. From mid-spring to mid-autumn no wind disturbed a cow’s tail. His reign was neither thunderous nor stormy”.

Conaire had three foster brothers, however, who constantly conspired against him and sought to replace him as king. They were lawless and troublesome and Conaire, too kind-hearted to have them killed, exiled them instead. The brothers joined forces with a pirate named Ingcel who had been banished from his native Britain, and with him they roamed the seas, plundering wherever they went.

When he was over sixty years of age, Conaire, against the advice of his Druids, rode out of Tara to settle a dispute between contending chieftains, in violation of a geis (taboo). As his retinue travelled towards the Hostel at Da Derga, his progress was being tracked – on the hill of Howth the treacherous foster brothers and Ingcel had placed their spies, while they themselves waited in their ships below, close to the sheltering cliffs. The king’s cavalcade of warriors, horses and seventeen chariots were unaware of this danger from the sea until the pirates steered their ships across Dublin bay, and onto the Merrion shore the “ships were cast by a mighty wave with a shock that made Da Derga’s house tremble to its foundations”. Conaire Mor and all those sheltering in the hostel were killed, and another golden age came to an end….

The sight of such pirates would not have been at all unusual in Howth – piracy was common on the Irish Sea from the earliest times, and there are many accounts of ships being attacked and plundered by Scottish-, Welsh-, and Irish-based pirates, particularly in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. A letter was written to the Lord Deputy Birmingham in1548 stating that Logan, a Scottish pirate, was “hovering about Lambay and the Head of Howth and has taken several vessels”. Spanish and French privateers were not uncommon either, while corsairs were known to have come from as far away as Algeria, and, in 1631, the packet boat between Holyhead and Dublin was robbed by Turkish pirates.  In order to assist in the safe passage of trading and mail ships, the Royal Navy sailed the Irish Sea regularly but there were too few ships to patrol too large an area.

Howth was reported to be among those ports used as bases by the pirates, and the Navy provided Nicholas, the 23rd Lord Howth (1597 – 1644), with a small ship in Howth, the “Ninth Whelp”, armed with sixteen pieces of ordnance including four brass cannons. The Ninth Whelp often escorted or carried luminaries such as the Earl of Cork, Lord Treasurer of the Kingdom of Ireland and one of the architects of the plantation of Munster, and Sir William Brereton, a commander of the parliamentary forces in the English Civil war. Though the stationing of the ship in Howth helped to cut the losses caused by pirates, it was a temporary solution only. For Nicholas St Lawrence, piracy was just one problem among many at a time of great turmoil throughout the country, from the plague of 1606 to the rebellion of 1641. In 1640 the “Ninth Whelp” sank in a storm off the west coast of Scotland, and piracy remained a problem for at least another hundred years.  In 1692, for example, French privateers plundered a packet boat that was anchored in the bay. As late as 1777 three American privateers, the Lexington, Reprisal and Dolphin, captured fourteen merchant ships on the Irish Sea, with one of the three remaining off Howth for a considerable time.


Nicholas’ great-grandfather was Christopher St Lawrence, the 20th lord of Howth (called “The Blind Lord” due to his poor eyesight) (1510-1589).  The famous “kidnapping of the heir” is commonly thought to have occurred during his tenure. Granuaile, or Grace O’Malley, the “Pirate Queen”, called to Howth Castle while visiting the Lord Deputy in 1576 and found to her anger that the castle gate was closed, the family being at dinner. In retaliation for the inhospitability of the family, she carried off Lord Howth’s young son, whom she had encountered on the beach. He was only released when Granuaile was given a promise that the gate would never again be locked at dinner time. Other versions of the story, however, state that it was not Granuaile who abducted the child but rather the Mayo chieftain Richard O’Cuairsci. Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh, writing in 1650 in his Great Book of Genealogies, said “This is the very same Richard who took the Lord of Beann Eadair and brought him with him to Tirawley and there was naught else required of him for his ransom but to keep the door of his court open at dinner time.”

As an aside, this Christopher, “The Blind Lord”, was not known for his familial sentimentality. He was imprisoned in Dublin Castle on one occasion and fined £1000 for cruelty to his family. The Order Book of the Court of Castle Chambers, Dublin for 1579 noted his conviction for beating his wife to an extent that she could not leave the bed for two weeks. Before she was fully recovered, he had beaten her again, so badly that “her skin was so taken away that for many days she could not abide any clothes to touch her.” He was also convicted of beating the butler because the man had given the wife bread and a drink while she was locked in a room. Most serious of all, he was convicted of beating his thirteen year old daughter Jane, giving the ‘simple terrified girl’, “some say forty, some say sixty, strokes of the rod on her bare back, so that within two days she fell into an ague, and so died”.

Ashleypark, Ardcroney, Co Tipperary


A previously unknown neolithic burial mound was discovered in 1980 when a densely-wooded area was being cleared by a local farmer.


The mound was excavated and was found to date from c 3500 BC, and contained the disarticulated bones of an adult male, a child and an infant. The floorstone of the chamber was significantly tilted, and that this was always so is suggested by two stones placed under the remains of a pot to keep it level on the sloping surface – presumably the pot contained a liquid or other spillable substance.



