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.
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.
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).
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
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 http://www.theforensicexaminer.com/archive/winter08/5/