The mound is about 26 metres in diameter and 5 meters in height, and is surrounded by a double ditch and an outer bank.


An exposed section illustrates the method of construction – the mound is a pure cairn, composed entirely of stones with a covering mantle of clay


Quin Abbey, Co Clare


Quin Abbey was built in 1433 on the ruins of a strong Anglo-Norman castle. Thomas de Clare had built the castle in 1280, a large square courtyard containing several buildings, surrounded by a curtain wall with four cylindrical towers, one at each corner. After only six years, the castle was attacked and destroyed by the native Irish. The only evidence of the castle today are the bases of three of the bastions, or towers.





The nearby church of St Finghin was also built c1280 by de Clare, on the site of an ealier church.



Although entry to Quin Abbey is free, the site is supervised so its worth checking opening times beforehand if you want to get inside the locked gate!

Ireland’s Eye

Ireland's Eye, 1833
Ireland’s Eye, 1833

The picturesque island of Ireland’s Eye, barely one mile from Howth, is known now as a bird sanctuary – home to colonies of cormorants, gulls, guillemots, puffins and peregrine falcons. It wasn’t always such an unspoilt haven, however….

Irgalach Ua Conaing, was a seventh century king of Brega, a minor kingdom north of Dublin, made up largely of the east of what is now Meath.  Irgalach provoked the ire of Saint Adamnan by killing Niall, son of Cernach, who at the time was under the protection of the saint. Adamnan was an abbot of Iona and while he is known for having written the first biography of St Columba, his primary claim to fame is for promulgating the Law of the Innocents, or Cáin Adamnain. This law was enacted at the Synod of Birr in 697 and introduced rules for the conduct of warfare, laying down specific sanctions for violations. The law guaranteed the safety of civilians, providing, for example, that whoever “slays a woman,…..his right hand and his left foot shall be cut off before death, and then he shall die.”  A woman who committed murder, arson, or theft from a church was to be set adrift in a boat with one paddle and a container of gruel, in effect leaving the judgement to God and saving the authorities from themselves breaking the law on killing women. The law also forbade the killing of children, clerics, clerical students, and non-combatants on church lands.  Irgalach was one of the guarantors of the new law and his killing of Niall led to him being cursed by the saint. Shortly afterwards, the province was raided by marauders from Britain. Irgalach fled to a small monastic settlement on Ireland’s Eye for safety, but he was followed there by the Britons and was killed by a lance thrown from one of the invaders ships that were moored off Howth.  A number of graves were discovered on the island when limited excavations were carried out in 1868, and it is possible that Irgalach’s final resting place may have been among them.


The ruined church on the island is of an early date, with estimates ranging from 570 AD to sometime at the end of the seventh century, being rebuilt several times until finally falling out of use in the thirteenth century. The church is very unusual in that on the roof of the chancel was a round tower or belfry, estimated by George Petrie to have originally been of the order of 60 feet in height.   The monastic settlement was founded by Dicuill, Munissa and Neslug, three sons of Nessan, a prince of Leinster (the Gaelic name for the island is Inis Mhic Neasain, the island of the sons of Nessan).  It was here that the famous Garland of Howth was completed, a decorated manuscript containing the Latin version of the four gospels. The manuscript has two illuminated pages, and is now on display in Trinity College Dublin alongside the Book of Kells.  Unfortunately, a silver clasp which once bound the manuscript and on which was inscribed the name of St Talman has been lost for many generations.


It was said that the three brothers were renowned for their piety and that this made the Devil more than usually determined to lead them to sin. Time and again he appeared on the island offering temptation after temptation, until eventually the eldest of the brothers picked up the heavy manuscript and flung it at the Devil, throwing it with such force that it knocked the Devil all the way across the bay to Puck Rock and split open the very rock itself.


In 819, a Viking attack on Howth is mentioned in the Annals thus: “the plundering of Etar by the foreigners who carried off a great prey of women”. There is no mention of whether they raided the settlement on Ireland’s Eye on that occasion, but Inis Mhic Neasain was not unknown to them – a force of Vikings was besieged on the island in 897 and many were killed on it by the army of the high king Flan Sinna.  It is further recorded in the Annals that the Vikings plundered the monastery in 960, but of casualties and what may have been taken we do not know.

A notorious murder trial took place in Dublin in 1852, following the death by drowning of a woman on Ireland’s Eye. She was the wife of a well-known Dublin artist, William Kirwan, who was subsequently charged and convicted of her murder. The verdict was based on circumstantial evidence and, I imagine, on Kirwan having an ongoing relationship – including as number of children – with a mistress.  Many inconsistencies emerged in the case against him which led prominent personalities such as Isaac Butt, future leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, to try and overturn the conviction. The original death sentence was commuted to one of life imprisonment, and William Kirwan served twenty seven years in jail before being freed in 1879.


The island also has a  Martello tower, one of a chain of defensive towers built mainly along the east coast in 1803 and 1804 as a precaution against the possibility of a French invasion. The tower was permanently manned and had two twenty-four pounder cannons on the roof.  Although the tower is inaccessible, there is a nearby one that can be accessed:  the Martello Tower on Tower Hill, overlooking Howth Harbour, which  is now a wireless radio and telegraphy museum, “The Old Hurdy Gurdy Museum”.